Sunday, July 24, 2011

Interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt - 21st August, 2009

Promoting: (500) Days of Summer
Venue: The Soho Hotel, London
Interview type: Round table

Question (Q): Can you relate to some of the experiences of the film? How do you mend a broken heart?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (JG-L): Of course, everybody can relate to both sides. Everyone’s been Tom, everybody’s been Summer at some point or another, to some degree or another. I certainly have. That was really our aim with this, to not just make something that’s funny or pulls at the heartstrings, so to speak, but is actually heartfelt and honest.

Q: Have you ever been that low, though?

JG-L: I’ve been pretty sad!

Q: Is sad British pop music big in America? Was that something you could relate to?

J-GL: Yeah, the Clash, the Smiths, those bands are definitely a very big deal.

Q: How refreshing for you was it that it’s the guy who’s the romantic fantasist and the girl’s the cynic? It’s usually the other way around.

JG-L: I like that neither of the characters fit so neatly into any gender box, that both exhibit traits that would typically be assigned to either one or the other, in like our parents’ generation of love stories. I think it’s a sign of the times that we as a people, and we as a culture, are kind of becoming more ready to be individuals and have less of a need to strictly adhere to any conventions or stereotypes.

Q: What are your music tracks for those falling in and out of love moments?

JG-L: Well, it all depends. I’ll tell you, when we were shooting (500) Days of Summer, what I listened to a lot was [co-star Zooey Deschanel's band] She & Him. Everyone loves it in the States.

Q: You’ve done a little dance video to that, haven’t you?

JG-L: Yes, I’m pleased to say that, because there’s a dance number in the movie and Zooey isn’t in it, which is a tragedy, because Zooey is built for dance numbers. So we made this little short film that’s out online [on Gordon-Levitt's own site, – see below], the director and Zooey and I, to one of her songs. Every morning on my way to work, I listened to She & Him, and to hear her singing her songs, and her voice, with these beautiful melodies, made it very easy to play smitten and have these songs in my head.

Q: What’s your karaoke track?

JG-L: Oh man, I can’t tell you, that would ruin the sneak attack!

Q: Has there been a Summer in your life?

JG-L: Of course, there’s been one in everyone’s.

Q: How was it working with Zooey again?

JG-L: The cool thing was Zooey and I have known each other for a long time, because we did a movie together called Manic, almost ten years ago. It was a very different movie from (500) Days of Summer, it’s one I’m really proud of actually, it’s a very heavy, dramatic movie, and we’ve stayed friends since then. The chemistry and the comfort and trust between two people playing a love story like this is key, and to have a friend that I could trust, and whose sensibilities I already understood, made it so much easier, and is a big part of why it all looks natural on screen.

Q: Was it never awkward, being such good friends, doing those intimate screens together?

J-GL: No, it’s the opposite, it’s so much easier when it’s someone you know. It’s weird when it’s a stranger, but when you’re friends - we’ve done this before, we’re both actors.

Q: At one point in the film you say that ‘60s women had the right idea with style and dressing - is that something you personally believe?

JG-L: I do like fashion from the ‘60s, some of it. I think in that particular scene Tom’s being more of a curmudgeon. It reminds me of myself when I was younger actually - because I used to like to do a lot of that shit and be like, “Oh, everyone’s so stupid today, how come nobody has any taste anymore?” and I’ve sort of gotten over that notion. I actually don’t buy into the glory days thing. I think every time has its great things to it. The ‘60s were such a glorious time but it’s easy to forget that there was all sorts of bullshit too. There’s an early Frank Zappa album that’s all about mocking the ‘60s. I remember when I heard that, when I was 15, he’s just taking the piss out of Haight-Ashbury, out of hippies, out of everything. I was brought up to glorify the ‘60s, my parents grew up in them - there was probably bad stuff then also.

Q: What’s great now then? What's great about this era?

JG-L: Now is so exciting. Right now a lot of the best stuff you see are things that just some kid somewhere in Japan made. Like I watched this video recently by a band called Sour, they’re a Japanese trio. It’s a cool song, but they made this video with hundreds of collaborators, people who liked their music, who were all obviously very organised and co-ordinated, and made these beautiful images that really wouldn’t have been possible before the Internet allowed for that kind of organisation and communication, which allowed all these people to upload their videos to one website, so someone could download them and cut them together. This is the kind of thing that would have been nearly impossible even four years ago, and is a beautiful work of art today.

Q: I assume a film like this is dearer to your heart than something like G.I.JOE. Did you do G.I.Joe for the money, dare I ask?

JG-L: Actually no, to be honest, G.I.JOE’s not the best-paying job I’ve had at all. I did that movie for fun. I got the opportunity to do this cool character with this mask and crazy make-up, and costume and voice - it was a blast. I go in for diversity and an eclectic mix of creative challenges, and G.I.JOE was really fun.

Q: Was there anything cut from (500) Days that you hated to lose?

JG-L: There used to be a sequence that was sort of the antithesis of the dance number, The Best Morning Ever - there used to be a Worst Morning Ever, which was really funny, and fun, but I think you always have to take some stuff out if it’s slowing it down or whatever. They were going to play the same music but have terrible things happening instead.

Q: Are you a natural dancer? Did you watch any old musicals to train for it?

JG-L: I wouldn’t make any comparisons! But I do love a Gene Kelly movie, or a Fred Astaire movie. But those guys spent a lot of time practising dancing, which I haven’t, but I had fun doing it. [That sequence] took me by surprise when it actually arrived, and there I was in front of 30 choreographed dancers who were all doing the same thing as me. It was a bizarre experience. We all picture ourselves doing that; we’ve all sat and watched the making of Thriller, I certainly have and I never thought that that would be me.

Q: How did you avoid the pitfalls of the child star going off the rails? You went to school and disappeared for a couple of years… Was that a way of dealing with that, or were you just quite grounded anyway?

JG-L: I don’t know if I am quite grounded. But I seem to have you convinced, so we’ll leave it at that!

Q: Are you musical too? Did you and Zooey jam together? Is there a YouTube video of you guys singing your heart out in a bar somewhere?

JG-L: There isn’t. I just made a short film that played at Sundance and it’s going to come out on a DVD compilation of short films. Spike Jonze actually has one on the same disc, which tickles me. The movie’s called Sparks and I adapted it from a short story, and I directed it, cut it and scored it. It’s really the first time I’ve been public about music that I make. But yeah, I've always loved music.

Q: Is that a taster of things to come, directing features maybe?

JG-L: I don’t know. I don’t have a feature I’m working on now. But I do stuff all the time on this website called I put up little videos or pieces of audio or writing or photos and then invite other people to do the same, and we all sort of re-mix each others’ records and collaborate and make collages. It’s really fun.

Q: One critic called the film the first great cinematic romance of the Facebook generation, it sounds like you’re into all of that - how would you say the Internet has changed your life?

JG-L: One thing I love about HitRECord and getting to make stuff and putting it up online is how instantaneous it is. I love (500) Days of Summer, I loved it when we shot it a year and change ago, and I love it now, but it’s very different to be talking about and finally showing a movie to audiences that was shot so long ago, whereas online you can make something and that day, put it out and have people see it and respond to it and maybe change it and collaborate. It’s just a different kind of vibe - it’s instant and it’s resonant. It allows for a kind of resonance that’s impossible in the older kind of media. That's also why I do a Twitter page ( ), so that I can link to

Q: There's a British movie currently shooting (called Love Lost) that has a live web-cam on set. Is that something you'd ever consider doing?

JG-L: That's interesting. I don’t know if I’d do that exactly. To me, a movie set is a movie set. I like the idea of doing stuff that is live like that, but I’ve never been a huge fan of behind-the-scenes stuff on movie sets. I always feel like you definitively look like a bad actor - because you’re acting to this camera, and there’s this other camera over here that’s showing the audience that you’re faking! But traditional movie-making is a very particular process, and it’s not the only way to make movies anymore. It used to be, but it’s not anymore, and that’s what’s exciting. I’d rather do something totally new. In my backpack I have what you need to make a movie, and distribute it. I have a camera and a computer, and there’s wi-fi here. It goes with me in my back pack.

Q: Do you smash plates when you get upset? How do you vent your anger?

JG-L: Loud music. Loud is good. The drums are really good for venting.

Q: Was there ever any studio intervention for a traditional happy ending?

JG-L: I don’t think there ever was, and I think that speaks to one of the many reasons why this movie turned out well, because the priorities were in order, the director was in charge, not a bunch of executives on a committee. Fox Searchlight who put out (500) Days of Summer also put out Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, and Juno and Borat - all these great movies, and they get it. They get that if you make good movies, respectful and dignified movies, that they can meet with quite a bit of success. They're outstanding and I've never really felt that about a studio before, to be honest. I'm really impressed with them.

Q: There are so many wonderful scenes in (500) Days of Summer. Do you have a favourite?

JG-L: The split-screen sequence with reality and expectations – I might cite that one. It really gets at the heart of the movie. Here’s a guy who’s built up all these expectations based on this music that he likes, and movies, and what he’s heard from friends and others, rather than engaging with reality and being present, he tries to project these expectations and deify this girl.

Q: Are you a cynic or romantic at heart?

JG-L: I think a healthy balance of both is important, but I’d probably lean more towards the romantic side these days.

Q: It’s such an inventive film, was all of that in the script, or was there anything that came out of improvisation or whatever?

JG-L: A lot of it really was in the script. I've got to say, this one actually looked a lot like how I expected it to look. It was really what I hoped it would look like, and what Mark the director described. He’s very savvy, technically, he’s shot so many videos, he knows how to gets what he wants. The surprise, of course, is that he’s also an extremely humanistic story-teller. He’s obsessed with story and character, and not just making it look right, which is a double-threat that’s rare in directors. You usually get one or the other, you get someone who knows how to tell a story but they don’t necessarily know about light and camera and rhythm, or you get someone who can make beautiful images but they can’t necessarily tell a great story. He does both and I think he’s going to be one of the film-makers that our time is remembered for.

Q: It reminded me a lot of Annie Hall. Was that one of the influences on it?

JG-L: Sure, that’s one of the greatest movies ever. More than anything, it’s honest, Annie Hall, it doesn’t feel like a bunch of punch-lines, it feels almost like a drama, except it’s hilarious, and I think that’s what we were going for with (500) Days of Summer. Not a bunch of gags, but that the humour would come from catharsis and identifying with human beings.


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