Star Apps: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The "Don Jon" star, writer, and director chats with about shooting love scenes and making tech compelling in his new film, online dating and sex apps, and achieving creative synthesis over social media.

Since the 17th Century there have been many different iterations of legendary sexual libertine Don Juan. Today, in 2013, he is Don Jon, a sexually-voracious commitment-phobe, who takes greater pleasure from online porn than from his many conquests. But the "Jersey Shore"-inspired character (well played, written, and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who could teach "The Situation" a thing or ten about laying "9s," puts the one-night stands behind him when he meets a "dime" named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). But can he do the same with his porn addiction?

"Don Jon" is a love story for the modern age, demonstrating how new-fangled technologies impact our courtships, sex lives, and self-fulfillment. It's a great date movie that will appeal to a wide audience. This movie is fun and entertaining, but also loaded with thought-provoking themes.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt\'s Jon woos Scarlett Johansson\'s Barbara in Don John. (Credit: Daniel McFadden)

Shortly before the film's Sep. 27 opening, the "Don Jon" star, writer, and director chatted with about shooting love scenes and making tech compelling onscreen, online dating and sex apps, and achieving creative synthesis over social media.

Several filmmakers I've previously interviewed have said that they prefer not showing too much device interaction in their films, because it's not compelling for audiences to watch characters using their laptops or Smartphones. But you have Don Jon on his devices a lot in this film. How did you get around that issue?
Well, I don't think it's dull. It's obviously a big part of our life. There's quite a bit about the way that people engage with media in this movie, whether it's Jon who watches too much pornography or Barbara who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies or Jon's dad who constantly watches sports at the dinner table, etc. etc.

I've always been fascinated with the way that media influences how we see the world. That's probably because I've worked as an actor in TV and movies since I was a kid, so I've always paid attention to that and I think that was sort of the beginning of why I wanted to tell this story about the unrealistic expectations that we get from media and how to get around that. When you're watching the montage sequences of the Jon character watching pornography, at no point do you actually see him with a computer. It's more like you're inside his head. So it's this highly-stylized montage sequence with voiceovers and music and quick cuts from close-ups of him to little samples of actual pornography -- and they're very carefully cut and cropped and selected, so they're not really pornographic but seem pornographic. I was intrigued by that, because I love editing and I've been editing for like ten years or so, so I was really intrigued to make those montage sequences and do that storytelling that you can't really do in a theater or in a novel or anything other than movies, because it's a big combination of all these elements: images and sounds and images over sounds, etc. -- and that's filmmaking.

How involved were you in the porn scene selection process?
I was directing it, so I was there the whole time [laughs].

Father knows best. Danza, who plays Don Jon\'s dad told Gordon-Levitt offscreen that pre-Internet porn was much harder to come by. (Credit: Daniel McFadden)

I was reading what your co-star Tony Danza said about how it used to take work to get porn, but now kids can just go online and stream it. Do you think that today kids have too much access to that kind of material?
I would draw attention to mainstream media, because you're right...there's a lot of fervor over online porn, but what about the commercials that are completely approved by the FCC for general viewing audiences? The stuff that's on the Super Bowl, stuff that six year olds watch on network television to sell hamburgers or beer or cars or whatever it is that the commercials are selling. They have the exact same message that pornography does. It's taking a person, and usually a woman, and they reduce her to this thing, this sex object, and it's really no different; so I would say, "Let's talk about all of our media and really our whole culture that tends to reduce people to things rather than focus on one small part of it, which is pornography."

There are a lot of sex-based apps such as Grindr and Bang With Friends cropping up. Do people ever talk to you about them?
I can't participate in online dating or any of that stuff. I hear about it. I'm fascinated and I talk with friends about it, because I think it's fascinating. I regret not being able to play along in any of those games, but I've never met anyone through online dating. I have friends who have full-on great relationships with people they've met online. But I don't. Oh well -- but I do hear about it, sure. And I like that that's in the movie, that Jon finds Barbara through Facebook. In the five to ten years that Facebook has risen to prominence, I'm well aware of how prominent that's become in the way that people go about dating. So I feel informed if not personally experienced. And I think the way it shows up in "Don Jon" is realistic...from what I understand.

All workout and no lay makes Jon a bored boy. (Credit: Daniel McFadden )

A big story about you in recent years has been how you've transformed your body. I know a lot of people use a Pedometer or more general Exercise app. Do you ever use anything like that to get and/or stay in shape?
No, I can't say I do.

So what are your favorite apps?
Yeah, I'm always intrigued to see stuff like that, but I haven't spent the time. To be honest, it seems like a whole other pursuit to learn. I'm really involved in social media, because I run this company called HitRECord and using Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and YouTube is a big part of how we reach out to the world, and try to get people to reach out to our collaborative projects. So I'm doing that stuff every day, but I don't think anyone on your site is going to say, "I've never heard of Twitter before," but those are the ones that I use.

Of those social media apps you've mentioned, which is your favorite?
Well, they're all useful for different things. Again, my main goal in using most of the social media is I like working with all kinds of artists, so I love getting to work in Hollywood, but there are so many great artists doing amazing work of all kinds whether it's filmmakers or illustrators or animators or music or writing and I want to collaborate with those people and that's what HitRECord allows me to do. So I use Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and YouTube to reach out to those people and let people know we're working on this and we need a writer to write something based on this illustration or we need animators to turn this illustration into animation or here's a composition and we need musicians to play these parts; so that's what we use social media for. They all work differently and they're all important.

With "Don Jon," I've been doing this fun thing on Twitter, where I've been writing as him. I started a new Twitter account @donjon, and that's fun, because I wrote him, so I really spent a lot of time figuring out how he thinks and talks, and normally when you write a movie, you finish the movie and that's it. But on Twitter, now I've had the opportunity to keep him alive. It's actually more of a prequel, I guess, because in the movie the character goes through a bit of an evolution, and by the end, he's changed a bit. The way I'm writing him now, he's not changed yet. He's very much set in his ways and he's the dude you find when you start the movie. And besides keeping him alive, I'm letting him interact with people and the audience, itself, because most of what I write is responding to people. They ask Jon questions and tell him their opinion on things. And it's funny getting to respond, because he has different opinions than I do. So I've been amusing myself and I think it's a fun, unexpected, creative endeavor in getting to write for that account.

Dear Abby, he is not. But if you\'re interested, Don Jon takes your questions @donjon. (Credit: Screenshot: Josh Rotter)

When you were writing this character, did you identify with his journey?
Sure, I identify with him. I think we all have a tendency to be selfish and to not connect with people. It's easier to not connect with people. I know what that is to put someone in a box and just use them for what you want and not really care what they think or feel, because that takes effort. I'm sure I'm guilty of it sometimes. We all are. But yeah, I identify with him.

Why did you write the Esther character (played by Julianne Moore) older?
Well, I wanted it to be a woman that he would not normally consider and I wanted it to be a woman that was coping with something in her life -- that having her at different place in her life made more sense or seemed more natural for her to be going through this. I guess those are kind of the two main reasons.

There were many sex scenes in the film with many different actresses. Do you ever get nervous before shooting intimate scenes?
Not really, to be honest. You don't really have time to be, because when you're shooting a movie you have limited time and a really tight schedule to get all this stuff done, so you just don't have time to worry about stuff like that...especially directing at the same time, because I'm partially responsible for making sure we stay on schedule; but no, the thing is, almost all the sexuality in "Don Jon" is highly stylized. It's the result of lots of bits and pieces getting cut up together and combined with voiceover and music; so shooting those things, they really feel like you're shooting pieces of a puzzle and once they all fit together for an audience, it will play and feel sexual and feel intimate; but when you're shooting it, it doesn't.

You're known for succeeding in both indie and blockbuster films. How do you manage to do both so well?
Thanks man, that's a very flattering question. The first thing I pay attention to when I'm trying to decide what movies I want to try to act in is the filmmaker and what the filmmaker's intentions are. Rian Johnson or Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg, for example -- all three of those guys, they're not doing it for the money. They're doing it because they have a genuine story that they want to tell because they love movies and are making movies that they would want to see; that's not how everybody does it, so that's how I look at it: is this filmmaker sincere? Do they have something they really want to say?

That's what I tried to stick to with "Don Jon." This is something I really wanted to say about how the media works and how it impacts our relationships and our love lives and our sex lives. I feel like I know quite a bit about it, because I've paid attention to all sorts of media throughout my life. And that was ultimately the reason to make this movie. If my goal was to make a blockbuster, make maximum money for my first movie, this isn't probably the movie I would have made. But I think that when you hit it just right, that sincerity will connect with a broad audience. This movie didn't cost lots of money, but it's coming out in wide release, and hopefully -- knock on wood -- going to be seen by lots of people. It's not just a product -- but really saying something.

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for and covers iOS.