Joseph Gordon-Levitt interview – taking DON JON from festival favorite to mainstream masterpiece

Joseph Gordon-Levitt interview – taking DON JON from festival favorite to mainstream masterpiece

It’s safe to say Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gone beyond the status of “actor to watch” and into “master entertainer” territory. After an incredible year in 2012 appearing in huge films like LOOPER, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and LINCOLN, Joe is about to unleash his feature directorial debut on audiences this weekend with DON JON. The movie has already been a film festival favorite, getting rave reviews at both Sundance and South by Southwest. And talk about working hard, JGL not only directs, he also wrote and stars in the piece, alongside Julianne Moore, Scarlett Johnansson, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson and the great Tony Danza. I wasn’t able to see DON JON at SXSW this year, which was heartbreaking after hearing so many good things. It also meant I wouldn’t have a chance to meet and interview Joe, someone I genuinely wanted to chat with. Thankfully he decided to stop in Dallas for a brief press tour, and I was able to participate in a small roundtable (literally three of us talking to him) interview. What you read below are my questions and Joe’s answers to them. I don’t believe in using others people’s questions and answers and calling them my own, so the following is solely the interaction between Joe and I. I’d highly encourage you to check out DON JON this weekend, as long as you can handle mature “adult” comedy… it’s easily one of the year’s best.


Mark: I missed seeing this at South by Southwest, which was devastating for me by the way (JGL laughs), because it was like the one film I really wanted to see.

JGL: I’m glad you saw it now, it’s better now than it was then.

Mark:Mark: It’s great, it’s really wonderful, and I love that a lot of the hype I was hearing – it definitely lives up to that hype…

JGL: Good.

Mark: …but I’m also curious, when you take a movie like this to film festivals and things like that, there is always that pressure of ‘are they going to accept this’ or ‘are they going to get it’, especially when it’s something you work on so hard and it’s so personal. Can you talk a little bit about that reaction that you got from the festival circuit, and then also having the luck with the distribution on it. It’s great that now it looks like it’s going to get the release that it deserves.

JGL: Thank you, yeah.

Mark: Talk a little bit about that side of it.

JGL: Yeah, well… what I didn’t want to do, making my first feature film, was play it safe and make something kind of normal. I really didn’t wanna be loike, “oh yeah, it’s really, it’s well done.” To be on of these films…

Mark: You didn’t want it to be one of these films that Scarlett Johnansson likes to see in the movie.

JGL: Yeah, yeah, you know I didn’t. I wanted, if I was gonna spend all this time and effort and like make a movie, I wanted to take some risks and do some stuff that wouldn’t be done otherwise unless I really pushed it that way. And sure, that is risky. The safer bet would be to take a script that some established screenwriter had written, and leverage my position to develop it at a studio and craft it well… and, you know, make something that was like “Wow, you can do that, that’s good.” That didn’t interest me, I really wanted to, like, try to go for it. So I came up with an idea that was inexpensive so I wouldn’t have to get money from a studio… and, because we did it at such a low budget, I was able to really keep creative control and be bold. That’s what I wanted to do. But you’re right, it comes along with the risk of like “Well, you take that risk it’s a bigger swing, and it might not work!” And you can’t really worry about that when you’re doing it. I just kind of kept my eye on… I think this is great, and the people I’m working with, they’re thinking it’s great, so… great. Let’s push forward.

Mark: Can you talk a little bit about the casting process, I really love the mix of people that you have in this. Because obviously if you didn’t have the right people for those choices then the whole thing could fall apart.

JGL: Sure.

Mark: It seems like every piece of that puzzle really fit. What an inspired choice with Tony Danza.

JGL: Thanks, thanks, yeah. Tony killed it.

Mark: I always thought he was terrific.

JGL: He is, man. He’s a natural performer, man, I think he’s a… I love Tony. You know they say, the old saying goes “90% of directing is casting.”

Mark: Yeah.

JGL: And, so yeah, I…

Mark: Were these all dream actors for these parts?

JGL: Honestly, I am incredibly fortunate that really my first choice for everybody came through.

Mark: That’s great.

JGL: I wrote it with Scarlett in mind from the very beginning of conceiving that character. I was always picturing Scarlett playing it, and I didn’t know her personally, I was just a fan of her work and thought she was a great actress and perfect for this part.

Mark: And not a part I would think to see her in.

JGL: It’s different than what she normally does.

Mark: Yeah.

JGL: You’re right. I just had a hunch she would be good at it. If you mix several other parts of her’s together – like VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and LOST IN TRANSLATION and like… maybe throw in her “Chandeliers” girl from SNL, I don’t know if you seen that, but yeah. That was part of it too. And she murders this role, I love her performance in DON JON. Barbara Sugarman, she made her into such a human. And on the page… I’m proud of the character on the page, but what Scarlett did is so much richer and more nuanced and interesting than what’s on the page. And same goes for what Julie (Julianne Moore) did with the Esther character. They both just brought so much… so much depth and charm, and vulnerability to each character. My favorite performances in movies are always the ones where both the strengths and the weaknesses of the person are on display. Because that’s how human beings are. No one’s perfect, no is an absolute hero or an absolute villain. Yeah, so I think both of them really came through with that. And Tony… Tony is also really different than you’d expect him, because he’s such a likable guy. That was the one note I kept giving him, was “I like you too much, you have to be a worse person.” (laughter) Because his father is where Jon gets a lot of his mysogeny.

Mark: Yeah.

JGL: And, you know, that’s not Tony’s instinct. His instinct is to just be his adorable self. And so I was constantly having to push him to be more mean, and more like a… but yeah, that was funny.

Mark: Did you come up with a Tony Danza impression? Because a lot of people like to do the Tony Danza…

JGL: Sure, everyone has their Tony Danza… well the way I talk as Don Jon is based on… for sure, as the son’s speech is largely based on his father’s.

Mark: And talking specifically about actors, it’s funny because two of my favorite movies this year have been directed by actors. You did DON JON and Lake Bell did IN A WORLD…

JGL: I really liked IN A WORLD, yes.

Mark: It was wonderful, and they’re both, I think, like you say breaking away from sort of that mainstream archetype of what people expect to see for a big Hollywood movie.

JGL: But it’s still totally entertaining.

Mark: Exactly.

JGL: And it had something to say. I really liked that movie, I saw it at Sundance, and yeah, bravo to her.

Mark: I know this is kind of that pedestrian qauestion, but because you’ve worked with so many great directors, was there any particular influence you had from any one of those directors that you applied to this film? Was there some things that you picked up when you were on the set from certain people?

JGL: Yeah, definitely. Well the year before we shot DON JON, that was the year when I shot all three of those movies – LOOPER and DARK KNIGHT RISES and LINCOLN, so I certainly was paying a lot of attention to what Rian and Chris and Steven were doing. And all three of those guys were really encouraging. One thing I noticed all three of them had in common is their ability to balance a strong plan with the ability to be spontaneous. All three of them do their homework, they don’t show up saying like “Well what are we gonna do today?” They show up knowing what they need. But then when something new comes up, whether it because “Oh shit, the plan isn’t gonna work” or someone, whether and actor or DP or somebody comes up with a new idea, they’re able to be flexible. And then knowing when to be which, whether to stick to your plan or move on to the new idea – that’s right at the crux of I think a director’s job, because you come up against that decision all day long. And all three of those guys had a really strong balance. And not every director does. Some are too rigidly attached to their sort of… their plan, and what they thought the movie needed to turn out like, and some don’t have enough of a plan and are sort of just hoping to find it on the day, or hoping to find it in the editing room later or something. But all three of those guys, I thought, really struck that balance and I think that’s a big part of why I think all three of them are great filmmakers.

Mark: Have any of those guys seen this?

JGL: Rian has seen it, Chris and Steven have not yet.

Mark: What did Rian have to say about it?

JGL: Rian really likes it. Rian was the first guy that I showed my first draft of the script to, and he saw a couple of rough cuts along the way and gave me feedback. And then just now he saw the finished one, we just had a cast and crew screening and he saw the finished version, and it was really great to show it to him. He was really proud…

Mark: That’s awesome.

JGL: …and thought it was really funny and came together really well, and that means a lot to me, you know. He’s a dear friend of mine. Ram, who produced LOOPER and BRICK, produced DON JON. And Nathan who did the music for LOOPER and BRICK did the music on DON JON.

Mark: It’s like a family thing.

JGL: Yeah, yeah. Wade who pulled focus, Dale who operated the camera, Pawel and his sound department are all from LOOPER. Yeah.

Mark: (talking about New York people depicted in the movie) Was there any sort of backlash from that community? Because it seems like a lot of times people are quick to jump and say “Oh you’re just making fun of New Yorkers” or whatever.

JGL: Right.

Mark: I felt like it was a very real interpretation of what that sort of community is like, without being parody of it.

JGL: Yeah, well I hope so, it is certainly “comic.”

Mark: Yeah.

JGL: It’s not real like a Cassavetes movie, it’s real like a… like a comedy, like 500 DAYS OF SUMMER or 50/50, or these comparisons I’ve made before. Has there been any backlash? Not really no, most people I’ve spoken to from the East Coast are kind of talking like you’re talking, like “It’s kind of what it’s like.” I think it’s important to say, not everybody from New Jersey or Queens or Staten Island or Brooklyn is like that… and you could say that about anything, nobody from anywhere is universally like anything. And I don’t think the point I’m trying to make is that “everyone from this place speaks like this” or anything., but…

Mark: Well there’s a great coming-of-age aspect to the film that I think everyone can relate to. We see a lot of those types of films, coming-of-age films, but it’s always… it’s never a mature take on it. And I think that’s one of the things I really loved about this. This is a coming-of-age film for adults.

JGL: Yeah, right on.  Well good.  That’s what I wanted.  Thanks!

For more info on Joe’s interactive filmmaker website HITRECORD, visit

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.