Since breaking out in the late '90s in 10 Things I Hate About You, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has steadily climbed Hollywood’s ladder with an intelligent mixture of roles in indie films like Brick and big-budget movies like The Dark Knight Rises. Levitt wasn’t content just to be a well-rounded actor though. In 2005, he launched the successful online artistic collaborative HitRECord and most recently, he also set his sights on writing and directing a feature-length film.
Levitt's directing debut is Don Jon, a dramedy where he plays Jon, a beefy New Jersey lothario. Jon can bed a new woman every night, yet none of his one-night stands compare to the satisfaction he gets from watching pornography. All that changes when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who doesn’t fall for any of his usual tactics. Barbara knows exactly what she wants and she’s going to make Jon work for it. Plus, she won’t put up with his penchant for watching porn. Jon’s forced to make a tough decision: give up his dirty videos or lose Barbara. However for him, the choice isn’t as easy or as clear cut as you’d think.
I sat down with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a roundtable interview in Boston recently, where we discussed his influences for Don Jon, his optimistic nature, and taking risks in filmmaking. Below are some highlights from our conversation.
Evan Crean: Your grandfather (Michael Gordon) was a director. Did you watch any of his films to get inspiration? And what other ones inspired you with Don Jon?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: My grandfather, Michael Gordon, he died before I ever really got to know him. And I hope to one day watch his movies and read his writing and stuff, and I haven’t. I’ve sort of been saving it, so I actually haven’t seen any of his movies. I will one day. But as inspiration for Don Jon, you know there’s one that I think is particularly good is Shampoo, and really all the Ashby movies: Harold and Maude or Being There. He does this kind of comedy that I love so much, that it’s not just goofy comedy, and hey, I love a good funny, goofy comedy as much as anybody, I mean that’s what we did on 3rd Rock [from the Sun] all the time. But, Ashby does these movies where, the people feel like people, but it’s also still funny, and the comedy kind of comes from the oh--you’ve felt that before, it’s sort of an emotional humor.
So that was really inspirational, Nichols also, The Graduate, and one he did called Carnal Knowledge with a really good early Jack Nicholson performance. He’s another good one. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another one of my favorites, Amelie, and 500 Days of Summer was another one that I really like, and I’m proud of in like a good reference for what kind of movie I wanted to make. Something that was funny and fun, entertaining, but also had something to say and felt genuine.
Q: Would you say Jon’s womanizing and obsession with porn is a disorder? Or is it sort of a product of his upbringing on the Jersey Shore?
JGL: So about his neighborhood, I see where he grew up as sort of average America. Jersey Shore is about people in mansions and BMWs and stuff. I picked New Jersey because it’s a suburb, I grew up in the suburbs of LA. New Jersey is more of like a suburb of New York. And I didn’t want to set the movie where a lot of romantic comedies are set, in very affluent Manhattan or London or things like that. I just wanted it to be sort of middle-income United States.
And as far as whether Jon has a disorder, I think that, what I was going for with Jon, is that this is a guy who, everything in his life is a thing, is an object on the shelf. He doesn’t connect with anything. He doesn’t engage with anybody. I think him watching pornography, which I think is the disorder you’re referring to, is a central symbol of that. But he treats his friends the same way. He treats his family the same way. Flat as an image on a screen. It’s that one-way street. This is a guy that everything in his life is a one-way street, and you can see that in all the different facets of his life. Hopefully toward the end of the movie, you see him start to take some of the first steps toward breaking out of that mold.
EC: I read a quote where you talked about life being a series of routines, trying to find a balance between the routine, and breaking out of it. Is that a philosophy of this film?
JGL: Sure, that’s a big part of this film. The whole structure is cyclical. It’s all about a guy’s patterns and habits and the repetition and deviation. I think that’s a huge part of life is being like ‘Okay, there are these things that I do every day, once a week, or every year, or whatever it is. Why do I do them?’ And yes, there’s merit to ‘Well I do it, because I’ve done it before,’ but there’s got to be more reason to it than that. So it’s always worthwhile to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’
Q: Did you know Tony Danza was going to play your father?
JGL: Honestly, I hadn’t thought of who was going to play that part, but as soon as I started to think about it, he was the first guy I thought of…He’s so good in it right? What’s funny about him is naturally he’s such a sweetheart. He’s just the nicest, most likable guy. Jon Sr., in this movie, ya know, he’s a bit of a dick. He’s sort of misogynistic and lecherous and he yells at his family. So I was always having to push Tony. That was my regular reminder to Tony. ‘Nah man, I still like you too much. You have to be worse.’
Q: Unlike pretty much every story about Don Juan, this is not a tragedy. Did Don Jon always have a silver lining for you?
JGL: That’s a very apt observation. Yeah it was. That was an important choice because you’re right, in your traditional Don Juan story, the main character has his shortcomings, suffers the consequences, and is destroyed. I like movies that have a balance of darkness and light. And I’m sort of an optimist generally. So I wanted to tell a story about a guy who isn’t destroyed, who certainly has these shortcomings, but begins to grow up, begins to change. I like to think that even Don Juan can change. That’s I guess, the optimistic me. I always wrote it as sort of a coming-of-age story.
Q: Did you ever worry about putting yourself in compromising shots during this movie?
JGL: First of all, there aren’t any compromising shots. All of the shots are close-ups. So that’s important to note. There’s nothing graphic or explicit about it. I think maybe it feels that way, because it’s about a feeling, but you don’t see anything technically, even though the movie’s rated R. And ya know, it’s a movie, it tells a story. I think movies are good when there’s something vulnerable about them, when they’re getting at something. That’s what interesting, when you get at sort of a, at those things that are going on beneath the surface, whatever it is. And I didn’t want to just make a movie--if I was going to write and direct a movie and put in all this work into it, I didn’t just want to make something kind of normal. I didn’t want people to say (hesitantly) ‘That was good. That was really good. Ya know, you’re really good.’ That didn’t interest me.
I wanted to take some risks and do something bold. And sure I know, not 100 percent of people are going to like this movie, but I think the people who do like it, are going to really, really like it a lot. Those are my favorite movies, that are divisive like that. There’s No Country for Old Men or Punch Drunk Love, or Django Unchained or whatever. Some people love those movies, some people do not at all, but I feel strongly about them. They're not just ‘Okay fine. That was good.’ They’re taking risks and that’s what I wanted.
Q: So you weren’t worried about your personal image?
JGL: Yeah, I don’t really worry about that so much. I believe in the movie. I think it’s telling a good story. I think it’s a positive thing. I think on the one hand it’s entertaining, and on the other hand, a healthy story to be told. I’m proud of it. I stand behind it.
EC: It’s very confident. A few of us were talking about how we really liked that walking out of the film.
JGL: Thank you. Thank you.
Don Jon opens in theaters this Friday, September 27.