SXSW 2013: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Tells Us Why Film Is Easier

By  · Published on March 11th, 2013

SXSW 2013: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Tells Us Why Film Is Easier

Joseph Gordon-Levitt made bold choices with his feature debut, Don Jon, previously titled as the misleading Don Jon’s Addiction. Sure, he made a crowd-pleaser out of a potentially dark concept ‐ something we don’t see often from the indie film world ‐ but, as a filmmaker, Levitt took some chances. Not only did go about doing so by shooting on 35mm, but also with a few broad, committed stylistic flourishes.

We see the world through Jon’s eyes ‐ who is a self-centered, narcissistic Jersey boy ‐ so at first the film is shot like the most expensive, high-production value porno you’ve ever seen. Once the character’s journey comes to an end, gone is all the cheesy club music and camera whips. It’s a heightened aesthetic that lets an audience know exactly what Don Jon is from the beginning.

We spoke with Levitt here about Don Jon’s style, along with why he wanted to make a movie with a capital “m.”

Looking at this and one of your short films, Sparks, you often go for a heightened style. What appeals to you about that tone and aesthetic?

I love works of pure realism, like, Cassavetes’ movies or, say, Blue Valentine, which I love. Maybe one day I’ll want to make a movie like that. For me, I want to cast a spell, to portray something different than exactly what you see in reality. I like doing a little bit of storytelling. I don’t know exactly why, but I’m drawn to that. I feel like through that heightened storytelling you can get at the genuine heart or the truth of the matter even better. Like, look at how the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, or a lot of my other favorite filmmakers do that. Those aren’t works of total realism. They’re very heightened.

And it’s how the character would see himself, and obviously that style changes by the end. Once the script was done did you and [cinematographer] Thomas Kloss say, “This is who the character is and we’re going to fully commit to this kind of camerawork”?

Yeah, exactly. You know, with the cinematography, editing, and music, they were all divided into three acts: the first act is super flashy, MTV, commercial, and simplistic; the second act is more classic Hollywood romantic…In the first part, the music is this big, shiny club style music with a lot of camera whips and quick cuts, while the second act has orchestra music and the camera gets on dolly shots with this Frank Capra-style. With the third act, we wanted to bring it back. Yeah, the camera gets handheld, a lot less cutting, and the music really becomes one guitarist.

You shot this on film. What were the artistic and technical advantages you gained from 35mm?

First of all, I still think there’s nothing that quite looks like film. We’re getting closer now, and much more than we were a few years ago. I think 35mm has a look that is unparalleled. This is more interesting, though…when you’re shooting on film, it’s more precious. It’s serious when you roll, because it means something. There is a whole ritual with the silence, speed, marker, camera set, and our assistant director saying “action”. I like that ritual, as an actor and director. It lends a gravity to it. I’ve shot other movies on a RED cam, where you’re just kind of shooting. Rather than cutting we’ll stop, talk, start again, and it doesn’t have the same gravity. That’s not to say you can’t go through that ritual with a digital camera, but it’s just a ritual I’ve noticed. Also, interestingly enough, you’re called Film School Rejects, right? You don’t mind if I get a little more…

Not at all.

I don’t think it cost us anymore to shoot on film. Technically, everything about film is easier. Maybe it won’t be this way in the future, but to shoot on a nice, big digital camera there are a lot of wires, set up, technical glitches, and a whole bunch of dudes ‐ or dudettes ‐ who have to fix the problem. It’s a big deal to shoot on those. With film, everyone knows how they work.

Did Thomas ever talk about shooting digitally or was it film from day one?

From the beginning I said I wanted to shoot on 35. He just said, “Great!” [Laughs]

[Laughs] It must be sad knowing that, since after having this good of an experience, you may not have many more chances to shoot on film.

Yeah, I might not get to anymore, which is maybe another reason why I shot on film.

Did you also think it works for the story? The movie has this this filmic, almost American Gigilo-esque style to it.

This might sound weird, but I wanted it to be like a movie with a capital “m”. I wanted it to feel like a piece of pop culture that has the, “Coming soon to a theater near you!” That’s what I wanted. To me, 35mm film has that. Very quickly it’s becoming normal for digital movies to do that, but I’m going to stick with 35mm when I can. But, hey, just to say the other side, I’ve made a ton of things on video and it can look amazing. Like, I have this Sony Alpha a99 camera that’s Sony’s rival to the 5D, and the sensor in that 5D is manufactured by Sony, actually. We’ve made short pieces with it for hitRECord, and it looks amazing! I’m the last one to say you need film to make something great, but since I had the opportunity to go film I took it.

Obviously the movie is getting a wide release, but I want to ask about Shane Carruth’s distribution model —

I’ve seen Upstream Color and talk about looking great on a digital camera. That movie is gorgeous.

It’s great. As a director, do you ever see yourself making a movie, putting it on online yourself, and just linking it to your twitter?

Sure, perhaps. I mean, I think all bets are off, really. I always conceived this movie as an old-fashioned movie. I do think the way a movie finds its way to its audience is not simply a logistical matter, because it impacts the artist itself. The audience has a different experience watching it depending on how they get it. That’s not to say one is better or worse, but it is different. I make stuff all the time that goes out on the Internet, and I love the immediacy of it and the ability of people who like it to download it, remix it, and make their own thing. I think all of the above I’m interested in.

I’m interested in the different avenues of “distribution”, which is an old-fashioned word for it; it’s become a conversation for it. It’s no longer, “The industry made this and are distributing it to these passive spectators.” It’s becoming where we’re making things, expressing ourselves, talking about things, and it’s evolving. I think that’s a good thing for the art itself. It’ll lead to a cooler, wider variety of things.

To end on, you easily could have made Jon a “bad” guy at the start of the film, but you didn’t. What was the reasoning behind writing a lead you maybe can find likeable from the start?

First of all, I love playing characters different from me: the character in Looper has a different face and walks and talks differently than me; in Stop-Loss I played a soldier; and with Hesher I played a highway Marry Poppins. Most of the movies I do I play characters who are different to me, because I like putting myself in different characters’ shoes. Yeah, Jon is very different than me, and that’s a challenge I appreciate. In my younger and more judgmental days, I would have dismissed a guy like that, like, “Fuck that guy! He’s just an asshole. No, he’s hopeless.” I don’t think that’s true about any person. I don’t think anyone is hopeless, and maybe that’s naïve of me.

I like to think every human being has something good to them. This is a movie about a guy who you first meet is a douchebag, but by the end of the movie you see him breaking out of his shell. If you’re willing to except the notion of a guy who looks like that isn’t necessarily a bad person and are willing to let a guy like that grow, then I think there’s a real light at the end of the tunnel for this movie.

Don Jon opens in theaters this summer.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.