I recently had the pleasure of sitting down at a college roundtable for an in-person interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the award-winning actor most known for movie roles including Tom Hansen in 500 Days Of Summer, Robert Todd in Lincoln, and John Blake in The Dark Knight Rises. Recently Mr. Gordon-Levitt (Or “Joe”, as he likes to introduce himself) was working to get publicity for his writer-director debut Don Jon, a romantic comedy coming out this Friday and the reason why me and three other college journalists were able to interview him.
The man who introduced himself to us couldn’t have been more humble, or for that matter, more real. As I walked into the room with the other university journalists, it was hard to imagine that the well-combed, professionally-dressed man sitting casually at the table in front of us was the same man who fought through topping cars and buildings in Inception, or the same guy who shaved his head in front of Seth Rogan in 50/50. And yet when he walked up to me, shook my hand, and said “Hi, my name is Joe,” the introduction couldn’t have been more fulfilling, or for that matter, more meaningful.
I was in attendance to the event alongside journalists from Northwestern University, Southern Methodist University, and the University Of North Texas. We were all eager to ask Mr. Gordon-Levitt our questions about the film and what it was like making the movie. These are our questions, and this is how he responded.
Question: Before anything else, can I just say that it was completely shocking to see your new look in the first few minutes of the film? Very well done sir.
Joe: Right on. That’s what we were going for.
Q: Since we’re all college students, if you and Don Jon were to teach a course in college, what would you both teach?
J: Jon I guess would probably teach at a bartending school. I don’t think he would teach anything undergrad or graduate. But what class would I teach? I guess a storytelling class of some sort. I went to college for a couple years and I stopped, which isn’t to say that anybody else should, but for me personally I learn best by doing stuff. So I feel like for me, film school really was working on sets and watching directors do what they do and I don’t know if you know, I run this company called HitRecord, where anybody can come and contribute and its not your traditional production company, but it actually bears a lot of similarities to production companies other than the fact that its open and anybody can contribute. If you’re interested in the process, in how things are done, I would definitely recommend spending some time on the site to contribute to some of our collaborations and paying attention to how its done. I’m on there everyday. These days, we’re in the middle of making a TV show, and I’m directing it, and making stuff. It’s different than a classroom because in a classroom your goal is to teach every student, whereas HitRecord, our goal is to make the best TV show we can possibly make. So unfortunately I don’t get to necessarily spend time with everybody who comes and contributes, because there’s thousands everyday. But I think there’s a lot to be learned there and its really cool actually to see artists that do come in and contribute to HitRecord and do so for a while. You can see them grow as artists. You can see them learn from what they’ve done, and from notes I sometimes give as feedback and watch them improve. That’s always really satisfying.
Q: What audience demographic were you aiming for? Are you afraid that this type of film because of its content will lose some of its audience?
J: I was really wanting to make a movie for everybody and so far the reactions have been across the board, whether young or old, or male or female, people have been digging it. So, I was pretty intent on not having it be just a movie for cinephiles. I wanted it to be for everybody. And I think its talking about a lot of stuff that everybody can understand or relate to. I mean, I certainly think it’ll be popular on college campuses. My mom loved it, and I’ve spoken to a bunch of reporters today, some of whom were younger than I am some of whom that were older than I am. Everyone seems to really like it.
Q: This is the first time you’re credited as a screenwriter and director for a feature-length film. What inspired the idea of Don Jon and what story did you find relevant to tell in Don Jon’s character?
J: Well, I wanted to tell a story about how sometimes people treat each other more like things than like people. I imagine that came from my own experience. You know, actors in our culture are often treated more like things than like people. It’s sort of weird. But I don’t think its just actors, I think everyone experiences that. We have a tendency to put each other in boxes and label them. And rather than actually listening to what someone is saying and paying attention to what is going on right here, right now, we sort of project our own pre-conceived notions onto them and I think it happens all the time everywhere. So I wanted to tell a story about that, then I wanted to tell a story about how media plays into that, also probably because I pay a lot of attention to how media works and the impact it has on people. And so, I thought of a story about a relationship between a young man who watches too much pornography and a young woman who watches too many romantic hollywood movies would be a funny way to kind of get at that question. So that’s the origin of that story.
Q: How similar are you and Don Jon’s viewpoints of the Hollywood system right now? Are you worried people are going to look at that in the movie in a bad way?
J: Not very. I mean, Jon I don’t think really has much of a view on the Hollywood system, I don’t think he thinks about it much. By the end of the movie, he is starting to maybe ask a few questions, and that’s good. But he’s mostly a guy that’s just sort of expects things to be how they’re supposed to be, and wouldn’t really notice if they weren’t. He just treats them as if they are. And you know, the way things are supposed to be is largely defined by the media. By the movies you see, the shows you watch, or the pornography videos you watch, or the magazines you read, or the radio shows you listen to, or the newspaper, any number of things. You also learn, of course, these expectations from your family, your friends, your church, etc and that’s all in the movie too.
Q: Looking at your filmography, you seem to have a particular interest in the romantic comedy genre. Can you tell me what about that genre that appeals to you?
J: Well, I do all kinds of genres in movies, but why do the romantic comedies appeal to me? I mean, they’re fun to watch, you get caught up in them. I don’t know, what can I say, I’m a romantic person maybe? Me personally, I’m probably closer to Barbara Sugarman than Jon Martello as far as getting twisted up into pre-conceived fantasies from the screen. But you know, romantic comedies, especially really conventional ones, they tend to present things in black and white and love is not that way. Love is actually way cooler than that. Way way more interesting and rich and fulfilling and beautiful than some kind of sappy string section while you’re riding off into the sunset. You have to look for it. And if you’re too busy comparing real life to these sort of overly-simplified stories that you’ve seen, you won’t see it. You won’t see what’s so great about it. But if you kind of let go of those and go “Okay, those are nice movies to watch sometimes, but what is really going on?” There is so much to discover, and that’s I guess what Don Jon is sort of making fun of.
Q: How involved were you with casting? Did you get exactly the people you wanted for this film or did you kind of have to pull some strings for it to work?
J: I wrote it with Scarlett in mind the entire time. From the very beginning of conceiving the character I pictured her playing the part. Julie, I did not, to be honest. I never would have believed that she would have done it and it was a beautiful surprise when she read the script and she did want to do it. I think both of them just turned in such excellent performances. Scarlett is so different from any character you’ve really seen her really play before and I think she brings such charm and specificity to the character, yet at the same time, the character’s shortcomings are very apparent. Those are my favorite kinds of performances because they feel the most like human beings when they’re strengths and weaknesses are on display.
Q: You’re chemistry seemed so intimate and so sincere with Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansen. What’s it like working with them?
J: On set? On set you know you’re just making a movie. It’s a very technical thing. It’s not like it seems in the scene. We’re creating an illusion. We’re crafting a story. So what its really like is you do the scene for a few seconds, and then you hop up and talk to camera, talk to sound, talk to lights, so its work. But its good work, I love doing it. It’s not honestly too dissimilar from any other scene, where you do the scene and then you cut and you talk about it a bit and figure out how to make it better, see if you have what you need, if you can move on or if you have to do it again. They’re really kind of just like any other scene, they fit into the story and you need to accomplish a certain thing to advance the story in that moment, and you shoot it until you have those ingredients necessary.
Q: When did you make the decision to do these long Carl’s Junior ads instead of having it in the background and putting a focus on it?
J: Yeah, and that’s in the script, there is a scene in the script as the family watches a television commercial with bikini girls in the background. Because again, I think that all types of media are sort of perpetrating a lot of these stereotypes and expectations, and I think any distinction between pornography and many of mainstream media is purely technical distinction. It’s still the same thing. It’s turning a woman into a sex object and reducing her to that.
Q: Now, I heard that Christopher Nolan advised against you starring and directing in your first film. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
J: Well, that’s not quite accurate. He asked about it. And he pointed out some valid concerns and he asked like “Would you consider directing something first before directing and acting at the same time?” But he did not say like “You shouldn’t do it”. He was nothing but encouraging. He was never discouraging and that was really meaningful to me.
Q: Regardless, what were some of the challenges you faced during filming?
J: Yeah, well so its pretty normal for an actor, and I felt this way in the past, when you see yourself on screen, the sight of your own face and the sound of your own voice can be disconcerting. For me, I think just because I’ve made a ton of little short films and videos and things, pointing the camera at myself, loaded the footage onto my computer and cut it up into something and I’ve just done that over and over and over again for years, I’ve sort of gotten used to the sight of my own face and the sound of my own voice. So, that was a challenge that I sort of felt that I had already kind of overcome.
Q: Now in the movie, Jon was very dedicated to church despite his deviant lifestyle. Why did he have such a dedication to church despite the guilt he would bring on upon himself for that?
J: Good question. I think just because that’s how that had always been. That’s the answer. He just did it because he had always done it. That’s what was expected of him. I think that’s kind of why everyone in his family goes to church. I don’t think any of them are really thinking very much about why they are doing it. They’re just kind of doing it. And you know, at the end of the movie, there’s a bit of a change in that, and that’s how I think the whole movie goes, is that by the end this mold that he’s sort of stuck in is beginning to crack and he’s starting to be more curious and start to actually pay more attention to what is going on right here right now.
Q: What do you think happened to Jon after the end of the movie? Did he sort of move on, did he go to college, what happened?
J: I hope he sort of breaks out of the mold. I think by the end of the movie he’s beginning to ask more questions and be more present and rather than comparing everything in his life to preset expectations he’s beginning to sort of actually pay attention to what is in front of his face. I’m hopeful that he’ll continue along that path. I don’t know whether he’ll finish college or not, I think he was sort of doing that because again, he was supposed to.