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Demetri Martin Talks About ‘Taking Woodstock’

Demetri MartinDemetri Martin in ‘Taking Woodstock.’

© Focus Features

Demetri Martin stars as Elliot Tiber, the man responsible for convincing the town of White Lake, NY, to host Woodstock back in 1969, in Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee. Inspired by Tiber’s true story, Taking Woodstock explores the pivotal role Elliot played in one of the most influential music festivals in American history.

Martin is best known for his Comedy Central series Important Things With Demetri Martin and so being offered the role of Elliot in Focus Features’ Taking Woodstock came as a complete surprise to him. “It was crazy,” said Martin at the film’s NY press day. “It was very unexpected. I didn’t even know that this project existed or certainly that Ang [Lee] knew anything about what I do or me. James Schamus called me in for a general meeting nine months before I had a second meeting. So I had the general meeting and James and I just talked about music and random things, and about nine months later they called my agent again and said ‘Hey, James wants to meet with you again but also with Ang Lee.’ I was really surprised and said, ‘Okay, what about? They said, ‘Oh, this movie. They’re going to do a movie about Woodstock.’ I was like, ‘Oh cool.'”

Martin had enough time before his second meeting to grab the book the film’s based on. “I got the book on the Friday and I read it over the weekend, and then Monday I went in for the meeting. They said, ‘Hey, I don’t know how much you know about the project?’ I said, ‘Oh, I read the book over the weekend.’ And then Schamus said, ‘Oh, okay, let me explain. It’s mostly about the three weeks before the festival and his family and stuff.’ Because in the book the memoir that Elliot wrote, it’s pretty graphic about his coming of age sexually and all this stuff,” explained Martin. “So knowing that Ang did Brokeback and stuff, I was like, ‘You know, I’m not gay or a trained actor and I really haven’t been in many things.’ I was like, ‘I think you guys might have the wrong guy here because I don’t know if I really can do that,’ you know?”

The fact he didn’t have many acting credits under his belt played more into his anxiety over taking the role than the character’s sexual preferences. “When I thought about it, any qualms I have are more about just my ability to deliver, to portray it well enough so that it’s believable, I guess. Not that I can’t seem like a gay person but just simply, there’s a difference between just kissing somebody… I have friends who’ve kissed guys on stage who are straight, like two straight guys or something but then it’s like some big laugh because it’s like, ‘Oh we know they’re both straight.’ That’s different than kissing somebody you’re in love with, that you have a huge crush on, and you want to really sell that. So when I saw that in the script, that part I thought, you know, that might be tricky.”


Taking Direction from Oscar-Winning Filmmaker Ang Lee

Although he admits he didn’t always understand what it was Ang Lee wanted from him, Martin was definitely impressed with Lee throughout Taking Woodstock. “It was like a few times I kept thinking of the Karate Kid because it was like this sensei. ‘Do this with your arms,’ and I’m like, ‘Why?’ ‘Just do that with your arms.’ And you’re like, ‘Okay, so what does that do?’ You know, you don’t understand and there’s like the language barrier and stuff,” explained Martin.

“The coolest part about working with Ang probably was when I was standing there for a lot of the lighting and stuff I got to see all of the things he was trying to figure out for one scene. Like one scene at a time, with all the extras and the vehicles and then choosing lenses and then deciding whether or not to do coverage. And I started, once I relaxed a little more and I figured I can do this, I got to notice more beyond myself and worrying about ruining things or messing up a take and having to reset like 200 old cars and three of them broke down and now it takes 20 minutes before I can do the scene again. I would just like look around and it was really cool.”

“We did a scene where I’m walking with my parents back from the bank,” recalled Martin. “Elliot’s walking with his parents back from the bank, it’s pretty early in the movie and there was a shot of a loudspeaker from across the street, and then you find the parents and then come up this driveway. And they laid track and we rehearsed it and Ang did it all as one take, and we did it like maybe eight times or something. And then he was like, ‘All right, check the gate. We’ve got it.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, he’s doing no coverage. That’s pretty cool.’ It’s just cool to see that kind of confidence because he would just be very focused. Once it was composed and the scene was going, like he really couldn’t be distracted and he would just watch. And he’d be watching each performance and like how things were composed in the frame, and if he knew there was a take that he liked well enough, he trusted it.”


The Real Woodstock Music Festival and the Real Elliot Tiber

Martin met the real Elliot after he got cast in the role – and after he read Tiber’s book. “If I hadn’t read the book, I probably would have gone into meeting him with more of a blank slate. But he was more outgoing and kind of self-possessed than I thought he would be,” offered Martin. “Granted, he had written a very personal book, so I guess I should have expected as much. But at the time when I spoke to Michael Lang about him, he said that back then Elliot was really quiet and pretty unassuming and didn’t say a lot and was kind of shy. And he’s not like that now. Like he does bits, as you would say amongst the comedians. When you see him, he’s just kind of talking a lot and he’s on. He’s on, you know? And so it doesn’t seem like he was on back then. He was kind of scared and trying to figure stuff out. So, it’s interesting. You’re trying to play a guy but it’s like a time machine of that guy, like you’ve got to go back in his life.”

Demetri Martin Liev SchreiberDemetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in ‘Taking Woodstock.”

© Focus Features

Elliot Tiber actually visited the set and had a few things to say about Martin’s portrayal of him in the film. “The first time he came to the set he was like, ‘I would never wear a shirt like that.’ It was the first thing he said to me. I was like, ‘This is going to be fun.’ But he wasn’t around a lot saying, ‘I didn’t do that. I didn’t do this.’ But a couple of times – it was like half-joking. But it’s like, ‘Hey man, I didn’t pick the clothes.'”

In addition to reading Tiber’s book, Martin checked out footage from the real Woodstock. “I saw the documentary on television a long time ago. I realized it when they gave us videos, DVDs to look at for research, and I saw this split screen stuff. I was like, ‘Oh yes, I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this.’ I hadn’t seen the whole thing, and I tried to watch the whole thing this time and it’s long,” said Martin. “So I was aware of it, and it was mostly through the music. One of the coolest things about doing research for this was to try to think prospectively, to go back at a certain time and look forward. Because anything historical, of course I know it retrospectively and most of it I wasn’t there obviously. So the fact that it was just so surprisingly large is already interesting, when you go back and look at it, when you think 10,000, maybe 50,000, but the fact that it ballooned to 500,000…that’s so cool. It’s like what a giant surprise. It’s unbelievable.”

Martin did his research well, but didn’t go as far as to try out psychedelic drugs to get into character. “No,” said Martin, laughing. “I have all these food allergies so any moral issues aside, like I’ve avoided most drugs because I’m so afraid I’ll have an allergic reaction. You’re like at some party and they go, ‘Hey man, try this,’ and I’m like, ‘I have to go to the hospital. I’m getting hives.’ Because it’s like peanuts, poultry, seafood…it’s like pretty serious.”

* * * * * *

Taking Woodstock hits theaters on August 28, 2009 and is rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language.


August 28, 2009 - Posted by | 1

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