In his debut film as a director and writer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Looper”) plays the title role in his comedy “Don Jon,” a New Jersey bartender with the ability to charm the pants off of any girl he wants, but still can’t figure a way to kick his addiction to online pornography. Actor Tony Danza (“Crash) plays Jon’s old-fashioned, high-tempered father who is impressed when his son brings his new girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) over for dinner.
During the South By Southwest Film Festival last March, I spoke to Gordon-Levitt and Danza about finding their way to the project and what the challenges were in making a porn-centric movie accessible to the masses.
Joseph, you’ve been acting in films and TV since you were a kid. Was there a specific point in your career when you realized you wanted to be behind the camera as much as you did in front of it?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, I mean, when you’re an actor, there are certain parts of the process you have nothing to do with like where the camera goes or how the film is cut or the music. I was always really interested in being a part of that. I think a real turning point for me was on my 21st birthday. I bought my first copy of Final Cut Pro and started teaching myself how to edit. I loved it. I love it so much I dropped out of college. I would stay up all night and point the camera at myself and make little videos and put them on my computer. It’s so much fun to me. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Ever since then I think I’ve been pretty intent on one day making a movie. I’ve made tons of short films and videos over the years–hundreds of them probably–and now I got to make a big one.
Tony, your last feature film was “Crash” in 2004. How did this role come to you and how did it feel to get back into the game?
Tony Danza: Well, [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] called me and asked me to do it. We’re old friends. We did “Angels in the Outfield” together when he was 12. I’ll be honest with you, being in a movie with these kinds of people, this level of talent so to speak, put me on edge. It wasn’t nerve-wracking, but I didn’t want to look like a minor leaguer with the big leaguers. But [Joseph] is a terrific director and the script was terrific. It was easy to see what he wanted and he made it very clear what he wanted. It worked out pretty well.
Joseph, how challenging was it to write Jon as a likeable character? I mean, some people would say he’s kind of a douchebag.
JGL: Yeah he is, especially at the beginning of the movie. That was always a fine line I wanted to walk. Those are often times my favorite protagonists–the ones who aren’t just your perfect hero; the ones who have their flaws; the ones you see and think, “I don’t like that [about him].” Warren Beatty’s character in “Shampoo” is a good example or Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate.” You like him and you’re rooting for him, but he does some shit and you’re like, “Why are you doing that, dude?” But you know what? That’s how people are. There isn’t a human being in the world that is perfect all the time. There also isn’t a human being in the world that is bad or evil all the time. Everyone is sort of a mixture of both. To me, those are the most interesting characters.
Tony, do you think Joseph’s character has a problem? I mean, he pays his bills, he’s not hurting anyone. He just likes watching porn, a lot.
TD: I mean, there’s a lot of [addicts] who function in life–some people who do drugs function; some people who are alcoholics function. Hip-hip hooray for them. But, yeah, he has a problem. How many times a day [does he masturbate]? Eleven times? Eighteen times? Jesus Christ! There’s no way that can’t have some effect on you…if you’re hitting that muscle all the time. Could you imagine being in bed with Scarlett Johansson and you have to sneak out to get on your computer? Now, that’s a problem to me.
Joseph, the MPAA slapped an NC-17 rating on the version of “Don Jon” you showed at Sundance back in January. What did you specifically have to change to get the R rating you wanted and did you ever worry that you weren’t going to be able to edit enough out to get it there?
JGL: I wasn’t worried. If you read the script, the very first page has a director’s note that says, “This is going to be an R-rated comedy.” It was always intended to be a mainstream, pop movie. My intention was never to shock people. My intention was never to make something ultra-provocative. I wanted a movie that was accessible. I wanted to make a movie that was entertaining and relatable for everybody. It says in this director’s note that we will license real pornography clips and alter them to make them fit into an R-rated movie. We were really pushing the envelope hard with what we presented at Sundance and we knew we were. It’s Sundance, so why not? But since then we’ve refined those shots.
Did you actually have to cut anything out?
JGL: No. The difference between the Sundance cut and the [theatrical cut] is four seconds. There was one shot that was eight seconds long and now it is four seconds long. Everything else is just refined– cropping something closer or saying, “Well, maybe not this clip, maybe that clip instead.” But no story points, no dialogue, nothing was cut out. The movie really is substantially the same. If anything it’s better. By putting in [pornography] clips that are less sexually explicit, it forced me and my editor (Lauren Zuckerman) to come up with more clever ways to tell the story. At no point in these montages is it just showing pornography for the sake of showing pornography.
Tony, of course, getting access to porn these days is only a click away. I’m sure lots of kids today are learning about sex very differently than kids who grew up before the internet…
Yeah, when I was a kid, if you wanted to masturbate you had to get a magazine, right? You had to raid your uncle’s stash or you had to go to the store. You had to walk up to the counter with this thing in your hand. Your neighbor might walk in and see you. It’s a tremendous governor on behavior. Now, you just get your phone or your computer and you hit a button and boom, you’re wherever you want to be. What worries me is I’ve got [daughters]. Who are these guys that are going to be coming to court my girls? Are they going to have been [watching porn] since they were 11? Has it had an effect on them? It’s worrisome. It’s part and parcel with our lessening of our need to nurture our children as a society.
Explain that a little more.
Well, when I was a kid, if I watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon, there were so many historical references and classical music references, I could’ve probably won Jeopardy after the [cartoon] was over. Now the only thing they’re trying to do is sell you something at any cost. For example, I couldn’t find the channel I was looking for and I ended up on MTV. It’s funny that MTV doesn’t show any music videos except right before school. I just love that. So anyway, in the video, you’ve got these two black guys rapping about something that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They’re throwing money up in the air, making it rain. You’ve got the girls with the big butts dancing around. These [rappers] are taking these bundles of money and doing arm curls with the money and kissing the money. This is what kids are seeing? That’s not right. I don’t mind making money on TV, but [this is an example of] profiting on the travails and bad habits of young people. It’s a bigger issue, but I think Joseph’s movie…fosters conversation.
So, how is the conversation going to play out with a guy who comes to your door in a few years to take one of your daughters out on a date?
TD: I’m just going to tell them one precise, all-encompassing phrase. I’m going to say, “Son, don’t make me kill again. Drive safe. Have a nice time. Be careful.”