The Lovers: Q&A with Director Azazel Jacobs and Actor Tracy Letts
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs, 2017) is a comedy/drama about a married couple (Tracy Letts and Debra Winger) each of whom has a piece on the side (Melora Walters and Aidan Gillen).
This Q&A took place May 8 at the AFI Silver Theater. Director Azazel Jacobs and actor Tracy Letts took questions from the audience. The film opened May 12 and is still showing in area theaters.
Moderator: How long have you been working on this project?
Azazel Jacobs: It's been a quick process with this film. We started shooting a year ago from now. We wrapped by the end of that month. The writing of this project, I was toying with the idea of people being equally guilty, so that neither one is more villain or victim than the other one. That had possibilities to me. I finished working on a TV show that I had been working on for a while. I was really looking to go back to film; it had been five years since I had worked on film. It's a very different thing from TV. A controlled story, this very small premise offered me the control I was now looking for in a film. Especially of how contained this story was, mostly happening in one location, all happening in one town, with such few characters.
Moderator: Tracy, you came to the project after Debra Winger signed on. How did you get involved?
Tracy Letts: The offer kind of dropped out of the sky. The script came to me with the offer. I didn't know Aza, I didn't know his work. He talked to me on the phone, we had a lovely conversation on the phone. I was very impressed with the script, I was impressed with Aza's seriousness of purpose. I'm a big Debra Winger fan, I'm a big fan of A24. The opportunity not only to play a leading role which I haven't had a chance to do in film or TV, I've done a lot on the stage. That was a challenge I didn't want to pass up. But beyond that, the idea that a film dealt with people in their middle age who are seen as sexual beings, passionate people, people who are going through the throes of love and affairs, passion and mistakes. So often in film we see people in their middle age and they're done. Their life is complete. Their struggle is over. That's not the case for me; it's not the case for anybody I've ever known. That they just reach a point and they are done, settled. So the opportunity to tell a story like that was... I couldn't possibly pass it up. I'm so thrilled I was able to do this film.
Audience Question: At the beginning it shows each of them breaking up with the other man/woman. In the end they end up with them even though they are involved with each other. Was that a conscious choice of a little misdirection, or did you want to play around with audience expectations?
Azazel Jacobs: I had the idea that this film would begin where a lot of romantic films usually end. Especially with relationships, there is a thrilling thing that ends and maybe there is a fade out, happily ever after. Then cut to a couple months later, here we are when that thing that was such an adventure and was so much fun, is settling more weight than the thing they were trying to escape. It wasn't so much misdirection but trying to reveal how I feel those characters would look at that experience where the thrill is gone, and what are you actually left with and how do you move forward.
Audience Question: Tracy, I was fascinated by all the phone dialogue. Did you have something talking to you on the phone or was that just you working through?
Tracy Letts: That was just me working through.
Azazel Jacobs: I was in the edit room and watching him do that. When you're shooting it's hard to see all the layers going on. When you are in the room for hours and watching it over and over again; at some point I realized the same as you; wait there's no body on that side. I immediately fell for it too.
Audience Question: One flaw I see is why would you want to spend time with Lucy?
Tracy Letts: Lucy is passionate, she's mercurial, and she's in love with me, and she's fascinated with me. And she's stunningly attractive and sexy. Why wouldn't you want to be involved with Lucy? I thought she was fantastic. The scenes with Lucy were the first scenes we shot in the film. We got several days to establish that relationship. Melora is such a sensual actor. She's a raw nerve. She's very present and emotionally available in every take. It's very easy to fall in love with her from day one.
Azazel Jacobs: One of the challenges with those characters, with Lucy and Robert is that they themselves are not who they want to be at that moment. They've been stuck in this place and they're feeling frustrated with who they've become. And they're trying to get out of this, whether it's by their affairs, leaving, something needs to change, it's been too much. So that was an interesting challenge for me both with Aidan who played Robert as well. He's not doing what he wants to be doing right now. He's completely consumed with something that is not what he was aiming for or hoping for.
Audience Question: Tracy, based on your performance, how do you see this affecting the next play you write? What will this give you in terms of creative genius?
Tracy Letts: Thank you for that question. I don't have a great answer for it. The things I learn from one project that I might take to another project are ineffable and sometimes I don't really get the lessons of them until much much later. I know that for me, going from acting on stage, acting on film, writing for stage, writing for film. My friend Amy Morton whose also a hyphenate, refers to it as crop rotation. It keeps you from becoming too comfortable or too much of an expert. I think it's always better to enter a situation needing to learn more about what it is you have to do and that was definitely the case on this film.
Audience Question: Are you saying the message of this movie is you don't have to choose?
Azazel Jacobs: I don't think of my films as messages. I think the idea is that things are complicated. It doesn't make affairs attractive. This is not saying this is a fun thing to do. At the same time, I'm trying to understand. I really have to work as a person who likes what I'm doing, likes the crew I'm working with and the cast. I have to come to at last understand them. I think that's what I ask of the audience as well. We are complicated; we are simple. Maybe dealing with people that seem very far outside ourselves but getting to some place of understanding would be a good thing; it would be helpful. Strangers are not that strange. That was the message.
Audience Question: Did you envision that wonderfully lush music that underplayed everything for the whole movie. It was a great choice.
Azazel Jacobs: I didn't. I've been working with the same composer now for about 14 years. So I do think of her when I'm working on a script. But in terms of knowing what this music is or what the score's going to be for any project--after I see the edited film or in the midst of the edited film where I start thinking. Definitely this film is influenced by the movies that the score is influenced by. But this movie takes place after those movies. I like that contrast. There's no backstory for so long in this film. Another part of the answer is that Mandy Hoffman, the composer and I, have worked in a very minimal way--like a piano based very minimal score for many years now. Because the piano is such an integral part of the story here, we knew that the score can't have piano. Taking that base away from us opened up--strings expanded it to something else. Incredibly when I went back to A24 and told them, "You know how I mix scores with no instruments or just two or three; I think this one is full orchestra" and they were all for it.
Audience Question: Tracy, you were in a half-dozen great movies last year for a wide range of directors. How is it like working for Aza as opposed to Todd Solandz or Antonio Campos or other people?
Tracy Letts: I was just talking to Aza about this last night. It has been a really remarkable string of good fortune for me. It's not like these filmmakers have seen me in those other films. I feel really lucky in that regard. Instead of saying what's different about them: In some ways what's similar about them. They're very passionate; The film is carefully written, the film has been very carefully thought out. The sets for all those films made a lot of space for the actor to do their work. Solondz is a more volatile figure than the others. He's from New Jersey and he gets excited. (audience laughs). They're all very passionate about the work and they're very clear. Aza's very clear. One of the things that really impressed me is that he's worked with everybody on his crew for 14 years, not just his composer, repeated relationships for a long time. With a movie like this you've got a limited amount of time; you're somewhat limited by your budget. We didn't have time for rehearsal; we would have time to discuss a scene before we started working on it. The crew immediately knew when it was time to melt away and give us the space, me, Aza, Debra, Toby [Datum] who shot the film, and talk about what he wanted to do with the scene; where we were going to put the camera. The camera was for the most part going to follow actors' impulses as opposed to the other way around. And we figured it out bit by bit. He was great to work with and I would do it again in a second. I kind of rolled the dice a little bit, not knowing Aza's work beforehand and it was a hunch that really paid off.
Audience Question: Could you talk about the characters' psychology. It seems like they're quite selfish and using their lovers to get what they aren't getting in the marriage. But after that they came back to each other. So they're more like thrill seekers, and being cruel to lovers, using them for their purposes. How did you come to that?
Tracy Letts: I love characters who are flawed, who are challenging, who are difficult, I love it because just like people, just like me. I don't pretend to be better than these characters and I'm not judging these characters. People have affairs to make themselves feel better. They think that an affair is going to make it better. They can convince themselves that it's about a lot of other things, this person understands me, this person gets me, this person excites me in a way that my partner no longer does. I've changed, I no longer have something in common with her; now I have something in common with her. It's all a fiction. We spin a lot of fictions in our everyday lives to justify the crazy, flawed human things we do. I think you're right, I'm not debating the point that at times they act cruelly and selfishly, but for me, they are no more cruel or selfish than I have been at times in my life or all of you have been in your lives.
Audience Question: Are you concerned that the title of the movie might be confused with the French film under the same name?
Tracy Letts: I mentioned that on the first day. I said, "Louis Malle, The Lovers." It turns out there are about ten films called The Lovers.
Azazel Jacobs: No, I'm not.
Tracy Letts: This is another thing that directors are not concerned about. When we first sat around the table to read the movie Christine, I said to the director Antonio Campos, "You're going to change the title because everyone's going to think it's about a killer car." Antonio didn't even know what I was referring to. He said, "No, we're going to call it Christine". And he did and people think it's about a killer car. (audience laughs).
Azazel Jacobs: I'd be happy to confuse this with Louis Malle. That would be great.
Audience Question: Did you think of Debra Winger and Tracy Letts when writing the movie?
Azazel Jacobs: I did think of Debra Winger. She had seen a previous film of mine from 2011 and met me after a Q&A. We had a brief conversation in which she expressed her care for the film. And that obviously stayed with me for a number of reasons, in a big way because it's Debra Winger. And that was followed up a month or two later with a hand-written letter from her saying, "If there's something, I'd like to make something together." And from that point on I did send her projects, whatever I was working on, we'd meet up about once a year or so and I would talk to her, whether it was a TV show or other scripts that were going on. But she's selective. She knows what she wants to do, what connects with her life and what her experiences are in that moment is what she's interested in. So, I wrote this with her in mind, but not with the confidence for sure that she would say yes to it. So I had to create a distance and think hopefully she'll respond. I thought of her eyes a lot when writing the script, I thought of the way she looks at people in films and the way she looked at me in the conversations we had. The real interest, that you can see right through, see what's going on. So that had a big influence on the script even if I had wound up with somebody else, that would have been there. But luckily she responded yes and once she did I knew that it set the level, the right actors would follow suit. I worked closely again for a long time with a casting director named Nicole Arbusto. She suggested Tracy as being a person who could challenge beyond Debra's level and something could happen. And she was right.
Audience Question: The scene that takes my breath away is the one at the meat counter. Not so much for the shock of Aidan coming up. But afterwards, when Tracy is embracing Debra--portraying that wave of emotions that you show wordlessly there in a very short scene. It's like you're going from one reaction to another to another in a very very short time.
Tracy Letts: The way Aza wrote the script, it would suggest what was going on physically and some touchpoints for what was going on emotionally. For me it was a matter of being in that moment and making yourself available to the idea that although I've been lying to her and taking her for granted, and the relationship hasn't been all that it could be, that she is someone with whom I have a long history, an intimacy, and the idea that I'm going to lose her. That's in the script. I'm glad that it's working.
Azazel Jacobs: Something was in the script, but that was way, way better. (audience laughs). That moment is really one of my favorite moments for sure. That breaks my heart. When I saw the footage when we cut it together, and how that all came together--it's something you just hope for, but you can't write for, or plan for or direct.
Tracy Letts: It's absolutely present in Aza's script, the idea that we see these flawed people doing a lot of bad behavior, there are prices to pay for it too. When the son comes through the door, there is an actual concrete example of collateral damage that gets done because of some of this behavior. Same with the meat counter. There is a price to pay.
Audience Question: Have you given any thought to a different ending, where the marital couple stays together as opposed to going their separate ways?
Azazel Jacobs: They do stay together. (audience laughs). I think that it goes back to the son. I don't think there's any point of return after what happens. I never considered another ending because it just felt like this is the only truthful one. I do in some strange way see this as a happy ending, that people get some of what they want. There's nobody there that gets nothing. There's some kind of peace. Even the son finds something but not with his family. Lucy and Robert get something. It was a way that I had peace because I also really wanted Michael and Mary to stick together. But in the writing I just felt like there's no way they would actually live together by the end of this film.
Audience Question: The scene with painting on wall added levity to the film. Is that a tracing of you?
Azazel Jacobs: I definitely hoped for it to be humorous. Malore Walters who plays Lucy, drew that of Michael, that was in the script. She's somebody who immediately when she got the part, started taking dance lessons, and got really into it; she's an artist.and a poet and she created almost all that artwork in that house. But that's something she worked on without knowing what the location was. When we got the location and I saw what she did, it looks like right here in this corner. So the staging almost got based on that drawing and the camera work definitely got based on that reveal. There are a few things I found funny about it, also heartbreaking. And I especially like Michael's reaction, because he's not being truthful at that point but he uses it to get out of this situation.
Audience Question: Did she get balanced at the end? She manages to walk around the plant.
Azazel Jacobs: Just like Michael with the pillow, that was Debra with the plant. That was her finding her way around it. She's not rushing. She's still late, things are still confused.
Dean: Q&A With Director Demetri Martin
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
Dean (Demetri Martin, 2016) is a comedy/drama starring Demetri Martin as an illustrator who is trying to come to terms with his mother's death. An advance screening and Q&A took place May 14 at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema. DC Film Society director Michael Kyrioglou moderated the discussion with Demetri Martin. This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
Michael Kyrioglou: Welcome to DC. Have you been here before?
Demetri Martin: Yes, I've done standup in DC over the years. I was also a White House intern in December of 1996.
Michael Kyrioglou: Your particular brand of humor is amazing and it's interesting how it prints through the drawings and how so in sync they are with what you are saying in the film.
Demetri Martin: Thanks. I tried hard to get that to work. That was one of my goals in making the character an illustrator. I thought they might be useful in several ways and I didn't want them to be "hey, here's a joke" but to try to weave it into the narrative.
Michael Kyrioglou: Was it always your intention that it was always going to be this profession in the film?
Demetri Martin: Yes, film is such a visual medium. We also shot it anamorphic wide screen on purpose so there would be a little more real estate to play with on the screen when I wanted to do my split-screen effect.
Michael Kyrioglou: How complete were the drawings when you started?
Demetri Martin: About half the ones you see in the movie already existed from a book that I had done. I have one book of drawings that came out in 2013. So when I started writing the movie, I thought "this drawing would work and that one would work." I already had a lot of drawings about death. It was already there for my real life. When I got to the edit, I realized that I needed more drawings so I did some more specifically to fill out the movie.
Michael Kyrioglou: You've been drawing since you were younger.
Demetri Martin: I liked drawing a lot as a kid, but I stopped. I got into breakdancing pretty heavily in fifth grade. Then skateboarding in sixth grade. That was a huge passion of mine. Years later I started doing standup and would have a notebook with me all the time so I started drawing again. My skill level had frozen nicely where it was in 5th-6th grade. Back then I was one of the best in my class; but other people pulled ahead. I still like to draw for fun. It's effective for communicating ideas. I do enjoy the process of drawing.
Michael Kyrioglou: You do this as a comedian. Many of us don't think of you as a writer. You're a published fiction author. Is this the first screenplay you've written?
Demetri Martin: I've written a few. I sold a couple of screenplays around 2005-2006. I sold pitches to studios. I went in, had an idea for a movie, had meetings. In both cases I got to sell a movie, one to Dreamworks and one to Sony. I wrote, them, did revisions. And the movies never got made. Maybe some day they will. But after naively waiting for a phone call that they were going to make it, then I wrote this one. This is the first time I wrote something that was intended to be shot by me, so I knew it had to be low budget. Nobody's waiting for this, no one bought the idea. I wrote this script from scratch. I tried to get a producer.
Audience Question: One of the themes of this movie seems to be making impulsive decisions in the face of loss. How important that theme was when you writing and making this movie?
Demetri Martin: The movie is fiction, but in my own experience, my father passed away when I was 20; my mom was widowed at 41. My dad was 46 when he died, so we were all shocked. It's not something I've dealt with in my standup comedy. I didn't really go into that area. I didn't want to explore it for whatever reason. Then when it came time to writing a movie, I thought there might be an interesting story to tell around the experience of losing someone and what's it's like not only to grieve. But maybe more specifically when you're starting coming out of grief--what is that like, and how long does it take for each person. and how do we go through that. What about when you've lost the same person but you can have very different experiences? I wanted it to be a father-son story because I thought there would be something interesting to talk about with two men going through the same thing, kind of a parallel situation but without communicating with each other. So the impulsivity of some of my character's choices--I thought it might be interesting to have a character who was actually quite different than how I was when I lost my dad. I'm the oldest of three kids and I was there for my mom a lot. I was the person she ended up leaning on the most because I was the oldest and I wasn't running from it so much but was running toward it--like maybe if I can just deal with this now, maybe I won't have a mid-life crisis later. Whatever I was thinking I was just trying to do what felt the healthiest even though it was very painful. But I thought making a character who was doing the opposite might give me more of a journey for him to go on. If he's starting at a place that's less healthy, or in denial or trying to escape grief. So in terms of his impulses, I like the idea of trying to move forward and even physically having trouble doing it. It's like he can't even go to the smoothie shop with his friend. Every time he goes somewhere it's like he's going back. He has to go back to the car for the phone. He thinks he's going to fly home and then gets off the plane. It's a series of little weird turns. I was hoping it would be surprising enough to a viewer so you couldn't quite predict where he was going to end up, going all the way up the coast. The original title I was working with was "The first thing you never get over." That was my experience. I was lucky; my parents didn't beat me up or each other; nobody had drug or alcohol problems. A lot of it was just luck. So I had a good childhood, then all of a sudden boom, this thing hit our family and my dad was gone. I was 20 when the first thing that I'll never get over happened. So that was the concept I was starting with. My dad's name was Dean, so I changed the title to Dean; there was something more elegant about it for me. But another title I was playing with was Free Fall but I realized that wasn't going to work out. It sounds like it's about a skydiver. But the idea was I thought the character was lost. Some of those impulsive decisions were a product of his failure to deal with it. He's just trying to get away. There's no playbook. I thought there was something valuable in these two guys having personalities that were different, even though they loved each other, to see where that goes.
Audience Question: We never saw the mom. Was that a choice you made in the scriptwriting process?
Demetri Martin: That was in the script. I felt that there was something right in showing the absence of the mom and not cheating and letting us all see her but living with the absence that they are living with. When my dad passed away it was 1994; we didn't have cell phones, but my dad was the voice on the outgoing message for the answering machine in our house. We left it on for a year after he died. Nobody wanted to be the one to delete that. That's like a weird second erasure of the person, literally erasing his voice. Somehow there was a piece of him that was still alive. So I thought having the Mom live in a sense through the messages would be powerful. That's my real mom in the home video. That's 1976, me and my mom. That wasn't in the script but I found it when we were editing.
Audience Question: Did you struggle with with the trope of having the female existing to fix the male lead?
Demetri Martin: There's something really humbling that happens when you make your first movie. Lots of things. One of them is, as a guy who spent 20 years writing for himself on stage, trying to write other characters, it's a great challenge. I wanted to write made-up characters; there's nobody in this based on anyone. Me, a little, based on myself but even there I tried to do something different. I don't have a huge range, so it's going to be me no matter what. When it came to writing women, I want to get better at it. I think it's important. I have a long way to go. I did know that for Nicky I didn't want to have a manic dream girl. I thought it might be fun to play with some of the tropes that exist so that my character is seeking her as a salvation. He's putting it on her and then to have her reject it would give her something to play with, more dimension. She could have her own story, for sure. Even the pickup artist friend, Eric, I'm familiar with The Game and when that book was popular. I thought that we could start with that kind of douchebag character but then let's go a little deeper and maybe see what's underneath. He's in trouble, he's putting it all into this cat. (audience laughts) The part that Reid Scott plays, Brett, not a big part, he did me a favor. Once you learn that Brett has dealt with loss, that's a very real thing, even doing this movie, doing QAs. Be careful what you wish for because then I have to cast these parts. I have to meet with people, have to kiss, we're actors, fine, but it's still creepy when you're the director. It's a different thing if the director over there says "okay kiss." It's already a weird power thing. Any woman in the room already knows it's weird. And on top of that if I'm going to make her the dream girl, I thought that it was a step in the right direction to give her some agency. Also pretty much everyone in the movie is white, so I've got work to do. I want to tell stories about people from different backgrounds, different ages, so this was my first step. Who am I to write Mary Steenburgen's character? I'm not a woman in my 50s or 60s. Yes, it's fiction. I just think it's humbling. It teaches you a lot about empathy because you are trying to think about how your other characters really feel, rather than them just serving your jokes or main story.
Audience Question: You went back and forth with relationships as the story is told--Nicky, father realestate agent. Was there anything in your life that inspired that backtracking?
Demetri Martin: I'm sure there was under the surface. I think it was more a case for me of how to get the story to work. One of the tricks in this movie is to have the father and son in the same story as they are apart for the whole second act, so that they could still share the screen together. So the split screen ended up being a very useful tool for that, so even just a few phone calls here and there while we are bouncing back and forth, we can also see a few moments where they are together, even though they are apart. In the third act they come together again. Hopefully when the movie ends, you feel these guys are going to enter a new phase of their lives together and connect in a different way. In my experience, I was connected with my family maybe too much. There's a point where you don't want to think about this stuff. It's hard, there are no answers, there's nothing you can say. There's no "at least."
Audience Question: How did you work with your cinematograper on the visual themes while maintaining perspective?
Demetri Martin: Another very important challenge for me as a first-time filmmaker. I like Hal Ashby, Alexander Payne, Mike Nichols, you can probably see my influences to some degree. At the same time, this is a low-budget movie. This is a 20 day shoot. A lot of the illusions I had in my head, what I thought I was going to be doing, went out the window pretty quickly. We just didn't have the time. We watched The Landlord together, the DP Mark Schwartzbard and I about a week before we shot the film. I would say I want to do this or this. He would say I can do this, this would be harder. Nothing specific from those movies, just the way things look. I have to say, he did such an excellent job for what we had. One of things I'm really happy about this movie is how it looks. Because I was there and I know how it could have looked. It's not The Godfather, but I'm not embarrased by it. I have to say, Mark was not only a gentleman, he worked so fast, he's really talented, without a big kit of lights and made me and a lot of people look good. He did a great job. His parents are here tonight (audience claps). Mark did such a great job. I hope I get to work with him again. He was such a delight to work with. And I learned a lot from him. I didn't go to film school. I don't know what I'm doing. I'd been in some movies and knew I wanted to direct so I paid attention to what lenses they were choosing for what. Over time I've learned some things. Mark was really patient and had a lot of really good ideas. That helped me sell or at least create the tone that the movie has because I've learned now, having made one movie, that tone is so important yet very hard to define. It's kind of elusive to say what your tone is. And to make sure all your actors are in the same range. And that the reality stays intact as you go through it. It's like something you have to keep afloat, rather than go for this joke or that and then find out in editing my tone is all over the place. Music helps. There are ways to smooth it out. Constraints present themselves quickly in a low-budget thing.
Audience Question: Have you thought about the characters after the movie?
Demetri Martin: The original idea was that I go to California and chase the girl. But I realized when I assembled the movie, this is a mistake. He just can't take off again. One of the things I like about the story is that they don't talk to each other about the women they've met. That's on purpose. I like the intimacy that is created where the audience is the third person in that. We get to see both of them. They don't see each other and they're not sharing that information. The dad is okay. The woman he met calls his bluff. I have him and Mary run into each other in the end. After losing my dad, I wanted my mother to meet someone. For my guy, he probably would have a string of meaninless relationships (laughs).
Audience Question: What is the biggest trouble going from sketch comedy to directing and acting in a movie?
Demetri Martin: It's tricky being director and actor. I knew I wanted to do it that way, because when you direct you have a degree of control. You can really protect yourself. And you can certainly change the movie as you go if you want to. And in the edit you get a real chance to fix it, rewrite it, tweak it. I could have little screenings. So the standup comedian in me could see how audiences respond to the movie and adjust. We didn't have a lot of time because the budget was so low. We had to shoot a lot every day, so it was a good training ground. But from that experience, I felt like I had a little more confidence, that I knew what I was looking for, or at least execute jokes on screen. Let's consider the scene through the front window of the car before they go on the road trip. I knew I wanted that to be a four shot, rather than bouncing around the car and seeing everyone's reaction. I like to let your eye travel, similar to real life if I were watching that conversation. Everyone can look at what they are looking at, rather then me taking you and saying look at him, look at her, back to him, now the four shot. Let it play and then we'll see if we can find some jokes there. Most of the challenges were logistical.
Michael Kyrioglou: This was shot in 2014?
Demetri Martin: We shot it in 2014, then I went on a 35 city tour, I shot a Netflix special. It was hard; we did the editing in my house, the editor was cool, came to my house. Then I got off the road and we really buckled down. I purposefully saved a portion of the budget for re-shoots so I could fix mistakes but I wanted to have an assembly of the movie and that took awhile. It took me almost a year to shoot the re-shoots. And then we submitted it to festivals. We submitted it to Tribeca and they took it. It sold a year ago. So the last year, it's not my fault. I don't know why they held on to it.
Audience Question: As the movie went on, your animation got less. Was that in correspondence with your character was expressing himself more to other people?
Demetri Martin: I hadn't thought of that. I think I frontloaded. When I wrote the script I guess I was just trying to establish that he was an illustrator, this is what he does. It was frontloaded with drawings and they kind of vanished in the second act and then came back. This is a tool I can use in telling the story and talking about the character. So that's a good thing; I should make sure the drawings are there enough. As the story picked up they started to feel like speedbumps at certain spots, so I found myself removing certain spots later in the movie to get the story going. I like trying different things; trying the split screen, or subtitles in the club. But I never want to distract the viewer; I don't want to take you out of it. If I'm lucky enough to have someone connecting with it emotionally I just want to serve that, whether it's with the music or whatever. I see something that's cool or like the shot but then I wonder, why am I noticing the shot. I should just be feeling the story. That was one of the challenges, to balance the drawings so it wasn't an interruption or speedbump as I was telling the story.
Audience Question: Are you ever tempted to write a better version of yourself? To write it as you are the winner and come out looking better?
Demetri Martin: It's funny you say that. It ended up being the opposite. There was a storyline with Christine Woods who plays Michelle. And one of the heartbreaks for me was that I had to lose that storyline. But there's a whole storyline in flashback from my relationship with my ex-fiancee. We got to do these great argument scenes, fight scenes, not physical. And I found myself wanting to be worse than I think I am as a person, or at least I didn't want to win the fight. For whatever reason I wanted to stick it to myself; maybe it's therapeutic. But it might also be just the mechanics of making a movie when you have so much power over it, it seems psychotic. There was more comedy or humanity in magnifying some of my problems. I did enjoy making a character who had problems that I don't have. I have other problems. Standup teaches you a lot of things but it's very self involved, it's very unhealthy. I'm just selling myself all the time. So when I came to make a movie, yes, I put myself in it, I directed it. But the exciting part was developing the other characters. I hope I get to make more movies and I'm sure there will be some that I'm not in at all, and I'll just get to tell a story. I'd love to make a movie with two women as the lead characters and to write it well, and to get women who are excited to play those parts. I want to learn how to write for other people. I think there's something great about that. It's so cool when you get actors who are interested in your material. Then they show up and do your material. I told them I'm not precious about the words because they're doing me a favor. If you're lucky they elevate your material. They bring something to the stuff I wrote."That's so much more believable than I thought it would be. Thank you for being such a good actor." Gillian and Ginger took what I gave them to work with and did something nice with it.
Michael Kyrioglou: Did you give the actors license to improvise?
Demetri Martin: Yes.
Audience Question: As a first-time director, how did you get Kevin Kline? What was it like to direct him?
Demetri Martin: My agent sent him the script and he responded to it. That got me a lunch with him. So I flew to New York and had lunch with him and I found out before that trip that if he said yes, this guy that's going to finance more than half the movie would give us the money. So that was a big lunch. Kevin was nice, very warm. I didn't know him and I'm a fan of his. So even though I'm in showbiz, I'm having lunch with Kevin Kline, so it was a big deal. I was so encouraged at the end of the lunch but he didn't say yes. He said let's keep talking and we did and a couple of months later he agreed to do it. Once he agreed to it then the dominoes kind of fall, because now you have a legitimate movie. The first scene that I got to direct that I wasn't in was a scene with him and Mary. I get to the set, camera's all set up, they are on their marks, we shoot the first take, I'm behind the monitor with my headphones watching it; They're movie stars. And I'm watching them on a screen, you're pulled into it. First take, they're great actors so it's like watching a movie. I'm enjoying it, watching them on the screen and then they stop talking and look at the screen, at me. And I say cut, sorry. I'm just enjoying movie stars that I've seen. "That was great." After three or four takes I quickly realize I can't just keep saying "great" I sound like an idiot. So I did learn to asserted myself a little bit more, and say "can you pick up this line so I can have this version." Fortunately they were very collaborative, generous and patient. I think I did a good job. It's not like I didn't know what I was doing but I am new so there's a gigantic disparity between them and me. So far so good for me. I was lucky. People were nice to me. It wasn't as traumatic for them as it was for me. He liked the movie when he saw it at the Tribeca premiere. I learned so much from Kevin Kline that I didn't even know I was going to learn. And a lot of it was just in the edit. We're both loose enough with it so we can improvise. I'm trying to follow his lead. If I'm doing something he's with me. He's such a great actor. Generous is a word that just is so appropriate for a guy like that. In standup, generous doesn't make sense. You can have a generous audience I guess, they bought tickets, they're nice, they don't heckle you. It's not the same as being in a scene with another person. What you're making is so reliant upon how we collaborate, how we share that scene. Even if the lines are written, there's so much else that goes on. There's body language, If we're doing a scene and I don't look at you that can be a dick move. I'm taking it all. That forces you to look at me, unless we want it to look like there's something is wrong. If someone's not generous you do [stuff] like that. There are famous stories of people not giving it their all on the master, the wide shot. They save it for the close up. Then when the director gets to the edit, he says, I guess we have to use the closeup. There are ways you can game the system. A guy like Kevin Kline doesn't do that, even on a small dinky movie like this where he truly has nothing to gain. He didn't make money, we all got the minimum because the budget was so small. I got to the edit and look at his performance and he gave me three or four versions of that guy, he gave me the broken widower if I use one sequence of takes, then he gave me a guy that thinks he fine but is in denial. I don't if that was his plan or if it's just in his bones or experience. There was such variation in his performance and such creativity. Often with the exact same words. I'm a comedian and change the words, rewrite my jokes. It was super educational for acting. Because I'm not a trained actor, so this was a privilege to get to see how he works.
Audience Question: Can you tell about the art scene, was the art gallery scene part of the script?
Demetri Martin: That was part of the script, I wrote in the jokes for the guns. The first thing we shot was the photographs of those guns. We shot that in an alley in downtown LA the day before we starting filming the movie, then picked which photos we would blow up. We had a lot of trouble getting locations. I can't even tell you how nightmarish it was. That was really what was so hard for me about this movie. The art gallery we got the day before. I knew I wanted to reveal the photos. So we found out the day before this is the space and got a floor plan. I wanted to do it without cuts. Just move through. In that way the background jokes can be revealed processionally, rather than cutting. That meant we had to choreograph the background people. There are wider shots of the room but the people are blocking the jokes. I wanted them to be revealed sequentially rather than having you see everything. Gillian did a great job, she was great at movement and blocking from all her TV experience She's walking backwards, talking to me, but we're hitting marks, we're framing, When the gun is pointed right at my schnozz and it's not going well with her, I was just kind of trying to externalize my character's crashing and burning with the gun. I was happy with that sequence. It worked close enough to what I wanted.
Audience Question: How important were the visual gags--you being dressed the same as the kid, kicking the suitcase?
Demetri Martin: They were premeditated. They were really important to me. I like silent films, I love Chaplin, Buster Keaton was probably my favorite. I felt I had an opportunity here that was different than standup comedy. Standup can be visual but is mostly verbal and presentational. But with a movie there's an opportunity with the drawings, with classic film action stuff that I could do. It was important. The shirt thing was just a small gag. The day before, I was running around New York trying to find shirts. I'm wearing a boy's large or extra large. The suitcase gag mostly worked. It was hard to launch the suitcase. I love the cat stuff, the reveal of the cat furniture. In the script Nicholas scurries by in the background.
Audience Question: What was your thinking on the scene where Mary and Kevin returning from the show. She invited him to come upstairs. He balked, he couldn't do it. She then replies, "Just my luck; I finally find a guy that I like and he's married." Obviously he's no longer married. What were you thinking in that scene?
Demetri Martin: That's an interesting question. In my attempt to get into those characters, I thought about what would make this part interesting. How do I give her a story here in the little time she will be on the screen. And I didn't know I was going to get Mary Steenburgen. I thought about that character calling my dad's bluff in the movie, just meeting this wonderful woman. I guess it's not a zero sum game. You can love one person and have a whole life with them, then this other person comes along and it's not their fault; they're just not part of that narrative, but they're competing for space in my dad's life in the mvoie. I thought in her saying that that maybe it showed she not only had empathy for him but was also letting us know she has a story that is probably just as interesting. We just don't know it. I thought the word "finally" was an important part in that. I think the actors seemed to appreciate that kind of stuff. That's one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I really like the way Kevin uses his face. What's not said is so powerful to me.
Audience Question: You have done a lot of different things, voice actor, director, standup. Is there anything you like to do best?
Demetri Martin: I do love standup and I got into the show business end of things for standup specifically. I like writing jokes. I liked puzzles when I was younger and somehow jokes are that for me. I've always been a movie fan so If I had my way I'd get to make a bunch of movies and I could be in some of them and not in others. And then do standup when I felt like it--like in direct flight markets so I don't have to take little planes and wake up at 4:00am. I like when I'm on stage But I'm tired of TSA. I love drawing and I like music but that has plateaued for me. I tried to put some of my music in the movie and it was not good enough. I couldn't believe how bad it was. It's a good hobby. So if I'm lucky I'll make more movies.
Audience Question: Were your drawings created with the screenplay or after the fact?
Demetri Martin: The drawings in the screenplay were. But in the edit more went in because I found I needed a transition from one scene to another and a drawing could go there. Like when Nicholas is in the hospital. That was not in the script but when I got to the edit I said that might work. To me the joy of the drawings is that they're like little silent films or like a silent film that is running through the movie. Most don't have captions so it's cool to have that intimacy with the audience. There's something very private about drawings.
Dean opens June 2 in the DC area.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
The AFI Docs Film Festival (June 14-18) is a festival of documentary films. See above.
"Spanish Cinema Now" is a series of recent films from Spain shown June 2-4. Titles include Maria (And Everybody Else) with director Nely Reguera present for Q&A; The Bar, The Fury of a Patient Man, Smoke and Mirrors, Isla Bonita, Romantic Exiles and Dreaming of Wine with filmmaker David Fernandez de Castro present for Q&A.
The 17th 2017 DC Caribbean FilmFest (June 9-12) brings films from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations. Titles include Machel Montana: Journey of a Soca King with filmmaker Bart Phillips present for Q&A; Give Me Future, Memories of a Penitent Heart, Serenade for Haiti, Gang of the French Caribbean, King of the Dancehall, Ayiti Mon Amour, The Watchman, Before the Rooster Crows, The House of Coco Road, Live Cargo and Play the Devil.
The "Recent Restorations" series (April 28-July 6) includes The Iron Giant, The Battle of Algiers, Two for the Road, Stalker, Ugetsu, Funeral Parade of Roses, Maurice, Panique, Monterey Pop, One-Eyed Jacks and Howard's End. Some restorations are 4K; more in July.
Director Seijun Suzuki died this year and two of his films, Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) are shown in June. Tom Vick, author of a book on Suzuki, will introduce the films on June 19.
Special Engagements during June include Tyrus with filmmaker Panela Tom present for Q&A, Children of Men, Shane, four short films "The Adventures of Biffle and Shooster", a concert film with live performance Vince Giordana: There's a Future in the Past, a 75th anniversary show of Casablanca, the animated film Watership Down and The Childhood of a Leader.
"Directed by David Lynch" (May 12-July 6) includes Blue Velvet, Elephant Man, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive and a documentary David Lynch: he Art Life. More in July.
"Encores" (April 29-July 3) brings back some popular films with just one in June: Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil. One more in July.
"Reinventing Realism--New Cinema from Romania" (May 13-June 14) concludes in June with The Box, Stuff and Dough and When Evening Falls on Bucharest. The National Gallery of Art also concludes its part of the Romanian films in June see below.
"By Popular Demand" (April 30-June 29) ends this month with The Edge of Seventeen.
"Stage and Screen" presents stage performances from the National Theater. During June you can see "Amadeus," and "Hedda Gabler."
Freer Gallery of Art
The Freer is closed for renovations until October 2017. Films will be shown at varying locations.
"Utamaro's World on Film" is a series presented in conjunction with the exhibit of the legendary Japanese artist. On June 2 at 7:00pm is A Story of Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1934) shown at the National Museum of American History and accompanied by guitarist Alex de Grassi. On June 4 at 2:00pm is Crossroads (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928) shown at the National Museum of American History and accompanied by Andrew Simpson. On June 22 at 7:00pm is Yoshiwara (Max Ophuls, 1937) shown at the Embassy of France.
"Arab Cinema Now" is a series co-presented by The Jerusalem Fund. On June 11 at 2:00pm is The Dream of Shahrazad (Francois Verster, 2015); on June 17 at 2:00pm is A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (Jumana Manna, 2015) and on June 25 at 2:00pm is a program of short films. All are shown at The Jerusalem Fund.
National Gallery of Art
"Reinventing Realism: New Cinema from Romania" (May 13-June 3) concludes in June with Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009) on June 4 at 12:30pm. See more Romanian films in this series at the AFI Silver.
"A Pictorial Dream--Directed by Straub and Huillet" (June 3-25) is a series of films featuring the work of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. On June 3 at 2:00pm is Not Reconciled (1964) preceded by the short film Machorka-Muff. On June 3 at 4:00pm is Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach; on June 10 at 2:00pm is A Visit to the Louvre (2003) followed by Cezanne: Conversation with Joachim Gasquet (1989); on June 10 at 4:00pm is Sicilia! (1998); on June 11 at 4:00pm is Moses and Aaron (1974); on June 17 at 2:30pm is Antigone (1991) introduced by Bartin Byg; on June 18 at 4:30pm is These Encounters of Theirs (2005) followed by the short films Le Genou d'Artemide (2007) and The Inconsolable One (2010); on June 24 at 3:30pm is Workers, Peasants (2000); and on June 25 at 4:00pm is Class Relations (1983).
"New Waves: Transatlantic Bonds Between Film and Art in the 1960s" (June 29-15) is a series of three films from the 1960s, each introduced by John Tyson. On June 18 at 1:00pm is Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964); on June 24 at 12:00 noon is Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965); and on June 25 at 1:00pm is Loin de Viet-Nam (William Klein, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, 1967).
National Museum of African Art
On June 27 at 2:00pm is Adventures in Zambezia part of the "Africa in Reel Time" series.
Museum of American History
The Warner Brothers Theater at the Museum of American History hosts three films in the "Utamaro on Film" series presented by the Freer Gallery of Art. See above.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
On June 2 at 7:00pm is Superfly (Gordon Parks, 1972) featuring music by Curtis Mayfield. A discussion follows the film.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
On June 9 and June 10 is a two-day celebration, including film, of New York's Latino community. At 6:50pm on June 9 is La Carreta and at 7:30pm is Fania All-Stars. On June 10 at 11:45am is Bx3M; at 1:45pm is A Decade of Fire; at 2:00pm is Style Wars and at 3:20pm is Brincando el Charco. Several of the filmmakers will be present at 4:30pm for a panel discussion.
On June 24 at 3:00pm are two short films: Notes on the Popular Arts (Elaine Bass and Saul Bass, 1978) and Why Man Creates (Saul Bass, 1968). After the films, there will be a discussion with Lola Landekic and Will Perkins, editors from The Art of the Title, an online publication on film design.
Washington Jewish Community Center
On June 27 at 7:30pm is The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2016), a documentary about the portrait photographer who used a Polaroid Land camera.
On June 16 at 6:30pm is As We Were Dreaming (Andreas Dresen, 2013-15) about young people in the GDR suddenly beset with the freedoms of reunification.
The Goethe Institute is one of the locations for EuroAsia Shorts, see below.
National Air and Space Museum
"Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen" is a series of WWI films commemorating the entry to the US in 1917. Films are shown in both locations and the series ends in November. On June 16 at 7:00pm is The Eagle and the Hawk (Stuart Walker, 1933) starring Cary Grant and Frederic March.
National Geographic Society
On June 18 is the "Further Film Festival," showcasing work of explorers in the field. At 12:00 noon is The Forgotten Coast: Return to Wild Florida (2017); at 1:00pm is A House Without Snakes (2016); at 1:30pm is Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees (1965); at 2:00pm is Soul of the Elephant (2015); at 3:00pm is Adaptation (2017) and short films; and at 4:00pm is New Wave Warriors.
On June 13 at 7:00pm is Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946), part of the summer series "Once Upon a Time: From Books to Movies." On June 22 at 7:00pm is Yoshiwara (Max Ophuls, 1937); and on June 27 at 7:00pm is Sophie's Misfortunes (Christophe Honore, 2015), also part of the "Books to Movies" series.
The Japan Information and Culture Center
On June 21 at 6:30pm is the documentary The Genealogy of Sake (Kaori Ishii, 2015), a documentary about the lives of sake brewers in the Noto peninsula, a history that goes back 2000 years ago.
On June 9 at 12:00 noon is a program of short films shown in conjunction with the JFK Centennial: "Jacqueline Kennedy's Asian Journey" (1962), "The School at Rincon Santo" (1963), and "Five Cities of June."
Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema
On June 4 at 10:00am is a special event Her Aim Is True (Karen Whitehead, 2013), a documentary about Jini Dellaccio, a self-taught photographer who began a career shooting album covers for rock and roll bands in the early 1960s. Meet the director and local filmmaker Karen Whitehead before the film and then take part in a post-film discussion with her and representatives from Women In Film and Video. In addition to the film discussion, learn about the process of making a documentary film.
National Museum of Natural History
On June 14 at 7:15pm is Great Yellowstone Thaw about Yellowstone Park's bears, wolves, bison, beavers and owls and how they cope with the area's extreme evolution from cold to heat. Grizzly bear expert Casey Anderson and others will take part in a discussion following the film.
On June 7 at 8:00pm is Heather Booth: Changing the World (Lilly Rivlin) part of the "Avalon Docs" series. The filmmaker and activist/organizer Heather Booth will do a Q&A after the screening, moderated by Susan Barocas, former director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival.
On June 14 at 8:00pm is How to Shake Off a Bride (Tomás Svoboda, 2016), part of the "Czech Lions" series.
On June 21 at 8:00pm is Cezanne and I (Daniele Thompson, 2016), this month's "French Cinematheque" film.
The "Reel Israel" film for June is One Week and a Day (Asaph Polonsky, 2016) on June 28 at 8:00pm.
Italian Cultural Institute
On June 21 at 6:00pm is Gli Equilibristi (Ivano De Matteo, 2012).
Library of Congress
The Mary Pickford Theater
at the Library of Congress starts a new series of films showcasing the Library's collection and including newly preserved films. On June 15 at 6:30pm is a pre-Code double feature: The Matrimonial Bed (Michael Curtiz, 1930) shown with Party Husband (Clarence Badger, 1931).
"Echoes of the Great War: World War I in European Films" is a summer film series featuring European perspectives on the Great War and complementing the exhibit "Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I." These films represent common human bonds and the costs of war that transcend national origin. A lecture with film clips "World War I in Motion: Archival Film Clips from the John Allen Collection" starts off the series on June 7 at 3:00pm. Dr. Cooper Graham discusses film clips from WWI, much of which hasn't been seen in 100 years. (Location: Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building.) On June 10 at 2:30pm is the great classic La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937). (Location: Mary Pickford Theater, James Madison Building). More in July and August.
A music documentary Shake 'em On Down (2017), about Fred McDowell, godfather of the North Mississippi style of blues is on June 13 at 3:00pm. (Location: Pickford Theater, James Madison Building).
Anacostia Community Museum
On June 9 at 11:00am is the documentary Mala Mala (2015), about trans-identifying people in Puerto Rico. Q&A after the film.
On June 14 at 6:00pm is Sea of Hope (2017), a documentary following oceanographer Sylvia Earle, photographer Brian Skerry and author/historian Maxwell Kennedy as they take young environmentalists around the ocean's hospots to see hidden ecosystems. Post-film discussion with director Robert Nixon and Sylvia Earle.
On June 22 at 11:30am is "Washington in the 60s," a nostalgic look at the city's history, followed by a discussion.
Angelika Film Center Mosaic
On June 12 and 15 at 7:00pm is an anime feature Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic (Noriyuki Abe, 2017).
Some anime films from the Ghibli Studio are shown this summer. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is on June 21 at 7:00pm and Spirited Away is on June 28 at 7:00pm.
On June 1 at 7:00pm is Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper in celebration of the album's 50th anniversary.
Several Studio Ghibli films are shown in June. On June 14 at 7:00pm and June 14 at 11:00am is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki); On June 15 at 11:00am, June 21 at 7:00pm and June 22 at 11:00am is Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2002); and on June 28 at 7:00pm and June 29 at 11:00am is Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008). More in July and August.
See below for two film lecture events in June: "Roman Holiday: A Cinematic Introduction to the City's Architecture" and "Ann Hornaday on How to Watch Movies."
Reel Affirmations XTra
On June 16 at 7:00pm is the documentary Kiki (Sara Jordeno, 2016) Location: Studio Theater.
The Jerusalem Fund
The Summer Film Series continues in June with the documentary Two Blue Lines (2015) on June 2 at 6:00pm with director Tom Hayes present for Q&A. On June 5 at 5:30pm is 1948: Creation and Catastrophe (2017) with filmmakers Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb present for Q&A. On June 7 at 6:00pm is Off Frame, AKA Revolution Until Victory (Mohanad Yaqubi, 2016). On June 14 at 6:00pm is Ghost Hunting (Raed Andoni, 2016).
"Arab Cinema Now" is a series of three films shown in conjunction with the Freer Gallery of Art, see above.