"It's a lot of fun to play in front of movie-loving audiences," Gordon-Levitt told HuffPost Entertainment on Sunday, one day before screening "Don Jon" (previously titled "Don Jon's Addiction") at the Paramount Theater in Austin. "This is not just a movie that you're entertained by and then it's over. It's a movie that's trying to provoke you, trying to get you to think, and, I hope, start some conversations."
That should be easy: "Don Jon" is like the "expectations vs. reality" scene in "(500) Days of Summer" writ large and feature-length. Gordon-Levitt's provocative new film tells the story Jon, a New Jersey ladies' man with an addiction to pornography. It's not until he meets two women -- played by Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore -- that Jon begins to grow up.
At SXSW in Austin, Gordon-Levitt spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about his impetus for writing "Don Jon," the dangers of consuming the wrong kind of media and why originality might be overrated.
How long have you been interested in this idea of fantasy versus reality and how those expectations affect relationships?
Years. For years, I've been thinking about it. I was looking at some old notes, and found some "Don Jon" notes from 2008. It's just that idea of how we objectify each other and how the media contributes to that. That's an idea that's really interesting and funny to me. That's where it all stems from. I thought the idea of a guy, who watches too much pornography, and a young woman, who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies, was a hilarious way to ask the question: How do the different kinds of media we consume impact our lives and our love lives?
The movie makes the point that media does impact our lives; do you subscribe to that idea as well?
I very much do. I think that the movies we watch, the TV shows we watch, the books we read, the songs we listen to, all have a very significant impact on our identities, our beliefs, our culture and our perspective on things. It's interesting because in our culture, nowadays, we tend to think of it as, "Oh, it's just entertainment. It doesn't matter." I don't think that's true at all. Even if a movie was just intending to just be entertainment, it's not. I'm not going to name a particularly movie, but some movie that's sort of belittling women -- it's not meaning to put out the message that women are less than. But it does that. I think it's worth examining that, thinking about that and really considering what is the media that we consume.
Me, personally, I don't bring that shit into my house. I think that can be really poisonous. Like, for example, the gossip rags and stuff: I will not have that anywhere near me. I know how attractive it is: I go to the market and I can't take my eyes off those things; they're really seductive. You can't help but sort of look at them. But if you spend your time consuming those stories and indulging in that catty attitude, I believe you sort of begin to embody that attitude.
You've got a certain amount of control with what kind of projects you make now, but was it hard to reconcile that ideal with the roles you were being offered when you were younger?
When I was starting out, I was a kid. So, I just loved working; I loved being on a set. Since then, you know, I think what governs my choices more than anything is just what seems fun. What's going to be creatively inspiring to me. I've done my best to do movies that I feel like are cool and positive things. I think some of the movies I've done are more that way than others. Certainly moving forward, you're right: I do have, at least right now, more power to be choosey. I really appreciate that. Look, I'm not trying to blame anybody who makes movies that I think are putting out unhealthy messages. Like I said, I don't think they're meaning to.
It's sometimes hard to know how an audience might receive a film.
Sure. I think some people really don't think that is the filmmakers' responsibility. Some people think, "Well, I'm just trying to make something entertaining. If people are entertained by it, that's up to them." That's a defendable position; I understand it. But I think it's at least worth acknowledging that the media we consume does impact us.
You've become known for being a very chameleonic actor, but I was surprised at how you were able to pull off this character with such ease -- especially considering that you were directing yourself for the first time.
I think a lot of it is because of the writing process. By the time we got to shooting I had spent years with this guy in my head. That's way longer than a normal acting job. I knew those scenes backwards and forwards and could very easily kind of turn them off and on. When I'm acting in a movie, my number one goal is to understand what the director wants and then give that to them. Deliver that. So, when I'm the director, I know exactly what the director wants in great detail. I can really just do that specifically and that helps.
I know you solicited council from some of the great filmmakers you've worked with, like Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg and Rian Johnson, but what advice from them did you not take?
I told Chris Nolan that I was going to direct a movie and he was instantly supportive, which meant a lot to me. He said, "It seems like you would be good at that." I told him I was going to act and direct at the same time and he was like, "Are you sure you want to do that?" So, he wasn't just like, "Do whatever you want." He was like, "Are you sure you want to do that your first time?" I said I really do and he was like, "OK, but I'm raising my hand now and saying that you might want to think about that. That's a whole extra challenge that you maybe want to do your second time." Totally valid perspective! Completely valid. I happened to go the other way and still do it, but a very valid question and I'm glad he asked it. Most people probably wouldn't want to ask me that and I'm glad he did.
Rian had a lot of constructive criticism. Rian was the first guy I showed the script to and has given me feedback throughout the writing process and throughout the editing process; he's seen several cuts of the movie. He's had a lot of great insights and given me a lot of great notes. I've agreed with a lot of them and then some of them, he made a suggestion and I was like, "This is hard to do because it's Rian making the suggestion, but I'm going to have to disagree and stick to my guns here." So, yeah, those do come up.
Relativity is giving "Don Jon" a wide release, but do you think this film could have been made at a studio?
I do not think you could have made it at a studio. It never would have gotten started. Never would have. Because, you know, the reason I think the movie works is because we manage to find a really great tone that balances an unusually bold honesty with a really fun and entertaining comedy. That is a tone that you won't really to be able to see that on the page. You have to trust that the actors and everybody else are going to bring that. This wouldn't have happened at a studio. I loved making it independently. I wanted to do that from the beginning. I wanted to write a script that didn't have any car chases or scenes in outer space, because it would keep the budget low and keep creative control of it.
One of the things I liked about "Don Jon" was that it has a very knowing cinematic language; parts reminded me of "Amelie," "Requiem for a Dream" and even "Natural Born Killers." How intentional was that?
I tend to think that pretty much every great work of art is a composite of other great things that the artist has seen. I tend to be one that thinks the whole notion of originality is a little bit delusional and a little bit perpetrated by industry because it's at the heart of intellectual property rights. The companies that pay for these things and make money off of these things don't like to acknowledge the fact that your original story is actually the same as the "Odyssey." My whole thing on hitRECord is that we don't put such a premium on originality; it's more about honesty. I think either everything is original or nothing is. If you're honest as a person, every person I believe is unique and original in that way. So, if you're honest, you can tell a story from a heart. This, to me, is a heartfelt story about someone who's stuck in a rut; who's sort of under the influence of a lot of different things: his family, his friends, his church, all the media in the world, the pornography he watches every day. He manages to eventually get out from under that and open his mind a bit. Is that a story that has never been told before? No! It's one of the oldest stories ever: it's a coming of age story. But I hope there's something unique to it.