Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Don Jon’ is a remarkably assured directorial debut

For his 21st birthday, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt bought himself a copy of Final Cut Pro, the revolutionary software that allowed anyone with a digital camera and a bit of computer savvy to turn their home movies into polished films.

“I’ve probably made hundreds of little videos since then,” says the actor, now 32. “I would shoot little movies with me in them, put them on my computer, edit them and put music to them. I was just doing it for myself, and I had so much fun. But I also learned a lot. If it hadn’t been for all of those videos, I wouldn’t have been able to make Don Jon the way I did.”

One of the most impressive things about Don Jon, the first feature film Gordon-Levitt wrote and directed, is how stylistically ambitious it is. The ingenious editing, sound effects, music and camera placements fly against the traditional emphasis on performance most actors-turned-directors use their first time out. The success of Don Jon, which opens Friday, ultimately rests on the strengths of its cast, but the movie also has the craft and technique of a veteran filmmaker’s work.

Most importantly, Gordon-Levitt uses all the toys in his tool chest not to show off, but to underscore the emotional journey of Jon, an online-porn addict and gym rat who tries to go clean after he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful young woman whose idea of true love is defined by Titanic and film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels.

“Style is not about having cool shots,” he says. “It’s about drawing the audience closer to the story you’re telling and accentuating the evolution of your characters. That to me is the mark of a good filmmaker.”

Gordon-Levitt, who has been acting in TV shows and films since he was 6, says he studied the habits of many of the gifted directors he has worked with, including Steven Spielberg ( Lincoln), Christopher Nolan ( Inception and The Dark Knight Rises), Rian Johnson ( Brick and Looper) and Scott Frank ( The Lookout). His inspiration for making Don Jon — aside from the chance to write himself a kind of character he had never played before — was to explore the rapidly increasing disconnect between the real world and the fantasy reality of new-media websites, magazines and TV ads.

“Jon is a porn addict, but I think mainstream media is just as guilty at instilling these unattainable fantasies in our minds,” he says. “It happens all over the place: TV shows, movies, commercials — commercials are the worst. You take a person — it’s usually a woman — and you reduce them to this sexual object. We’re bombarded with those images. Then when you try to interact with real-life human beings, you’re constantly comparing them to the two-dimensional images you saw on a screen somewhere. And so you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. No human being can ever be the same as those objects. Real people are far more beautiful. They have so many details and nuances and flaws. But you miss those things when you’re chasing after a fantasy.”

Don Jon features strong supporting turns by Julianne Moore as a fellow student at Jon’s community college (“She’s the opposite of my character,” Gordon-Levitt says. “She doesn’t have any false fronts. She’s just present and honest.) and Tony Danza as Jon’s Italian-American father, who shares many of his son’s brusque, sexist attitudes along with his penchant for wifebeaters.

“They sent me the script, and the first thing I thought was ‘Wow, Joseph wrote this?’” says Danza. “Because it’s really hard to write a script that captures the moment of the culture in a provocative manner, is funny and actually has something to say. I have a paternal thing for Joseph because we worked together when he was 12 [in 1994’s Angels in the Outfield]. He was serious and talented, but he was also a great kid with great parents. Before he cast me, though, he talked to me via Skype, because I think he wanted to get a look at me and make sure I could pull off the part. I’m thrilled to be part of this movie. It’s a murderer’s row of actors.”

Because of its risque subject matter, Gordon-Levitt kept the budget for Don Jon low (“about half of what [500] Days of Summer cost,” he says) and financed it independently, so he would be able to retain complete creative control. After its premiere at the Sundance International Film Festival in January, when it was called Don Jon’s Addiction, the film was snapped up for distribution by Relativity Media for a reported $4 million (plus a commitment of $25 million in advertising). “The movie that is coming out in theaters is, frame for frame, exactly the movie I wanted to make,” he says. “If we had spent more money on it, I would have had to deal with people telling me to change things, or that market research showed females 18-34 were not responding to a particular scene. There was none of that.”

Gordon-Levitt is taking an active role in promoting the film, maintaining the fictional Twitter account @DonJon, running a Don Jon Tumblr account, participating in an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session on Reddit and even placing ads for the movie on real porn sites. The actor is throwing that same kind of creativity into his production company hitRECord.org, an online collaborative of artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. In January, the company will premiere a TV series on the newly launched Pivot cable channel that aims to reinvent the variety-show format with a mixture of short films, interviews and musical performances. Gordon-Levitt, who has been performing several concerts around the country in preparation for the TV program, says he likes throwing acoustic covers of random pop songs into his set lists. Several of them (including his versions of Madonna’s Express Yourself, Nirvana’s Lithium and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance) have gone viral on YouTube.

“Sometimes at those live performances, I like to do something that is not for work,” he says. “It’s just a fun thing to do for the audience — a way to thank them for turning out. I am really busy these days, but I’m also having a great time.”