Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been working regularly on stage and screen since the tender age of four, amassing a list of credits during his three decades in Hollywood that would be impressive at any age. From his formative role as Tommy Solomon on NBC's Third Rock From the Sun to breakout turns in Marc Webb's 500 Days of Summer, Christopher Nolan's Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and Rian Johnson's Looper (one of my fave flicks of last year), Levitt has continually and consistently defied the conventional wisdom that there's no afterlife for child stars.

With his writing/directing debut Don Jon, a romantic comedy starring Levitt in the title role and also starring Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore, hitting screens today, it looks like the Hollywood veteran is well positioned to expand his already-prolific output into new and interesting avenues. I had the opportunity to speak with the first-time helmer recently as part of a roundtable interview, and here are some highlights of what he had to say about making the film, what he hopes to achieve with his new online venture, and what he's learned from working closely with veteran directors like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan:

How much of this [story] was based on things that have happened in your life, and your personal experiences?

I think we can all identify with both of these characters. We all have a tendency to be selfish and we all have a tendency to use people rather than really connect with them. Because it's easier, it takes more effort to actually pay attention to who's in front of you, and learn about what makes them a unique individual. That's a lot harder, and so we all I think  have that tendency to just think we already know the person, put them in a box with a label. And I'll admit, I'm guilty of that sometimes. I do my best to really stay present and treat everyone like an individual, but yeah, it's hard. So sure, I identify.

For your first feature what kinds of things did you learn from other sets, other filmmakers, to bring to this first experience? 

Just generally, having done this for so many years and been on so many sets, I feel that was a huge part of why I was able to pull this off. In that way I didn't feel like a first time filmmaker, 'cause generally when you say "first time filmmaker," that's someone who's not really been on very many sets. Several of my favorite filmmakers I've worked for, and in fact in 2011, the year before we shot Don Jon, I noticed this in all three of the directors that I worked for - Chris Nolan, Steven Spielberg, all three of these guys - and they're different guys but they all  had this thing in common that I noticed and I tried to keep in the front of my mind, which is a balance between having a thorough plan, but also being able to be spontaneous.

I think if you go too far in either direction you can really mess up a movie, 'cause if you're too married to your plan then you can end up with something that's sort of stale, but if you're not, if you don't stick to your plan enough and you're too easy to kind of lure away into new ideas then your movie can begin to lack a strong, unified voice. That's something I noticed all three of those guys, they would find...'cause you get that question all day long when you're a director. It's like, "Okay, here's what we plan on doing, but now we could do this, what do you think? What should we do?" Or an actor says, "How 'bout I say it this way instead of that way?" So much of what I love about the performances in Don Jon are the actors sort of spontaneously doing something that was different than what I expected. I loved those moments.

But sometimes, sometimes a moment like that happens and you're like, "I love that, I love that you're doing it, I love that it feels organic, but there's a reason it was written this way because it ties into all these other things," and that's the director's job: to keep all those things in mind. An actor's job is to just stay focused on the present moment, and the director has to kind of keep an eye on everything. So, you have to find that balance, and there's examples of both in this movie. There's tons of moments where the actors did stuff that I didn't expect and it's in the movie and I love it. There's other times where I do need to kind of make sure that we hit these points that are in the script because it connects to other points in the story.

What surprised you as a director that you weren't prepared for?

Y'know, It's funny, I've gotten that question a few times and I can't think of anything. (laughs) I mean, of course I...the only thing I could really talk about is what I was just talking about, which is like artists, especially the actors, surprise me everyday and those are really the most thrilling moments of the entire multi-year process. When Scarlett would deliver a line just differently than what I'd envisioned. I was like, "Wow, I love that. That's so alive. I never would have thought to do it that way."

But I was hoping that's what would happen. That's what happens on movie sets. So I don't know, honestly I felt pretty well prepared. Nothing really shocked me. Now, this isn't to say it was easy, it's just...I felt familiar. All the different parts of it felt familiar.

What role did your production company, or this production forum, hitRECord, play into this? Did you get insight from it, or use the artists that are a part of that in this film?

hitRECord has sort of been my monicker for years, and this is the first movie that has its name, hitRECord Films, on it. We also do, on, there's this open, collaborative process where we make all kinds of things. And I hope that one day  we can make a full length feature film on, but I thought before doing that it was important to direct a film in the old fashioned way, the way that I grew up. There are some people from the communities, some artists who worked on Don Jon. Guiro is one artist who's...he's a great illustrator on the site, and he did the flashes, some of the flash frames you see in the movie, he made a lot of those. Campaign is a musician, he sang a little bit on the soundtrack. Mark, the creative director of the site, did the titles.

So there are people from the community, but mostly this is a traditionally made movie.  Right now we're making a TV show on hitRECord, and that is fully open and fully collaborative. I'm directing it, but everybody's contributing right now, these days. And just to clarify, it's not people contributing finished stuff that I then pick. We have these collaborative projects going, and people contribute their parts, and I direct, and I put out videos everyday sort of offering direction, feedback, and by being on the site and writing comments, we're making all these little projects. Short films, and songs, and cartoons, and short documentaries, and we're gonna put them together into these eight episodes of TV. It's going to be on in January.

What kinds of movies did you study to get geared up to make this one?

Let's see...well, one I think is really connected is Shampoo, the Hal Ashby movie. The Warren Beatty movie. And really all of Hal Ashby's movies: Harold & Maude and Being There, etc. He's made lots of great movies, and he strikes a great tone with his comedy that I love, where the comedy isn't coming from gags as much as it's coming from sort of relating to the people in the story. Mike Nichols is another film maker like that. The Graduate.

Carnal Knowledge.

Carnal Knowledge. Yeah, I watched that for sure. That's a great lesser-known Jack Nicholson performance. And then even some of the movies I've been fortunate enough to be in, like 500 Days of Summer, or 50/50, which are, again, they're sort of comedies that are based in the characters. I was actually in the middle of shooting 50/50 when I first conceived of this story as a comedy and really found this version of the character and started writing notes on that.

How long have you been planning to make the leap to directing and what was it about this story that made you say, "This is the thing to make my entree"?

I've always been fascinated with all the different parts that go into filmmaking, and I've always played around with cameras and stuff ever since I was quite young. And then, for my 21st birthday I bought myself my first copy of FinalCut, the video editing software. And I think once I started editing...I loved editing so much, and I still do.

And that's really, I think...when you start editing you're really making movies, more than you can than when you're just kind of shooting stuff, because that's what really tells the story: juxtaposing this image with then this image, that's what makes it a movie. So since then I've always been interested, and kind of been building up to it, and I've made tons of little short films and videos over the years. Without exaggeration probably hundreds of them, I do n't even know. Lots and lots of little pieces.

Why this one? Like I said, it's a story that resonates a lot with me because I've always paid a lot of attention to the way that the media influences how we see the world. So I think it was that, and that's what started me writing it, and the writing just kept going well until I had something finished. I can't say that from the beginning of the writing process I knew for sure, "This is going to be my first!" I just was enjoying writing it, but eventually I finished it and, "Wow! I got it all done!"

I found that throughout the writing process, I wasn't just thinking about the dialogue. I was thinking about, "Well, here's how the camera would really make this work," or, "Here's how the editing would really complement this story point," or, "Here's how the music needs to be for this scene to be what I'm picturing." And so, by the time I finished the  script, I was like, "Geez, I've thought of all this stuff. I should just do it," and I set about trying to make it happen."


Many thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for being so generous with his time. Don Jon is now playing at a theater near you. To hear the audio from this interview, check out the latest episode of The MovieFilm Podcast via this link, or streaming below: