Don Jon isn't first time behind the camera. He made his directorial debut in 2009 with a short film, Sparks. You can find that impressive Elmore Leonard adaptation on the less impressive Killshot DVD. Don Jon marks his feature-length directorial debut, but watching Sparks, you can clearly see what Levitt's interests are.
There's a heightened quality to both stories. Don Jon is about how media helps create that over-the-top aesthetic, before seeing reality make it crumble. It's a movie about movies, and we spoke with the writer, director, and star, Mr. Levitt, about some of the movies that inspired him.
Here's what Joseph Gordon-Levitt had to say about Don Jon:
How has the movie changed since Sundance and South by?
It's just smoother and a bit better. There's an opening credits sequence that took a long time to put together, which wasn't on the version you saw. It's sort of a montage from clips, music videos, red carpets, and music by Nathan Johnson. I think it really help set the mood. Also, I redid the voiceover. I didn't change any of the words, but I just redid it. That isn't something drastically different.
There was a deadline at Sundance. We hit it to a degree, but we weren't done. It's great to have finished the movie [Laughs]. But, hey, what you saw at South by is fundamentally the same thing.
Something you stressed at South by Southwest was you shot this on film. Working with Christopher Nolan and Rian Johnson, did their advocacy for film rub off on you a bit?
I think so. Also, I grew up working on film. It's what I'm used to. I wanted this to look like a "movie" that's about movies and media. I'm a believer that the medium is the message, so I wanted this to feel like a movie with a capital "m". I think shooting on film is a part of that. I don't say that to disparage digital, because I shoot a lot of things on digital cameras. I love doing that. There's a difference, though.
Since you mentioned being influenced by movies and media, I remember having that with High School movies, expecting High School to be this amazing place with freedom and huge parties.
That's actually a really good example of that. I haven't thought about that, but you're so right. That's exactly what goes on in Don Jon. My character and Scarlett's character have these expectations from media, and they compare their real lives to those expectations.
I remember being a kid and watching those movies set in High School, thinking, "Oh wow, High School is when you're old and can do anything!" You know, High School was not like that [Laughs]. I guess it's all relative, but...what's another example? I guess I'm closer to the character of Barbara than Don, having watched High School movies or romantic movies, wanting to fall in love and hear those violins. Real relationships aren't like that. That's not to say they're worse, because they're actually better. They're more rich and nuanced, but you'll miss all that if you're too busy comparing it to these fantasies you see in media.
Another movie that touches on that well is Saturday Night Fever.
Was that an influence?
It's a movie that I had not seen before coming up with the idea, but while I was in the tail end of writing it someone who read it said, "You have to watch Saturday Night Fever." I did, and yeah, it's an apt comparison. Those classic American characters, like we see in Rocky or Mean Streets, represent comparable east coast "everyman".
Were those the movies you watched as kid?
There were so many. Anything more specific?
The movies that made you love movies?
Well, when I was younger, I don't think I ever watched The NeverEnding Story thinking about the filmmaking. I was just thinking about the dragon. I remember really getting into when I was, like, 12, 13, and 14. I remember watching Lenny, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, and The Graduate. That was probably my first artist idol; he's different in every role. I admired how convincing he'd be transforming. Funnily, another Mike Nichols movie that was a key reference for us was Carnal Knowledge.
How do you work with actors? Is it how you want to be worked with or did it vary on this?
It depends on the actor, which is what I found out directing. Everyone has their own way going about it. doesn't want to know anything about the filmmaking going on. He's really, really focused on his experience as that character. There's other actors, like, , who are quite aware of the filmmaking and what the director is aiming for. Everyone does it different. I found that giving and what they needed were two different things, and that's a part of the fun and challenge.
You're a part of two great director/actor pairings with Rian Johnson and Christopher Nolan. How do those two relationships relate or differ?
Well, it comes down to communication. Rian and Chris certainly have a lot in common, but also a lot of differences. They're both down to converse about what they're doing with the movie. I always ask a lot of questions and Chris is someone with a lot of answers. If he doesn't have an answer, then he's open to discussing it and figuring out the answer.
When Rian and I were working on Brick there were two evenings where we went through every shot, scene, cut, and the whole rundown of what he wanted to do. That's really rare. I so appreciated that. I think it allowed me to give him a better performance and what he needed.
Have you both discussed working together again soon?
I hope so. He's writing something right now, but I don't know what it is yet. He's in that stage of the writing process where it's not time to talk about it yet. I have no idea what it is, but I look forward to reading it, whether I'm going to be in it or not.
Don Jon opens in theaters September 27th.