Off the Beaten Path
Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes and directs a provocative date movie—but probably not a first-date movie, OK?
Published: September 25, 2013
Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Opens Sept. 27
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been in a bunch of movies (Brick, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) and he was a child actor, most notably in a five-year run on television’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, and now he has written and directed the movie Don Jon, about a young man who loves ’em and leaves ’em, until he falls in love. Also, he compulsively masturbates to internet pornography. We talked with Mr. Gordon-Levitt at a super-nice Georgetown hotel in Our Nation’s Capital.
City Paper: So you got a movie made. Is this the first thing that you’ve pulled off like this?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It’s the first feature-length film, yeah, I’ve done a ton of short films and videos.
CP: But, like, this is a whole movie, this is a big deal.
JG-L: [Smiles, but really, he smiles a lot] A mainstream movie, yeah, that was the goal.
CP: I saw it yesterday, and I was, um, this is, people are gonna talk about this movie, because I was thinking about how this might be an odd sort of a date movie?
JG-L: Yeah, I think it’d be a good date movie!
CP: [Laughs] Maybe not a first-date movie?
JG-L: No, not a first-date movie. I agree with you there, maybe not a first-date movie. But as far as like, for a girlfriend and a boyfriend to go on a date. . .
CP: There would be a lot to talk about after this movie.
JG-L: And that’s what I want out of a date movie, is something to talk about and maybe something to talk about with a little heat behind it.
CP: Yeah, and you do a movie-in-the-movie, which is always awesome, so you got those two posters, which movie are we gonna go to: the guy movie, or are we gonna go to the lady movie? So you end up going to the lady movie, and how much of that was informed by you, all those points in the movie? Is that your take on lady movies?
JG-L: [Laughs] Well, look, [patronizingly, perhaps] every movie is different, every movie is unique, there certainly is a formula Hollywood follows to make money, and sometimes that results in some pretty cookie-cutter movies, and those are the movies we were making fun of.
CP: Yeah, but like, you have a movie about a guy who is in the situation of not being self-aware enough to understand he’s a compulsive masturbator . . .
CP: And it’s a date movie!
JG-L: [Laughs] Yeah.
CP: You have weird flashes of flesh that are in the film, and there was one montage where, OK, I’m trying real hard to look for the subliminal thing here, I didn’t see anything.
JG-L: There isn’t, it’s rated R, very carefully chopped and cropped, to put you inside the head of a guy who’s watching a pornography clip, objectifying the women on the screen. He’s not connecting with anything, and him watching pornography is sort of the central symbol of that, he’s getting off on an image of a woman on a screen who’s not even aware that he’s there. But the same thing goes for how he is in his love life, but also how he is with his family, how he is with his friends, how he is with his church, even how he is with his own body.
CP: That guy who’s in the movie inside the movie [Channing Tatum], I met him here once, and the thing that always strikes me about him on screen is how huge his neck is.
CP: [In a voice like a character on The X-Files explaining some vast conspiracy] But, in person, I didn’t notice it. It was really weird, and then, and then there he is in the movie last night, and it’s like, there he is again with his giant neck! I don’t understand how that happens. It’s like, did he train? Did he train for two weeks to do that, and then you relax when you do the publicity tour?
JG-L: I can’t speak to Chan’s neck, and I don’t think—he wasn’t in the middle of training when we shot that cameo of his in Don Jon. Um, yeah.
CP: This movie is diabolical, in that it is a relationship movie, and a guy movie, in a certain way. And it’s not a fluffy movie.
JG-L: I appreciate that.
CP: It built, you know? At the beginning, honestly, I’m like, Oh, we’re gonna do Jersey accents, and it’s gonna be that, “Am I gonna get annoyed by this, are they just gonna be caricatures the whole movie?” But they weren’t, it was really interesting.
JG-L: Thanks, man, I—
CP: [Not stopping, full head of steam] All you want is some sort of a moment, with a character, where they look like they’re human and something happens with them, and that happened, you know, not for everybody in the movie, but it happened for him, nobody had to, it’s like, you have, um, whatsername, Julianne . . .
JG-L: Julianne Moore.
CP: Julianne Moore, it’s like, she’s always awesome.
JG-L: She’s so good, one of the finest actors going, and I was so honored she did this movie. She’s been in some of my favorites, Big Lebowski, Magnolia—
CP: She can do whatever she wants, she’s great. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been seeing movies that I like, it’s a lot easier to come in and talk—I got to talk once to Albert Brooks and I didn’t like his movie. I’m talking to Albert Brooks.
JG-L: Yeah, jeez.
CP: Who, to me, is like a god.
JG-L: Uh-huh, he’s great.
CP: And he’s a blast to talk to, so I didn’t say a goddamn word about his movie.
JG-L: Well, I’m glad you liked this movie.
CP: You know what I’m trying to do now? I’m just trying to get my review of the movie into the interview, so that I don’t have to write two things?
JG-L: I would probably like that better because I like it when a movie review lets you in on where the reviewer is at. Like, movie reviews take that sort-of objective tone, but movie reviews aren’t an objective experience, they’re subjective.
CP: With [Don Jon], I only knew a little bit, but what I knew was completely not right. What I thought I knew was that it’s a, uh, [realizing at this moment this is marketing information being relayed directly to the writer and director of the movie] it looks kinda like, uh, an “up,” uh, wacky, almost, you know, young man, romantic comedy-thing, hijinx, and stuff like that—
CP:—and it ain’t, it’s way better than that, man, it’s a good date movie.
JG-L: Right on. What had you seen that made you think, that gave you that impression, did you see the trailer, or you just read something about it—
CP: I didn’t a see the trailer, I saw the, like, there’s like a plot synopsis [in the press materials], although the plot synopsis, I was like, hmm, how’re they gonna do this?
JG-L: Uh-huh [laughs]
CP: You know. I dunno, and it’s like, I get nervous, I get nervous for movies.
CP: Sometimes movies don’t get sold the right way. Sometimes they put the clips that make the movie look one way when it’s really the other way.
CP: Sometimes they do three sets of clips to make the movie look three different ways because they have no fuckin’ idea how to do it.
JG-L: [Laughs] Or they wanna appeal to different target audiences with three different approaches.
CP: Yeah, I just feel bad for movies, and I don’t even know if this is true that this is how it works, the reason they’re all so fuckin’ terrified all the time, when you walk out of a movie, and they ask you what you thought of it, the reason they wanna know all that shit immediately, is because every grain of information goes into whether or not they’re gonna spend a nickel on selling the movie to the public.
JG-L: [Realizing, finally, if there was any previous doubt, he’s not dealing with a rocket scientist] Yeah, that is how it works, yeah.
CP: I’m fascinated by that shit. It’s such a game.
JG-L: Yeah, it is, and again, it went kind of perfectly for us, I knew that we couldn’t make this movie at a big company. Because it’s too off the, you know, the norm. So we wouldn’t be able to spend lots of money. We did it for low money, and the plan was to do it for low money, independently, play it at Sundance and hopefully someone would pick it up. Fortunately that’s what happened. It’s really the best-case scenario, because Relativity [Media] is really putting their money where their mouth is, and the thing is, when I was writing it, I always conceived of it as a mainstream movie, because it’s about mainstream culture. And I really believe that saying, that the medium is the message. And I think this movie would have a different impact on a viewer in the context of a mainstream movie as opposed to the context of, you know, an art-house flick that’s only gonna get seen by cinephiles. And not just for the sake of it being popular, but because of what the movie’s about, the movie’s about mainstream culture. So when the movie itself is within mainstream culture, that changes the context, that sort of reinforces and supports the whole point of the movie, whereas if it were more of an outsider’s movie, of a niche movie, or, I mean, even if the movie were the same, but it were in that context, I think that context wouldn’t support the point of the movie as well. It wouldn’t have the same impact on the people who see it. So I’m really glad Relativity did make that investment and believes in it enough, even though it’s not your typical Hollywood movie.
CP: I guess the thing that’s gonna happen [in the press] is there’s gonna be a lotta bad puns about jerking off and wacking off, and I’ll try to avoid that.
JG-L: Appreciate that. Unless it’s a really good pun.
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