Don Jon: Interview–Joseph Gordon-Levitt

“I thought a romantic comedy about the relationship between a guy who watches too much porn and a girl who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be hilarious and get to the point. That’s how it started.”
–Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t about to pull any punches. In his provocative, fun, and appealingly frank R-rated comedy, Don Jon, the writer, director and star dives into a host of thorny topics: objectification, intimacy, and today’s media, to name a few. And he does it with the cool-headed forthrightness that’s defined him as an actor, whether it’s playing a lovelorn outsider in (500) Days of Summer, a cancer survivor in 50/50, or a steely cop in The Dark Knight Rises. Don Jon is a hilarious and refreshingly honest dissection of modern American machismo.

While Don Jon might be the first mainstream American comedy to highlight pornography – the reasons why we watch, why we continue watching – Gordon-Levitt is quick to point out his debut feature isn’t really about porn at all. “I wanted to tell a love story,” he says. “But what I’ve observed is, what often gets in the way of love is how people objectify each other.”

A life-long actor who’s garnered increasing fame in his film career, Gordon-Levitt is no stranger to the vagaries of objectification, particularly at the hands of the media. “Sure, maybe I want to tell this story because I’ve felt objectified in my life,” he says. “But it happens to everyone, to friends of mine outside Hollywood. We put expectations on each other, and rather than engaging with a unique individual and listening to what the other has to say, right at this moment, we put people in boxes with labels.”

“I also wanted to compare pornography to the rest of our media, even perfectly mainstream stuff,” Gordon-Levitt continues. “We see it all the time in movies, TV shows, or commercials, especially commercials. A person–usually a woman–is reduced to a thing, a sex object. And whether the image is rated X or, you know, approved for general viewing audiences, the message is the same. That’s what I wanted to talk about, and sorta make fun of.”

While Jon objectifies women with porn, his new girlfriend, Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, is distracted by fantasies of her own. A drop-dead gorgeous Catholic girl who’s by no means a prude, Barbara nevertheless has very particular ideas of what a relationship should look like, many of which are gleaned from Hollywood romantic comedies. “Women grow up with this idea of what a man should be, whether that comes from films or from our parents or fairytales,” says Johansson. “So, the same way Jon has created this fantasy world as a means of escaping what’s in front of him, Barbara creates this idea of the perfect future, the perfect life, the perfect man, the perfect family. Her ideals don’t leave room for the humanity of a relationship.”

“We learn these expectations everywhere,” adds Gordon-Levitt. “From our families. We get it from our friends, from the church we go to. And we get it from different kinds of media. That in particular fascinates me.”

This mutual objectification, for Gordon-Levitt, forms the heart of Don Jon’s central love story: “I thought a romantic comedy about the relationship between a guy who watches too much porn and a girl who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be hilarious and get to the point. That’s how it started.”

While Don Jon took about four years to come to fruition, Gordon- Levitt’s desire to become a filmmaker began much earlier. “I’d always played around with video cameras, even when I was a little kid. Then, for my twenty-first birthday, I got myself my first copy of Final Cut, the video editing software. Since then I’ve made tons of little short films and videos. Countless, probably hundreds of them. I definitely don’t think I would have been able to direct a feature if it hadn’t been for all that experience.”

After several screenwriting attempts that bore no fruit, Gordon- Levitt landed on the central idea for Don Jon and realized it would be the ideal project for his directorial debut. He says, “This movie is really a character study with no car chases or explosions, no scenes in outer space. It felt like something I could do and I was very much intent on having total creative control.
He spent two years pondering the story, eventually landing on the legendary, fictional character of Don Juan himself. A tragic figure, Don Juan never learns to amend his womanizing ways and is routinely ruined by his shortcomings. Gordon-Levitt wanted to find a more positive ending. “I guess I’m an optimist. I like to think people can change. And I like movies with a good balance of darkness and light. I wanted the story to have that light at the end of the tunnel; I wanted it to have hope,” he says.

It wasn’t until he found himself in Vancouver shooting the comedy 50/50 with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg that Gordon-Levitt finally landed on the right tone for the project. “I was really inspired by Seth and Evan’s approach to 50/50. It was funny as hell, but the humor was coming less from gags, and more from the characters. And because it was rated R, it could be real, people could
talk how they really talk, and do the things they really do. That’s when I first landed on the comedic tone and started picturing Jon as this East Coast guy with the gym body and the shiny hair. The idea of playing a character like that made me laugh, so I kept going with it.”

To meet the challenge of directing for the first time, Gordon-Levitt drew on his extensive on-set experience as an actor and turned to director friends like Christopher Nolan (Inception, the Dark Knight Trilogy) and Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) for advice. “Rian gave me a lot of notes on the script, and continued that throughout the making of the movie,” he says. “He was a confidante while I was shooting and came and watched a cut two different times. And when I told Chris I was planning to direct something, he started asking me questions. Usually very specific questions about how exactly I was approaching the project.”

The cast was uniformly impressed by Gordon-Levitt’s comfort in the director’s chair and his deep understanding of the actor’s trade. “Joe is so sensitive to the process of characterization, of the time that’s needed to find a performance, the benefit of doing maybe one more take just to see what happens,” says Johansson. “He’d work all day and we would still rehearse after work and find the shape of the scenes together.”

Danza, who worked with Gordon-Levitt on the 1993 feature, Angels In The Outfield (when Gordon-Levitt was only twelve), marveled over the young director’s artistic evolution. “It’s so obvious he’s watched and learned over the years, and that he’s got tremendous talent to boot,” says Danza. “He has a vision. He knows what he wants. He’s a very talented director.”
“Joe was an absolute pleasure to be with, both as an actor and a director,” echoes Julianne Moore. “Every day with him was creative and collaborative and fun.”

Gordon-Levitt hopes that Don Jon accomplishes what he set out to do: to entertain audiences with laughter and a healthy dose of honesty, and perhaps inspire them to consider what real intimacy means. “Ultimately,” he says, “it’s not only a movie about how people objectify each other. It’s about how we connect with each other, and how that feeling really is better than anything else.”

For his own turn in front of the camera, Gordon-Levitt relished the opportunity to play a character audiences might not expect from him. “I knew that if I was going to make my own movie,” he says, “I wanted it to be something I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Otherwise, what would be the point?”

Having worked on the script for several years, he felt more prepared than usual when the cameras starting rolling. The role also presented quite a physical challenge. In order to convincingly play a vain guy who prides himself on his body-builder’s physique, Gordon-Levitt spent the six months leading up to production at the gym, working out five days a week. “I ate ridiculous amounts of chicken and put on about twelve pounds of muscle,” he says. “People sometimes ask me if I intend to keep that routine up now that we’re done shooting… Absolutely not!”