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A Fitting Tribute: Demetri Martin’s ‘Dean’ tackles a parent’s death and getting through it

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When comedian Demetri Martin lost his father 20 years ago, he felt alone. His mother and father were young, and she was going through her own grieving process.

Two decades later, the 43-year-old is paying tribute to his dad through the indie film Dean, which opens in wide release on Friday, June 2. The dramedy tells the story of loss, grief and love through the eyes of Dean, a New York illustrator who falls for an L.A. woman while trying to prevent his father from selling the family home after his mother dies. It stars Kevin Kline as his father and Mary Steenburgen as a real estate agent.

The tie to his father? His name was Dean.

“The original title for the movie was The First Thing You Never Get Over,” says Martin during a recent interview at Café Pino in Scottsdale. “I changed it as a tribute for myself in case I don’t make another movie.”

Martin, whose mom is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, says death is alienating. His life changed.

“At my dad’s funeral, I remember thinking, ‘This is the worst day of my life. No contest.’ It was horrible when he was sick. Don’t get me wrong, but it was that finality. Then, I remember thinking that someday I’ll be able to talk about this without crying.

“It took a while. Talking about this movie is therapeutic, for sure. I’m connecting with people in ways I didn’t expect. You don’t know who’s walking around dealing with what.”

His mother, Lillian, is shown in a home movie with Martin as a 3-year-old at the end of Dean. These days, she doesn’t recognize Martin and can’t speak.

“The movie is also about losing my mom, who’s technically still alive,” Martin says. “It’s tears of a clown and everything. I wanted to find some humor in grief, or trying to come out of it. What happens when people aren’t thinking about it when they see you? Life goes on.”

The movie isn’t without Martin’s trademark dry humor, though. It may have its sweet, funny moments, but it was challenging to film. He’s looking at it through rosy glasses now.

“I can feel my brain correcting and making it a rosier picture, though,” says Martin, who returns to the Valley to perform at Talking Stick Resort on Saturday, July 29.

“I’d rather remember Dean as more of a fun thing,” he says. “It was a low-budget, intense, 20-day shoot. I was going as fast as I could. There weren’t a lot of takes. It felt like life or death, but I have a movie and I’m proud of it. I’m grateful that it worked.”

A newcomer to making films, Martin learned as he went along.

“They say, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know,’” says Martin, who’s forming ideas for two more films. “I really felt it on this. I was so in over my head — producing, getting locations, where to park the trucks. With all of the logistics, I had no idea. This was the stuff that kept me up at night. I felt OK, but the producing, I thought, ‘Man, this is hard.’”

Martin says Dean inspired him to revamp his live show.

“I’m trying to open up a little more on stage,” he says. “I have plenty of jokes for the show. I want to connect with the audience in a different way, though. I’m not necessarily going to tell my life story up there. It’s just going to be based a little more on how I feel, not what I think.

“It’s just tricky. I’m not used to it. You want to grow as a creative person and I’m trying hard to do that. It’s nice to connect emotionally with people, not just intellectually. I feel like I’m doing that with Dean and my shows.”

In the end, he’s hoping to help people with Dean.

“It’s totally validating, especially for people who have experienced loss,” he says. “Hopefully, it makes you feel a little less alone in the world.”

Demetri Martin, Talking Stick Resort, 9800 E. Talking Stick Way, Scottsdale, 480.850.7777, talkingstickresort.com, 8 p.m. Saturday, July 29, tickets start at $40.

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