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Demetri Martin on Taking Woodstock

Kelli Gamer, Demetri Martin, Paul Dano star in Taking Woodstock

Acid Test

Even if you’re feeling burned out by the onslaught of Woodstock memorabilia, you may find Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock a fresh take on the subject of the 1969 music festival. The movie is based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who saw a way to save his parent’s failing motel in Bethel, New York by persuading the festival’s promoters, who had just lost the permits for their original location in nearby Wallkill, to move it to his area. Tiber introduced them to dairy farmer Max Yasgur, rented them the family motel for enough money to pay off its mortgage, and got a front row seat to one of the most fabled events of a tumultuous decade. The film opens in Buffalo next week.

Tiber (renamed “Teichberg” for the film) is played by Demetri Martin, the comedian who went from writing for Conan O’Brien to a spot as a correspondent on The Daily Show to his own series on Comedy Central, Important Things.

Martin has made a few small movie appearances, but a dramatic leading role at this point in his career came as a surprise. During a recent interview at the Manhattan press junket for Taking Woodstock, he says that he came to the attention of James Schamus, the producer and writer of Lee’s films, from “a clip of me doing stand up on YouTube that his daughter showed to him. It was probably like my demeanor or something that they thought would be appropriate. So that was just dumb luck.”

His innocent and youthful appearance make him perfect for the role. (When I expressed surprise at learning that he’s 36 years old, he laughed and admitted to getting carded a lot.)

The biggest change from doing comedy, Martin quickly discovered, was that “I wasn’t going to be improvising. They had a script and they wanted me to do things a certain way.

“Everything else I’ve ever done I’ve had the freedom to improvise. I’m pretty meticulous about my jokes because I like to see if I can get them to work with as few words as possible. But I still like to improvise on stage and in Important Things. And if it’s shitty, I’m free to say, ‘Well, that failed,’ and edit it out. On the movie, after one scene the script supervisor came to me and said, “‘You forgot to say “and.”’ Very different!

“I don’t think that much about how time moves, at least not between people, during conversations, how you build a moment. So that becomes very tactile when you’re working with people like that. It was real acting school for me, because it was an interpretive task and not a generative task.”

To research his role, Martin spent a little time with the real Elliott Tiber, who found the courage after that weekend to come out of the closet and pursue a career as a writer and artist. He turned out to be quite unlike the repressed character in the movie. “I was surprised because he’s ‘on,’ he does bits like a lot of comedians do. But when this story took place, what I’ve heard from people who knew him then, he was different, he was shy and quiet and unassuming. If you met him now and didn’t know that you wouldn’t guess that—now he’ll talk your ear off.”

The most stressful scene to shoot was the one in which Elliott takes acid with a pair of hippies in their psychedelic van. “They had this van with a removable roof, we were all set, the lighting was right and everything, and I’m like, ‘Okay, what do we do?’ I’ve never dropped acid, Ang never dropped acid. There was [an adviser] named David Silver, and he was a colleague of Timothy Leary, off camera, and he would say, ‘Okay, maybe now, you might be worried about your limbs,’ and I’d go, [freaking out] ‘Where are my arms?’ Ang shot that scene with a 70-millimeter camera to get a heightened reality from the rest of the film, some of which he shot in 16-millimeter. So you can just ignore me and look at the cool stuff I’m supposed to be seeing.”

Martin got a lesson in the unpredictability of the movie business when, soon after working with Lee, he landed another plum role in Steven Soderbergh’s Money Ball.

“We were all set to shoot and I was really excited—I couldn’t believe I was going to be working with Brad Pitt and all these people. On Thursday they cut my hair, did a screen test and a make-up test, and on Friday the movie was shut down. The studio didn’t want to spend the budget the movie required on the script they had. If there were ever a lesson in the fragility of movies, that was a good one.”

Now working on the second season of Important Things in California, Martin deals with the stress of always having to come up with more material by turning writing into a game. “If I can look at something as a game it’s more enjoyable to me,” he explains, “so I always try to make up rules for myself. When I did open mikes, on my way to the stage I’d say to the next comedian waiting to go on, ‘Give me a word.’ And he would say, ‘Toaster,’ and when I got onstage I would have to do a joke about a toaster, no matter how bad it was. It’s very low risk. On stage, who cares if I do a shitty joke about a toaster? But if I do a good one, that’s one more good joke I have. And if after a hundred trials I get one good joke, that’s like one-tenth of a Letterman set. So it’s all a game!”

Watch the trailer for Taking Woodstock

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