Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a polite charmer. When he arrives at a downtown Toronto bar to talk to journalists about his directorial debut Don Jon, he’s fully of boundless energy and a keen eye and ear to make sure everyone gets a proper amount of time to speak with him. Smiling, quick with a joke, and remarkably thoughtful with his answers, Levitt has come a long way from being a child actor on television to his newly minted quadruple-threat status.
In addition to continuing his still ascending career in cinema and his producing and overseeing of his beloved Hit Record project (which speaks volumes to his abilities as a collaborator and artist), he’s about to release his first big screen effort that was entirely his creation. He stars as the titular New Jersey bro who finds his world and his addiction to internet pornography thrown out of alignment thanks to his attraction to a beautiful new woman in his life (played by Scarlett Johansson). Levitt takes a humourous look at how media, family, and external forces make a modern man who he is; flaws and all.
Levitt chatted with Dork Shelf about how he came up with the message for his debut feature, how much pornography he thought was appropriate to show, creating the film’s unique family dynamic, producing this film outside of a major studio, and how the casting of Scarlett Johnansson fit into his particular vision for the film.
How did you land on this particular topic for your first movie?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I’ve always worked on movies and TV shows most of my life, so I always paid attention on how sex is portrayed and how it influences people. I’ve heard enough times – especially in the past few years – people who would say to me “If only my life were like that movie” or “If I had a life like your character in that movie.” I would be watching people compare their real lives to the simple fantasies they get from a screen, and I think that’s worth poking fun at. That’s a problem and real life isn’t as simple as that. In fact, real life is a billion times more beautiful and exciting, with details and nuances that you will miss if you’re too busy comparing your life to these simple stories. That’s why I thought a relationship between a young man who watches too much pornography and a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be funny way to examine that.
What was the specific impact that pornography specifically had on the movie and your formation of the character?
JGL: I would draw more attention to our entire culture rather than just pornography in general. Whether it’s Rated- X material on a website or it’s a commercial playing on the Super Bowl, the message is generally the same. We are reducing this person – usually a woman, but it happens to men, too – to this “thing,” and that’s never a healthy way of thinking, especially when you start mapping that attitude onto the real people you are interacting with in your life. Whether it’s a movie, or pornography, or a music video, or especially commercials, it’s an age old tradition. You use a sexy woman to sell your yogurt, or car, or hamburger, or whatever.
In the film his sexuality and his drive really is based around pornography, though, so how much of that specific kind of imagery did you want to include? Were there any specific questions you had to ask of yourself as a human being or as an artist when you want to make a film about this kind of material?
JGL: Sure! I wanted there to be a feeling like you were there inside of Jon’s head. I didn’t want you to feel like you were watching this guy doing these things, I wanted to make the audience see that perspective, so it was important that the viewer actually see some of that. But I also very much wanted it to be… When I use the term “mainstream,” I don’t want that to mean “conventional,” but in the sense that lots of people could see it, because it’s really a movie about our mainstream and popular culture. I’m a believer in that old saying that the medium is the message, and I think the message wouldn’t have come across the same or as well if this were a more obscure or quote-unquote “lesser” art film. If this were communicated in the form of a mainstream movie, it would have reached the audience it would be intended to reach and spark a dialogue with.
So we had to find that balance and these images that were all sampled from real pornographic clips, but they were edited and cropped. It’s all very brief. There are no long swaths of pornography, it’s all very quick clips in these sequences with editing and music, and hopefully it serves to put the viewer inside the point of view of Jon. And I hope it’s funny, too, because I think when you put those images in a certain sequence, the results are hilarious.
How difficult was it to assume the role of being the boss on set?
JGL: I never really thought of it so much as being the boss. I did think about it in terms of me being the person who spent years thinking about this. Then it was about surrounding myself with lots of collaborators who brought so much of their own contributions. I do have to be the one who sort of “got” the movie and had to make sure everyone’s contributions were on the same page. It was really fun, though, because when I was coming up with the story, I wasn’t only thinking about it as words on the page. I thought about it as a whole and what music would be cool to play at parts, or what the camera could do at a given point, or a certain way that we could cut something together. It was really about making sure all those elements were playing nicely together. I love all the facets that go into making movies, so getting to play with all of those tools was fun to me.
Was it always your intention to direct this in addition to writing it?
JGL: Yeah. When I was writing it I never really made the distinction, actually. When I was writing it wasn’t so much that I was plugging away at a keyboard. I was imagining and acting out the movie. When I would get it in a way that I liked I would try to write it down in script notation, and I would also write all these different other things as to what could happen. The writing process wasn’t so much coming up with the script, but I was really coming up with the movie as a whole. By the time I was done writing it, I had all these specific desires for the way the music would work, or the editing would work, etc., so it just seemed like I should just direct it.
And there wasn’t a studio, which was great, because we never would have been able to make this film at a studio, especially with me as the director. It’s risky. It doesn’t fit into any formula really well. You can’t point to three other movies made in the last five years that made money with the same formula. The plan was to make it for a low budget. I worked with Ram Bergman, who was a producer on Brick and Looper, and really was a master at working on a budget. We made it for a really low budget in a grander context. It was done with half the budget of something like 500 Days of Summer, which is a third of the budget of even the lowest budget movie you would make at a studio in the first place.
I really was intent on maintaining total creative control and freedom, so the way to do that was to do it for less money, and working with Ram we were able to do that. Then once it was finished and made, we knew we could get it out there. We played it at Sundance, and I really want to give credit to Relativity for picking it up, because they are treating it like it was a studio movie. They are putting the money into it to get it out there, and it costs a lot of money to distribute and advertise it so it can be in the mainstream culture. They really believed in it and they never asked me to change anything. They liked it as it was and I give them tons of credit for that.
Are you comfortable with your standing in the business right now to move between these bigger and smaller projects, or does it make it harder to do the things like this that you really want to be making? There still seems to be a resistance to making smaller films like this in some circles.
JGL: Well, that’s part of the business, I guess. It’s not entirely true, though. Looper is a counter-example to something like that. I think that’s typical of any art or artist nowadays. I get why a lot of people are scared to go smaller with movies, because there was this model that was already in place, and you would have to figure out how to work within that model. Now all those models are disintegrating, and I could see why that’s scary, but there’s also an opportunity there if you’re resourceful or willing to put in some extra effort. You have to think “What is the movie and what’s the best way to make it?”
Example: Looper. Ram produced Looper. It’s a pretty big sci-fi movie, but it’s never going to be as big as The Dark Knight Rises. How do we do it? They found a way to come up with all this money from different places and different countries. We shot some of it in China and this, that, and the other thing, and they found a way to make it. That’s not a business model that would necessarily work for a different movie, but it worked for that movie. Don Jon was the same thing. We found a way to make this particular movie.
I feel great to have made a lot of different things that were made in different ways outside the norm. I do these things with Hit Record, which has its own specific business model that works very differently. It would never work for every project, but it works for certain projects. That’s just the way it’s gotta be. Rather than trying to fit your project into the standard model, you have to figure out what the specific model works for your particular project.
Was there ever a time when you were concerned how the ratings board would perceive a film with this subject matter?
JGL: Well, it was always definitely conceived as a Rated-R movie. In fact, when I first came up with the more comedic tone for this movie, it was when I was shooting 50/50, which was itself a Rated-R comedy.
We talked to Scarlett Johansson earlier today and she said that you brought her on pretty early in the creative process. What made you want to work with her?
JGL: Well, I had her in mind to work with on this from the beginning of the writing process. She’s such a skilled and talented actress, and she has a pretty unique ability to strike the perfect balance between being funny and being sincere. That’s difficult and those two sides are hard to maintain simultaneously. I also felt like this was a movie about how media often times over simplifies things when it comes to men and women and love and sex – ESPECIALLY women – and Scarlett is a very acute example of that. She’s a really smart person and talented artist, and a lot of time in our culture the discussion takes place predominantly around her looks, and that’s not fair. So by putting her in the movie I hoped to sort of eliminate a lot of the themes that I was going to be talking about.
It’s also interesting the family dynamic that gets explored with Tony Danza playing your father and the exploring the environment that Jon comes from. What was it like to create that and what did it mean to the creation of what you found funny in the situation?
JGL: I’m glad you bring that up, because certainly the origin of the idea was talking about how the media influences our perspectives, but it would be silly to isolate just media. Obviously people are products of many different things and influences, and I thought it would be important to see that. What is his family like? Where does he come from? What was his church like? What are his friends like? He’s very much a guy who is a product of his mom and his dad. His father has a strong personality. He has the same name as his dad and he’s clearly following in his dad’s footsteps. He feels almost obligated to fit that mould, until towards the end, hopefully you get to see him be a bit more curious and ask himself why things are.
That curiosity you mention also kind of speaks to your own evolution in this industry from your early days.
JGL: Yeah, I guess I’m really lucky in that regard. Early on in life I just started doing something that I love doing, so now I’ve spent a lot of time working on it, and just by virtue of the quantity of the time spent on this, it’s a huge asset. What can I say? I feel grateful and incredibly fortunate. I have a lot of grand and ambitious plans for the future that aren’t quite pertinent to share yet.
But you will direct again?
JGL: I hope so! I’m actually working on a TV show right now, Hit Record on TV, and through that company that I started years ago, we’re finally on the level of being able to do something really grand, and a level that could enter into mainstream pop culture. We’re working on it right now, actually. People could come to the site today and contribute to projects that are going to go on the TV show. But there’s still so much more to do.
Did you have to do any physical research to get into the role of Jon?
JGL: (laughs) I did have to go to the gym for hours every day, and I ate a lot of food. Lots of chicken and protein.
Were they those kinds of “muscle dude” gyms and clubs that you went to?
JGL: Oh, yeah with the gyms. But I’ve been to enough of those clubs. I didn’t need to relive that. Those are pretty similar wherever you go and throughout time. (laughs)