Joseph Gordon-Levitt has spent the past decade building one of the most intriguing careers of any leading man in Hollywood.
Last week, he went a step further by making his writing-directing debut with Don Jon, a hard-R romantic comedy about a young lothario who starts to realize he’s addicted to pornography and his efforts to change for the better.
While the movie is undeniably risqué, Gordon-Levitt nevertheless has built on the legacy of Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin in crafting a film that will deliver a conservative message to audiences that might never otherwise listen.
Speaking at a Q&A after a screening of “Don Jon” at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas in Los Angeles recently, Gordon-Levitt discussed the making of and motivations behind his film during a public Q&A.
Q: Is porn a symbol of how we interact with each other?
JGL: To be perfectly honest, you’re right on the money, and I never even dare try to bring it that simple, because it’s too esoteric for some. So thank you man for saying that. We talk about one way, one sided vs. a two-way thing. This is something I do think about all the time. The way the media was in the 20th Century was a one-way street. Audiences had to sit there and watch it and you don’t really get to participate or interact–it’s just an object on the screen you consume. Meanwhile a small clique of an industry broadcasts to you. Now the media is totally different from that, it’s become this conversational thing where anybody with an Internet connection can participate in. I don’t want to sound grandiose. But I think that’s the most important development in human history close to ever. It’s changed what it means to be a human being. How connected we are now, and especially how connected we are becoming. For me, that’s a lot of what I was thinking about, believe it or not, when I was coming up with this story.
Q: How did you land on porn as the main plot point of the movie?
JGL: I wanted to enter the story around the way the media influences how we see the world. Especially when it comes to love, sex and relationships, we often develop unrealistic expectations based on these fantasies that we see on screen. That’s sort of a funny way of telling that story, to have a boyfriend and girlfriend, and he’s watching too much pornography and she’s watching too many Hollywood romantic comedies. It’s sort of a comedy of errors thing. They keep missing each other because they’re not engaging with each other. They keep comparing each other to these fantasies.
Q: Is a raunchy sex comedy the best way to do that?
JGL: Well, laughter is the best medicine! I very much wanted if I was going to make a movie, put all the time and work and care into writing and directing a movie, I wanted to put something out there that was meaningful to me. But I also wanted to connect with lots of people. And this is a movie about lots of people, mainstream cultures, and a normal American guy. So I wanted mainstream and normal American people to see it and be entertained by it. It’s a movie after all, it’s not an essay, I’m not a professor. What I’m good at is making a room of people laugh, that’s what I grew up doing. So that’s what I wanted to do.
Q: What were the visual references you were using?
JGL: I did have a lot of specific ideas that I was thinking about while writing. In fact the work that all three of these acts fit into a structure that I wanted to reflect the evolution of the character. In the first third of the movie, you meet him, where it’s empty, the music and editing feel like that, the shots seem like that. The second and third acts of the movie are more traditional romantic Hollywood. In the third act, it gets more sparse.
Q: You’re not shooting so much actual nudity?
JGL: Yeah very much. But we wanted it to not be an objective look at oh we’re watching this guy, watching pornography. We wanted it to be more inside the perspective of this guy who is objectifying the movie on the screen. Those sequences are pretty heavily composed and specifically planned out. Finding the actual clips of pornography was very tedious. (everyone laughs)
Q: What were you looking for in the porn?
JGL: Well, each little cut corresponds very specifically to a story point. A line and voiceover that illustrates very particular what’s being said. But it was about finding that right balance of what wasn’t too gross, and you could understand why it was appealing but also demonstrates what is problematic about pornography.
Q: What were the steps you took to writing and directing this movie?
JGL: I wasn’t really having a distinction between the traditional roles: director, writer, producer, actor. Probably because of when I made short videos, you don’t think about it so much. You’re just like I have an idea for a video, let me make it. Sometimes you have your friends you help make it, and sometimes you do it yourself. But even when you do have your friends, you’re not like “You’re the director, I’m the producer.” So that’s how I was thinking about it as I was coming up with the movie. As I was writing, I wasn’t just putting words on page but I was thinking wouldn’t it be cool for this scene if the cameras did this or the music did that. It became clear to me when I was done writing I definitely wasn’t going to give it someone else.
Q: Did it help you worked with Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and other big directors recently?
JGL: I think I always paid that kind of attention. I’m avoiding saying that cliche of “I always wanted to direct.” I just always loved everything about movies. I was curious about what makes up a movie, because a lot more goes into it than just actors. You can’t do it without the actors. As an actor, sometimes I’ve felt myself that thing I was performing was changed a lot by the score at the end. I wanted to be able to play with all those tools. So I guess the answer is from the beginning I was thinking about directing.
Q: You guys are making the movie on the fly?
JGL: It also shows how collaborative the movie was. There was a scene where they were shopping to get pads for his Swiffer. That wasn’t in the script at first. Largely due to Tom’s concerns, amongst other things, we realized that scene was necessary to cross that bridge. It was a scene that Scarlett and I kind of almost cowrote. We sat down and started working on it together. And it changed almost totally. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie and really a collaborative thing.
Q: How did you subvert the traditional romantic convention of girl fixing boy?
JGL: Well that’s just it, I wanted to lure people down that road that we’re all used to. And hopefully surprise the audience a bit to where we’re not going to get back to where the happy ending would be. I also wanted to make the point that she’s objectifying him just as badly as he’s objectifying her. She’s trying to put him in this box and hold him up to her expectations that she has learned in these Hollywood movies. In the same way he’s holding her up to the expectations he’s learned from pornography and Carls Jr. commercials.
Q: How great was it casting Tony Danza?
JGL: Well he and I had worked together 20 years prior in “Angels in the Outfield.” He was my first choice. I wanted, here is the thing about Tony. He’s so lovable, one of the most lovable faces in our culture. You just can’t help but smile and like him whenever you see him. He really has that, he has such a good heart. I like when I watch a movie as an audience member and an actor I like and know does something you do’t expect him to do. I thought having a lovable actor like Tony playing this short-tempered, selfish, lecherous dad would be really great. Also you can’t hate him. You have to be half-charmed. If he were a dislikable guy, then it would be too dark and it wouldn’t be funny. So how lovable he is naturally struck that balance.
Q: Why did you set the movie in Northern New Jersey?
JGL: I grew up in the Valley right here. Speaking of which, it’s awesome to be at this theater. I grew up going to this particular theater, this was the destination for us Valley kids to drive over Laurel Canyon where they were playing the cool movies. It’s cool to be here, it’s cool they renovated, and everything looks and sounds so great. I just want to take a moment to recognize that I love this cinema! So I grew up in the Valley, which is sort of a suburb, I wanted to set this movie in a suburb. I wanted to be a normal middle income place whereas romantic comedies are set in affluent places like Manhattan, London. I wanted it to be a normal guy. I don’t know why exactly why. But when I thought to myself who’s Don Juan today, it’s this guy (does tough Jersey accent) “This fuckin’ — the gym body and the shiny hair.” I lived in New York on and off for 10 years, so I’ve been around that culture a lot. I thought it would be something fun and funny for me to play.
Q: What do you want audiences to take away from “Don Jon”?
JGL: A lot of things. Just to try to connect. If I could urge anybody to do anything, it would be to pay attention. Listen to what someone in front of you is saying, don’t put them in a box. That you know who they are or what they’re up to right off the bat. Maybe it comes from growing up as an actor, I feel sometimes like I get objectified. Our culture treats actor in a sort of weird pedestal way. But I don’t think it’s just actors, we all experience this. A tendency to pigeonhole each other. But I’d be interested to think about where media comes into that. Growing up working in different kinds of media, I pay attention to it, and it plays a prominent role in our lives. We tend to think of it as just entertainment, that’s not to say that it’s not, but even something that was intended, you watch it day after day, year after year, it will be part of how you access the world. That’s the way it is for me. So I try to stay really aware. It’s not to say I only watch cool things, I watch plenty of stupid shit. But I try to remain aware of it when I am. I think that’s something I want people coming away from this movie to think about. What I watch everyday–what impact will it have on me. How I see the world.
Q: Talk about Brie Larson’s character — she only has one line?
JGL: This is something Brie and I talked about together. This evolution you see Jon go through in the story, his sister went through it a couple years ago. I think she’s a few steps ahead. She realizes no one listens to each other in this house anyway, why should I talk? I wanted to put her on the phone, partially because a lot of people in this movie are absorbed with different kinds of media. But what you pointed is out is true, she’s not checking out, she’s paying attention. I like to think that phones aren’t check-out machines like a TV. Of course TVs are changing now. A phone is a communication device to send out and receive in. Brie and I talked about that she wasn’t texting ditzy things to her friends. We pictured her working or promoting her art on her phone and still paying attention, even though she’s resigned to not speaking. At the end she feels like, check out my brother, this is abnormal, he’s crossing the line here, I’ll speak up. That’s why she is the way she is.