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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Actors > Feature Interviews K to O > Demetri Martin

 

Demetri Martin

3 Months of Peace and Music

By Jay S. Jacobs

 
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 28, 2009.

Demetri Martin isnít afraid to jump in the deep end.  After years of honing his craft as a stand-up comedian, working his way up to being a special correspondent for The Daily Show and even getting his own series, Important Things with Demetri Martin on Comedy Central, I guess it was no real surprise that he would eventually drift into filmmaking. 

Itís just his first opportunity that is a bit of a shocker. 

Martin is starring in a relatively serious movie about one of the defining events of the twentieth century Ė directed by Academy Award winning director Ang Lee and written by film exec James Schamus. 

I guess he doesnít believe in the standard idea of a comedian dipping a toe into movies by taking some goofy comedy.

It was a risk, but one that paid off in the film Taking Woodstock.  Martin plays Elliot Teichberg (who now goes by the pen name Elliot Tiber), a young councilman in the sticks of late 60s upstate New York who heard that a music festival needed to find a new site.  Teichberg had the permit for a festival, so he suggested that a local dairy farm owned by a man named Max Yasgur (played in the film by Eugene Levy) would be the ideal spot.  A couple of weeks and 500,000 people later, the Woodstock concert was a legend Ė though it is one of the funny ironies of this film that Teichberg was working so hard behind the scenes that he never quite made it to the show. 

Quite a risk indeed. 

Director Ang Lee admits that it took a little while for the novice actor to get the role down, but the filmmaker never doubted he could do it. 

ďIt was a very unique experience,Ē Lee says.  ďHonestly, I did a lot of drilling him.  But I think his vibe as a personÖ how you photograph him on the screenÖ, itís very different from his comic work.  I chose him because I believe such a story would [happen to] him.  When I screen-tested him and tried to direct and see how heíd respond, I began to have a taste of the movie.  The working process is quite long and heís a great worker.  You think heís smart and cute, but actually he has a very good work ethic.Ē 

Meanwhile, Martin is happy with the way that the experience is going.  He is now hard at work preparing the second season of Important Things and now he has his first major film coming out. 

Martin is even enjoying the press junket.  ďItís cool that they do it at the Waldorf and not a Motel 6 or something,Ē Martin says as he sits down at the table with us to discuss the film a few weeks before the filmís debut. 

Jonathan Groff and Demetri Martin in 'Taking Woodstock.'What did you know about Woodstock before getting the part? 

I saw part of the documentary when I was younger.  I canít remember how young I was Ė Iíve been trying to remember Ė but I saw it at my parentsí house.  Jimi Hendrix.  The National Anthem.  Janis Joplin.  That was probably my first introduction to those artists and Woodstock as well.  I remember seeing the split screen and seeing all these hippies.  I remember as a kid they kept saying this, ď3 days of peace.Ē  This whole thing about peace, peace, peace.   It was a peaceful congregation of people.  As a kid, I didnít quite understand the significance.  I didnít understand that it would be so difficult to have 500,000 people and not have anybody get stabbed.  Now that youíre older, youíre a little more cynical as a person or guarded and you think, ďJesus Christ, thatís amazing.Ē 

As a comedian, whatís it like to have your first dramatic role with Ang Lee?

Definitely a departure for me.  Especially because I quickly learned that I wasnít going to be improvising in this role.  They had a script and they wanted me to do things a certain way.  So I thought, man, this is clearly very lucky.  I did not anticipate getting a role like this or doing this.  If I ever did, it would probably be further along the way if I built up some other career.  So it was really cool, it was a genuine surprise.  Then when I got there, I thought, ďWow, this is so challenging.Ē  Seeing the other actors Ė some of who I knew a little bit, most of them I didnít know them personally, but I knew they had been in things Ė just gave me a lot of respect for the person I was standing next to.  I really see where your creativity comes in here.  Iím more of a verbal person.  I write jokes.  I just write tons of them and I draw a lot.  Look at shapes and words and stuff and try to do stuff with that.  But I donít think much about how time moves.  I do for my jokes, but not for people Ė conversations in the moment and how you build a moment with other people.  So thatís cool.  It becomes very tactile when you are across from people like that. 

Was there a plan on your part to seek this part out?

Luckily I was contacted because James Schamus [the filmís screenwriter, as well as head of Focus Features] had seen a clip of me on YouTube Ė thanks to his daughter.  She showed him a clip of my stand-up.  I guess the wheels started turning in his head and he thought, ďWe might be able to use this guy.Ē  Probably more my demeanor or something that they thought would be appropriate.  So that is just dumb luck that you get to be in a part at all. 

Ang Lee works on a scene in 'Taking Woodstock' with Demetri Martin and Paul Dano.Ang Lee is such a great director.  Do you think it will be hard to work with normal directors after this experience?

Yeah, I do.  I got cast in this other film and I was really excited.  Itís called Moneyball.  We were set to shoot.  I couldnít believe [it].  I was like from Ang Lee to Steven Soderburgh?  This is crazy.  This streak is going to end.  (laughs)  Even if I get to work with every great director, thereís just not that many of them so itís going to happen, even if I got that lucky.  On Thursday they cut my hair.  I did a screen test and a make-up test and everything.  Then Friday I find out the movie was shut down.  If there were ever a lesson in the fragility of a movieís existence, that was a good one for me. 

Well what happened?

I think Sony didnít want to spend the budget that the movie had on the latest version of the script they had.  They said, ďWe want to change this and weíre not ready to do this now.Ē  So, itís being rewritten now. 

By Aaron SorkinÖ

Aaron Sorkin, yeah.  I think Scott Rudin is now attached as producer, so it may very well see the light of day.  I think Iím still attached, but weíll see.  Iíd love to do other stuff.  I still love doing stand-up.  I really do understand how different they are now after trying both.

Henry Goodman, Demetri Martin and Imelda Staunton in 'Taking Woodstock.'Since they arenít here, could you talk about your two British co-stars (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton play his parents)? 

They were great.  I went in curious, thinking, ďWow, Vera Drake.  This is going to be interesting.Ē  I remember the first day I met both of them.  It was at the same time.  They were both really just so warm and she just hugged me.   (sing-song voice)  ďOh, Demetri, weíve heard about you.Ē  I thought, oh, wow this is going to be great.  Henry, too, was very patient.  It was really cool; they really genuinely couldnít be more different than their characters.  Especially Imelda, because thatís a rough mom to have and sheís so hard and protected and kind of giving nothing.  In person she was very bouncy.  Told a lot of jokes.  She was really funny.  Weíd be between takes, sheís still in the costume and she looks like this old mad lady but sheís doing funny jokes and stuff.  And then, ďAction,Ē and all the sudden she is there.  It was like, oh my God.  Henry was really meticulous, put so much care into his character and had all these cool insights.  Itís weird.  I think in life, you donít often get to be friends with someone who is from a different generation than you are Ė if you are not related to them, or theyíre not a friend of one of your relations or something.  I donít have that many friends I hang out with that are like 66 or 52 or whatever the age is that I am not in a certain range.  So you get to go on a movie and all of the sudden you get to hang out and have lunch with Henry Goodman or Imelda Staunton.  Itís kind of cool. 

What do you think triggers his decision to leave home at the end?  Was it finding out his mother was hiding money from them, or was it the possibilities that he thought the experience had opened up?

Yeah, I think sometimes in life you take a big step and make a big decision, finally.  If you had to dichotomize the possible catalysts, you would have negative and positive points.  Itís a simple way to split the two.  In this story Iíd say you probably have a good share of both.  When you cite discovering the money, thatís a pretty big negative catalyst right there.  I could see that motivating a guy to take action, reactively.  Maybe out of anger, first.  At the same time, as stressful as Woodstock was for Elliot, I imagine that in real life you canít help but see that as a gigantic positive force.  The world is whipping all around you.  People are taking risks all around you.  A lot of them are taking their dadís car.  Even if they are trivial moves, as you compound that, you just see people taking chances and literally being exposed, fully naked out there with strangers is one.  So thatís an interesting backdrop to have a very negative thing happen Ė that very personal, small, negative thing happen.  As you look at the sequence of the story and you get closer to him actually leaving, I think those things start to accelerate.  When that straw finally breaks the back I think Ė Iím guessing, if I had to be in the guyís head Ė Iíd be like, ďI canít take this any more.  I canít believe her.  Iím out of here.Ē  At the same time I wouldnít want to just run away and go crying.  Iíd think, wait a minute, I can make that choice and be a man.  Vilma [the cross-dressing former Marine played by Liev Schreiber] is kind of my angel.  It is really helpful in that journey when you are seeing someone who on first glance itís like: What is wrong with that person?  Whatís going on?  Is he even really trying to look like a woman?  But the fact that he is pretty self-possessed and seems pretty comfortable with his/herself, I think that is something that would motivate a guy like me in a story.  Why am I so afraid?

Imelda Staunton, Demetri Martin and Henry Goodman in 'Taking Woodstock.'Itís a really touching scene with your father when you ask him why he stays with your mother and he simply answers, ďI love her.Ē 

I thought Henry did such a wonderful job with that.  When we were approaching that scene, Ang said, ďThis is a really important one for the movie.  If this scene works, then I think I have a story at least that works.  If it doesnít, weíre going to have to do a lot of work here in the edit.Ē  So the fact that Henry could pull that off was really good.  Love isnít logical.  I donít think thatís a crazy thing to say.  You can be a very logical person and you can be a guarded person, but when you get into that area, people are very unpredictable.  Itís surprising when you touch them.

Did you get to spend any time with the real Elliot?

A little bit, yeah.  I was so surprised when I met him, because heís really ďon.Ē  He does bits and stuff, like a lot of comedians might do.  When this story took place, from what Iíve heard from other people who knew him then, he was different.  He was quiet.  He was quiet and shy and kind of unassuming.  If you met him now and didnít know that you wouldnít guess that.  Heís a guy who isnít afraid of talking in front of people.  Heíll talk your ear off. 

Could we talk about your TV show a second?  Is it going to go into a second season? 

Yes.  We did seven episodes for our first season that aired starting in February.  Theyíve been rerunning it, I guess, sporadically.  I got picked up for a second season and I just started writing for [it] with some writers in California.  Iím going to shoot the second season out there.  Itíll be easier to produce that way.  Theyíll come out in the spring. 

Eugene Levy and Demetri Martin in 'Taking Woodstock.'Will you get other celebrities on?

I hope so.  Itís funny, getting to work with Eugene [Levy, who plays Max Yasgur] in this Ė it was such a thrill to meet that guy and to spend time with him.  I donít know if he would do the show, but if there was somebody on the top of my list, Iíd love to be able to do comedy, anything, with him.  Heís just so great and very tasteful Ė a real gentleman, and just really funny, too. 

Would Jon [Stewart] come on?

Yeah, Jon mentioned that he was going to come out, which is really cool.  And then there might be just some celebrity cameos.  But itís so interesting, after being in a movie Ė being in a TV show before it and now going back Ė I got to be on both sides of how production works.  I got to really appreciate how casting works.  A lot of times I want to cast my friends, but if you have an idea that heís just not right for that person, itís not even a personal thing.  You just realize it.  So now, whenever Iím up for anything, Iím just like, this is what I am.  This is my range Ė however limited it is.  If Iím right for it, wow, thatís so lucky, thatís great.  If Iím not, okay.  Iíll just go make my stuff until Iím right for the thing I made.  Itís the same thing when Iím casting my own show.  I want to put people in it and Iíve just got to write it correctly for them or it just wonít work. 

Would you ever do something R-rated, like for HBO? I know you have a good relationship with Comedy Central, butÖ

Yeah, if I had an idea that fit that well and the opportunity presented itself; Iíd be in and audition. 

When youíre not working or doing press conferences, what are you doing?  Whatís a simple Saturday like for you?

I used to love skateboarding as a kid, a lot.  For most of the years I lived in New York, I had a long board.  Before I could afford to take cabs and stuff, I really would skate everywhere.  Iím not skateboarding all the time, but now that Iím in California, Iím getting reacquainted with doing outdoor activities.  I went hiking a couple of weeks ago.  It was so fun.  I had this weird revelation that when I lived in New York, I didnít leave enough.  I donít know how many of you live in New York Ė and if you do how often you actually leave the city Ė but what I found was I was getting really drained and kind of overwhelmed.  I think it was because everything around me was either people or made by people.  There was nothing bigger that just people.  If you go to the Redwoods, or I havenít been to the Grand Canyon, but I imagine it happens there, you go to these places where itís something gigantic that a person couldnít have made.  Itís just a thing thatís bigger than you.  It just takes so much off of you.  Itís so nice, you know?  Being near the beach is the closest I have right now up there.  I go walk by the beach.  I draw a lot.  Try to daydream and usually a lot of the ideas I get just come out of walking around. 

Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in 'Taking Woodstock.'Well letís talk about dropping acid.

All the things I just said must be better if you drop acid.  (laughs)

The part in the movie where you drop acid, how do you prepare for that scene?

That was a funny day because they had this van set up.  The vanís ceiling could come off and all this cool stuff.  We got all these authentic clothes.  Weíre all set, the lightingís right, thereís incense and everything, and theyíre like, ďOkay, so what do we do?Ē  I havenít dropped acid.  Ang hasnít dropped acid.  (laughs)

Liev Schreiber said it was a very accurate representationÖ

Is that right?  (laughs again)  Thatís awesome.  Thereís a guy named David Silver, who was a historian on the film.  He was a colleague of Timothy Learyís from what I understand.  So, he was off camera, saying, ďOkay, itís kind of like this.  Yeah, youíd be probably worried about your limbs.Ē  I was like, ďWhereís are my arm?  Whereís my arm?Ē  They canít use this.  Am I an asshole?  That was tricky.  But I will say, when I saw it, I thought Ė I had the benefit of some really great cinematography.  What I was worried about as a performer, you can leave me and just see what Iím supposedly seeing and itís like, wow, itís so cool.  Look what I saw. 

Did Ang tell you what they were going to do?  Did you know what the effects were going to be?

More or less.  The whole thing they did wasÖ the roof of the van was painted a certain way.  Then there was a wall on the soundstage that was maybe twenty feet high that was a replica of the ceiling of the van.  He shot that with a 70-millimeter camera.  Itís so clever.  Heís such a smart guy, visually.  He did some 16-millimeter in the film.  I canít remember if he did this, but I think he was going to juxtapose the 70 with the 16.  So even if you were in 35 and go down to 16 for a little while, so when you jump up to 70 itís like Ė whoa!  Itís so cool. 

Going from a film like that back to cable TV, the precision must be so different.  How does that affect your process?

It really was.  That was something that I expected, but the degree to which it was different, I didnít expect.  Everything else Iíve ever done Iíve had the freedom to improvise.  Iím pretty meticulous about my jokes because I like doing things that donít have that many words in them.  I like to see if I can get a joke to work with just a few words and capture the idea.  But I still like to improvise quite a bit on stage and in my own show Iím free to improvise.  If itís shitty, Iím free to edit it and say, ďAll right, well, that failed.Ē  In the movie, after a scene, the script supervisor would come and say, ďYou forgot to say Ďand.íĒ (laughs)  Wow, this is very different to what Iím used to.  So it was good, it was real acting school for me.  It was an interpretive task.  It wasnít like generative.  It wasnít me coming up with it.  It was just Ė how do we make this feel this way?

Mamie Gummer, Jonathan Groff and Demetri Martin in 'Taking Woodstock.'As a comedy writer, where do you get your ideas?

I always find that if something seems like a game itís usually more enjoyable to me.  So I always try to figure out rules for myself.  I try to play the game and get better at it.  For joke writing, I always try to add a new game to it.  Iím on planes a lot, so I always bring a dictionary and sometimes I just read the dictionary.  It makes me just think of random things.  Other times Iíll just say, all right, I have twenty minutes, I have to write three pages of jokes and I just free associate on the page.  A lot of the time jokes just come to me because Iím just walking around looking at things.  Iím talking about the more mechanical, weird ways I would do it.  One other thing I was going to tell you, when I did open mikes, a lot of times on my way to the stage Iíd be standing next to another comedian in the back, waiting to go on.  Right before theyíd introduce me, Iíd say ďGive me a word.Ē  And they would just say, ďToaster,Ē or something.  I would just add it to my set list.  When I got onstage I would make sure I did a joke about a toaster, no matter how bad it was.  I figure that itís very low risk.  In a basement in the East Village, who cares if I do a shitty joke about toasters?  But what if I do a good joke about a toaster?  Now I can do a joke about a toaster.  In over a hundred trials, if I get one good joke, thatís like one-tenth of a Letterman set.  So itís all a game.  I love it!

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2009 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 28, 2009.