Joseph Gordon-Levitt has exactly the air about him that you’d expect — polite, well-dressed, and charming as heck. His latest film, Don Jon, which marks his debut as a writer and director, also stars Gordon-Levitt as a womanizing, body building, porn addict who begins a romantic relationship with a romantic, traditional, sexy young woman played by Scarlett Johansson. It’s a romantic comedy about unhealthy expectations, but Gordon-Levitt expects that it’ll resonate well with audiences. Along with a few other journalists, I sat down with the actor/writer/director (or “Joe” as he introduced himself) and asked about his experience making Don Jon…
What inspired you to choose this particular story for your directorial and writing debut?
Well, I’ve been working as an actor since I was young. Probably because of that, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to the way that TV and movies and all kinds of media affect how we see the world. I think, sometimes, the things we see in the media give us certain unrealistic expectations for life, and especially for love and sex and relationships. I wanted to tell a story about that. I thought a good way to do it would be to have a comedy about a boyfriend and a girlfriend where the guy watches too much pornography and the girl watches too many romantic Hollywood movies. They both have these unrealistic expectations and keep missing each other.
I won’t put you on the spot about porn, but for the rest of the stuff, how much was it based on what has happened in your life and in personal experiences?
I think we can all identify with both of these characters. We all have a tendency to be selfish. We all have a tendency to, sort of, use people rather than really connect with them because it’s easier. It takes more effort to actually pay attention to who is in front of you and learn what about them makes them a unique individual. That’s a lot harder. We all have the tendency to think we already know the person and put them in a box with a label, and I’ll admit that I’m guilty of that sometimes. I do my best to stay present and treat everybody like an individual. But yeah, it’s hard. Yeah, I identify.
The score is by Nathan Johnson, suggesting that you’re borrowing a lot of the same, well, the Rian Johnson crew, so-to-speak…
Absolutely. Ram Bergman [producer].
Absolutely. So for your first feature, what types of things did you learn from other sets and filmmakers to bring to this first experience?
I, 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. And in that way I didn’t feel like a first time filmmaker. Generally, when you say someone is a ‘first time filmmaker’, that’s someone who hasn’t really been on very many sets. Rian, in particular, has something in common with several of my favorite filmmakers that I’ve worked for. In 2011, the year before I shot Don Jon, I noticed this in all three of the directors that I worked for, including Chris(topher) Nolan and Steven Spielberg. All three of these guys, they’re all different, but they all have a balance between having a thorough plan while also being able to be spontaneous. If you go too far in either direction, you can really mess up a movie. If you’re too married to a plan, you can end up with something that’s sort of stale. If you don’t stick to your plan enough, then you’re too easy to lure away to new ideas and your movie can begin to lack a strong unified voice.
And in terms of time, limitations, budget…
Sure. But that’s something I noticed in all three of those guys. You get that question all day long when you’re a director — ‘Here’s what we planned on doing, but now we can do this!? What do you think?’ or ‘What should we do?’ or an actor says, ‘How about I say it this way instead of that way?’ So much of what I loved about the performances in Don Jon was that the actors were always doing something spontaneous, that was different from what I expected. I love those moments. But sometimes a moment like that happens and you’re like, ‘I love that. I love that you’re doing it and it feels organic…BUT…there’s a reason it’s written this way because it ties into all these other things’. 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. A director has to keep an eye on everything. So you have to find that balance. There are examples of both in this movie. There are tons of moments where the actors did stuff that I didn’t expect and it’s in the movie and I love it.
What surprised you as a director that you weren’t prepared for?
It’s funny because I’ve gotten that question a few times and I can’t think of anything. <<laughing>> To be really, really honest. The only thing I could talk about is what I was just talking about, which is artists, especially the actors, surprising me everyday. Those are really the most thrilling moments of the entire multi-year process. Scarlett would deliver a line differently from what I envisioned and I’m like, ‘wow, I love that! That’s so alive. I never would have thought to do it that way.’
Honestly, I felt pretty well-prepared.
A cake walk.
Not to say it was easy. I just felt familiar. All the different parts of it felt familiar.
Why did you go with the ‘guido’ persona? It was almost a caricature. Were you inspired by Jersey Shore? Was Tony Danza a source of research for you? Being from Los Angeles, how much experience did you have with that type of character?
Well I lived in New York on and off for ten years so I’ve been around plenty of east coast culture. It’s a movie about a guy who’s trying very much to fit into a mold. Fit into ‘here’s what you’re supposed to be. Now be it’. I wanted a specific mold for him to fit into. And so when I was thinking about who’s a contemporary Don Juan, this was the first guy I thought of. This east coast womanizer with the gym body and the shiny hair. Look, people keep bringing up Jersey Shore, I had never seen Jersey Shore <<laughing>> That’s the honest truth. I don’t watch a ton of TV and I had never seen it. I’ve seen it since. I don’t think that this character really has much in common with those characters. But yeah, Tony Danza…a lot of my voice was sort of going off him. That’s how he talks. He grew up in Brooklyn and he’s not putting on a voice. That’s how he talks. Scarlett, also, is from New York. Rob and Jeremy, who play my buddies, they’re from Brooklyn and Staten Island.
I hope that people don’t think that I’m saying that everyone in New Jersey is the way that Jon Martello is, because that’s clearly not the case. There are other characters in the movie that aren’t that way. The Julianne Moore character is very much her own person and that’s sort of the point. Jon and Barbara, both of them are very intent on fitting into what they think they’re supposed to be. Esther doesn’t give a fuck. That’s what creates the contrast and a lot of humor and the growth in the story.
What was the process like to get into your muscular gym shape and what’s your diet and workout schedule like now?
Yeah, I don’t do any of that stuff anymore. <<Laughing>> I just worked out everyday for hours and I ate a ton of food. Pounds of protein. Chicken mostly.
Have you done that for a movie before?
Not like that, no. Well for Premium Rush, I rode a bike everyday and was in far better shape. Bodybuilding actually doesn’t really put you in good shape. It just makes you look big.
So you have this production company, or production forum, hitRECord. Did that play into Don Jon? Did you get insight or use some of the artists for this film?
So hitRECord has sort of been my moniker for years and this is the first movie that has its name, hitRECord Films, on it. On hitRECord.org we also do 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. But I thought, before doing that, it was important to direct a film the old-fashioned way, the way that I grew up with. There are some people from the (hitRECord) community, some artists, who worked on Don Jon. But this is a traditionally made movie. Right now we’re making a TV show on hitRECord and it’s fully open, fully collaborative. I’m directing it but everyone is contributing to it. 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, putting out videos every day offering direction and feedback. We have songs, videos, short documentaries and we’re going to put them all together into 8 episodes of TV. It’s going to be in January.
I think a more apt comparison than Jersey Shore is Saturday Night Fever. Those, in conjunction with films like Shame — there are overtones of both of those films in this one. What kinds of movies did you study to get geared up to make this one?
One that I think is really connected is Shampoo, the Hal Ashby movie, the Warren Beatty movie. And really all of Hal Ashby’s movies. Harold and Maude and Being There, etc. He’s made lots of great movies. He strikes a really great tone with his comedy that I love where the comedy isn’t coming from gags as much as it is coming from relating to the people in the story. Mike Nichols is another filmmaker like that…The Graduate or…
Yeah. I watched that for sure. Such a great Jack Nicholson performance. And even some of the great films that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of — 500 Days of Summer or 50/50 — which again, they are 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.
Quick cosmetic question, but why the title change, taking out the ‘Addiction’ from Don Jon’s Addiction to Don Jon?
Well first of all, it’s shorter. <<laughing>> That’s actually the biggest reason. Don Jon is just a stronger, briefer, title. I’m definitely a fan of brevity. The word ‘addiction’ was more of a symbol. It’s not a movie about addiction, it’s a movie about a guy and his narrow mindset and how he grows out of that. I think that because it’s sort of sensational to say that it’s a movie about porn addiction, a lot of people were saying, ‘you made a movie about porn addiction!’ and I don’t really think I did make a movie about porn addiction. <<laughing>> The comparison that I’ve made before is that The Maltese Falcon is not a story about a statue of a bird. The statue of a bird represents something and you see the statue of the bird throughout the movie and everybody is talking about the statue of the bird the whole time but it’s not a movie about birds! I think the word ‘addiction’ was misleading lots of people and so I feel that taking it away sort of shifted the focus to where I intended it to be.
On the person.
Yeah, on the person.
How long had you been planning on making the leap to directing?
I’ve always been fascinated with all the different parts that go into filmmaking. I’ve always played around with cameras ever since I was quite young. For my twenty-first birthday I got myself a copy of Final Cut, the video-editing software. Once I started editing, I loved it. I loved editing so much and I still do. When you start editing, that’s when you really start making movies, more than you can 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. Since then I’ve been interested in it and building up to it. I’ve made tons of little short films and videos over the years. Without exaggeration, probably hundreds of them.
I can’t say that from the beginning of the writing process, that I knew that this was going to be my first. I was just enjoying writing it. And then I finished it. Throughout, I wasn’t just thinking about the dialogue. I was thinking about how the camera would make this work and how the editing would really complement this story point, or how the music needs to be. By the time I finished the script, I had thought of all this stuff, so I thought I should just do it.
You had envisioned Scarlett Johansson for the role, how about the Julianne Moore part?
I love Julie as an actress. She’s been in some of my favorite movies, whether its Magnolia or The Big Lebowski or Short Cuts…
She really increases the gravity of the movie.
Absolutely. She’s so heartfelt. I was really surprised and delighted when I had heard that she read the script and really liked the material and wanted to talk. We got on the phone and had some really great conversations. It was really a best case scenario. I was delighted and she’s so good in the movie. I’m so proud of it.
Do you think that it’s a new trend with modern couples to have this problem? Do you think that people might reach out to thank you for bringing it to light?
I actually don’t think so, necessarily. I think that it’s an age old thing, that we have pre-conceived expectations and if we compare our significant other to those expectations rather than appreciate and embrace who they really are, in the present moment, we’re gonna be doomed. Thousands of years ago we got those expectations from fairy tales and now we get those expectations from all sorts of media, whether its pornography or movies or TV shows or commercials or pop songs or whatever else. So I don’t think it’s necessarily new, even if it’s taking a new form today.
Don Jon opens in Bay Area theaters this Friday, September 27.