EXCLUSIVE: It seems a long time ago that Don Jon’s Addiction announced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a writer/director to be reckoned with, after the film followed its January Sundance debut with a late night bidding battle that ended with Relativity paying a $4 million advance and a $25 million P&A commitment. That is a whopper for a film that was financed by Voltage Pictures’ Nicolas Chartier for around $3 million. Some eight months later, Relativity is releasing the film on 2400 screens under the title Don Jon. Gordon-Levitt plays the title character, a buff bartender who prefers internet porn to his many living and breathing bed partners. The film’s subject matter made it a hard R movie even though there is depth behind its provocative theme. It won’t be hard for this picture to be a financial win, especially if it catches a zeitgeist wave. Relativity production president Robbie Brenner said they held a buzz-building simultaneous screening in 100 cities last week and the crowds were as raucous as the one that first saw the film in Sundance. She and Tucker Tooley said they have done everything they promised Gordon-Levitt in Park City and they hope hard to serve as a home for a new film making voice. I interviewed Gordon-Levitt after his January premiere in Park City, and we did it again this week as he explains the process of going from festival sensation to mainstream ambitions.
DEADLINE: I am curious about what it’s like to see your film become a festival hit and then have to wait almost a year before the public sees it. How much has your movie changed since Sundance?
GORDON-LEVITT: We got a chance to finish the movie, basically. We got a version ready for Sundance, but really, it wasn’t finished. It didn’t have its opening credit sequence, I hadn’t had a chance to refine the voice over. There were a lot of tweaks needed in the editing. It is basically the same movie. No lines got cut, no story moments were lost and no real time was cut from the movie. The screws got tightened, and I think it is a lot better than it was at Sundance.
DEADLINE: The new title sequence, flash-cutting familiar racy pop culture images certainly gives a warmup to the film’s focus on the glorification and obsession with sex.
GORDON-LEVITT: I spent a lot of time finishing Don Jon and wrapping up this TV show I’m working on now called hitRECord On TV! A lot of the work that needed to be done was clearance work in that opening sequence, all those clips from throughout pop culture. TV shows, movies, commercials, red carpet videos, music videos. You have to clear all of it and it’s a ridiculous tedious process.
DEADLINE: So you cost Relativity a few bucks. Ryan Kavanaugh has the money.
GORDON-LEVITT: There weren’t any big ticket items. But I have to say in credit to Relativity, since you asked about the time between Sundance and the release. Every single line and frame, is what I wanted to be seen and they didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do. Even though they made this great investment in the movie, they always trusted me and wanted me to be able to put out my movie. People have asked me, is there going to be a director’s cut? This is the director’s cut, exactly what I wanted to make. That’s a great credit to them, that they didn’t feel the need to push in and do market research, test it, try to re-cut. They did the market research but at no point did they say, we think you ought to do this, cut these lines, re-shoot a different ending. None of that.
DEADLINE: That rarely happens. Your Don Jon character is often seen in church, confessing his masturbatory sins and then grunting his penance prayers as he exhales while lifting weights. You’re not going to have to go to confession for what you just said about your distributor, are you?
GORDON-LEVITT: [Laughs]. No.
DEADLINE: The sex scenes, the wastebasket full of crumpled tissues and the racy glimpses of computer porn had some wondering if it would be a challenge to get an R rating. How many trips to the ratings board?
GORDON-LEVITT: There was a process, which is probably the case for any rated R movie, whether it’s Tarantino or Scorsese. Any movie has a back and forth process. Ultimately, the folks at the MPAA realized this movie had a point and that it wasn’t being exploitative, or gratuitously sexual. All the stuff that’s in there is there for a reason, to tell a good story. They were actually really positive about the movie. It was a funny thing. We all had the same concerns that you’re bringing up, but they got what we were trying to do.
DEADLINE: What was the most surprising thing that got between you and the R?
GORDON-LEVITT: None of it was surprising. If you read the script that I wrote, at the very beginning, the first page is a note that says, “This is going to be an R rated movie.” Even though there’s lots of sex, I always intended for it to be an R movie. Because it’s about pop culture and I wanted it to enter into pop culture and become part of that conversation. I always intended it to have that balance.
DEADLINE: So was it more a trimming of sex scenes, or the internet porn images?
GORDON-LEVITT: To be specific, there was no time lost. There was and still are these montages where there are quick flashes of images sampled from real pornography that are carefully chosen, edited and cropped and combined with music and voiceover and quick cutting to create the effect and tell the story. We continued to work on those images, but not because of the MPAA. It was a tedious and time consuming process to find the right things, and the right balance. If anything, the MPAA was actually sort of helpful in finding the right balance of having these sexual images but not too many so that it would be distracting. The thing is, it’s not a movie about pornography. At Sundance, when we had less time to work on it, some people came away from the movie thinking it was about pornography. There wasn’t time to refine the images. We had more time to fix specific things that really tell the story, and now, every single image you see corresponds to a line of voiceover and a moment and a plot. It got better and more specific.
DEADLINE: You were adamant in January that this would not only be R rated, but that it had to be a wide release. There were interested distributors that favored platforming. What’s it like being a first time filmmaker, taking such a strong strong position with the distributors bidding on your film?
GORDON-LEVITT: It was just something I felt. It’s a movie about pop culture and how the media influences how we see each other and how we see love and sex and relationships. There’s that thing, the medium is the message. I think that an audience would receive this story differently if they were watching a limited release movie. They will receive it differently when they are watching it in a big multiplex, after seeing commercials on TV. It sends a different message and that’s the message I wanted to send.
DEADLINE: So it’s a date night movie now?
GORDON-LEVITT: I think it is a good date night movie. Because to me what makes a good date night movie is one where you have something to talk about afterwards. If you come out of a movie and you’ve sat there together for 90 minutes or two hours, and you come out and you’re not thinking about anything and there’s nothing to talk about, you feel like you’ve wasted your time. If you come out of the movie and there is interesting, funny, sexy things to talk about, that makes a great date movie.
DEADLINE: What’s been the most surprising and gratifying reaction you’ve gotten for your work as a writer/director?
GORDON-LEVITT: I was in a screening in Dallas, and the audience was eating it up, totally getting the humor and laughing in the right places. There were voices in Sundance that said, this is too sophisticated, and it’s not. It reminds me of something Chris Nolan always says. He makes movies he would want to watch. He doesn’t pander and I think that’s a big part of why people love his movies. They don’t talk down to the audience. Chris puts quite a bit of faith in the audience. I wanted to put faith in the audience too. This is not your average formulaic comedy or romance. I think people are going to really love it. On a personal and purely artistic level, when people I know who are, in my opinion, very discerning in their tastes really like the movie, that means a great deal to me. I mean people who wouldn’t pay compliments if they didn’t mean it. Here’s a small example. A friend of mine, Nels Cline who plays for the band Wilco, if you ask any guitarist about him you’ll hear he’s a brilliant artist. He came to see the film, and we had a really specific conversation about the music. I’m really proud about the music in the movie and to have conversations like that, it’s the other side of the coin. I love when lots of people like the movie and it’s meaningful to have a friend whose taste and heart I admire, tell me that he enjoyed the movie and was picking up on specific nuances about the music. Those are things he would not have talked about if he didn’t like the movie. He could just have said congratulations.
DEADLINE: You told me in January that Chris Nolan was a helpful influence and so was your Looper director Rian Johnson. Can you share what they shared with you after they saw what you’d done?
GORDON-LEVITT: Chris hasn’t seen the movie. He’s shooting till the end of the year. Rian saw it and loved it. He was really complimentary. He’s the guy I sent my first finished draft to. He was providing feedback throughout the writing process, he watched several rough cuts and had lots of suggestions. To show him the final cut and have conversations with him about it, that certainly meant a lot to me.
GORDON-LEVITT: Right now, I’m working on this TV show. It’s not exactly conventional writing/directing, but it is directing and a lot of the same skills of leading a collaborative mass process and creating something. I’m having a blast doing that. The show is going to be on in January and it’s turning out really well. I can’t wait to see how people respond to it. I want to be a filmmaker again in the future. I don’t know exactly what it will be.
DEADLINE: Are getting scripts from people who like what you did as a filmmaker?
GORDON-LEVITT: It has been really gratifying. That has become part of the conversation now. It’s very flattering. I’ve gotten scripts and have studios and production companies speaking in genuine terms about me directing a movie. Professionally, that’s the greatest success I can ask for.