Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been a continuing source of surprise. After reinventing himself from 3rd Rock From the Sun child actor to the adult star of indie films Brick and The Lookout and studio blockbusters Lincoln, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, Gordon-Levitt unveils a new side of himself in Park City as debut writer/director of Don Jon’s Addiction. A squarely R-rated comedy about a buff young ladies man who connects better to computer porn than his conquests, the film humorously explores the obstacles to honest emotional intimacy. Sundance sales so far have been limited to docus, as buyers and sellers circle each other warily. I expect that to end by tonight or tomorrow, when buyers begin to pounce on films like Fruitvale, Austenland, The Spectacular Now, Before Midnight, Prince Avalanche and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Don Jon’s Addiction might well be atop the buyer wish list, but Gordon-Levitt is not in a hurry. He’s here all week — hosting next Sunday’s awards ceremony — and will hold out longer if needed until a distributor that agrees his first film has wide release potential. I spoke to Gordon-Levitt Saturday night as he returned to his condo after a long day answering questions about masturbation and Batman.
DEADLINE: You grew up acting, and then took a break to go to college and figure things out. When you decided to return, how much was writing and directing a part of that career plan?
GORDON-LEVITT: Good question. I didn’t study film at all at Columbia; I read a lot of books, got into history, and got pretty good at French. Wanting to direct a movie started back then, honestly. When I decided to start acting again, I had, not long before that, gotten my first copy of Final Cut Pro. I started to edit things, and I loved that so much it became the biggest motivator for me dropping out of college. I realized I could be sitting there, making and cutting stuff, or I could be writing this paper. I was doing little videos and stuff like that, but I decided I really wanted to do this with my life.
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DEADLINE: What was most helpful thing about taking that break and putting distance between the young version of you we were used to from 3rd Rock From The Sun, to the guy we see now?
GORDON-LEVITT: It was the realization I wanted to make movies. Starting that by getting back to acting was the best way to do it. I love acting, and I hope to do it the rest of my life. But since I started acting again in 2003, I’ve had this goal to one day make a movie.
DEADLINE: As a writer, how many stabs at script writing did you take before Don Jon’s Addiction panned out?
GORDON-LEVITT: A few. This was by no means the first try.
DEADLINE: What made this better than those attempts?
GORDON-LEVITT: That’s a good question.
DEADLINE: Hey man, I do this for a living.
GORDON-LEVITT: I know, but trust me, you don’t always hear a lot of good questions. What made it better? Some of the other stuff I’d been writing was an attempt to push the envelope too hard. They were cool exercises and experiments in telling a story differently than traditional formulas. I felt this story would nicely fit into something that…I don’t think it follows a formula by rote, but it is informed enough by traditions that I realized, yeah, this was a movie, I can do this. It can get out there and I can see it as a mainstream comedy. I felt it was worth getting somebody to put up a bunch of money and shoot it 35mm.
DEADLINE: So the others were you clearing your throat trying to find your voice? Sometimes you see first films and it’s hard to connect, the characters and storyline aren’t relate-able. The core of this film is a relatable young man with intimacy problems, trying to find himself.
GORDON-LEVITT: That was really important to me. I had some other ideas that were like, I love this, but it shouldn’t be my first movie. I should get a few things under my belt before I try it. Whereas this movie is really a character study, about people, with no grand scale production values, 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. I wasn’t interested in directing a movie and having people over my shoulder telling me I was wrong.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked more than once with fine directors like Christopher Nolan and Looper’s Rian Johnson. Who was most important in helping you figure this out?
GORDON-LEVITT: Both those guys were enormously helpful, I talked to both of them, a lot.
DEADLINE: Aside from having watched them work a couple of times when you were acting in their movies, what did they give you that was useful here?
GORDON-LEVITT: When I told Chris I was planning to direct something, he would make it a habit of relaying different experiences, mostly of a fairly technical nature. Being a director is a beautiful artistic job and you get to dream up a story and bring it to life, but there are also a lot of mundane logistical details you have to work through. Chris is masterful at that, he’s really good at balancing the dreamer and the producer. He would now and then say, don’t try to change locations and do a split day. Sometimes you have to but you always lose too much time.
DEADLINE: What does that mean?
GORDON-LEVITT: You shoot a scene, then you move your base camp someplace else and shoot there. You just lose a whole bunch of time. Things like that. Or if your going to shoot a car scene, don’t use a tow rig. It never looks real, it’s a royal pain in the ass. Just shoot it poor man’s process, or just get your camera in the car and drive. We actually did that on Inception, me driving, Wally Pfister riding shotgun with the camera, and Chris in back. I’ve done a few car scenes with Chris now, and I don’t think he has ever used a tow rig. Things like that were so helpful.
DEADLINE: Sounds like he helped you make a blueprint to get from start to finish, whereas other first time directors might be tempted to veer off that road because they don’t know better.
GORDON-LEVITT: He is so meticulous. He is aware of every little detail, from production design to camera, to lighting, everything.
DEADLINE: What was his reaction?
GORDON-LEVITT: He said, I think you have something here, this is good. That was a huge turning point to me. Up to that point, I’d just been writing alone. I’d had this idea in my head for years. And I’d been writing it as a screenplay for the better part of a year. And I didn’t know. I thought it was good. It made me laugh when I read it. But it’s so hard to tell when you’re in it and you lose objectivity. Rian gave me a lot of notes, and continued that throughout the making of the movie. He was a confidante while I was shooting, and came and watched a cut, two different times. And gave me thoughts and feedback.
DEADLINE: The movie your film got me thinking about was Saturday Night Fever, another one where you had this tough city kid with a tough exterior and a vulnerable interior he’s reluctant to show, framed in a period pop culture zeitgeist. Of course, disco dancing seems a far more appealing backdrop than chronic masturbation…
GORDON-LEVITT: Are you sure?
DEADLINE: I hated the disco era so I see your point. But disco had a built-in audience of participants who’d flock to a movie more than computer porn afficionados. The comedy that came from that part of your movie had me laughing hard, but why did you choose that mechanism to propel your character and the narrative?
GORDON-LEVITT: I wanted to tell a love story. What I’ve observed is, what often gets in the way of love is how people objectify. They put expectations on each other, and rather than engaging with a unique individual and listening to what they have to say, right at this moment, we are all comparing this person to items on our checklist. Maybe I wanted to tell that story because I’ve felt objectified in my life. People in movies and TV are kind of weirdly objectified in our culture. It happens to friends of mine outside Hollywood. I thought about how these expectations come from all over the place. From movies. From your family, like Tony Danza’s character. You get it from your friends, from the church you go to. And you get it from different kinds of media. That in particular fascinates me. I love movies and am interested in how the media works. I thought a love story, 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.
DEADLINE: As a guy who makes big mainstream movies, you know the limitations that chronic masturbation places on a movie aiming at wide release. Did anyone, including yourself, try to talk you out of it?
GORDON-LEVITT: People certainly asked about it a lot. But by the time I started showing the script, they could see I’d thought this through.
DEADLINE: That you did, down to your character confessing to his prolific self-gratification in church and saying his penance while grunting through gym workouts so he could be buff enough to prepare for the next pickup conquest. So even though you knew this would put you into R-rated territory, your character was going to defiantly keep masturbating.
GORDON-LEVITT: I like R-rated comedies, like the ones my friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg make. I fact, when I first landed on the idea of this Don Juan guy being an East Coast machismo guy with the gym body and the shiny hair, I was in Vancouver with Seth and Evan, making 50/50. And 50/50 is an R-rated comedy, and this all just felt right to me.
DEADLINE: I guess you could say a guy torn between his computer and actual women is somewhat high concept, even though it felt original. But you’ve given subtle depth to the characters played by you, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore, who reveal themselves slowly. How long did it take you as writer to get under the skin of a good concept?
GORDON-LEVITT: I’d always hoped I would get to that place. I was thinking of movies by Quentin Tarantino, or the Coen Brothers, where they’re not going for direct realism, but something a bit heightened. And yet they get at something more real than realism in making you feel the people, and the situations. That’s what I was going for. The germ of the idea, comparing porn and Hollywood romance, rolled around my head for two years as I tried to find the right tone, character and setting. This was writing on napkins, on movie sets, maybe we do this, maybe the character does a voiceover? Maybe it should be super realistic. I had all kinds of ideas. And it was when I was working with Seth and Evan that I settled on, what if it is this kind of human, heartfelt comedy? Yeah, it’s rated R and is funny as hell, but it has real human beings at the core of it.
DEADLINE: That was your eureka moment?
GORDON-LEVITT: I remember it, and then I thought, what if Don Jon was…this…guy. You could call it Jersey Shore or Saturday Night Fever.
DEADLINE: Did you find yourself batting these creative breakthroughs back and forth with Seth and Evan?
GORDON-LEVITT: They came to a rough cut, and they were laughing the whole time. That was great because Nicolas Chartier, our executive producer from Voltage, he kept saying, is this funny? I get what it’s saying, but is it funny? Are people going to laugh? And when Seth and Evan came and laughed their asses off the whole movie, Nicolas said, okay, that’s good. It must be funny.
DEADLINE: Sure they laughed, they were probably stoned.
GORDON-LEVITT: Well…that goes without saying.
DEADLINE: What has surprised you most in the reaction you’ve gotten from buyers. Have you interacted with them yet?
GORDON-LEVITT: Not yet.
DEADLINE: Well, I’ll tell you then. A lot of them really like the movie; there might be five or more who’ll make offers.
GORDON-LEVITT: All I’ve heard is that reaction has been extremely positive. That is exciting to me, because I really do see this as a mainstream comedy. I know it pushed boundaries. I think that sometimes the biggest pop phenomena are the ones that really push boundaries.
DEADLINE: Potential buyers have told me, we can’t have the movie get an NC-17.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, I don’t want NC-17, I want it to be R.
DEADLINE: You’ve shot it in a way where it wouldn’t be difficult to trim some of the barrage of soiled tissues hitting the wire wastebasket, or images of the bouncing body parts of porn participants. Will you do that if needed?
GORDON-LEVITT: Well, I always thought of it as an R-rated movie. This is a version for Sundance. Brick, when it got acquired from Sundance, and Hesher when it got acquired from Sundance, they changed for release. This is a great way to do it. There is the version that’s here now, but we’ll see what the MPAA makes of it. Me personally? I think it deserves an R, as it is now. We’ll see, but I absolutely am in no way shape or form going to put this film out as anything other than an R.
DEADLINE: Arbitrage and Margin Call did well enough in multi-platform release for many to think that a Sundance film with a tricky premise and stars can go that route and find an audience. It sounds like in your mind, this is a 2000 screen release. Is that fair?
GORDON-LEVITT: In my mind it is. I hesitate to get too specific at this point but that is how I’ve always pictured it. When I was making it, I was thinking that the same guys who loved Pineapple Express, or 40 Year-Old Virgin, will really like this movie.
DEADLINE: How does this change the journey you’re on? Do you come away thinking I want to be a director? I’ve seen some first films by actors and felt, whew, don’t quit your day job…
GORDON-LEVITT: I’m glad you haven’t said that to me. Would you tell me if you felt that way about my film?
DEADLINE: People put so much heart and soul into these films, I would be polite.
GORDON-LEVITT: But you’re not being polite, right?
DEADLINE: I’ll tell you this. I’m 52 years old. I would not have walked all the way up the hill in this thin air, in the dark, freezing my ass off if I did not like your movie.
GORDON-LEVITT: Well, that is cool, man. I hope I get to do another movie. I have no intention of doing it to the exclusion of traditional acting. I’ve loved that since I was a kid and hope to do it until I die.
DEADLINE: Since you returned from that sabbatical, you’ve done great indie films like The Lookout and 50/50 and Brick, and big studio movies like The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Lincoln. I recently wrote that you could have had the lead role in Marvel’s new superhero franchise Rise of the Guardians, and you didn’t go there. What is your priority as you try to figure out what to say yes to? After people see you buffed in this movie, you could carry a gun onscreen for the next 40 years before you sign on for The Expendables 18. Do you want to be the big leading man?
GORDON-LEVITT: For me, it’s first and foremost about a filmmaker who inspires me. In the last year I have been extremely fortunate. I got to work with Rian Johnson and then Chris Nolan and then Steven Spielberg. The job I just took, Sin City 2, I did it because I just love Robert Rodriguez’s movies. And then after filmmakers, it’s the script. Sin City 2 is just a fun part to play. I have eclectic taste in movies I like to watch. This year, Django Unchained was one of my favorite movies, everyone is so good and I’m so happy for Leo because he’s a friend of mine; I know he’s hilarious and he showed that side of himself. I loved Life of Pi, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Any of those filmmakers, Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino or Benh Zeitlin, I’d love to be in one of their movies.
DEADLINE: The Batfilm film left your character in an intriguing position to take over that franchise. Does that interest you?
GORDON-LEVITT: It’s not up to me. It comes down to the same two criteria I just mentioned.
DEADLINE: You’ve seen a lot of actors, directors and actor/directors. What’s a career you admire?
GORDON-LEVITT: Orson Welles.
DEADLINE: He peaked early, though.
GORDON-LEVITT: I don’t know if I agree. You ever see F For Fake, or The Trial with Tony Perkins? Sure he was so young when he made Citizen Kane, but he grew up to be just a brilliant actor and a great filmmaker who did so many different things. I admire that so much.
DEADLINE: Sundance films usually don’t inspire comparison to Citizen Kane, but there is a spirit here of being so young and oblivious to the limitations the establishment will place on these filmmakers later on. Welles made a movie about a press baron that was obviously Randolph Hearst and he dared to even use the term Rosebud, which was apparently an anatomical reference to a cherished body part of the mistress of one of the country’s most powerful men who tried to stop the film. Welles did it anyway. That defiance makes Sundance fun, don’t you think? And I’m not putting you in a position to compare your first film to Citizen Kane.
GORDON-LEVITT: I knew that if I was going to make my own movie, and be in charge, I wanted it to be something I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. A role I wouldn’t be able to play, otherwise. I wanted to use music in a way that was my way, and same with editing. I wanted to try and do something special, because otherwise, what would be the point?