Joseph Gordon-Levitt is well known for his work as an actor in television (most notably, the award-winning comedy series 3rd Rock from the Sun) and film (500 Days Of Summer, 50/50, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper.)
Now, with his debut as a feature film writer/director, he’s one of the nominees for the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for Don Jon. In it, Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, a strong, handsome, good old-fashioned guy. His buddies call him Don Jon due to his ability to “pull” a different woman every weekend, but even the finest fling doesn’t compare to the bliss he finds alone in front of the computer watching pornography.
Here, Gordon-Levitt discusses the value of ignoring everyone and why he doesn’t sit at a keyboard when he writes.
Tune in to IFC at 10:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on March 1, 2014 to find out the winners of the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Will you approach writing your acceptance speech in the same way you do a screenplay?
Well, Uh… no. [Laughs.] I’ve never really written any acceptance speeches before, but I imagine that it would be pretty different than writing a screenplay.
What was one thing that you learned while working on Don Jon?
The whole experience was new. My whole life I’ve written little stories, but I’ve never really completed a traditional screenplay before. Perhaps the biggest take away is that it’s doable. It’s always been an aspiration on the horizon and such a huge and daunting thing to try to tackle and I think that just having gotten through one is a huge revelation.
The writing process for me was a lot like acting. I wasn’t really sitting at the keyboard very often. I was more up and around acting out the scene and when I would find the version I liked I would run back to the keyboard and write it down.
How many drafts did it go through?
There were quite a few, I don’t think any more than normal. It seemed pretty normal from my experience working on other movies.
There was the first complete draft to show other people; confidants, Rian Johnson, the writer/director of Brick. Based on some thoughts, I did another draft before showing it to some other professional acquaintances and then did one more draft before showing it to Scarlett [Johansson] who was really kind of the first big piece of the puzzle of getting the movie up on its feet. And then she had a lot of great thoughts and ideas and I did another draft based on several conversations that I had with her. And that became the official draft.
Was there one breakthrough moment that helped everything fall into place?
Yeah, I had the basic concept of it that I wanted to tell, a story about a Don Juan type of character who watches too much pornography and a princess type of character who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies. I was playing around with lots of different ideas how you could execute that. It was while working on 50/50 with Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jon Levine and Will Reiser, and that whole posse. It was while I was making that movie that I thought, “Oh, what if I could tell this Don Juan type story like this, with this sort of tone?”
What was the toughest scene in Don Jon for you to write?
I wouldn’t say any one [scene] was more difficult than another. I wrote it in order at first and wrote one scene at a time. I wrote the first third of it and it ended up pretty similar to what I wrote in that first go. And after writing that first third that’s when I sort of felt like, “Okay, this is a movie. I can see it now. I know how it feels. I know how it sounds. I get the tone of it.” And after that I wrote a specific outline for every scene, which I hadn’t really done up until that point. And then I had this list of scenes. So when I had a few hours free, I would sit down and say like, “Alright, what scene’s next on the list?” and I would write it.
What actor would you most like to see perform something you’ve written?
What’s the best advice about writing that you’ve ever heard?
There’s a book called Letters To A Young Poet, the author’s name is Rilke. That book was recommended to me by Rian Johnson. One of the first things that book talks about is solitude and how important it is to spend a lot of time deep down within yourself, ignoring everybody else and everything else. I think that’s incredibly valuable, because on the one hand you want your audience to understand and appreciate and connect with what you’ve written. On the other hand you have to write just something that’s meaningful to your own self. Especially in the culture of making movies we all have a tendency to fixate on, “Where’s this going to go?” “How’s this going to fit into the industry?” All these other external thoughts and concerns aren’t totally irrelevant, but I think especially early on in the writing process it’s worth completely ignoring those things and really completely ignoring anything anybody says or thinks and just finding your own opinion, your own voice in that place where you’re writing just to please yourself.