My, how time flies. Once the child star of Angels in the Outfield and the hit NBC sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is now an in-demand movie star and a writer-director-producer-star of his own feature, Don Jon. Gordon-Levitt's credits include Inception and The Dark Knight Rises for Christopher Nolan, Brick and Looper for Rian Johnson, Lincoln for Steven Spielberg, (500) Days of Summer, 50/50, The Lookout, Premium Rush, A River Runs Through It, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Mysterious Skin. He's also the proud papa of HitRecord, a global online collaborative production company working in music, video, live performance, literature, photography, spoken word, screenwriting, and graphic art. Gordon-Levitt sat down with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel to chat about the porn-addiction comedy Don Jon, in this interview that first aired September 23, 2013 on the radio show Celluloid Dreams (90.5 FM in San Jose, CA, and online at http://celluloiddreams.net.
Groucho: We're all—and perhaps most especially young people—increasingly experiencing the world through media-filtered imagery. Our friendships and even our sex lives are given to us by way of graphic design and cinematography...designed for this eye-seducing visual consumption. So we're probably not going to go cold turkey, but did telling this story help you to come to some sort of realizations about managing life and love in the age of cyberspace?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Sure, I suppose so. I've always paid a lot of attention to the way that different kinds of media affect how we see the world, probably because I've been an actor since I was a little kid. And so I've always found it sort of hilarious, and occasionally horrifying, how these images impact us, and especially when it comes to love and sex and relationships, I think we sometimes develop unrealistic expectations. And I've been hearing it a lot, especially in the last few years; people will say things to me like "Well, if only I was like you in that movie," or "If only I could be with someone like you in that movie." And, you know, it's very flattering to hear that—
Groucho: Also a little heartbreaking.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeeah, a little heartbreaking! Yeah! A little startling. You know. Because real life is not like a movie. Even the best movies, the most rich, fleshed-out movies are not as rich and nuanced as detailed as real life or an actual human being. And so to compare your real life, or your partner or lover or whoever to a character in a movie, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. They don't map. You know? And so that's sort of what I wanted to make fun of a little bit with Don Jon. And I think oftentimes, if you're going to talk about a sort of substantial topic like this, the best way to do it is with a sense of humor. And I know how to make an audience laugh, 'cause I grew up on Third Rock from the Sun, week after week in front of audiences, making them laugh. So that was sort of my way to approach it.
G: Yeah, obviously you get into the male fantasies and the female fantasies, and people have to keep their eyes out for—there's great stuff that you and your production designer are putting in: they're just surrounded by all these idealized images, on the walls and—
JG-L: (Chuckles.) Uh-huh.
G: And everywhere they go, through advertising and through movies. So one of the themes of the film is this idea of a one-sided relationship—
G: And not really hearing or seeing or connecting to the person who's right there with you—
G: And Jon eventually learns to that, in ways as small as a pick-up basketball game—
G: Eventually. And as big as a meaningful relationship.
JG-L: You're picking up all the subtle details. I appreciate it!
G: Oh good, good.
G: So I was going to say, I was struck by how subtly you embed a lot of this stuff, especially that there's so much conversational sexism that half of it just goes by unnoticed—
JG-L: Uh-huh. (Chuckles.)
G: Even by the people it's leveled against.
G: Anyway, the film offers some fresh observations about gender roles. And maybe the freshest to me is—the Barbara character, played by Scarlett Johansson, has this objection to Jon cleaning.
JG-L: Uh-huh. (Chuckles.)
G: And she finds that a turn-off; it's emasculating somehow.
G: How did you land on that idea?
JG-L: She says, "Don't talk about vacuuming in front of me!" (Chuckles.) How did I land on that? Well, that was a scene that came quite late, actually, and one that Scarlett and I collaborated on writing together. We wanted to really cement that this relationship was not working, and so we picked something that Jon really cares about that she's really not respectful of. And Jon, at the beginning of the movie, sort of gives his litany of the things that he cares about, and one of the things he cares about is his apartment. He cares a lot about his place: he cleans it, he takes care of it, he's proud of it. And so they're off buying curtains somewhere, for her place, and he just wants to go pick up a few Swiffer pads. And she doesn't—(chuckles) first of all, she doesn't know what a Swiffer is—and then she doesn't like the idea of him cleaning his place. Yeah, I mean I also thought it was interesting because Jon, in general, is a character that very much is intent on fitting into—
G: A macho—
JG-L: Yeah, a dominant, normal idea of masculinity. But here's an exception. He does like to clean his place. And I think that that's true of every human being. We all have our contradictory qualities and our little, y'know, unexpected hypocrisies and things. And, yeah, Barbara does not like him wanting to clean his place. (Chuckles.)
G: My next question is about your walk, and your run, even up the stairs of the church: that visual motif—
JG-L: Uh-huh. (Chuckles.)
G: And how you developed his body language. And that reminded me of Tony Manero, in Saturday Night Fever.
JG-L: In Saturday Night Fever, yeah.
G: And, actually, come to think of it, he's got sort of that preening thing, too, right?
JG-L: Sure, sure.
G: Kind of goes along with, maybe, the cleaning thing. But, anyway, how did you develop—was it intuitive developing that walk and that run?
JG-L: Yeah, well, it's all about that sort of normative masculinity. The guy who played one of my buddies in the movie, Jeremy [Luke], he's from Staten Island. And he told me this thing they say: (in Staten Island accent) "Spread the wings. "
JG-L: "You gotta spread the wings, Joe." Which just means, basically, throw your shoulders back. And make yourself look big. It's a size thing. (Chuckles.) Y'know, I did—I'm not one to lift weights much. I like staying fit or whatever—y'know, getting the old heart going—but I'm not big on the bodybuilding. But Jon very much wants to look like a manly man, and so he goes to the gym, and he, y'know, et cetera. So I experienced all that. I spent a lot of time in a gym, watching the people who were there working out and the guys looking in the mirror and trying to look as big as they can. It's easy to get sucked up into. For sure, I found myself getting sucked up into it, but I also didn't have much trouble letting go of it once the job was done. (Chuckles.)
G: Right. You mentioned earlier that you know how to work an audience, from the days of playing to an audience in a sitcom.
G: This film definitely works like gangbusters with an audience: the raucous laughter in the comedy scenes, then it was pin-drop quiet—
JG-L: Oh, that's great.
G: During the sex scene in the later part of the film. Did you use test screenings at all to help with the editing process? Or did you just kind of know?
JG-L: We couldn't afford test screenings. This is a relatively low-budget movie. But what we did have was the festival circuit. And this movie played at Sundance and South by Southwest and Berlin. And it just played—well...by the time it played at Toronto recently, it was already done. But getting to watch it with a thousand people is hugely informative. And, yeah, larger-budget movies, they pay for test screenings. But we didn't have that. I wanted to approach this movie with as low a budget as possible, so that I could maintain creative control of it. And, for context, the budget of Don Jon is about half the budget of (500) Days of Summer. And (500) Days of Summer is about a third of the budget of the lowest-budget movies produced at a major studio. And I knew that if I wanted to really maintain control, I would have to keep the budget down. And I did. And I feel very fortunate that—y'know, this movie—frame for frame, line for line—is exactly what I wanted it to be. Nobody made me change anything.
G: Yeah. There was some speculation after the festival circuit that "Well, he might have to tone it down," but I didn't feel that at all.
JG-L: Well, [I] did continue to refine it after the festival circuit, but I mean, it wasn't done when it played at Sundance, and I think the movie's a lot better, for sure, than it was.
G: Okay, I'm going to ask one more question real quick, which is: your creative collective, HitRecord—
G: Has gotten into a wide variety of artistic areas: almost everything.
G: At this point are you satisfied to keep all that it's achieved percolating, or are there still frontiers you're eyeing [that] you want to expand into?
JG-L: Ohh, I have grand ambitious designs—
JG-L: But we'll talk about those as they arise. But right now we're making a TV show that's actually going to be on television. A new cable network called Pivot, that just launched in August. Now, we're going to be airing in January, but we're making the show right now. And it's an open collaborative process. So on the site, every day, we've got collaborations going, so if you're a writer or an animator, an illustrator, a musician, a video editor, et cetera, you can come contribute to our projects, and those are things that are going to be on TV.
G: Alright, awesome, we'll look forward to that, and to all of your films. Good luck with this one.
JG-L: Thanks so much, man.