UTG INTERVIEW: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Talks ‘Don Jon,’ Using 35mm, and More

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There are not many actors the entire staff of UTG adores, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is certainly one of them. His body of work speaks for itself, and this Friday he’s adding another fantastic entry to his filmography when his directorial debut, Don Jon, arrives in theaters nationwide. We had the pleasure of speaking with JGL when he stopped in Boston during a promotional tour for the film late last month, and have transcribed the highlights of that conversation for your reading pleasure.

If you’ve somehow made it this long without hearing about Don Jon, allow us to catch you up to speed. The film is the brainchild of JGL, who writes, directs and stars, and earlier this year it premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. The story follows a New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church who develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love. You can view the trailer below:

Our full review of Don Jon will run on Friday. For now, read JGL’s thoughts on his latest work and comment to let us know whether or not you plan on checking out his new film this weekend.

How would you describe your first experience as a feature film director?

JGL: I had a great time, man. It was a lot of work, but I really like to work. I love all the different facets of movies, and the truth is an actor’s performance is a lot more than what the actor does. It has a lot to do with what the camera is doing, and the editing is doing, and what the music is doing. So when I came up with this story all those different things were going on inside my head, and I decided I wanted to direct it so that all those things could come into place as I was imagining.

Your grandfather was a director. Did you watch any of his films for inspiration? Also, what other films inspired you while working on this project?

JGL: My grandfather, Michael Gordon, died before I ever really got to know him. I hope to one day watch his movies and read his writing, but I haven’t. I’ve sort of been saving it, so I actually haven’t seen any [of his films]. As inspirations for Don Jon, the one I think is particularly good is Shampoo and really all the Ashby Movies, like Harold And Maude or Being There. He does this kind of comedy that I love so much. It’s not just good comedy, and hey, I love a good goofy comedy as much as anybody – it’s what we did on 3rd Rock all the time – but Ashby does these movies where the people feel like people and the funny comes from having felt that people. The Graduate, also, and another one called Carnal Knowledge with a really good young Jack Nicholson performance. Eternal Sunshine is one of my favorites, [as well as] Amelie, and 500 Days Of Summer too. That’s one I really like and am proud of and I think it’s a good reference for the kind of movie I wanted to make – something that was funny and fun and entertaining, but also had something to say that felt genuine.

As the writer, did you write characters with certain actors in mind?

JGL: I was always picturing Scarlett (Johansson) for her character from the very beginning. I think she’s a really tremendous actress, whether you’ve seen Lost In Translation, Vicky Christina Barcelona, or The Man Who Wasn’t There, or she’s even great on SNL. Not every actor, especially movie actors, can pull off Saturday Night Live, and she was really great at it. [I also] think she’s really great for the part because of how she is viewed in our culture. She is a woman who is a very smart person and a very talented artist, and yet a lot what our culture views her as is just her looks. Yes, she’s very good-looking, but there is so much more to her than that, and I thought that sort of culture context would be really great for this character. And I think that’s also a really big part of why she was intrigued by the material, and keen to play the part.

What about Tony Danza?

JGL: Honestly, I hadn’t thought about who would play that part, but as soon as I did he was the first guy I thought of. What’s funny about him is that naturally he’s such a sweetheart, but John Sr. (his character in the movie) is a bit of a dick. He’s misogynistic and lecherous, so I was always having to push Tony. That was my regular reminder to Tony, [I would say things like] “nah man, I still like you too much. You need to be worse.”

So do you think the writing process allowed you to further develop your character than when you’re acting in a movie?

JGL: Definitely. On average, an acting job you get to spend a few months with material before you shoot. If you append a year, that’s very extreme. This material I have been thinking about for several years before shooting, and I think that makes a huge difference. Just getting to have the character in my head for that long. By the time it was time to shoot I had been doing it for so long I could turn the voice on and off without really thinking about it.

The parallels with Don Juan are fairly obvious, but unlike every story about him this film is not a tragedy. Was the story of Don Jon always one with a silver lining?

JGL: It was, and that was an important choice because you’re right – the traditional Don Juan story has a character with shortcomings that faces the consequences and is ultimately destroyed. I like movies that have a balance of darkness and light, and I’m sort of an optimist, so I wanted to tell a story about a guy who isn’t destroyed. He certainly has shortcomings, but he eventually grows up and begins to change. I like to believe that even Don Juan can change. That’s the optimist in me.

I read a quote where you talked about life being a series of routines and trying to find a balance between the routine and breaking out of that. Do you feel that is the philosophy of this film?

JGL: That’s a big part of this film. The whole structure is cyclical. It’s all about a guy’s patterns and habits, the repetition and deviations. I think that’s a huge part of life, being like “why?” Ok, There are these things I do every day, or once a week, or whatever it is – but why do I do them? And yes, there is merit to having done it before, but there’s gotta be more reason to it than that, I think. It’s always worthwhile to ask yourself, “why am I doing this?”

The original title was Don Jon’s Addiction. What’s the story behind the name change?

JGL: First of all, it’s shorter. Easier to say, easier to remember, and that’s important….But also, the word ‘addiction’ was used originally as a metaphor for what we’re talking about – a guy who approaches life as a routine and doesn’t ask questions and is sorta stuck in a cycle – but people, I found, when we played it at festivals people kept saying, “Oh, this is about porn addiction,” and that really isn’t what the story is about.

Brie Larsen’s character was a Silent Bob type in this film. Did her character have more that got cut out?

JGL: No, that’s just how it was written, but she does such a good job. She’s another actor in the movie that brought more to the character than what was written…She’s always interesting, even [when] she’s not talking she’s always contributing a lot to the scene. I’m always trying to cut my lines, I think lines are overrated. If you can tell the story without saying anything it’s more…It’s not necessarily more powerful, but I often try to do it that way.

You’ve spent the last several years building the digital community HitRECord. How did your time working on that project influence your efforts on Don Jon?

JGL: I would not nearly have been as equipped to do this had I not been directing all sorts of collaborative projects for years on hitRECord. In a way, it’s not dissimilar. hitRECord is sort of modeled after a movie set where there’s lots of people contributing and I’m directing. In a traditional movie like Don Jon or whatever else, The Dark Knight Rises, there’s a director and then there’s lots of other artists contributing their work. That’s what happens on hitRECord, the difference is that anybody can contribute, anyone can come to the website and contribute their work as opposed to a traditional movie you hire people first. As far as what I’m doing as director, you have to have a vision, understand what you want, but also be open to new ideas that are different than what you thought it would be, find that balance and keep going till it’s done. I’ve done that time and time again on hitRECord whether it’s short films we’ve made or the records we put out or the books we published. I think that experience was a huge help in directing Don Jon.

You chose to shoot on film over digital. Why was it important to you that Don Jon was shot on 35mm?

JGL: So that Chris (Nolan, his The Dark Knight Rises director) wouldn’t be mad at me. That’s a joke [laughing]. He would have been disappointed if I hadn’t. I think you can still tell the difference. It looks different. It’s getting less and less different. The new digital cameras look fantastic, but I still think film looks different. It was my first one and who knows how many more I’ll get to do on 35 so I definitely wanted to take that chance while I had it. Also it’s more practical for a movie of this budget level. If you’re doing a super low budget movie and you’re shooting on (Canon) 5Ds or something on a DSLR, that’s one thing, but if you’re doing a movie like this with a whole crew and everything, film is more reliable, it takes less people, it takes less equipment. It’s just better right now. Also to me there’s just something that happens when you roll film. People have a respect for film that’s important especially for actors. When you’re just rolling all day long on digital and it doesn’t matter if you’re rolling or not rolling or cut because who cares. There’s a moment that happens when you roll film, they say, “Rolling,” and you’re actually rolling and they say “Marker” and “Action” and you go. When you’re shooting digital, you don’t cut as often as you cut because who cares, stay rolling and then action. You don’t have that ramp up into it, that ritual that’s important to me. That’s another reason I prefer film.

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