On the hitRECord: Don Jon director Joseph Gordon-Levitt
It’s 11:45 a.m. at Georgetown’s Ritz Carlton and Vox has just been hurriedly ushered into a suite wherein lies Joseph Gordon-Levitt, alone in a small room apart from his stone-faced entourage. The writer, director, and star of upcoming release Don Jon, as well as the founder of collaborative online production company hitRECord, is sitting cross-legged in an armchair, a truck pattern on his socks and a table covered with silver platters and half-eaten grapes behind him. It’s difficult to believe the former child star is 32, his youthful mannerisms making Vox only slightly less nervous about spending 15 minutes alone with a movie star. If this were a fashion magazine, Vox would say at this point who he was wearing, but it honestly just seemed like a plaid shirt and chinos. He does have dimples that could cure diseases, though.
Vox: You made Don Jon through traditional channels, though you’ve said in the past that you think the future of the film industry is in open collaboration?
JGL: Yeah, well, we’ll see what everyone else in the film industry does, but I don’t like to make grand proclamations about what everyone else is going to do. HitRECord has been great for me, but you know what I mean, like, sometimes people say, like, (booming voice) “The New Wave will be…blah blah blah.” I wouldn’t presume to know exactly what the future of the media is necessarily.
Vox: So you’re not going to make any predictions about how Hollywood would make that transition?
JGL: I mean, look, I could say that, you know, the division between artist and audience is certainly getting more and more vague and I think the media is sort of becoming more conversational and less didactic, monologue-ish. So yes, I don’t want to go on record saying, “the future of the movie industry is what I’m doing!” because I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but hitRECord has been something that’s worked really well for us, though I don’t think everyone necessarily ought to do that.
Vox: Do you think you’d ever want to make a feature film collaboratively?
JGL: Yeah, definitely. I do want to do that one day, and I thought it was important before trying to do that to make one the old-fashioned way and that’s sort of what Don Jon is, and we’re making a TV show right now on hitRECord and that’s by far the biggest project we’ve tackled so far, and the community has really risen to the occasion and I think we’re making good stuff. And one day, I hope we can make feature films. We’ll see when we get there.
Vox: So, this is a little controversial, but you’ve criticized mainstream cable news shows like CNN and MSNBC, saying that you prefer Internet blogs and BBC, right? I’m representing a blog for a college newspaper, so I was just curious to see if you think there’s a bias on those shows that isn’t on the Internet.
JGL: Well, it depends where you go on the Internet, for sure. Obviously, you can find plenty of examples of sensationalist, shallow news on the Internet but I guess the point I was trying to make was that CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox, or any of these cable news shows are basically doing what I do. It’s show business. They make media, they try to get as a big an audience as they can, they have a genre that they follow, and they tell stories. From what I’ve seen on those channels, they don’t seem to care very much about having a positive impact on the world or giving a comprehensive view of what’s going on in the world. They just want to get eyeballs because they’re businesses, ultimately. CNN is a business, and they’re here to make money by selling advertising and sell advertising by having bigger ratings. It’s the same business as the movie business…you keep trying not to laugh. (Laughs best laugh ever.)
Vox (laughing most awkward laugh ever): All right, so I noticed a lot of echoes of (500) Days of Summer in Don Jon, but on the flip side, because in (500) Days of Summer your character objectifies the girl as a manifestation of his romantic fantasies and in Don Jon it’s his sexual fantasies. And (500) Days of Summer subtly subverts rom-com tropes, whereas Don Jon is very upfront and confrontational in its satire of media’s influence on people’s expectations of relationships. So how did you decide that was the most effective way to tell the story, as a satire?
JGL: Yeah, I’m glad you see the parallel. I think there is quite a lot in common between Don Jon and (500) Days of Summer. I think the characters are actually pretty similar, even though they have different styles. Tom from (500) Days of Summer and Jon from Don Jon have a lot in common; they’re both quite selfish at the beginning of the movie and they both are sort of projecting their overly simplified expectations and fantasies of what they want out of love or sex or a woman onto human beings. Tom in (500) Days of Summer, the movie’s told from his perspective so it’s sometimes hard to see this, but if you sort of begin to question the unreliable narrator in (500) Days of Summer, you can see that Tom is not what I would call in love with Summer.
Tom has created an idea of love, his ideal woman, and projected it onto this young woman named Summer, but he really doesn’t listen to anything she says. There’s a scene in that movie I always like to point out where she is telling him about this dream that she has, and he doesn’t listen to a word she’s saying! As soon as she starts telling him her dream, the narrator starts talking about (lowers voice) Tom knew that, you know, he had become special and she was letting him into her life, blah blah blah, and his response after she’s told him this whole thing is about himself! He just says, “Well, I guess I’m not just anyone.” That’s what he says to her…so, I don’t know, it’s funny, because I hear from a lot of people: “Oh, how could she leave him? He was so great!” I think he has a lot to learn. He’s sort of childish and very similar to Jon.
Jon is, like I said, a very different style; Tom is sort of projecting his, like you said, romantic notions that he’s learned from, you know, whatever, songs or French New Wave movies, and Jon is sort of projecting his fantasies from Carl’s, Jr. commercials and pornography but substantially, it’s the same thing. And they’re both coming-of-age stories. By the end, you see Tom begin to grow up a bit, and by the end, you also see Jon get to, you know, connect with people and with his life in a way that he wasn’t before.
Vox: So, this is the first feature that you’ve written, directed, and starred in, right? What were the benefits and challenges of having that much control over the project?
JGL: Well, there’s so much that goes into making a film and the character, a lot more than what the actor does, and when I’m acting in a movie I feel like I’m doing my best to give the director what the director needs to make the movie, to put together the puzzle pieces, so that’s why I like to ask lots of questions when I’m working for a director. I’m constantly asking questions—”What do you need here? Is it this, is it that?”—so I can get that for them. In Don Jon, when I came up with this story, I knew that it wasn’t just going to be about how I acted. What the camera did, or what the editing was going to do, or what the music was going to do was going to have a big effect on how the audience would receive it and so I was having ideas about how to shoot it or how to cut it, how to score it. So I figured, let me just direct this, because I want it this way. I’m imagining it this way, and if I’m going to play it this way, it’s going to have to be complemented by these other elements. And I’ve directed lots of—well, ‘directed’ is a funny word to use—but I’ve made lots of short films and videos and stuff for ten years now and that experience was really crucial. I don’t think I could have done it if I had not already had a bunch of experience doing smaller projects.
Vox: I know you asked advice from other directors before you made Don Jon. If you could go back and give yourself advice about directing, what would you say?
JGL: I mean, to be honest, I felt pretty well-prepared. I thought it all went pretty well. Trying to think, What I would say? Try to get more sleep? But I lost sleep for a reason. I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’ll tell you something that I’ve observed in a lot of the directors that I’ve admired most that I try to reflect. In the year leading up to Don Jon, I worked with three directors: Rian Johnson, who made Looper, Christopher Nolan, who made The Dark Knight Rises, and Steven Spielberg, who made Lincoln. I was really fortunate to work with those guys and I noticed that they’re all very different but they had something in common, which is that they balance having a really solid plan with being able to break from that plan. That’s a decision you have to make all day long, over and over again, in different forms. It’s like, OK, we planned on this, but what about this? You have to decide either no, we’re going to stick with the plan, or yeah, sure, let’s go with it, I think, and it’s easy and tempting to go too far in either direction. To just stick with the plan, but you can get something stilted that way. Or be seduced by new ideas and then you can end up with something sort of inconsistent without a distinct driving voice. So I noticed that Rian and Chris were all really able to balance those two sides of the spectrum and that’s something I really tried to keep to the front of my mind.
Vox: Is there a director that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?
JGL: Sure. The Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, I don’t know, but I guess they’re sort of obvious. Arronofsky. Edgar Wright, but I haven’t seen his new movie yet. I don’t know, were those sort of obvious?
Vox: Not Edgar Wright, but…(laughs)
JGL: Uh…I’ll think of somebody. Genet, but that’s also kind of obvious. All right…
Vox: That’s fine. So you had the idea for Don Jon for quite a few years before you made it, right? Do you have any ideas now that you’d want to work on in the future?
JGL: Not right now, though. There’s this TV show on hitRECord, so all my ideas are going into that.
Vox: Can you tell me more about that?
JGL: Sure. So, hitRECord is this thing that started as kind of an informal hobby many years ago, as a sort of symbol, like the round red record button being like, “I want to push the button.” It started when I’d been acting for a while, then quit to go to school, and then I couldn’t get a job and I realized I have to take responsibility for my own creativity here. I can’t just wait for someone to hire me. So the record button and pushing the record button became this sort of symbol for me. I was making lots of little things and putting them up on this website that my brother helped me set up, and that continued for a number of years and this whole sort of community sort of sprouted around it and it was really great to make stuff together instead of just talking about the stuff I was making.
So in 2010, we launched it as this production company where people contribute to collaborative projects that I direct and we’ve made short films and books and we’ve put out records and we pay the artists who contribute and we split the profits of any production. And now, we’re making a TV show that’s going to be on television, not just the Internet. It’s a half-hour variety show that’s going to be on a new cable network called Pivot and we’ll have short films and songs and live performances and live documentaries and cartoons and all of the above and it will be made collaboratively on the site. And if you go to the site right now, it’s going to go on TV. So, are you a writer, I’m guessing?
JGL: There’s writing projects going on if you’re interested to contribute.
Vox: That’s great. So what was your favorite thing that you’ve worked on with hitRECord?
JGL: My favorite thing, wow. That would be hard to pick. I’ll say a couple things. There’s one short film we made recently last year called “Flickering Lights” that I’m really proud of. There’s one called “The Man with a Turnip for a Head.”
Vox: I think I saw that one, yeah.
JGL: You saw that one, with Gary Oldman? I really like that one. Um, we’re in the middle of shooting one right now. It’s from a story that someone contributed, a true story about the first time she saw the stars. She was sixteen. She has this eye condition, so she can’t really see the stars, but her dad bought her the night vision goggles from a Russian military surplus catalog and she just wrote this really great story about how she saw the stars for the first time. The episode’s theme is the Number One. It’s going to be the first episode, so having a story about this first time is really great and we shot a couple of actors: Elle Fanning, and this other actor named James Patrick Stewart, in front of a green screen. Elle is just this great actress. She gave a really great performance and embodies this story that was written and now the community is coming up with the visuals to go behind it. It’s going to be a really cool piece.
(Assistant gives the “time’s up” signal)
Vox: Well, thank you so much for talking to me.
JGL: Yeah, thank you. Well done.
Photo via Imdb.