Lights, Camera, Collaboration: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Breaks Down the Fourth Wall
Joseph Gordon-Levitt had reason to be in a good mood when we met in his dressing room at the TakePart Live studio: His show Hit Record on TV with Joseph Gordon Levitt was about to wrap its first season, it had already been renewed for a second, and he’d just finished a session of live television—stressful even for someone who grew up in the medium.
Gordon-Levitt’s open collaborative production company, hitRECord, made a courageous leap from an online community making artworks in a variety of media to a singular television program wrapped in a retro format: a variety show featuring short films, musical performances, animation, and more that’s partially filmed before a live audience (many of whom, in accordance with hitRECord’s ethos, are themselves recording the proceedings). Gordon-Levitt pulled it off, though, and the show has been airing since January to near universal acclaim.
With Season 1 winding down, we discussed the show’s origins, how its collaborative process is less a leap forward than a return to centuries-old creative techniques, and what it means to be an artist in today’s entertainment industry.
TakePart: The show is a throwback in a lot of ways while using current technologies to break down the fourth wall by bringing the audience onstage, so to speak—making them part of the process of creating what goes on air. Where do those seemingly disparate impulses of the retro and the very progressive come from in you, and how did they come to be melded together?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: There was no point where I said, “Eureka! We’ll start an open collaborative production company!” It started very small—just a little website where I was putting up videos and stories and songs that I had made. Very slowly a community started forming around that, and they had a tendency to want to make things together. So my brother and I, we tried to encourage that, and it slowly grew from there.
Years later, we realized there was a collective creative process happening. So we developed it into what we now call an open collaborative production company. We figured out the intellectual property and the economics of it and everything else.
Then the retro part, I suppose that’s really just my taste. hitRECord is an example of collectivism, but on the other hand it’s very much the work of a single individual. I think having both of those sides to it is important because then it maintains a voice. If it was just pure democracy or just pure chaos…
TakePart: It would just be like clicking on random links on the Internet.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. It wouldn’t come together into unified works of art. I grew up on movie sets where there’s lots of artists all working together, but there’s also a director to keep everyone pointing in the same direction. So that’s kind of the function that I serve on the show.
The way that it happens naturally on the Internet, people take what you’ve done and they do something to it. They remix it, they sample it, they revise it, they cut it up, they put a new soundtrack on it, they totally rewrite it. They take a character that you’ve written and put the character in a different situation. That’s just people’s natural tendency. Broadcast technology does not allow for that. So I think we as artists have gotten into a mental habit where we don’t embrace that. “The art that we make is our art, and we’re the author, and we’re the authority.”
TakePart: Right—“We’re going to tell you what the product is.”
Gordon-Levitt: “You may enjoy it if you want to.” But I think the human creative process is more naturally communal.
TakePart: Yeah, like if you go back to commedia dell'arte, there was much more audience participation.
Gordon-Levitt: That’s right. It was the teeming humanity just all on top of each other and all singing along and coming up with new versions and putting their own spin on it. Whether you go back to super early humans around the campfire or several thousand years later when people gathered around a bar or whatever, I think that’s kind of the natural way that people tell stories and sing songs.
TakePart: Did you ever have a crisis of confidence where you were like, “Oh, my God, this is crazy. I can’t believe we have to go on television in two weeks with this.”
Gordon-Levitt: No. Honestly, not really. I guess I don’t do that; maybe it’s because I’m a performer. I grew up as an actor, and you just can’t do that. You have those crises after it’s done.
TakePart: People today have all these avenues for sharing thoughts and ideas. Often what they’re doing is handing it over to a giant corporation. What do you think people need to be aware of as they’re sharing their private lives and sometimes their creativity with entities they don’t control?
Gordon-Levitt: That’s a really good question. To me the most important thing is that if you want to make something, make it. I would discourage anybody from getting too many demons in their head about reasons not to do something. Go ahead, do it—consequences be damned.
At the same time, if you want to be a professional artist, you do have to really consider what that means now. The notion that you as an artist are going to get signed by the suit who’s going to take care of all the business and you’ll just get to live a pure artist life is really old-fashioned at this point. But I think the most important thing is just focus on going really, really deep down inside your own self where no one else is and no one else is talking to you and no one else has any opinions that matter. And just make what you want to make.
TakePart: What do you think it says that there’s all this talent out there in places like Kansas City and Poland, artists who aren’t professionals or might not even call themselves artists but have art to create? Is there a great wellspring of undeveloped talent in the world?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, sure. The entertainment industry is a small and exclusive industry, which certainly does its best to find whatever talent it can, but it isn’t perfect. There’s lots and lots of great artists all over the world who make stuff on their laptops and don’t have any kind of connection to the established entertainment industry. I feel very lucky and privileged that I do have some entrée into that industry. It makes me very happy to be able to share that entrée with other artists elsewhere who wouldn’t necessarily have it.
TakePart: Teach us how to do a backflip.
Gordon-Levitt: Start with a cartwheel.
This content was produced in partnership with Pivot's and TakePart.com's parent company, Participant Media.