SxSW Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt of 'Don Jon'
by James Rocchi
by James Rocchi
In a narrow black tie and with his hair so perfect he looks like his own action figure, Joseph Gordon-Levitt sits in a hotel suite high above Austin, talking about his directorial debut "Don Jon." Making a second festival showing after Sundance (where it was called "Don Jon's Addiction,") it's the story of Jon (Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the screenplay), a New Jersey native whose bad habits take him from groove to rut in work, life, love and sex before he learns to change. We spoke with Gordon-Levitt about the film's name change, his debut as a director and how his experiences growing up on-screen led to a surprisingly different character for his first film as a director.
MSN Movies: There's a great quote
from David Fincher where he says, "People think directing is about
working with actors and shaping the scene, but what it's really about is
when the head of the lighting crew says, 'I know you want to move this
stuff, but that'll take 20 minutes and we've got an hour left before the
union-mandated end-of-day, so you don't really need that shot." Did you
find that to be the majority of what directing was about?
I don’t know if I would say majority, but that's certainly a big part of what directing is about, for sure, is where you're ideal vision clashes up against the reality of...
The clock, the bank...
All of that. And that is. That's a very big party of directing. And you know, you know who's a real master at that is Christopher Nolan. I mean yes he does have a ton of money to work with, but he's also trying to do huge things. And he, the level of detail that that guy keeps in his head is astounding. And I told him that I was going to direct a movie, and he was really supportive, which meant a lot to me. And most of the little bits of advice that he would relay to me were technical things like that. Like, "If you're going to do a driving shot, don't use a tow rig. It takes too long to set usp and it never looks real." You know, or things like a lot of little things like that, which they don't sound as romantic as the artiste director but in fact they're a big part of the job. I would disagree with Mr. Fincher that being a director is not about working with actors. I would say being a director is also indeed about working with actors. (Laughs)
I think he was suggesting a greater proportion of it is the latter as opposed to...
Right. Well I wouldn't agree with that either. (Laughs)
Where did the idea to do this come from? What in your life or what in other works of art you've seen that you like made you go, "This character, this story, this idea is something is something I need to explore on film"?
Well, it started out as I wanted to talk about how people objectify each other. And maybe that -- to psychoanalyze myself for a second -- that might come from the fact that I've been an actor my whole life, and actors in our culture are sort of weirdly objectified and put in certain boxes and like reduced to this object at a distance rather than thought of as, you know, a normal person. And that's always been a source of anxiety for me ever since I was a little kid, and so maybe that's somewhere at the heart of why I wanted to tell this story. Also, though, just I find, you know, that's what's always getting in the way of love. And whether if it's my life or my friends' lives or just my general observation, what's getting in the way of people really having great loving relationships is that rather than relating to each other as unique and individual people and embracing and appreciating what makes our partners unique, we're constantly comparing each other to these expectations that we think we're supposed to live up to, expectations of what a man is supposed to be or what a woman is supposed to be. And where do we get those expectations? We get them from our friends, our family, our church maybe, and also from different kinds of media. That interests me in particular.
Yeah, the whole idea of for a lot of the film Jon's relationship with sex is kind of like this inverse monologue as opposed to a conversation.
That's very well put, yeah. It's one-way as opposed to two-way.
You're right. That and the fact that the perfect is the enemy of the good, especially when the 'perfect' which has no strings, no complications, what have you, is so much more convenient from the actual messiness of talking to people.
Yeah, and in that way it actually is empty. And even if you get to the end of the rainbow there is no pot of gold there because the truth is that even if you get to take all your boxes and even if you get to have that ...
... dream scenario ...
... dime, you know, and that's what he gets with the Barbara Sugarman character, it's not there because that's what's actually makes sex good, or love good, or any kind of human connection good is a unique connection between two people that cannot exist between any two other people. And you know, we spend so much time, rather than looking for what's unique about this person, we spend so much time looking for, "Well, does he or she measure up to these standards that I've learned?"
Right. Does the non-fiction reality of it measure up to this piece of fiction I've created out instances and what have you?
That's exactly right.
How great-slash-difficult was it to hurl yourself into wearing a sleeveless shirt and the vest, you know, the hair that goes crunch when you touch it?
I mean I grew up in a very Italian, very Catholic town.
Oh you did, yeah? Where?
In Canada -- Hamilton, Ontario. So I totally know guys like that. They've call me rude names from their cars throughout my whole life.
What was it like getting into that? Was it fun? And also, was it rewarding to make it more than just that stereotype?
Yeah, all the above. That's what I love about acting. And that's I think at the heart of why I wanted to do this character. And if I'm going to direct a movie let me play a character that people wouldn't normally cast me as. 'Cause I'm in charge, so let me do this. And what I always love about acting is playing someone very different form myself. The more different the better. You know, like in "Looper" I had that whole different face, and I had a whole different voice, and I was a killer for a living in an orphanage. It's like someone completely different from myself. I love that. "Hesher" is another good example.
With the crazy hair, yeah.
Yeah, and I love coming up with a new way of talking and a new way of walking and wearing clothes that I wouldn't normally wear. That's what's fun about acting to me. So coming up with this guy, it was fun. I'm glad though that you also said that because for me it wasn't just about, "Oh okay, I'll do the shtick of the wise-guy shtick." I wanted to make him a person, you know. And I wanted to, didn't want to just judge him and be like, "Oh look at this douchebag." And I think that's tempting, you know, to take guy like that and just judge him and put him down. But I wanted to find hope. Okay well how can this guy get out from under this mentality of his and begin to break out of his shell?
Which is, I mean the name's changed between now and Sundance from "Don Jon's Addiction" to "Don Jon." And I read the statement where you said people were seeing this as a movie about sex addiction, and it's not quite that. There are two parts to talk about that. But one is, would it be fair to say the film's more about habits than addictions in that so much of what he does and so much of how you shoot it is very always the same, always the same?
Very much so yeah. I think you could call it habit, you could call it addiction, you could call it a rut, you could call it sort of, you know, standards, you know, or people who like things to be the way that they like them to be. Expectations you could call it. 'Cause yes, he's a guy who's very intent on having things be the way they're supposed to be, and that is a form of addiction really.
There is a repeated shot of you going down the hallway of your gym; you see it so many times. There's the one time you're doing it and you break right to play hoops instead of working out while you're doing your Our Fathers. And that turn right, it's totally silent, but it feels like the hinge point in the film where it's him going, "New things, different things."
Yeah. I'm so glad you bring that up 'cause it is sort of a subtle moment in the movie, and it's one of my favorite moments in the movie. And it's one that not a lot of people bring up. You know who also brought that up? Rian (Johnson), the writer director of "Looper." And that's exactly right. He has his routine, he goes and looks in the mirror and does his curls to make his body looks the way that he thinks a man is supposed to look every time. Every time he does the same thing, but this time, he goes and does something different. He goes and plays basketball with other people. And like now it's not about looking in the mirror at myself and my body. It's about like interacting with other people who are playing a game. And I guess that's sort of what that scene's about.
The other thing is, I mean I joke about it, but it feels like there's a lot of the very kind of Aronofsky-esque stuff from "Pi" in this in the whole thing of, "We cut this quick because it happens over and over again. Every time we cut it, we cut it the same." I'm curious, are you somebody who looks at things before you make a movie?
Oh of course. Yeah I think every filmmaker does, but absolutely. I'm one who likes to embrace my influences.
Like that's sort of a big part of the sort of philosophy behind "Hit RECord" and working through collaborative remix is "Let's lighten up on the premium of quote-unquote 'originality,'" because I think the whole notion of originality is a little faulty. We're all a composite of our experiences. We all, for example, we speak English. I didn't come up with these words, you know? I'm using, I'm appropriating building blocks that I learn from other places and combining them to make new things.
And popular culture's a form of conversation we get to have with people who have been dead for a thousand years.
Yeah, that's a good way of putting it, absolutely. And look, every movie, not every movie, some movies are far more original than other movies. But anytime you're going to have one shot this way and one shot this way, you're very, very strictly, you know, following a formula that's existed in Hollywood for 100 years. And most movies that we see in this culture it has that. So I don’t know, I'm a little bit less about quote unquote originality, more about sincerity. If someone's telling you something that they really mean, that they really care about, that's what's important 'cause every single person is a unique person.
But the blocks they use, the tools they use to do with can be borrowed from a dozen other places.
They always are.
What did you watch specifically?
Sure. Hal Ashby movies like "Shampoo," "The Graduate," Mike Nichols' movies -- "Carnal Knowledge" is a good one. It's a great one.
Oh, that's a rough movie, man.
(Laughs) I guess, yeah. It's Jack Nicholson. It was one of my favorite things of his. What else? "Amelie" I really like, you know, the French movie.
The Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I'm just trying to picture that in there. Now I can, but it's strange to think about that in that.
Well it's sort of a heightened fable-istic movie with a lot of storytelling, and the tone is not exactly realistic. It's sort of archetypal. All the Coen brothers' movies, all the Tarantino movies, what else?
So generally things that are pretty lively. I mean this thing moves fast. Did you find that when you were in the editing room it wasn't getting longer; it was getting shorter?
Sure, and that if you read the script that's how it's written. Like I wrote it to be snappy. I really like stuff like that. Maybe because I've made so many short films, and when you make a short film you're instantly like, "How can I grab them right away? How can I communicate my message in two minutes?"
Get into the scene as late as possible and come out of it as early as possible.
(Laughs) Yeah sure.
How imperative was casting? I mean you have Miss Johansson, you have Ms. Moore, you have the two gentlemen who play your associates.
(Laughs) I don't know what you call the 'gusy you glo to the club with'; I don't go to clubs. But I mean, was the casting process something where you mulled it over and stroked your beard and agonized? Or did you just go, "Them and them. That's who I want"?
I'm very fortunate in that I really had my first choices with every role. I wrote the part with Scarlett in mind and was delighted that she actually liked it. I remember actually I flew myself to Albuquerque to present to her with this script. I didn’t know her, but I was able to arrange a meeting.
And she was shooting "The Avengers."
She was busy shooting "The Avengers," yes.
She's got muscle sprains, and a red wig, and you handed her a script, and she gets to be Barbara Sugarman.
That probably seemed like a great deal of relief.
Well, yeah, you know. And I think to her what was really interesting was this is a movie about how we objectify each other and largely how women are objectified in our culture, and she's someone who is objectified a hell of a lot. You know, she's a really smart person, she's a really talented artist, and yet what do most people talk about when it comes to her? Her outward appearance.
Her terrific head of hair?
Yeah, her looks.
Yeah. And so that's not fair you know? That sucks. And I think she was keen to sort of make fun of that and make some jokes at the expense of our culture doing that. And Julie (Julianne Moore) was also, I mean when we were talking about casting the role of Esther, it was, "Well if you could have anybody who would you have?" And I was like, "Well if I could have anybody it'd be Julianne Moore, but who will probably really do it?"
"Barring that... "
Yeah. Who will do it? And then Julie read the script and really liked it. And she told me a story about the first time she read it that her agent presented it to her as, "Here's a script that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote about porn." And Julie said that she was not very excited to read that script.
But she did. She started to read it. And she was on a plane, and she tells me the story of how she was sitting next to her husband and after not long reading it she said, "This isn't about porn. This is about relationships and intimacy and about how we treat each other. I really like this. I think I want to do this." And I remember when she told me that story I almost wept. I think she's one of the greatest actors alive. She's so good in this movie. She's really funny and really genuine.
But also it's empirically nice to get the idea that people get it.
That you've written something that makes sense to the objective observer. One last question, I was reading something recently from Annie Proulx where she said that she almost wishes she hadn't written "Brokeback Mountain" because while it was a beautiful story, when she was done with it, it took on such a weird cultural life of its own and people were writing her and people writing things where there gets to be a happy ending and people pestering her for interpretations. I'm wondering if you have a slight sense of that after working on "The Dark Knight Rises."
In terms of...
I thought you were going to ask me about "Don Jon."
No, in terms of like in terms of that being a sector that people... I'm trying to ask you about how, in probably every other interview, people have asked you about "The Dark Knight."
I see what you're doing. (Laughs)
I'm trying to circuitously go around, talk about the things that I hate. I'm curious, do you have -- I mean it's not something that you regret, but is something where you're like you're done with the film and thank you very kindly?
No, I love the film. And when people ask me interesting questions about the content of the story, I find it a fascinating movie to talk about. That's not mostly what people ask me though. (Laughs)
People ask you hypothetical stuff that you would have no role in or idea of.
People ask me about industry rumors, which I think really are boring to talk about.
(Laughs) I prefer movies that exist to hypothetical ones.
Yeah. Do we love movies, or do we love this kind of like behind the scenes soap opera of the industry? 'Cause one to me is really interesting and one is a snooze fest.