Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in Boston to promote his latest film Don Jon which he also wrote and directed. It was his first time directing a feature length film and he talked about directing, writing, his cast (which includes Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, Brie Larson and Julianne Moore) and not worrying about his public image.
On his experience as a first time feature film director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “I had a great time. It was a lot of work. I really like to work. I love all the different facets of movies. The truth is, an actor’s performance is much more than what the actor does. It has a lot to do with what the camera is doing, what the editor is doing, what the music is doing so when I came up with this story, all those different things were going on in my head. Like ‘Oh this will be a cool way to shoot it, this will be cool if the music was doing this.’ I wanted to direct it so all those things could come in place as I was imagining.”
Joe’s grandfather was a director and he was asked if he watched any of his grandfather’s films for inspiration or other films that might have influenced him. “My grandfather, Michael Gordon, he died before I really got to know him. I hope to one day watch his movies and read his writings and stuff like that. I haven’t, I’ve sort of been saving it. I actually haven’t seen any of his movies. I will one day. But for inspiration for Don Jon, there’s one I think that is particularly good, Shampoo. Really all the (Hal) Ashby movies, Harold and Maude, Being There. He does the kind of comedy that I love so much. It’s not just goofy comedy, and hey I love a good, funny, goofy comedy as much as anybody, that’s what we did on 3rd Rock all the time (laughing), but Ashby does these movies where the people feel like people, but it’s also still funny. The comedy sort of comes from, you felt that emotion before, it’s emotional sort of humor. That was really inspirational. (Mike) Nichols, The Graduate and one he did called Carnal Knowledge with a really good, early Jack Nicholson. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that’s one of my favorites. Amelie and 500 Days of Summer too. That’s one I really like and I’m proud of and a good reference to what type of movie I wanted to make that was funny and fun and entertaining, but also had something to say and it felt genuine.”
Joe also stars in the film as titular character Don Jon who loves his family, loves his women and loves his porn, not necessarily in that order. As the writer of the film, he was asked if he wrote/saw his character as someone who has a disorder (an addiction to porn, lack of reality to sex) and overall how he sees this Italian Neighborhood New Jersey type of character. Joe, “I see his neighborhood as just average America. I picked New Jersey because it’s a suburb. I grew up in the suburbs, the suburbs of LA. New Jersey is more a suburb of New York. I didn’t want to set the movie where a lot of romantic comedies are set, a very affluent place, Manhattan or London or things like that. I just wanted it to be middle income United States. As far as Jon having a disorder, I think that what I was going for with Jon was this is a guy who everything in his life is a THING. It’s an object on a shelf. He doesn’t connect with anything. He doesn’t engage with anybody. I think him watching pornography is a central symbol for that, but he treats his friends the same way. He treats his family the same way just flat as an image on a screen. It’s that one way street. You can see it in all the facets of his life. And hopefully by the end of the movie you see him take the first steps in breaking out of that mold.”
As the writer of the film, I asked him if he wrote any specific characters for specific actors. Joe, “I was always picturing Scarlett as I was writing this character from the very beginning. I think she’s a really tremendous actress whether it’s having seen her in Lost in Translation, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Man Who Wasn’t There or even, she’s really great on SNL. Not every actor, especially movie actors, can pull of Saturday Night Live. She was really great at it so I was a fan of her work. And I think she’s particularly apt for this part because of how she’s seen in our culture. This is a woman who’s a very smart person and a very talented artist and yet a lot of what our culture views her as is her looks. Yes, she’s very good looking, but she’s so much more than that and I thought that cultural context would be really great for this character. Also I think that’s why she was intrigued by the material and keen to play the part.
“Tony (Danza), I honestly hadn’t thought of who would play that part, but as soon as I started to think about it, he was the first guy I thought of. He’s so good in it right? What’s funny about him is naturally, he’s such a sweetheart. He’s just the nicest, most likable guy. Jon Sr. in this movie, he’s a little bit of a dick, sort of misogynistic and yells at his family. So I was always having to push Tony. That was my regular reminder, to Tony, ‘No man I still like you too much. You have to be worse.’ (laughing).”
Asked if being the writer/director helped him develop his own character more than if he was just acting. “Definitely. On average, an acting job you get to spend at most a few months with the material before you shoot. If you spend a year, that’s very extreme. This material I’ve been thinking about for several years before shooting. I think that makes a huge difference getting to just have the character in your head for that amount of time. By the time it was ready to shoot, I’d been doing it for so long I could turn the voice on and off without even thinking about it.”
The name of the film is a take off of Don Juan, a womanizing character that’s been done many times before, but always ends tragically unlike this. Asked if the story of Don Jon always had a silver lining. Joe, “It was and that was an important choice because in your traditional Don Juan stories, the main character has his shortcomings, suffers the consequences and is destroyed. I like movies that have a balance of darkness and light and I’m sort of an optimist generally. I wanted to tell a story of a guy who isn’t destroyed, who has these shortcomings, but begins to grow up, begins to change. I like to think that even Don Juan can change, I guess that’s the optimist in me. I always wrote it as a coming of age story.”
The original name of the film was Don Jon’s Addiction. It screened at Sundance with that title. Gordon-Levitt explains the change. “First of all it’s just shorter, easier to say, easier to remember. That’s important in a title. I found in general I would tell people Don Jon’s Addiction and they would say ‘What?’ You don’t want that (reaction). But also, the word addiction, I wrote that in there originally as a sort of symbol, a metaphor for what we are talking about. A guy who approaches his life as a routine and doesn’t ask questions and is stuck in a cycle. But I found, we played it at festivals, people kept saying it was a film about porn addiction. Porn, porn, porn, porn, porn. No that wasn’t really the point I was trying to tell with this story. That was another reason, but mostly it was because it was shorter.”
Brie Larson plays Joe’s sister in the film. Her character reminded me of Silent Bob in Chasing Amy, says nothing for 90% of the movie, but then words of wisdom at the end. I asked if there was more to her that didn’t make the film and her overall character. Joe, “No that’s how it was written. She does such a good job. That’s another actor in the movie that brought so much more to the character than what was in the writing. I like the character as it was written, but a lesser actress could have made her boring and I think she’s always interesting even in the fact that she’s not talking. She’s always contributing a lot. I’m always trying to cut my lines. I think lines are overrated. If you can tell the story without saying anything, it’s not necessarily more powerful, but I often try to do it that way.”
As a first time writer/director, his film might be subject matter someone else wouldn’t have tackled without a bigger resume. His character is seen on screen masturbating multiple times. There’s nudity and the like. Asked if he was nervous doing a story like this. “There’s nothing graphic or explicit about it. It maybe feels that way, but you don’t see anything, the movie’s rated R. It’s a movie, it tells a story. I think movies are good when there’s something vulnerable about them, when they are getting at something. I didn’t want to do a movie, if I was going to write and direct a movie and put all this work into it, I didn’t want to make something normal. I didn’t want people to say ‘That was good, that was really good. You’re good.’ That didn’t interest me. I wanted to do take some risks and do something bold. I know not 100% of people will like this movie, but I think the people who do like it will really, really like it a lot. All of my favorite movies are divisive like that whether it’s No Country For Old Men or Punch Drunk Love or Django Unchained, some people love those movies, some people DO NOT at all love those movies. But I feel strongly about them. They’re taking risks, that’s what I wanted. I don’t really worry about that (personal image) so much. I believe in the movie. I think it’s telling a good story. I think it’s a positive thing. I’m proud, I stand behind it.”
Over the past few years Joseph Gordon-Levitt has built hitRECord, an online collaborative production company that uses music, video, art from different artists to collaborate on different projects together. He talked about how that influenced Don Jon. “I would not nearly have been as equipped to do this had I not been directing all sorts of collaborative projects for years on hitRECord. In a way, it’s not dissimilar. hitRECord is sort of modeled after a movie set where there’s lots of people contributing and I’m directing. In a traditional movie like Don Jon or whatever else, The Dark Knight Rises, there’s a director and then there’s lots of other artists contributing their work. That’s what happens on hitRECord, the difference is that anybody can contribute, anyone can come to the website and contribute their work as opposed to a traditional movie you hire people first. As far as what I’m doing as director, you have to have a vision, understand what you want, but also be open to new ideas that are different than what you thought it would be, find that balance and keep going till it’s done. I’ve done that time and time again on hitRECord whether it’s short films we’ve made or the records we put out or the books we published. I think that experience was a huge help in directing Don Jon.”
Gordon-Levitt shot the movie on 35mm film compared to digital which is the norm nowadays. He talked about why he went the old fashioned route. “So that Chris (Nolan, his The Dark Knight Rises director) wouldn’t be mad at me. That’s a joke (laughing). He would have been disappointed if I hadn’t. I think you can still tell the difference. It looks different. It’s getting less and less different. The new digital cameras look fantastic, but I still think film looks different. It was my first one and who knows how many more I’ll get to do on 35 so I definitely wanted to take that chance while I had it. Also it’s more practical for a movie of this budget level. If you’re doing a super low budget movie and you’re shooting on (Canon) 5Ds or something on a DSLR, that’s one thing, but if you’re doing a movie like this with a whole crew and everything, film is more reliable, it takes less people, it takes less equipment. It’s just better right now. Also to me there’s just something that happens when you roll film. People have a respect for film that’s important especially for actors. When you’re just rolling all day long on digital and it doesn’t matter if you’re rolling or not rolling or cut because who cares. There’s a moment that happens when you roll film, they say ‘Rolling’ and you’re actually rolling and they say ‘Marker’ and ‘Action’ and you go. When you’re shooting digital, you don’t cut as often as you cut because who cares, stay rolling and then action. You don’t have that ramp up into it, that ritual that’s important to me. That’s another reason I prefer film.”
I asked Joe, being his first feature length, if he goes back and looks at the film, finds continuity errors he missed and what he learned that he will bring on to his next film. “Well not little technical things like that (continuity errors). Nothing wrong with noticing those things, I paid a lot of attention to it technically and I’m pretty proud of it. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. There really isn’t anything in it that I wish was different. But what have I learned that I’ll take to my next film? That’s a really good question. I don’t know if I’ve debriefed enough to articulate it. I’m trying to think of something, I don’t know how to answer that.”
Don Jon opens September 27th.
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