He prefers unorthodox characters in thought-provoking and high concept films such as Looper, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises. He also understands the importance of not taking the industry too seriously but is serious enough to already have an impressive list of roles behind him. Throughout his career he has at times deliberately disappeared from centre stage, exploring different ways to pursue creativity.
One of these ways is his entrepreneurial endeavour HitRecord, a creative collaboration platform that he started with his brother Dan, who tragically died in 2010.
A true believer in the creative economy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to open source collaboration and success to everyone, not just the Hollywood elite. It’s a noble endeavour and one he is clearly passionate about. So far the platform has produced an Emmy and boasts over 80,000 members, but has yet to reach that game-changing tipping point.
More than anything we learn from talking to the now 35-year-old actor is that he has a voracious appetite for intellectual progress and wants to do his part in turning that into progress for everyone, regardless of which screen you’re looking at.
You make very interesting choices in terms of the movies you do, involving both speculative and real world ideas concerning disruption, for example Looper, Inception, Snowden, even Don Jon to an extent. Are you particularly attracted to radical ideas and innovative technologies?
Yeah it’s hard to argue against the fact that technology is really behind human progress. That’s what’s changing us. We’re not evolving biologically these days, it’s too short a time span, but we live very different lives than human beings did even 50 years ago, much less 100, 200 or 1000 years ago, and technology is the driving force there.
My dad always encouraged us to be into technology. He made sure we had even the earliest personal computers in the house and in fact he’s the owner of a small tech company himself, so I guess it comes from him.
When you’re on set and you’re meeting directors like Christopher Nolan, (I know he’s a big fan of technology) is it something you really want to understand and talk to them about?
Yeah, when it’s appropriate. Like you said, I wrote this movie Don Jon, and that’s all about how the fantasies you buy through media can kind of define your vocabulary and your perspective for how you see the world. It’s that sort of one way interaction you have, whether it’s pornography or a romantic Hollywood movie, the consumption of a type of media can give you unrealistic expectations of what life is. So yeah, technology is at the centre of a lot of the stories that I find most interesting.
"The consumption of a type of media can give you unrealistic expectations of what life is."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt on framing reality
We interviewed the celebrated thinker Yuval Noah Harari recently and and he said “everything is ultimately a story.” Do you agree?
Yeah I think life itself is a creative process. You mentioned Inception, that film shows how convincing dreams are. One of the things I learned while I was doing Inception was that a lot of your brain activity during a dream is exactly the same as when you’re awake.
Really? Can you explain that?
Yeah, when you see something in real life there’s a certain part of your brain that fires, and what you’re seeing is not 100 percent what’s there. What you’re seeing is your brain interpreting a certain amount of sensory information and then generating that, and telling yourself a story, and that’s what you see. That’s exactly the same thing that happens in your dreams. The same part of your brain fires. It’s not taking in sensory information, its taking in memory information but it’s all interpreted, and ultimately what you see is something that your brain is creating for you. It’s not a one-to-one correspondence of what is there in reality. It’s always mediated.
You took risks very early on in your career with films like Brick and Mysterious Skin. That film in particular has really earned cult status.
HitRecord actually started with Mysterious Skin. My brother helped me set it up the day that Mysterious Skin came out in theatres in New York (And when I say theatres, I should say one theatre.) It had a little video I had made with the novelist of Mysterious Skin, Scott Heim, and that’s just about all I had but I wanted to get it up because I was in this movie that was coming out. My hope was that eventually there would be some kind if interplay between the movies I was doing and the things I was making on my own, and that’s what HitRecord was.
Do you think it’s easier these days to get those kind of small independent, experimental films made?
It’s certainly less expensive to make a film, so in that sense it’s easier. Is it harder to get your film noticed? In a way yes, and in a way no. There’s so much of everything, but on the other hand it’s still easier than it used to be because in the past if you didn’t have distribution from one of the major companies then that was it, dead end. Now there are options, and yes you’re competing with a huge pool and an abundance of content on the internet, but at least you can get it out there. I think what is a problem is, whether it’s a movie, or a piece of music, whatever it is, thinking of these things as commodities that are only valid if someone consumes them. What that does is ignore the value of making them.
You’re talking about the value of collaborating?
Yeah, and of just doing it! We think of music as the stuff on the radio that we listen to, but 100 years ago, before recorded music, if you wanted to hear music then someone had to sing or play an instrument. It wasn’t about them being the greatest, most perfect musician in the world, it was about doing it. I think there’s something really natural about just doing it. Nowadays on the internet that natural urge is translating into narcissism. My hope with HitRecord is that the natural urge to do it can add up to something more collaborative and productive.
"If someone takes the time and effort, and makes something, and that thing they make contributes to the generation of some revenue, then that person deserves to get paid."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the creative economy
Some people might say, well Joseph’s already done it, so now he has this space to build something where anyone can do anything.
Yeah but that doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me. That’s just the idea. I have found myself in a privileged position, whether it’s because I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’ve just been lucky, I think that’s part of it; but that’s the thing about HitRecord, it’s trying to foster a collaborative process that anybody can join. And yes, when that collaborative process bares fruit, when it yields finished productions like our TV show, or our books, or our records, or films, or whatever, then I use my privileged position to take those things to market and monetise them. Then the artists get paid.
That’s another popular thing that happens on the internet, people are always asking you to make something for free. If someone takes the time and effort, and makes something, and that thing they make contributes to the generation of some revenue, then that person deserves to get paid.
What’s your opinion on something like Spotify then?
I don’t know the details of Spotify, but I have friends who know a lot more than I do who think it’s a pretty bad deal for musicians.
You work on projects which have hundreds of people collaborating at a time, and everybody knows their roles. Are there parallels between your work on set and then this environment of HitRecord?
Good question. HitRecord is very much based on the model of a movie set in that a movie set is highly collaborative. A director can’t make a move by himself or herself, and that’s the same with HitRecord. It’s very collaborative. I couldn’t make the things on HitRecord by myself, but I am the director. I think you need to have a sort of combination of an openness to anyone contributing anything, but also then some amount of direction and guidance. If you don’t have that direction and you’re saying anyone can do anything, then you just have chaos and you probably won’t finish anything of any quality. That’s when you get things like meme culture, just pure undirected anarchy. At HitRecord we’re aiming for something more focused than that and so we try to let the chaos happen but then direct it and harness that energy towards something more constructive.
You mentioned two things there that stood out for me, narcissism and meme culture. Possibly the negative side of interactive culture?
Hey, I love me some good memes.
When the internet first emerged many people thought that it was going to be a kind of neutraliser, a democracy saver. What are your thoughts about how the web can translate to a more cohesive society? If you look at the US elections, things have divided us more than ever. Can technology help us?
I think so. What this reminds me of is, I heard Alan Kay say this thing about the printing press and I found that very encouraging. The basic story is that the printing press was invented in the 1400’s and at first all they did with it was print bibles, for like 100 years or something. So it wasn’t particularly revolutionary. But once new generations got their hands on the technology they started printing more books that led to the birth of science, and democracy, and the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, all these huge steps forward. But it took a minute. It wasn’t the first generation that got the printing press that did those things. And the printing press is only one example. Its often the case that when there’s a new technology the first generation to have it uses it to imitate old technology. When we first got motion picture cameras movies looked just like plays because no one had invented new cinematic language, they were just filming plays. Now movies are their own thing.
We’re using the internet in the same way that we used television and newspapers, but the technology is not limited to that. I’m not saying HitRecord is that new, innovative thing, though hopefully it’s some kind of baby step in the right direction. I think the crux of it is that the internet can be something collaborative. People can come together on the internet and not just socialise. They can work together to make things that they couldn’t have done by themselves. You’re right, a lot of the big destinations on the internet are not really built to do that. They’re built to scroll from one thing to the next because the more items you scroll through, the more ads you’ll see, and that’s how they make money. But I don’t think that’s the only way to make money with this new technology.
We’re the first generation to have the internet, so it might not be us changing the world. It might be the next generation who really thinks of new ways to use this technology.
Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s latest feature Snowden is out in cinemas everywhere.
For more info on HitRecord go here.
He really opened my mind a lot about how the internet works, and how it’s working with the economy, and what the future is. If you like thinking about the things that we’ve been talking about I’d recommend it.
I can put that album on at any time, it’s fantastic! When I’m feeling energetic, when I’m feeling relaxed. I’m a huge Bobby McFerrin fan and I saw them play together, Bobby and Taylor, it was so great.
I loved what it had to say about rational thinking versus emotional thinking and how its so easy to slip into that kind of thinking where you tell yourself a story and rationalise your beliefs, because you have certain prejudices or feelings about a given issue rather than looking at facts and evidence. That movie had a really subtle touch and was also just a very entertaining story.