Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Lincoln
Actor, troubadour, and new-media independent-film trailblazer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt owned every foot of Park City’s Eccles Theater last night, though at times it seemed his feet never touched the stage. Hit RECord at the Movies, a variety show of sorts featuring short films from Gordon-Levitt’s open-collaborative production company, a reading of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer from Parker Posey and Brady Corbet (Sundance entry Simon Killer), and the (500) Days of Summer star joking and singing, encouraged plenty of fan-interaction. Gordon-Levitt invited tweeters onstage to debate the meaning of “independence,” and before he even appeared, a voice echoed throughout the theater reminding everyone to turn ON their recording devices. They did, capturing every moment of the 90-minute performance from hundreds of perspectives. Many of those recordings have already been uploaded to the Hit RECord website, where they might become part of the company’s next unique project.
Before leaving on a jet plane back home, Gordon-Levitt sat down with Entertainment Weekly to discuss the modern independent film spirit, his plans for Hit RECord, and working with Daniel Day-Lewis.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You practically bounced on stage last night when you came out, you were so excited. Did the show have a different vibe than previous shows because it was Sundance?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: It felt like a triumphant return. Our first show ever was for 99 people back in 2010. We were in the New Frontier section, and we set up this headquarters, a sort of rec room where we were making things throughout the entire festival and then screened what we had made for this theatre with 100 seats. Sundance really was the perfect place to launch the production company. I definitely take a lot of inspiration for what I want to do with Hit RECord from what Mr. Redford has done with Sundance. I mean, look, when he started Sundance, he was like the biggest star in Hollywood and I’m certainly nothing like that. But when you have some success as an actor, you’re given a certain amount of opportunity and I so admire what he did with the opportunity that he had. He could have easily gone and just lived on a yacht or whatever, but he chose to put a lot of himself into creating this community that fostered independent film. I just admire that so much. It grew organically. It was not something that he put together with the help of Hollywood structures; that’s why he wanted to come out to Utah. Their prime interest wasn’t to make money. Their prime interest was to make movies that they felt.
There seems to be a lot of shared DNA between what Redford did and what you’re trying to build online. Do you anticipate more collaborations and live shows like last night at Sundance in the future?
Absolutely. Sundance has been a huge supporter and really made Hit RECord possible. I think these guys just get it and are so supportive of it because it does seem to come from the same spirit. And now it does sort of feel like a tradition. We’ve done it twice. Things never go in twos. There’ll be a third time, I’m sure.
During your live shows, is there any screening process for the tweeters you invite on stage, because you’re certainly taking a chance?
We are taking a chance, but most Q&As don’t even have Twitter. At Sundance, in general, you do these Q&As after your movie screens and you just call on people who raise their hands. And to be honest, you don’t always get the most interesting questions. We find that by doing it this way, even though it’s just a small amount of text, you can kind of get a sense of if someone is clever, if someone has a sense of humor, if someone has something to say. And those are the people I bring up.
Have you developed a sixth sense for when you’re about to encounter someone who maybe craves the spotlight a little too much?
Yeah, sure. Look, we take a lot of risks when we do Hit RECord shows and it doesn’t always work. I think that’s part of what’s exciting about our show. You go see a play on Broadway or you go see a popular band in concert, the show’s going to be perfect. It’s not going to be all that different than watching a movie or watching TV because everything been rehearsed and everything’s going to work. And that’s what I do for my day job, so I kind of get a kick of trying stuff. Not everything works, but I think that’s part of the charm of the show. When things don’t work, the audience tends to be very forgiving because they can tell, “Cool, you tried something. You’re putting yourself out there and you’re including me in that process.” And they feel a part of it, because they are a part of it. And that’s exciting.
You did a great job of tying the theme of independence into last night’s show, and what that word really means. As we learned, there are multiple definitions of what independence means today, both within your industry and just in general. In theory, one of those definitions could be rebelling against controlling filmmakers who impose strict codes of silence about upcoming projects…
So what better way for you to assert your independence than by telling me all about John Blake and The Dark Knight Rises.
Yeah, uh-huh. That was terrible. That didn’t make any sense at all. [Laughs]
Okay, fine. Quick, who is the most independent of superheroes?
[Sympathetically shakes his head.]
Looking back, when did you realize Hit RECord is what you wanted to do and this is what it would look like? Was there a “Eureka!” moment or did it just evolve gradually?
It evolved very slowly. At no point did everything you see here sort of rush into my mind. The first time I said to myself, “Hit RECord,” it had nothing to do with the website, it had nothing to do with collaborative art, it had nothing to do with a production company. It was just a little metaphor for myself to be creative at a time in my life where I was feeling in need of that kind of motivation. Anybody who makes anything has those moments, I think, where you have that “Oh man, I don’t think I have it in me.” And to me, that round red record button became kind of a symbol. And pushing it became this metaphor for me. Because as an actor, you don’t get to push the button. So that’s what it meant.
Then, after I’d cut some stuff together that I liked on Final Cut Pro, I wanted to put it out in the world. It was a little bit before YouTube, so I had to start a website. I got my brother to set up a little rinky-dink website for me, and it was called HitRECord.org.
And after that, we started a message board so that people could react to the things that I was making. I was hesitant because, you know, people can be pretty sh—y on the internet. But people were actually cool, and this little community started to sprout up from this very informal message board. And it tended to be mostly artistic people, so I thought, “Alright, rather than this message board being about the things that I made, we could make stuff together.” And it grew from there. The website went up in 2005 and it wasn’t until 2010 that we launched it as a production company at Sundance. So, yeah, very organically and very much me just reacting to the people who were coming to the site and forming this community. And now it’s sort of snowballing.
Well, as it keeps snowballing, I’m a little awed by what must be an enormous task of skimming through new contributions and separating the wheat from the chaff. How does that process work and what’s your role in it?
We get like 1,000 new records a day, and obviously there’s no way that I can get through all that. I do have a very small staff who work on Hit RECord, but most of that curation happens within the community, depending on what people recommend by hitting the Heart button, depending on what people remix. I respond to that a lot because if four different people have rededited a piece of footage, that pops out, so you can zero in on those things.
We’re also very project oriented. I always encourage people to not just come on the site and put up… whatever. If you’re new, find a collaboration that interests you and contribute something to that. I start some of those projects, and if people start something I like, I’ll shine a light on it. This makes things much more finite.
If the establishment of Hit RECord in 2005 was point zero and the ultimate potential for it is 10, where would you say you are now?
Okay, so if we were to have another conversation in two or three years, what do you envision will happen to push that number up to a six? What’s the next step?
There’s so much potential to do so many things. We’ve done a bunch of these shows, but we’ve never done a designated tour. I want to do that and we’re planning on doing that. I think we can make feature films. I think we make TV shows. One of the things I’m most excited about as Hit RECord has grown, more and more artists that I really admire are interested in working on it with us. As we progress, we’ll be able to do anything. Not even in that long, just because more and more artists will be contributing a higher quality of work, and because our site will be able to facilitate more and more organized collaborations between artists. We’ll be able to make a movie that is indistinguishable from [a studio feature.] We’ll be able to make whatever the hell we want.
I appreciate that you don’t measure success in numbers, but are there some metrics that can measure growth? I recall you had about 22,000 users in Sept. 2010. What’s that figure now?
It’s about 80,000 now.
Judging from all the film projects you seem to have rolling right now, it doesn’t seem so, but have you reached a point yet where you’ve had to choose between the two in any way: your duties with Hit RECord or a movie project?
We’ve figured out a pretty cool way for it to work in tandem with the other professional things that I do. But when it comes to other side projects and stuff, I do tend to be like, “Well, I do already have a side project whenever I’m not doing my real job.” So there’s that. That’s a sacrifice that I make, and I’m happy to make. But I have found that Hit RECord is so flexible, it can be what we want it to be. Like, I love the idea of doing theater. Well, I haven’t done a play because I spend that time doing Hit RECord. But then we got to do these shows that do really satisfy my desire to do that, and I think even much more so than a conventional play would. Or, I do have a desire to make movies and not just act in them. Well, I’m doing that with Hit RECord.
What kind of feedback and conversations have you had with some of these established directors you’ve recently worked with, like Chris Nolan and Steven Spielberg, who I assume are aware of your project.
Chris and Emma [Thomas] have been enormously supportive of Hit RECord — they’re big rooters for the underdog. They gave us this great opportunity really early to contribute to this documentary about dreams that’s a bonus feature on the Inception Blu-ray. It was all our visuals and our music, and obviously that was a big come-up for us to have our name and our artists’ names in the credits for the documentary that’s on the Inception Blu-ray.
Alright, I know when I’m beaten, in regards to The Dark Knight Rises, but I’m equally passionate about Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book and Spielberg’s Lincoln film that you’re a part of. You play Lincoln’s son, Robert, meaning you likely share a lot of scenes with Daniel Day-Lewis. What can you tell me about that experience?
It was really unique. I had absolutely no problem fully believing that I was standing across from and speaking to Abraham Lincoln. It was uncanny. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, to be honest. It just seemed like him — this guy, this icon that’s been in my head since I was born. We all have this image of this historical figure, and it totally felt like that was my dad. He didn’t seem like, he didn’t look like Daniel Day-Lewis the actor at all.