EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Writer, Director, Star “Don Jon”)

The extremely talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt has conquered television (3rd Rock From The Sun), the indie scene (Brick, 500 Days of Summer), and the blockbuster genre (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Looper), but this Fall he finally achieved something truly special: status as an official triple threat. Thanks to the smart and humorous Don Jon, his writing and directing debut in which he also stars as the lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt proved he has a unique cinematic voice and quite the clever outlook on Hollywood genres and stereotypes. For those of you who missed out when the film debuted in late September, the film follows the titular Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt), who only has a few priorities in life: his car, his flat, his family, his boys, his church, his girls. However, none of these can compete with his porn addiction, which will be a key factor in his relationships with the sexy Barbara (a vivacious, fire-cracker Scarlett Johansson) and the mature Esther (a strongly nuanced Julianne Moore). The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January and received raves from many critics but could only muster up an average $23 million at the domestic box office, a fine return for a $6 million budget but hardly the final tally this clever little film deserves. If our pleads to go check out Don Jon aren’t enough to get you in the theater, maybe our sit down with the triple threat himself, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will do the trick. After some hectic weeks of transcription issues, we can finally share out interview with JGL, writer, director, and star of Don Jon:

Don Jon Poster.jpgRR: So, first off, why did you set it in Jersey?

JGL: Well I wanted it to be a sort of average normal American setting. A lot of romantic movies or comedies get set in very affluent settings like Manhattan or London, and I wanted it to be a kind of a normal American place. I grew up in the suburbs of LA, and Jersey is kind of the suburb of New York. It’s a Don Juan character. It’s a version of Don Juan. When I was thinking of whose a contemporary Don Juan the first thing I thought of was this guy with the gym body and the shiny hair and it made me laugh. I liked the idea of playing that character and so I kept going with it.

RR: I read in the production notes that you came up with this idea about four years ago and that’s when you started writing it. Looking at the finished project and looking at the idea you initially had how has the narrative changed or how has the product at all changed from how you first envisioned it?

JGL: It’s pretty similar. I mean when I first started kind of having the initial ideas it was before it was really fully formed. Starting in, I remember specifically, it was 2010 and I was in the middle of 50/50 working with Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg and that whole posse. That is when I first thought about it as a comedy, as that type of comedy like 50/50 or 500 Days of Summer sort of a character based comedy as opposed to a jokey comedy. Not that there’s anything wrong with a jokey comedy, I love movies like that, that’s what we did on 30 Rock from the Sun. Since then, that’s when I really locked into this version of the movie. It’s really turned out to be what I was hoping it would be, it’s really not very different. I didn’t have to change anything and I’m really happy with it.

RR: I read that you directed some short films for your company hitRECord, so how did that experience help you direct this movie?

JGL: It was really helpful. I don’t think I would have been nearly as well equipped to direct this movie had I not had the experience directing all kinds of projects on hitRECord. We’ve made lots of short films, we’ve published a few books, and we’ve put out some records, in certain ways it’s not that different when you’re making a traditional movie. There’s a director and lots of other artists collaborating with the director to make the movie, and on hitRECord it’s the same thing. The difference being in a movie you hire people first and then everyone works on the stuff, where as on hitRECord anyone can contribute to the collaborative projects. And that’s an important distinction, but the similarities are also very strong. There are lots of people, everyone has to do their part, there’s no way I could possibly make Don Jon without the people who worked on it and the same goes for the hitRECord projects. So being that kind of leader, having an idea, knowing when to stick to your plan versus when to change course, those are the same kinds of decisions in either setting.

RR: While we’re on hitRECord, you said that you hope to make movies in a more collaborative way in the future, so are you anticipating some hitRECord movies?

JGL: I have been spinning that, yeah one day. Right now we are working on a TV show. We’re making a show that is going to be on TV in January. That’s by far the biggest production we’ve tackled so far.

RR: Are you in it?

JGL: Yeah I’m in it; it’s like a variety show. I’m hosting, directing it, and performing in a bunch of the segments, that’s been really fun. One day I think we will be able to do feature films in this sort of open collaborative fashion. I thought it was really important that before we tried that that I direct one in the old fashion way, and maybe I will do another one in the old fashion way before we get to it who knows. I don’t know but I do foresee that.

RR: For me I think a lot of the scenes in the movie wouldn’t have been the same without the soundtrack, I was wondering if you could talk a little more about how you came up with it and how you constructed it?

JGL: Yeah sure thanks. So that was one of my favorite things about directing the movie was getting to really be involved in the music because when you’re an actor that’s something that happens just without you there at all. You don’t know what it’s going to be. You’re acting in these scenes and then later you see the movie and it’s like there’s another character in the scene that you didn’t know about while you were acting. Sometimes it’s a great surprise and sometimes it’s not such a great surprise. With Don Jon, even while I was writing it, I had a lot of ideas of what I wanted the music to be like. Then I got to work with Nathan Johnson who is the film composer on Looper , and on Brick, and on a couple of short films that I’ve done. Really Nathan was a collaborator even beyond music. He’s a very good friend of mine, and a brilliant artist. I really wanted the movie to have a rhythm to it and be sort of a piece of music in itself and he was really instrumental in making that happen. We definitely made some bold choices with the music that were not traditionally what you do, like changing the vocabulary drastically a couple of times. The first act is only sort of big shiny synth sounds, and the middle of the movie is a traditional Hollywood orchestra, and the end of the movie is a more of a sort of sparse arrangement of guitars. I think it worked out pretty seamlessly and I’m really proud of it. In fact if you listen closely you’ll hear the way Nathan composed it. There are melodies that recur throughout, even in these different pallets and it’s really intricate and really great what he put together. I’m so proud of the music.

RR: Obviously objectification is the focal point of the film, not only in your character but in Barbara too. Why do you think humans are so quick to objectify? Is it more of a new thing with mass media or do you think it’s an age-old issue?

JGL: Yeah really good question. I mean I think it’s something that’s always been around for sure because it’s easy and arguably at times useful. Like if you’re living life out in the savannah you’re going to objectify the lions who might eat you, and even though there is a nice lion now and then you are not going to give him or her the time of day. You’re just going to be like that’s a lion fuck that! So that’s probably where it comes from, it’s a biological thing.

But now we live this more civilized life that can really get in the way of us being happy. To so quickly dismiss or objectify all sorts of things whether it’s our lovers, or our families, our friends, our own selves, our own bodies, we still have that residual tendency to quickly put in a box and label it. Whereas if you take the time to really pay attention to this specific thing that’s happening right in front of your face and this moment right here and right now it can be more rewarding. It’s difficult; it’s challenging to do that.

It’s much easier to be like “oh I know what that is” and that’s what Jon does and that’s why Barbara does. But as you can see it keeps disappointing him. He’s not satisfied in his life because he wants it to live up to this checklist of expectations that he’s learned from pornography or learned from his dad or from any Carl’s Jr. commercials. When you’re comparing your real life to those very static expectations it’s a recipe for disappointment.

RR: I really loved the relationship you had with Tony Danza it was great. Something I noticed is when he was telling a story of how he met Jon’s mother he would always say “that’s mine or she’s mine”, which reminded me of Jon’s mantra in the film such as “my caddy” etc… Do you think Jon’s narcissistic traits stem from his father and what is the importance of this in the film?

JGL: Yeah sure, good question. I do think definitely a lot of it comes from his dad. You’re absolutely right that Jon Sr. uses possessive adjectives to describe his wife. “That’s mine”, look it’s something we all do, that’s how our language is built, and we say “my husband, my wife, my girlfriend, my boyfriend”, it would almost sound weird to say anything else because that’s just how it’s built. We also say, “my body, my arm, my leg”, in French, they say “the”, they say “the leg hurts” which I think is funny.

But certainly I think that’s a central symbol in the movie is how Jon learns these expectations of his from pornography and from media and that’s certainly what most journalists have been focused on because they can make a more sensational headline that way. I’m glad that you also noticed that there’s a lot more in the movie about where else he learns these expectations from, and certainly his family is a big part of that. He also learns from his friends, and from his church, but of course our parents are our first role models and however your parents are that’s going to have an impact on how you are.

RR: I’m from New Jersey and I have to say that it was so accurate. Also, I’m from an Italian family and like the Sunday dinner scenes … on par.

JGL: Thank you! Tony [Danza] was the consultant on those.

RR: They were fabulous. So I want to know what kind of research did you have to do for that part?

JGL: Well, I mean I lived in New York on and off for ten years so I’ve definitely been around. But it’s also kind of a classic American character at this point. You know we’ve all watched Rocky, and Saturday Night Fever, or Goodfellas, or Mean Streets, or whatever. So yeah I think living in New York, like I said Tony [Danza] is from Brooklyn, Scarlett [Johansson] is from New York, so I think that’s how she was able to be so good at doing her character. But I’m really glad to hear that man; I hope you write that, that you’re from Jersey. Obviously I’m not saying that everybody in New Jersey is this way, of course not. Just like I’m not saying that all guys are like Jon and all young women are like Barbara. It’s a story, and these are particular characters. And I think that there are guys like Jon who are so concerned with their masculine image that they really go out of their way to try to fit into that mold. Just like there are girls like Barbara who are so concerned with having that traditional feminine image that they go out of their way to fit into that mold and this is a story about those people. And as far as New Jersey goes, yeah it’s about a guy who is very concerned about fitting into a mold so I wanted him to have a very specific mold to fit into. So that’s why I thought it was important to have a specific culture, a specific way of talking, a specific way of dressing, a specific way of walking. I’m glad that it made sense to you.

RR: I pulled a quote off IMDB.com it said, “Most love stories that are told in Hollywood are just bullshit and everyone knows it. You go there expecting to be sold a bill of goods that you know is wrong, but sometimes you go anyway, like if a girl drags you or something.” My question is, what’s your favorite movie about love?

JGL: This is actually going to sound weird, but one of my favorite love stories is in The Matrix trilogy. The love story between Neo and Trinity, I think it’s so great. There’s a line in the third movie, this program says to Neo, “Love is a word, what’s important is the connection that it implies.” I just love that. Neo and Trinity have this connection based on what they’re trying to do. They have a mission that’s like in line with each other. And neither one of them could accomplish their mission without the other, and they love each other, and they would do anything for each other. I don’t know I like that love story.

RR: I wasn’t expecting that.

JGL: [laughs] What’s another good one … there’s obviously the more kind of clear ones like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I really like that one. I like 500 Days of Summer I think that’s one of the good love stories recently.

RR: Your quote too, it said something about parents today would never get 500 Days of Summer, something like how love stories are now, they would never get it back then, like love stories are totally different now.

JGL: Interesting.

RR: You don’t remember saying that?

JGL: I don’t remember saying that, which goes to show how much you can trust a homepage on me, there’s stuff on there from like … anyway [laughs], I think there’s a lot of similarities between 500 Days of Summer and Don Jon. Even though the two characters have very different styles, they’re both kind of selfish dudes. The character in 500 Days of Summer, Tom, it’s funny because people often ask me, “Why did she break up with him? How could she? She’s terrible!” He was really selfish, he wasn’t listening to anything she said, and I think he sort of deserved to get broken up with. He was doing something similar to what Jon does; he was projecting his fantasies, his simplistic fantasies, onto this girl rather than paying attention to who she really was. By the end of the movie he’s starting to grow up a bit and realize that, “OK I can’t project my fantasies onto a woman and expect that she’s going to make my life meaningful for me I have to figure it out myself.” There’s a similar progress in Don Jon, he projects these fantasies onto the women in his life rather than paying attention to who they really are, and hopefully by the end of the movie he’s beginning to connect more and actually listen and pay attention to what’s in front of him.

RR:  Back to Jon’s family. In the father, as mentioned, I saw a lot of what we see in the beginning of the movie with Jon’s expectations with Barbara, like when she comes over for dinner and the dad spends most of the time checking her out and trying to hit on her. And the mom, even before she meets Barbara, is talking about marriage and grandchildren and stuff. It’s funny how even outside of Jon you see these two different sets of expectations from his parents. I guess my question is his sister is an interesting character because she doesn’t say anything or even look at Jon until the end then she dispenses that little bit of wisdom. How does she fit into his family life or does she represent of some aspect of what you think a modern family relationship is?

JGL:  Sure, I think she’s one of the ones whose a few steps ahead. She’s probably gone through what Jon is going through now in his late twenties she probably went through when she was a teenager. She sort of realized “Hey you know, all this stuff that I was brought up to think and feel is questionable. I’m getting out of here.” This is actually something Brie [Larson] and I discussed, that she probably left pretty early and she comes home on Sundays because they are her parents and it’s her family and she loves them of course. But it’s not for her, and she realizes that no one is listening to anything anyone says anyway so she’s not going to talk. They don’t listen, she’s tried talking, and she’s tried telling them that their expectations of her aren’t how she feels. They don’t listen, so fuck it; she’s not going to talk. She’ll just show up and be respectful because she loves them, but there’s nothing worth saying. Then, when she sort of sees her brother stepping out of line, stepping outside of the box a bit she’s like “Oh wow ok good for you, I’ll speak. This is what’s going on, they’re ganging up on you, like they ganged up on me and here’s what I think.” So that’s my sort of idea for her story.

RR: How hard was it to kind of be the director towards the actors, and then actually have to act beside them?

JGL: Yeah that’s a good question. So I’ve made lots of these short films and videos over the years, and a lot of them I’m in. I’m pointing the camera at myself and cut together these little things. It’s pretty normal for an actor, and I remember feeling this way, to be sort of disconcerted by the sight of your own face and the sound of your own voice. I think it’s just through sheer repetition of having done it enough times that I got used to it, so it allowed me to be productive, and when I’m watching playback or in the editing room I can not just be like, “Oh my god I look so stupid!” I can actually pay attention to what’s there on screen. As far as while we were shooting, all the actors in this movie were really great. I got really fortunate to have a bunch of stellar professionals. Everyone was really collaborative; there was just a lot of great feedback going in every direction. I certainly was the director in making sure that the scenes were accomplishing what they needed to in the larger picture. It didn’t take much to be honest. The actors were just all so good, I mean Julie, and Scarlett [Johansson], and Tony [Danza], and Glenne [Headly], and Brie [Larson], and Rob [Brown], everybody was just really good. You get the right actor, and you have a good rehearsal with them, and everyone’s on the same page on what needs to happen in this scene. To one degree or another it happens by itself. The cliché is 90% of directing is casting, and there’s a little bit of truth to that.

RR: With that said, what was it like to write, direct, and star in a one and a half hour massive under taking, and then see it come to fruition. How does that feel?

JGL: It feels great! It’s a lot of work. I like working. You guys are in college, you work all the time. I went to college, I dropped out, but I remember I guess you can do it in different ways depending on how you approach school it can be a ton of work. Directing a movie is nonstop. It’s from waking up to going to sleep pretty much seven days a week all year. Then plenty of time leading up and trailing off, it’s what I love to do, and I’m really happy to do it.

RR: I go to MIT, and I know a lot of guys who would just be going crazy about hearing you talk about The Matrix and loving The Matrix that way, so I guess a little bit selfishly I wanted to ask what love advice would you give the nerds in the world? Given that you understand that.

JGL: [laughs] Nerds in the world … it would be the same advice I would give to anybody. As far as love advice, and I think this is sort of one of the things in Don Jon is that everyone is unique and that is really important. It would be especially important for like an engineer at MIT whose really good at quantifying things, you can’t quantify human relationships because quantification is all based on the idea that if you repeat an action you’ll get the same result. Well that doesn’t work with human beings. Every single one is completely different, and so every single relationship is going to be completely different. And whatever relationship you had with one person is not going to be the same relationship you have with another person. So the most important thing is to pay attention to what’s going on in front of you right now and not think about the rules, or think about the past, or the future, but just pay attention to what’s happening now.

Have you seen Don Jon?

Interview with Harrison Richlin

Transcribed by Giulia Rho

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