“Don Jon” unsettling and comical, Q&A with its star

“Don Jon” unsettling and comical, Q&A with its star

March 19
08:46 2013

Preston Barta/Film Critic @Barta_NTDaily

“Don Jon” Review

“Don Jon,” formerly titled “Don Jon’s Addiction,” had its regional premiere at the Paramount Theatre during the South by Southwest Film Festival last Monday. The Austin crowd filled the seats and ate the film up.

Not only is “Don Jon” an excellent feature with clever editing, explosive sound effects, witty dialogue and engaging performances, but it’s a film that raises many profound issues of modern relationships.

The film tells the story of Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a college student that objectifies everything, including his car, crib, church, family and women. His best friends, Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke), even gave him the name “Don Jon” because of his womanizing qualities. Yet even the finest of ladies don’t even compare to the buoyancy that Jon achieves while sitting in front of his computer watching Internet pornography.

Discontent with his life, Jon decides to embark on a journey to a more satisfying lifestyle, learning substantial lessons about love and relationships from two different women, Barbara (Johansson) and Esther (Moore).

While the film does feature many unsettling images, it’s not a movie about a man and his porn addiction, as many have alluded. It’s a transcendent portrayal of people who become so absorbed in themselves that they lose their ability to interact with others on a more humanistic level.

Porn has deadened any chance of Jon being able to have any true feelings. His girlfriend, Barbara, played by the towering Johansson, has an overly romanticized perspective of relationships because she, as Gordon-Levitt coined during the Q&A that followed the SXSW screening, “watches too many romantic movies.” She is determined to break him of his ways and make him a housetrained husband.

Joining Johansson in superior acting is Danza, who steals every scene that he is in as Jon’s father. His quirky behavior and family quarrels are sidesplitting. The same could be said of Moore, who brings warm and charming qualities to Esther, a woman that Jon encounters in one of his classes. She is one of the more prominent characters of the film, and her performance tugs at your heartstrings.

Last year proved to be a promising year for Gordon-Levitt, as he starred in four films, including Christopher Nolan’s Batman capper, “The Dark Knight Rises”; the mindbending sci-fi thriller, “Looper”; the entertaining and hypnotic “Premium Rush”; and Steven Spielberg’s historical epic, “Lincoln.”

Audiences have been aware of Gordon-Levitt’s screen talents ever since he played Roger Bomman in “Angels in the Outfield” (1994), starring opposite Danza, who reunites with his co-star in “Don Jon.” Since then, he has consistently produced high quality work, such as “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), “(500) Days of Summer” (2007) and “50/50” (2011), among many treasurable feats.

Now, the acclaimed actor has broadened his skillset to the other side of the camera – writing and directing “Don Jon.” Gordon-Levitt is a man of many abilities and this movie is the proof that he is one of the most gifted people working in the film industry.

“Don Jon” was one of the standouts of the festival and I don’t doubt that it will be one of the finer films of 2013. It’s a great writing and directing debut from Gordon-Levitt, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from his pen in the years to come.

“Don Jon” will be released by Relativity Media later this year.

——-

Q&A Session with star Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Preston Barta sat down and chatted with its writer, director and star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, TX.

For a directorial debut, this is a pretty challenging topic. It’s hardly mainstream at all. What gave you the inspiration for this? Was there an autobiographical side to it?

“Probably not how you’re thinking of it [Laughs]. It’s autobiographical in that it’s a movie about how people can feel objectified and objectify each other. I think that’s pretty universal. We all go through it. In that way, I think this movie is quite mainstream. And sure, you’re referring to the symbol of pornography. Maybe that’s not considered mainstream but let’s be honest, it’s more popular than any other kind of media. So, I never thought of it as anything but a pop movie – mainstream movie.

As far as why I chose it, it’s something that I’ve always noticed. What’s getting in the way of love? It’s how we don’t treat each other as unique human beings. We don’t really pay attention to what makes us all individuals. Instead, we are always comparing each other to this checklist of expectations that we have. We’ve learned those expectations from different places: from our upbringing, our family, our friends, our churches and also the different kinds of media. And that fascinates me.

If you ask, ‘what’s autobiographical about it?’ I’ve worked in movies and television my whole life, so I’ve always been interested in how media impacts our culture and perspectives on things. That’s why the story centers around the relationship of a guy who watches too much pornography and a girl who watches too many romantic, Hollywood movies. I thought that would be a really funny way of getting to that question: how does media impact our lives?”

Since doing your own short films and “Don Jon,” do you find that your own instincts and ideas as a director ever intrude on projects where you are working strictly as an actor?

“Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t think so [Laughs]. I really hold as a very high tenant when I am acting. It’s really important to do that because there’s no good that can come out of you trying to struggle against the director. The director is the director. You have to work within that. I do ask directors a lot of questions. However, it’s not out of second guessing them – it’s because I want to understand as well as I can what the director has in mind, so I can deliver what they need.

My favorite directors are the ones that enjoy it – those sorts of questions: Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson or people like that. You can ask them – I am constantly asking them all sorts of little questions, and they are always interested in answering. However, if they don’t have the answer off the top of their head because they never thought of it before, then we’ll figure it out together.

The director is the one that is going to take the footage that you shoot as an actor and cut it together into a performance. The truth is, an actor’s performance in a film is equally created by the actor, yes, but also by the director and editor. It’s really a collaborative thing. So, as an actor you have to be ready and willing to put yourself in the hands of the filmmaker, and I do keep that in mind.”

Do you think this will change how you look at other directors now that you have experienced this other side of it? Will you look at it differently?

“Sure. You know, even before doing this movie, learning to edit was really informative. Sometimes a director will ask you do something that doesn’t feel real, but on camera it looks real because a camera sees a particular thing. It’s not an objective view of what’s actually going on set. It’s a very constructive view.

For example, if the shot is here [pointing across the room] and you got your prop here [holds hands at chest level], the director may ask you to hold the prop higher. And as an actor you may say, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ But in the movie it doesn’t look that unnatural to you. That sort of thing can be a challenge for you as an actor – to do something that doesn’t seem natural. That’s film acting.”

How was the sound mixing and editing process of making the film? That was one of the things I first took notice of. For example, a tissue being thrown into a trash can – you hear the Apple trash can sound effect.

“Yeah, I am glad you did. I love playing with stuff like that. I’ve been making little things and playing with editing for a long time now. That was one of the things that I was most excited about in directing this movie – the chance to really get to play with those things because as an actor, that’s just not your purview.

We had a great sound mixer and his name is Gary Rizzo. He actually mixes Christopher Nolan’s movies. It was really cool that he came and did this movie.

Nathan Johnson did the music. He did the music for ‘Looper’ and ‘Brick.’ He and I are good friends and we’ve known each other for about 10 years, since ‘Brick.’ I love the music in ‘Don Jon.’ I am really proud of it. It’s irregular and it’s not how you would normally score a movie. There are three very different music pallets for the three acts of the movie. I think normally a composer – if I didn’t know him and if he wasn’t as open-minded as Nathan – a composer would say, ‘I don’t know about this idea that you have.’ However, Nathan was perfectly receptive to it and embraced it. He made it work even better than I hoped it would. Yeah, I love it.

The other interesting thing about how the music, editing and mixing stuff went – normally it’s very standard when you make a movie to shoot it, cut it, put it together and lock picture. Meaning that you don’t make anymore changes to any timing of the edits. Then you hand that to the composer and they put the score on top. But I didn’t want to do that because I really like cutting to music. So, I told my producer from the very beginning, ‘I know that this is going to be a pain for everybody but I don’t want to lock picture until after we have the music.’ And that’s how we did it.”

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