3 Months of Peace and Music
By Jay S. Jacobs
Demetri Martin isn’t afraid to jump in the deep end. After years of honing his craft as a stand-up comedian, working his way up to be 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.
It’s 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 – directed by Academy Award winning director Ang Lee and written by film exec James Schamus.
I guess he doesn’t 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 – 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.
“It was a very unique experience,” Lee says. “Honestly, I did a lot of drilling him. But I think his vibe as a person… how you photograph him on the screen…, it’s 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 he’d respond, I began to have a taste of the movie. The working process is quite long and he’s a great worker. You think he’s smart and cute, but actually he has a very good work ethic.”
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. “It’s cool that they do it at the Waldorf and not a Motel 6 or something,” Martin says as he sits down at the table with us to discuss the film a few weeks before the film’s debut.
What did you know about Woodstock before getting the part?
I saw part of the documentary when I was younger. I can’t remember how young I was – I’ve been trying to remember – but I saw it at my parents’ 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, “3 days of peace.” This whole thing about peace, peace, peace. It was a peaceful congregation of people. As a kid, I didn’t quite understand the significance. I didn’t understand that it would be so difficult to have 500,000 people and not have anybody get stabbed. Now that you’re older, you’re a little more cynical as a person or guarded and you think, “Jesus Christ, that’s amazing.”
As a comedian, what’s it like to have your first dramatic role with Ang Lee?
Definitely a departure for me. Especially because I quickly learned that I wasn’t 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, “Wow, this is so challenging.” Seeing the other actors – some of who I knew a little bit, most of them I didn’t know them personally, but I knew they had been in things – just gave me a lot of respect for the person I was standing next to. I really see where your creativity comes in here. I’m 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 don’t think much about how time moves. I do for my jokes, but not for people – conversations in the moment and how you build a moment with other people. So that’s 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 film’s screenwriter, as well as head of Focus Features] had seen a clip of me on YouTube – 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, “We might be able to use this guy.” 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 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. It’s called Moneyball. We were set to shoot. I couldn’t 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, there’s just not that many of them so it’s 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 movie’s existence, that was a good one for me.
Well what happened?
I think Sony didn’t want to spend the budget that the movie had on the latest version of the script they had. They said, “We want to change this and we’re not ready to do this now.” So, it’s being rewritten now.
By Aaron Sorkin…
Aaron Sorkin, yeah. I think Scott Rudin is now attached as producer, so it may very well see the light of day. I think I’m still attached, but we’ll see. I’d love to do other stuff. I still love doing stand-up. I really do understand how different they are now after trying both.
Since they aren’t 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, “Wow, Vera Drake. This is going to be interesting.” 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) “Oh, Demetri, we’ve heard about you.” I thought, oh, wow this is going to be great. Henry, too, was very patient. It was really cool; they really genuinely couldn’t be more different than their characters. Especially Imelda, because that’s a rough mom to have and she’s so hard and protected and kind of giving nothing. In person she was very bouncy. Told a lot of jokes. She was really funny. We’d be between takes, she’s still in the costume and she looks like this old mad lady but she’s doing funny jokes and stuff. And then, “Action,” 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. It’s weird. I think in life, you don’t often get to be friends with someone who is from a different generation than you are – if you are not related to them, or they’re not a friend of one of your relations or something. I don’t 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. It’s 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. It’s a simple way to split the two. In this story I’d say you probably have a good share of both. When you cite discovering the money, that’s 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 can’t 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 dad’s 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 that’s an interesting backdrop to have a very negative thing happen – 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 – I’m guessing, if I had to be in the guy’s head – I’d be like, “I can’t take this anymore. I can’t believe her. I’m out of here.” At the same time, I wouldn’t want to just run away and go crying. I’d 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 it’s like: What is wrong with that person? What’s 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?
It’s a really touching scene with your father when you ask him why he stays with your mother and he simply answers, “I love her.”
I thought Henry did such a wonderful job with that. When we were approaching that scene, Ang said, “This 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 doesn’t, we’re going to have to do a lot of work here in the edit.” So, the fact that Henry could pull that off was really good. Love isn’t logical. I don’t think that’s 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. It’s 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 he’s really “on.” He does bits and stuff, like a lot of comedians might do. When this story took place, from what I’ve 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 didn’t know that you wouldn’t guess that. He’s a guy who isn’t afraid of talking in front of people. He’ll 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. They’ve 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. I’m going to shoot the second season out there. It’ll be easier to produce that way. They’ll come out in the spring.
Will you get other celebrities on?
I hope so. It’s funny, getting to work with Eugene [Levy, who plays Max Yasgur] in this – it was such a thrill to meet that guy and to spend time with him. I don’t know if he would do the show, but if there was somebody on the top of my list, I’d love to be able to do comedy, anything, with him. He’s just so great and very tasteful – 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 it’s so interesting, after being in a movie – being in a TV show before it and now going back – 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 he’s just not right for that person, it’s not even a personal thing. You just realize it. So now, whenever I’m up for anything, I’m just like, this is what I am. This is my range – however limited it is. If I’m right for it, wow, that’s so lucky, that’s great. If I’m not, okay. I’ll just go make my stuff until I’m right for the thing I made. It’s the same thing when I’m casting my own show. I want to put people in it and I’ve just got to write it correctly for them or it just won’t work.
Would you ever do something R-rated, like for HBO? I know you have a good relationship with Comedy Central, but…
Yeah, if I had an idea that fit that well and the opportunity presented itself; I’d be in and audition.
When you’re not working or doing press conferences, what are you doing? What’s 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. I’m not skateboarding all the time, but now that I’m in California, I’m 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 didn’t leave enough. I don’t know how many of you live in New York – and if you do how often you actually leave the city – 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 haven’t been to the Grand Canyon, but I imagine it happens there, you go to these places where it’s something gigantic that a person couldn’t have made. It’s just a thing that’s bigger than you. It just takes so much off of you. It’s 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.
Well let’s 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 van’s ceiling could come off and all this cool stuff. We got all these authentic clothes. We’re all set, the lighting’s right, there’s incense and everything, and they’re like, “Okay, so what do we do?” I haven’t dropped acid. Ang hasn’t dropped acid. (laughs)
Liev Schreiber said it was a very accurate representation…
Is that right? (laughs again) That’s awesome. There’s a guy named David Silver, who was a historian on the film. He was a colleague of Timothy Leary’s from what I understand. So, he was off camera, saying, “Okay, it’s kind of like this. Yeah, you’d be probably worried about your limbs.” I was like, “Where’s are my arm? Where’s my arm?” They can’t use this. Am I an asshole? That was tricky. But I will say, when I saw it, I thought – 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 I’m supposedly seeing and it’s like, wow, it’s 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 was… 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. It’s so clever. He’s such a smart guy, visually. He did some 16-millimeter in the film. I can’t 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 it’s like – whoa! It’s 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 didn’t expect. Everything else I’ve ever done I’ve had the freedom to improvise. I’m pretty meticulous about my jokes because I like doing things that don’t 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 I’m free to improvise. If it’s shitty, I’m free to edit it and say, “All right, well, that failed.” In the movie, after a scene, the script supervisor would come and say, “You forgot to say ‘and.’” (laughs) Wow, this is very different to what I’m used to. So, it was good, it was real acting school for me. It was an interpretive task. It wasn’t like generative. It wasn’t me coming up with it. It was just – how do we make this feel this way?
As a comedy writer, where do you get your ideas?
I always find that if something seems like a game it’s 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. I’m 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 I’ll 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 I’m just walking around looking at things. I’m 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 I’d be standing next to another comedian in the back, waiting to go on. Right before they’d introduce me, I’d say “Give me a word.” And they would just say, “Toaster,” 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 it’s 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, that’s like one-tenth of a Letterman set. So, it’s all a game. I love it!
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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 28, 2009.