In roughly the last 16 months or so, I've been fortunate to be in an interview situation with Joseph Gordon-Levitt four times (six times if you count the two unrecorded Q&As we've done in that timeframe). In years past, I've been fortunate enough to interview him one before, and perhaps most memorably, we sat next to each other for roughly 24 hours during a Butt Numb-a-Thon a few years back, as a guest of Rian Johnson, just weeks before the two began shooting last year's extraordinary LOOPER. A big part of the reason I'll always say Yes to interviewing him is that I've always found Gordon-Levitt to be intelligent, funny, and not too concerned with getting asked off-the-wall questions by journalists or audience members at Q&As.
I sat down with him back in March at the SXSW Film Festival after a screening of his latest film DON JON, which he not only stars in but marks the first time he has written and directed a feature. The movie has all the marks of a confident filmmaker, who has worked with and studied the best, and features a script that is insightful, clever and will make you laugh a great deal. What it is not is a film simply about making fun of men and women from New Jersey; it's about a man who finds it easier to watch a lot of online porn than to have a relationship with a woman that has feelings, expectations and needs. It's a far more complicated film than you think it is, and if you base your interest level in this film simply on the trailers and commercials, you're truly missing out.
About a month ago, I sat down with Gordon-Levitt again, and tried to pick up the conversation where we left off that I could give you one long interview rather than two shorter ones. What follows is a Frankenstein-ing of our two chats; hope you dig it. Please enjoy my talk with Joseph Gordon-Levitt…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Hey, good to see you again. Have you finally moved down here [to Austin]?
Capone: Nope, I still live in Chicago.
JGL: Cool. You still going to Butt Numb-a-Thon?
Capone: Yeah, oh yeah. You need to come back to it.
JGL: I couldn't last year because I was working to finish this.
Capone: So I found this out late yesterday, right after I saw the film, that you changed the title [from DON JON'S ADDICTION to DON JON] and you released a statement, which I have not actually seen. And after seeing the film and seeing what you changed the title to, I thought, “That’s good, because that’s not really what this film is about."
JGL: Thank you. I completely agree with you.
Capone: The word ADDICTION could throw people off.
JGL: It has been throwing people off, and that’s the thing. Well first of all, to be honest, the first reason I wanted to change it is just because it’s shorter. “LOOPER,” that’s a good title for a movie, you know? In fact, Rian even told me, “I always thought you were just going to change it to DON JON.” But yes, the word “addiction” I think was throwing people off. It’s not a movie about porn addiction. It’s not a movie about sex addiction. It’s a movie about a guy who's in a rut, who has a very narrow point of view and is living his life constantly comparing everything in his life to these standards and these expectations that he has.
Certainly women, and he learns his expectations through pornography, but also his own body, which he learns his expectations through any number of places. He’s constantly looking in the mirror and doing exercises that are just designed to make himself look a certain way. His car, his apartment, the way he relates to his family and friends, everything is an object at a distance rather than something he’s directly engaging with, and by the end of the movie, hopefully we see him beginning to open up and begin to be here now, and that’s what the movie is about.
Capone: I didn’t even know Julianne Moore was in this movie, and that whole storyline involving her really threw me in a great way. I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day yesterday.
JGL: Well the idea was just how I described it. Jon is objectifying everything and never present, so the idea was to have a character in the story who was opposite of that, who’s always present, who sort of can’t even step out of the present, because it’s too painful for her. So she has to just always be engaged and always be present. Putting those two characters next to each other is going to be funny.
Capone: It is funny. You’ve taken this stereotypical like Jersey chucklehead and made us give a shit about him and make him not a caricature at all.
JGL: Thank you.
Capone: Tell me about piecing him together. What made you interested in that kind of guy?
JGL: Well it started with this same premise of I wanted to tell a story about a relationship between a guy who watches too much pornography and a girl who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies. So I was thinking about the guy and was like, “Alright, who is he? Why is he watching all of this pornography?” I thought, “If he’s watching it all because he just can’t find a partner, that doesn’t really get at the theme I’m after. But if he’s a ladies man, if he’s just taking home women left and right, but still keeps coming back to this one-way dynamic that he finds in the pornography, that really tells the story.
So he's a ladies man. That’s when I thought of Don Juan, the classic literary character, and you can interpret that character any number of ways. I was thinking about it in lots of different ways and thinking about the movie in lots of different ways. I could be dark and realistic or it could be really experimental, or I could do this and that.
It was while I was working on 50/50 actually and hanging out with Seth Rogen and his whole posse all the time that I thought of making it a character-based comedy. And when I asked myself, “Who's Don Juan in that movie?” My first idea was, “This guy!" It just popped into my head, with the gym body and the shiny hair going to the club and banging chicks all of the time; and it made me laugh. It just made me laugh, and when you're trying to make a comedy, you don’t take that likely. If something makes you laugh, follow it.
Capone: Did it make you laugh, because you could see yourself playing it, or he just made you laugh?
JGL: Both. I think both. He made me laugh. The idea of that being the Don Juan who watches too much pornography made me laugh. But also, yes, the idea of me getting to play that character made me laugh. I love tackling roles that are different from me. LOOPER is one of my favorite performances I’ve ever given, because he’s completely different from me. He has a different face, a different voice, walks different, talks different, he’s an orphan, he’s a killer, he’s got like nothing in common with me, and that’s what I really loved.
I loved the character I got to play in STOP-LOSS, who was a soldier. I’m not a soldier. I grew up raised by peace activists, so putting myself in this whole other mentality that I never considered before and really understanding them and not judging the soldiers and saying, “Oh, these guys are perpetrating an evil war,” but being like “What would it be like to actually be this guy? Let me grow some empathy for these guys and put myself in their shoes.” That’s what I love about acting and that’s what this was, like “Let me put myself in this guy’s shoes, a guy that maybe if I were going to be judgmental and dismiss him right off the bat, I’d say ‘Look at this douchebag,’ but let me put myself in his shoes and figure it out.” There are elements of him that are full of douche-baggery, but hopefully by the end, like I said, you see a glimmer of change and you see him breaking out of his shell.
Capone: As happens to many good-looking actors, Scarlett doesn’t get enough credit a lot of times for how good she can be. Her character is so whip smart and manipulative in this.
JGL: Thanks, man. [Laughs]
Capone: She is just playing you left and right, and in that final scene that the two of you have at that café is brutal. Talk about just finding that right person for that role.
JGL: I always had her in mind. From the very beginning of writing this role, I was always picturing her playing it. I’ve always been a fan of hers. I think she’s a great actress from as far back as THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE to obviously LOST IN TRANSLATION to VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. Also I saw her on SNL do that chandelier sketch. Have you ever seen that?
Capone: Yes, of course.
JGL: I thought, “That’s fucking funny.” She was great on SNL, and obviously Barbara Sugarman is not as broad as the chandelier girl, but I knew she could do some kind of Jersey accent. She’s a New Yorker and she just nailed it. If you look at this character on the page, I think it’s good, but what she brought to it is a whole new level, all of that stuff. Her accent, her gum, her nails, her hair, her clothes, the way she walks, everything. Watch her hands in this movie. She doesn’t act like that in real life. Her hands don’t do that.
Capone: I noticed one scene where she had her hands up like this just so you could see the nails. It was almost like a claw.
JGL: It is like a claw! If you get to see it again or a third-time viewing maybe, just focus on what she does with her hands. It’s brilliant.
Capone: As a director, leading up to this, you have worked with not just great directors, but great visual artists. Did you feel as you were gearing up to actually make this happen that you’re like, “Man, I’ve got to up my game a little. I can’t just put a camera on a tripod and shoot it.”
JGL: [laughs] I was really inspired and I’ve been inspired by a whole lot of filmmakers that I’ve gotten to work with, and this is my baby. I’ve always wanted to make a movie and I really put my all into this, and I knew that if I were going to direct a movie, I wanted to make it outstanding literally. I wanted it to stand out. I didn’t want to just do like, “Okay, he did a good version of one of those movies.” I wanted to do something I couldn’t have done otherwise if I weren’t in charge. It’s risky and some people certainly said, “Are you sure you don’t want to do like a nice whodunnit? We'll get you a nice budget at some studio and make a good standard movie for your first time, then you can try to concur the world later.” I was like, “No. I don’t want to do that. If I’m going to spend two years of my life every day, all day without sleep doing something, I want it to be special.” And I feel really good about this movie. I think it is special and I think it’s unique. I’m really proud of it.
Capone: What’s funny about last night was when that woman asked that question about Ben Affleck [being the new Batman, a story that literally broke during the DON JON screening], I hadn’t heard that news yet.
JGL: You hadn’t heard it?
Capone: No, I didn’t know that that was a real thing, otherwise I would have maybe pursued it a little more. But you had a very diplomatic response, I thought.
JGL: It’s also true; my response is perfectly honest. I really think he’s a great actor.
Capone: Are you out of the Batman game for now, or is there still a glimmer of hope…?
JGL: Yeah, I don’t know anything about that movie. I think this movie really has nothing to do with what Nolan did, or at least it seems that way to me.
Capone: At the beginning of the film, Jon gives us a little sex education lesson about the differences between a real woman and the women in porn. Then Julianne gives this really beautiful lesson at the end of the film about letting sex take you over and taking your time. I just thought it was a really nice way to bookend the film with these two. That’s really the growth.
JGL: Absolutely. It's a coming-of-age story, but traditionally Don Juan stories are tragedies where, in the end, the main character suffers the consequences of his short comings and is destroyed. I wanted to make a movie where, by the end, he’s starting to get a little better. I didn’t want it to be like “Now he’s all better.” But I did want to see the beginnings, his first steps towards opening up and breaking out of that mold. I’m glad that progression came through.
Capone: When you're writing a screenplay for yourself, do you write it deliberately out of your comfort zone? Do you write it and think, “I’m a little nervous to play this guy. I could screw this up really bad.”
JGL: Sure, and pushing yourself outside of that comfort zone. I did want to create a character that would be unexpected for me, that would push me and be something different than what I’ve done before. Ultimately, I didn’t want to make a movie where I’m pointing my finger and laughing at this character and his faults. I wanted to make a movie where I wasn’t judging him, but really embodying him and being like, “What would it really be like to be this guy?” I think every human being has their strengths and their weaknesses, and this guy has his virtues. There’s some stuff that’s really cool about him. He’s reliable. He takes care of himself. He takes care of his house. There are things that I admire about him.
Capone: Scarlett called him “disciplined.”
JGL: I like that line: “He’s so disciplined.”
Capone: I think she was talking about your workout routine, right? But it goes a little beyond that.
JGL: Yes, it does. She wants a disciplined man.
Capone: Somebody totally brought this up to me last night, the scene in the store where you want to buy cleaning products, and she hates the idea of your cleaning your own place. Anything about you that strays from the ideal romantic-comedy kind of man that she wants, she reacts very badly to. None of the guys in the movie she watches clean their own house, and that’s a good point. And certainly none of them would watch porn with these perfect women in these movies too.
JGL: She wants to be that ideal woman and she wants her man to be that ideal man, but that ideal is simplistic.
Capone: In the little movie within the movie, was it in any way difficult to get Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway to make fun of those kind of films? Let's be honest, these people are your friends, but they have both been in movies like that.
JGL: We’ve all been in movies like that. Sure, I have too. No, think they were game. They were keen to make fun of it.
Capone: They’ve all moved past it I think at this point.
JGL: Yeah, and as actors, I think when you end up in a movie that turns out overly simplistic, when you sign up to do the movie, you’re not seeing it that way. Any movie has the potential to have more to it than that, and it doesn’t always turn out that way, but so much more goes into it than what an actor is doing. Does that make sense?
Capone: Oh yeah.
JGL: So I think as actors, we are plenty game to make fun of those movies that do turn out that way.
Capone: Was feature directing always the goal? With all these short films you’ve been making--it seems like hundreds of them--was that always where you were headed?
JGL: Sure. I always wanted to try it one day. I didn’t know exactly when I would or if I would ever get to, but of course. I always wanted to do it, but I also think there’s something completely valid about short films. If anything, I would say there’s a pretty good argument to say that short films are a more relevant art form than feature films now. Ninety-minute-plus features fit less and less into our cultural landscape. I still love them, for sure, but I will admit that it’s far more frequent that I have 10 minutes to watch something than I have what amounts to an entire evening to sit down and watch a whole movie.
Capone: Leading up to you shooting this, you worked with Steven Spielberg, Rian Johnson, and Chris Nolan again. That just has to fill your head with great ideas about how to direct, by being around those guys for the year or so leading up to shooting this. Was that a great ramp from which you could take off?
JGL: It certainly was. I couldn’t ask for a better one, really. It really made a difference and helped me feel able and encouraged to do it, especially because those guys were particularly encouraging to me.
Capone: Can you sense when a scene is not working from within it, or do you have to watch it back afterwards?
JGL: Yes, I feel like I can sense it and I think I told this story yesterday about how when we were shooting the one part that I wasn’t in, I felt less in touch and less able to direct. When I’m acting in the scene, I almost feel like I can steer the ship without having to give notes. Just by virtue of how I play my part, that can often drive the scene. If I want to pace it up or if I want to bring it down or emphasize hits moment or that moment, I can do that, and sometimes that’s a better way than stopping and having a conversation, because sometimes these feelings are hard to really articulate in words.
Capone: You’re making music, writing and directing; we know you can dance--we’ve seen that happen. Is there still an avenue that is untapped that you’d like to get into? You’re doing this TV show.
JGL: I’m really excited about that.
Capone: What’s the framework with that going to be like for that, or are you still figuring it out at this point?
JGL: Each episode is a half hour, and there’s a theme for each episode, so them you have short films and live performances and music and short documentaries and cartoons all regarding that theme, different takes on that theme. And then every little piece is made collaboratively by this whole community of artists, and I host it and bring the audience through the half hour.
Capone: Where is it running again?
JGL: On Pivot, a new cable network. The network just went on the air in August, and you can get it a lot of different ways. You can get it through the internet. You can get it on TV, and the show will also be on iTunes and stuff. The show starts in January.
Capone: We talked last night about you handing this script to Rian first after it was done for his thoughts and notes, but when you’re directing, do you have someone that you can turn to and say, “Is this working?” or do you just put a mirror up on the wall and talk to yourself?
JGL: [laughs] Sure, well, different people for different things. While shooting, I would talk to he cinematographer about if it the camera was working. I would talk to the other actors a lot about how the scene was playing, and Julie and Scarlet in particular are just really great and knowledgeable actors and had a lot to contribute. And the editor, Lauren Zuckerman, was a really great source of feedback and huge contributor to the movie.
Capone: You were talking about your DP, Thomas Kloss, last night. First of all, he must have been thrilled that you shot this on 35mm, because I don’t know if he gets to do it that much anymore. I remember when we showed LOOPER last year, I joked about the fact that he Rian shot it on 35mm as well. That was a year ago, but now it seems like even more of a novelty today.
JGL: Well I always wanted to do it on 35mm, just because I grew up shooting on 35mm film and I like the way it looks and I’m just used to it and I wanted to do that. That’s what I said to Ram [Bergman], the producer. Have you met Ram before?
Capone: I don’t think so.
JGL: He produced LOOPER and BRICK and BOTHERS BLOOM and DON JON. So I said to Ram, “I want to shoot this on 35mm; there’s no two ways about this.” He was like “Okay.” The truth is, for our relatively low budget, shooting on film isn’t more expensive. Shooting on a Red camera or an Alexa actually is really technically a lot more challenging. You have to have a lot more people. You have to have a lot more equipment. It takes longer to set up often times. So the money you save in film stock and film development is way outweighed by that other stuff. So we were happy to shoot on 35mm, and I’m really glad. I think it still looks better. I think with new digital cameras, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between film and digital, but I still think you can tell that this movie was shot on film.
Capone: Of course you can. Speaking of this, another news story that broke yesterday was that JJ Abrams was shooting this new STAR WARS film on 35mm.
JGL: Right on, that’s awesome.
Capone: Apparently he’s been researching film stock from the era of the original films, and how the different lab processes will happen. He’s really digging deep.
JGL: That’s intriguing.
Capone: The only thing you’ve got on the slate right now is this SIN CITY sequel. Who do you play in that, and how was that experience for you?
JGL: It was great. I play a gambler and I’ve always been a fan of Robert Rodriguez, and getting to work for him was a thrill. Also, we’ve been doing a lot of green-screen shooting for HitRecord on TV, because it’s really conducive to our collaborative process where we shoot something with actors in front of green screen.
We shot a short film based on a true story that a woman contributed to our site about how when she was 16 she saw the stars for the first time. Anyway, it’s a great story, and we shot a version of it on green screen. Elle Fanning stars in it. And right now, we're in the middle of working on visuals, meaning the rough cut is up on the site and people are contributing. It’s sort of a SIN CITY-ish type of thing. It won’t look like SIN CITY, but the visuals are all made later, so people are contributing their illustrations, and animators are taking those illustrations and animating them behind the actors. This is a method we’ve done on HitRecord for a few short films, and we're doing a bunch of them for the TV show, and I really wanted to see it done on the grandest of scales. I think Rodrigeuz does that as well as, if not better, than anybody.
Capone: He’s probably the most advanced at that style of filmmaking. Then we talked a little bit about this musical that you may or may not be doing with Channing Tatum. When the story broke, it was said to be GUYS AND DOLLS, but you’re saying you two just want to make a "musical."
JGL: Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. That’s something we’ve been talking about, but there are a million variables involved in a big property like that. So we'll see if that one works out, but whether it does or it doesn’t, we're determined. We don’t know how we will do it or how long it will take, but we really want to do that.
Capone: But ideally, that’s the story that you would like to do. Are you pursuing GUYS AND DOLLS?
JGL: Yeah, we're in the middle of… like I said, there are a million things to work through. We're in the middle of it.
Capone: So outside the TV show, do you have anything lined up for the next few months?
JGL: No, I don’t.
Capone: It doesn’t look like it.
JGL: This TV show is what I’ve been working on all year.