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Q&A: 'Don Jon' star/writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

September 23, 2013

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Many people want to believe that what they see in movies is real.

In "Don Jon," buff Jersey guy Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prefers his one-way, fantasy-driven relationship with porn to the two-way intimacy of countless one-night stands and a bond with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who believes romantic comedies reflect how real love should be. Opening Sept. 27, Gordon-Levitt's feature debut as a writer and director aims to show that both characters need to separate what they see on screen from the more complex scenarios in front of them.

Similarly, the 32-year-old California native in person isn't the easygoing open book he sometimes seems when charming in "(500) Days of Summer" or dancing on "SNL." Gordon-Levitt long has prioritized his public anonymity so he can transition between greatly different parts (in films like "Brick," "50/50" and "Looper"), and that protectiveness leads him to filter most answers through his characters.

At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, JGL talked about romantic/pornographic fantasies, the arguable variety of porn and daily/weekly masturbation numbers that seem really, really high.

You've talked a lot about how this movie shouldn't just be seen as a porn story, that it's about the way people objectify each other. Do you see this as an edgy love story or a conservative porn addiction story?
[Laughs.] Probably the former. Yeah. I don't think it's a story about pornography. Certainly that's a central symbol in the movie, but it's sort of about how people treat each other like things. And I think pornography is one of the examples in the movie, but there's lots of pieces of lots of different kinds of media in the movie. And I think that there's plenty of examples of mainstream media, whether it's movies or TV shows or commercials or anything else, that are just as guilty of that as pornography is. Of reducing, especially women, to sex objects.

Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay that was in the book “Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” about romantic comedies. Have you read that?
No, I haven’t.

It was published about 10 years ago and in it he said, “I once loved a girl who almost loved me but not as much as she loved John Cusack. Here’s what none of these upwardly mobile women seem to realize: They don’t love John Cusack; they love Lloyd Dobler.”
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s really well put.
 
That was written 10-15 years ago. Obviously, you still think that women in particular are seeing these romantic comedies and thinking that’s love. You think people still believe that?
Yeah, it’s a seductive fantasy to have because it’s so simple and appealing for its simplicity. I think that love in real life is actually a lot more beautiful than that.

When you're talking about "Say Anything" or some other older movies, there's so much more of an example for people to fall in love with. Now, when you look at something like "The Ugly Truth" from a few years ago, that's a great example of women being forced into a box and being told they can't have a career and love and that kind of thing. So I'm surprised that you think people still see romantic comedies that way.
Well, a lot of people still do see them that way though. This is a fantasy on a screen. I like movies that show things to be more complicated and not so simple and not just have a completely happy ending or a completely tragic ending but somewhere in between. `Cause to me that's more reflective of real life. No matter what the movie is, really it can't map onto real life because a movie is a movie. You're watching it. The people on the screen don't know you're there. And so love is all about in my opinion an interplay between two people who are acting and reacting and connecting in that way, and that's I think why the symbol of pornography is a really good one of, "Here's this guy getting off on an image on a screen that's not connected to him in any way." It's a one-way street. And the same thing goes for Scarlett's character watching these romantic comedies. It's just a one-way thing.

Something that’s not really touched on in the movie is the notion of porn as an outlet for variety. Jon is used to having not just all of this porn-watching but an influx of a different woman every night. I wonder if he’s in the setting of being in a monogamous relationship and he’s not watching porn anymore-- that outlet for variety is something that a lot of people use to defend porn-watching.
Yeah, you could say that porn offers variety, but you could also make I think an equally good argument that there’s no variety at all. Sure, technically there are different women in each video, but they’re all behaving in exactly the same way. And they’re all doing exactly the same thing.
 
Well, there’s a lot out there. I’m sure people who want to find something different can find variety.
Maybe you’re right, but in the movie Jon watches these videos that are always the same. They have a certain checklist, and that’s what he gets off on is he has his list.
 
You don’t think just in the fact that humans by nature are attracted to everyone, the ability to see different people—
I think for Jon in particular, what he takes comfort in is routine. And he likes things to be how he expects them to be. That’s what works for him about pornography is it’s always the same. It fulfills this checklist for him. And he treats everything in his life that way. His friends, his own body, the gym, his car, his family. He’s checking boxes. He has this preconceived list of the way things are supposed to be, and as long as he can check the box everything is OK.

I wonder what people will think of the presentation of one-night stands as being dull. Jon's so bored with the missionary position because that's all he gets in his one-night stands. I feel like the societal stereotype is that monogamous relationship sex is the one that gets stale and conservative as opposed to one-night stands.
Yeah, people have that fantasy, you're right. I think for him, there's a bit of an unreliable narrator in this movie. He doesn't necessarily know what's going on with himself. So he thinks, "I'm bored with one-night stands because she'll only do the missionary position." I think he sort of misjudged it. I think he's bored with them because he's not connecting with these people.

And he doesn't know how to foster a different situation?
Because he's not used to or able to connect with another human being. Which is why he prefers pornography. So when he gets into a room with another human being, it's uncomfortable and disappointing for him because what he really is used to is this one-way street.

Do you think watching porn should be considered cheating?
That depends on every individual relationship.
 
I know. I’m asking you.
I’m telling you that every relationship is different, and so I don’t think there ought to be rules that apply to every relationship.

Masturbating up to 11 times per day. And 35 times per week. I was surprised Jon wasn't feeling a little tender.
[Laughs.]

Did you talk to any doctors to find out what number would be too high?
[Laughs.] No.

Doesn't that seem like a lot?
Well, it's a comedy I guess.

I imagine with all the hats you wore on the film, it could be difficult to have an objective view of how you look while having sex or masturbating. Did you have anyone who helped you out as a consultant?
I don't treat any sexy scenes as different from any other scene. A good scene in any movie is to serve a purpose and advance a story, and those scenes are no different.

If people expect both porn sex and rom-com romance, who is more likely to be disappointed?
[Laughs.] I think that everyone's likely to be disappointed. If you're comparing real life to oversimplified fantasies you've seen on screen, you're going to get disappointed. `Cause life isn't that way. Life has so many more nuances and details if you pay attention to what's actually happening in front of you, but you'll miss it if you're too busy making those comparisons.

Plus:
On a priority of his first feature as a filmmaker: “I wanted to do something that would take some risks. I felt like if I was going to put all the work and time and effort in to writing and directing a movie I wanted to do something that only I could do—[something] that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”
On what makes his co-star Brie Larson great: "I loved Brie. She’s so good in this movie. Talk about being unique--she’s someone who clearly does not give a f*** about what she’s supposed to be as a young woman or as an actress or as an any kind of artist. She’s really doing her own thing. Whether it’s her music or the short films she’s making or really interesting choices she’s making as an actress. You just talk to her for a little while and you really get a sense of this unique person ... She and I were talking about Buster Keaton in reference to her role in 'Don Jon.' To communicate so much with just a quick look, she does that really well in this movie."

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

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