In the 2013 comedy “Don Jon” (written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Jon Martello (played by Gordon-Levitt) is a strong, handsome, good old fashioned guy. His buddies call him Don Jon due to his ability to “pull” a different woman every weekend, but even the finest fling doesn’t compare to the bliss he finds alone in front of the computer watching pornography. Barbara Sugarman (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a bright, beautiful, good old fashioned girl. Raised on romantic Hollywood movies, she’s determined to find her Prince Charming and ride off into the sunset. Wrestling with good old fashioned expectations of the opposite sex, Jon and Barbara struggle against a media culture full of false fantasies to try and find true intimacy. Here is what Gordon-Levitt and Johansson said at a “Don Jon” press conference in New York City.
How did you feel that “Don Jon” was a comment on youth and relationships and sex, especially in relation to some of the more classic youth films?
Gordon-Levitt: It’s a movie about how sometimes we can have unrealistic expectations of each other, and how media can contribute to that. Personally, working in media, working as an actor in TV and movies my whole life, especially in the last few years I’ve been hearing a lot of people say, “I wish that my life was like it was in that movie” or “I wish that I had someone like you in that movie.”
And when I hear that I get a little startled sometimes, because real life is not as simple as it is on a screen. I think real life is actually a lot more beautiful. There are a lot of details and nuances that you could never possibly capture in a movie or on a TV show or on a pornography clip or on a commercial. So we kind of wanted to poke fun at comparing your real life to these expectations.
What was your research while you were writing this movie?
Gordon-Levitt: Like I was just saying, I think I was largely responding to the way that people seem to be reacting to all kinds of media. I thought that a story about a young man who watches too much pornography and a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies, would be a good way of bringing to life a way that we can all kind of relate to all kinds of media, whether it’s a pornography clip or a commercial for a hamburger, you see a woman on a screen and you reduce her to just a thing, a sex object.
That’s something that I’ve been aware of my whole life. My mom was always intent on making me aware of how that’s a very common thing that happens in media. My mom was very much active in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the feminist movement, and she was always really keen to make my brother and me aware of this happening. So it’s always something I’ve thought of.
So it’s like an homage to your mom?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, in a lot of ways it is. It’s me writing a sort of comedy about a lot of the wisdom that she wanted to instill me with. And she really loves the movie, actually. She was one of the first ones to read the script and it’s been great getting to talk with her about it.
Was it always a comedy or was there a darker version of it?
Gordon-Levitt: The original idea, in broad strokes I didn’t know it was going to be a comedy, and I was trying to figure out how it would be. And I hadn’t landed on anything that I liked, until I was actually working on “50/50,” up there in Vancouver with Seth Rogen and his whole gang.
I really like the movies that he makes. “50/50” is a comedy, but it’s a character based comedy. The humor comes from the characters, from the feelings, and when I was in the middle of that I was like, “What if I approached this concept with this tone.” That’s when it really took off in my mind and I really started writing it.
Everyone who’s even seen the “Don Jon” trailer knows that there are a few key things the character cares about: his clothes, his pad, his car, his girls, his boys. What kind of cars do you like, where do you like to go to the gym, what kind of porn do you like?
Gordon-Levitt: Me and this character are really different. I don’t care very much about cars, I don’t like body building, etc., etc. I thought that, watching it yesterday, Barbara and Jon are extreme gender stereotypes. They are extreme versions of what they think a guy and a girl should be like.
Do you think that Barbara’s distaste and disdain for porn plays into that? Do girls think that guys watching porn is gross or shouldn’t be watching porn, or was that just a function of her character?
Johansson: I think girls watch porn. They probably watch more porn than guys do. I know we talked about this a little bit, but the main problem that Barbara has is that she’s being lied to. I think if they had a conversation about it or whatever, she would be more accepting of it. Obviously, not his addiction but maybe she would just think “Oh that’s gross” or whatever. Maybe she could’ve had her opinion changed, or her mind expanded, or I don’t know, but the problem is really that he’s lying to her. It’s not that she’s so against porn that.
That’s not what devastates her. It’s just the fact that he’s someone that she didn’t know, or she didn’t expect, and she’s so shocked by it, or didn’t want to see, or is curious about it. That’s the problem. For her, it’s like her boyfriend has a family up the block that she never knew about. He suddenly appears to be a completely different person than she wanted to see or imagined. I still think girls watch porn. I don’t necessarily think that’s the point you were trying to get across.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah sure. I don’t think that Jon or Barbara are meant to be like “all girls are this way and all boys are that way.” These are two examples of characters that, like you said, are really intent on fitting into dominant ideas. The character that Julianne plays, Esther, is an example of someone who is very much her own person.
Joseph, what did you find most challenging about wearing so many hats on this project?
Gordon-Levitt: The hardest part was the very beginning alone. Because I think any time you set out to make something, anybody is going to be confronted by those voices in their head that say “You don’t need to do this. Someone else can do this better. You should probably just quit right now.” Certainly I met those voice too, and those are difficult to overcome. I think the only reason I did finish writing the script is because I was having a lot of fun doing it.
I was sort of like “Well maybe it won’t come to anything. I’m not going to worry about that now. It’s making me laugh. I’m having a good time so I’m going to keep writing it.” And then once I had a draft I started showing it to people.
Scarlett was one of the first people that I showed it to and she really liked it and we had these really interesting conversations, based on what I’d written. Those voices of doubt started going away, being replaced by voices of real people. There was still a ton of work to do, hard work, but from that point forward it was a different kind of challenge.
You each have very strong characters and personalities. Where did you get your inspiration to create your characters? Have you met people like your characters in real life?
Johansson: One thing that I was so attracted to was the idea that Barbara has a lot of conviction. She’s got a lot of it. She’s sort of guilty of wanting your partner to fit into the little box you made for them and that way they can be more like you and everything will be great. Real life doesn’t work like that but she really believes that to be true. I just played her with as much conviction as she has.
Also, when Joe and I would have conversations, being our characters, and trying to come up with some dialogue, seeing how to expand some of the scenes, and everything that he would throw at me I could just throw back at him with this like “But this is how it is” or “This is what I think” or “This is how it should be” or “This is how it needs to be.”
So when we acted together, we could just kind of continue that kind of dialogue. She’s a very focused person, she’s got her eye on the prize. Like I said, I think we’ve all been that person in some way.
Gordon-Levitt: I think we all know, or we all have a certain amount of that Don Juan. There’s a reason he’s a classic literary figure, from throughout the ages. So we all have a little bit of that archetype, that Don Juan in us, that person who’s just really selfish, and just wants what they want and doesn’t care about the consequences and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks or feels, and treats everybody in the world like just a thing, like an object on a shelf, and doesn’t really consider their perspective. It’s very tempting to do that, because it’s easy. I’m as culpable as anybody probably.
We all have that tendency. What was fun, though, was taking that sort of idea — that concept — and being like “a character has to be more than a concept, he has to be a person” and flushing that out. And that was fun in the writing process, to think about “What does he do today? Why is he this way? What are his parents like? He probably cares about his body a lot, because he wants to look good, so he probably goes to the gym a lot. Would he go to church?”
All those questions became really what was interesting to me. And then taking it off the page and having human beings and great artists begin to embody those characters. That was certainly the most exciting part of the whole multi-year process. I think that’s the most exciting thing for anything you’ve made, more than a good review or a round of applause or a good box office score or anything like that. Somebody else, another artist, has taken what you’ve done and used it to express themselves, that’s so thrilling watching these actors bring more to it than I ever imagined.
“Don Jon” feels very different from anything that you’ve done before, and obviously you’ve worked with a lot of filmmakers at this point. Was there something surprising about different aspects of the process? And in anywhere in the process of the characterization of Barbara, if Scarlett’s Marble Columns “SNL” skit came up at all?
Gordon-Levitt: I was absolutely impressed about Scarlett’s multiple turns on “SNL.” She’s a really extraordinary actress and she can balance that comedy with sincerity. I think that’s really evident in “Lost in Translation” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and any number of other movies we could bring up. That’s a hard balance to strike and she does it masterfully and that’s certainly a big part of why I thought of her.
Johansson: This press conference is going great.
Gordon-Levitt: You asked about directors that I’ve worked with. I was really fortunate the year before shooting “Don Jon,” I worked with Rian Johnson and then Christopher Nolan and then Steven Spielberg. They’re three extraordinary filmmakers.
They are three very different filmmakers, but I’ll tell you one thing I noticed that I think all three of them have in common is the ability to balance a thorough plan with a sense of spontaneity, because that’s what you really need I think on a movie set. All along you’re getting those questions of “Well I thought we were going to do it this way, but actually, now that we’re here, how about this?”
And you have to decide whether to stick to your guns or to go off on a new trail. And I definitely noticed that Rian and Steven and Chris had a really good sense of balancing those, because if you answer one way or the other too heavily, if you’re too married to your plan, you’ll end up with something maybe kind of stale.
But if you don’t stick to your plan enough, and you’re too seduced by whimsical notions and new ideas, you can kind of lose your train of thought and end up with something that doesn’t have a solid through-line. I always try to keep that in front of my mind. “Am I balancing this right? Am I too attached to my pre-conceived notions of this, or am I too lured in by new ideas?” That’s something I certainly noticed about those three directors.
For more info: “Don Jon” website