Demetri Martin was inspired by the great standup comic Steven Wright, but he discovered: “As much as I wanted to be him, I can’t be him, because I’m not him. So I’m stuck with myself.”
After a career as a standup, writer, television personality and actor (most notably in Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock”), Martin is making his feature screenwriting and directorial debut with “Dean,” which opens Friday.
“Dean” is about a young New York man recovering from the death of his mother. When his father (Kevin Kline) decides to sell the family home, Dean runs away to Los Angeles, where he meets a girl (Gillian Jacobs).
Martin says he could have made Dean a comedian, but instead he’s an illustrator, something Martin also does; he published a book of his humorous drawings, “Point Your Face at This,” in 2013.
“I thought, it’s a visual medium. There could be something cool happening between footage and drawings,” he says.
Martin says he mostly draws for fun and doesn’t claim to be a great artist. “This is how I draw. You don’t have to be Michelangelo, they can be what they are.”
As for directing a low-budget movie, Martin says he may have stretched himself a bit thin with so many locations on such a tight schedule.
“The producers and the crew were saying, ‘you’re crazy!’ But it felt like a bigger movie than what it is,” he says.
He also credits his wife Rachael for helping move things along. “She’s a good practical problem solver, in ways that I’m not,” he says. “She’s not a comedy person and she’s not in showbiz, so it’s nice to have her opinion. She just says what she thinks.”
She also teases him about his frequent references to death, both in his standup comedy and in his cartoons.
“The grim reaper is funny to me,” he explains. “I don’t usually draw faces. I like body language. I think there’s something fun about a blank canvas on the face because you can project the face on it. And the grim reaper’s great because there’s no face. It’s just this costume, just this hood.”
It’s this kind of thing, this honesty and authenticity, that make Martin’s work so successful, and that includes “Dean.”
“I just want something to feel like someone’s really sharing something with me,” he says. “I love when you see a movie and it stays with you for a day or two and it changes the way you see things. That’s a magical experience.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Demetri Martin, Gillian Jacobs, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen
Written and directed by Demetri Martin
Running time 1 hour, 27 minutes