Jersey Strong: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Becoming a Guido For ‘Don Jon’
It's easy to be jealous of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He's an incredibly talented (and good-looking) guy. He can act, sing, dance and with his latest movie, 'Don Jon,' he proves he can write and direct too. It's almost not fair. But, it's hard to hate a guy who is so damned nice. (Oh, did we mention he's also just about the nicest guy you could meet? Yeah, that too.)
We caught up with Gordon-Levitt to talk about the challenges of making his first movie, whether people take actors seriously as directors and, as a native New Jerseyan, how he and co-star Scarlett Johansson managed to so perfectly embody that Jersey style.
I'm a New Jersey guy, so I came in looking to nit pick. I’ve got to give it to you. You and Scarlett and Tony, nailed it. Did you follow anybody around? Did you kind of go and walk the streets of Hoboken for research?
That's a good question. I lived in NYC for ten years; so I've been exposed to this culture plenty. Scarlett is also a New Yorker, Tony is from Brooklyn. Rob Brown, from Brooklyn. Jeremy Luke, from Staten Island. So, there's a lot of people that are actually from this place. I think ultimately it's about; the point of the movie is to not just make fun of these people as cartoons. The point is to explore these people as people. It is done in a heightened way; it's not a work of realism. It's not a Cassavetes movie. But, it's maybe something closer to a Cohen Brothers movie. Or like, the way 'No Country For Old Men' portrays Texas, for example. It's heightened, but it feels, I’m not expert on Texas but it doesn't ever feel cartoony to me. Because ultimately the characters and the story is genuine. This is to me a story that has some genuine, heartfelt characters in it.
I think it helps that they feel real. The hair or the outfits don't come off as SNL characters; it all feels true.
And that stuff isn't an exaggeration really, there are people and people do sound like that and dress like that.
Can you talk to me about the gestation of the script? Where it came to you, I'm sure you've had a lot of ideas. Why this idea? Why was this the one where you wanted to make your directorial debut.
I wanted to talk about what I always think is getting in the way of love, which is how people objectify each other. When I saw that, rather than relating to each other as unique people, we treat each other as objects. We have a set list of expectations that we've learned and we're always comparing each other to those expectations. Something I've noticed a lot. I think it's really funny sometimes the way people do it. I wanted to make a movie sort of making fun of that. And on top of that, I think we’re it really gets personal for me is, how does the media impact that phenomenon? How do we learn certain standards and expectations from the media as to what a man is supposed to be or what a woman is supposed to be. Or what love is supposed to be, or what sex is supposed to be. I find it fascinating the way the media impacts people probably because I've been working in TV and movies my whole life. So, I thought a story about a relationship between a guy that watches too much pornography and a girl who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be a really funny way to get at that question.
Some people have said after the movie that they didn't like Scarlett's character. The thought she was a bitch. I thought it was an interesting response that people would single out her character, that you wouldn't say that Jon is a dick. It's an interesting reaction that the media has to a female character in that position, but not the male character.
She is very much his - they are feminine and masculine counter parts of each other. There is, there's a coming of age story with Jon and by the end of the movie you do see him beginning to break out of his shell. You don't really see that in the Barbara character. She's still rooted in her narrow way.
As you explore these characters beyond the page, do you think she ever experiences anything like that? Do you think she can break out of that mold?
The optimist in me would say, sure it depends on - something would probably have to happen to shake her. What happens to Jon is, he gets caught with his pants down so to speak and it ends up traumatizing him and he ends up in this low point and this dude who's always been very confident in going along his merry way, all of a sudden is feeling insecure. That can make you want to change. That doesn't happen to the Barbara character, maybe something will. If I'm being less optimistic, I can also see that character never changing much. Finding a man that fits into the mold that she thinks is supposed to be, them having a sort of happy on the surface and not-so-happy underneath life together.
Do you think about what happens to Jon at the end of this movie? Do you look at what happened to him before this movie to kind of get to this point? Do you explore all of that in your head?
Yeah, absolutely. That's a lot of what the family scenes are about. You see through Tony Danza's character or Glenne Headly, who plays his mom. You see people who have a very narrow idea of what how everything is supposed to be, a very traditional idea. The mom wants grandkids and Dad wants his son to be this macho guy, and here's the son sort of trying to live up to those things. So you can sort of see in the parents characters, some of what Jon's upbringing must have been like, why he ended up this way.
Tony talked about working with you previously and what you were like as a kid. He said when you were 12, instead of playing around he said you would follow the director around and see what lenses he was using. You've always had an eye on creating your own material. Why do you think you waited until now to direct?
(Laughs) That’s a good question. Well, I’ll start by saying for my 21st birthday I got myself my first copy of Final Cut Pro. And I never edited anything before, and I LOVED it! I had so much fun, I don’t know if you have ever played with one. I never took a class either but I just loved it! Photoshop is another one I want to learn, I am useless at Photoshop.
But, you know, I would just stay up all night shooting little videos of myself and putting them onto my computer and cutting them into things. I loved doing it and it took me awhile to get to the point to where I felt confident, and you know, it also took me awhile to write something. You know I, I started writing various other scripts, that never really got to the point where I was like, “Yes! This is, this is good, enough.” To actually go through the whole ordeal which is raising the money, doing the whole two-year process of making this movie? This is, this script, you know, as I got through it, I was like, “This really could do this, and this could really work.”
Ben Affleck, even though 'Argo' wins Best Picture he wasn't even nominated for Best Director. Do you think actors get a bad wrap as directors? Do you think people are a little hesitant or skeptical?
(Laughs) Maybe! I guess, sure, I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t try to focus on stuff like that. Because you can easily get bogged down, and like worrying about what people are going to say, and stuff like that. So, I tend not to dwell on it.
You have a very successful career as an actor and then as a producer and now as a director. How do you look to manage that as you go forward over the next 10, even 20 years of your career?
Yeah, well I feel, just really fortunate. I hope I get to do all the above. And like, you know I do this thing called Hit Record. And this movie actually has the Hit Record Films name on it. Yeah which is cool. Now this movie was not made through our like communal collateral process, it had the name Hit Record Films on it because that’s my collective that I’ve had for a long, long time.
But also because, one day I do want to make a collectively-made film, and I think we will do that sometime in the next X number of years. And I thought it was important though to do one little fashion way first. So I’d have that experience under my belt, hopefully succeed at it. And you know, thus far it has been quite successful. And it’s already opening doors, I mean the the reception that 'Don Jon' got; already I feel that if and when “Hit Record” goes to make a feature film with our kind of new collaborate process, there will be a lot more doors open for me. Because, I did this and that’s sort of the long term plan. But I hope throughout my life I get to do stuff in the old fashion ways, do stuff new ways. There’s so much to do, and you know, I, variety is part of what keeps it interesting for me.
The last time I talked to you, you were talking about the collaborative thing then and even in those two years the technology has grown more and more, with Vine. Have you been using Vine at all, to make any 6-second videos?
I heard about that, I haven’t seen it though yet.
It's really interesting. I don't know what you can do with it. It will take somebody to really kind of take it into an art form. But it is fascinating how technology has taken over.
Absolutely! And I think it’s a good thing. I think the way technology has grown is having a positive impact on the art and craft of filmmaking, much as it has on music. You know a lot of people talk about, “There’s no good music anymore”, like I think they are dead wrong. I think there’s more good music now than ever before, because everyone can make music, everyone can have a protesting in their house and make music. You know it’s not coming around the same way as it used to, and is top 40 radio pretty bad, yes. But, but there is amazing music being made and I think the same goes for movies.
'Don Jon' is in theaters now.