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Joseph Gordon-Levitt on “The Lookout”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Chris Pratt in “The Lookout,” Miramax, 2007]

By mainstream standards, the widest exposure 26-year-old actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has yet received was as the youngest of four wise-cracking aliens on TV’s “3rd Rock from the Sun.” But those in the know (meaning you, since you’re reading this) have likely been following Gordon-Levitt’s below-the-Hollywood-radar blip for the last couple of years, be it as the troubled hustler in Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” or the neo-noir brooder in Rian Johnson’s “Brick.” The talented Californian can be seen this weekend alongside Jeff Daniels, Isla Fisher and Matthew Goode in “The Lookout,” the directorial debut of screenwriter Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”). In this crackling heist thriller, Gordon-Levitt finds himself in the titular role as Chris Pratt, a former high school star athlete who works as a bank janitor after a car accident leaves him with irreparable brain damage. I briefly yakked with Gordon-Levitt down in Austin, TX, where “The Lookout” was premiering as the opening-night film at the 2007 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

You could easily have the Hollywood meal ticket if you wanted it. What makes you choose smaller and independent projects instead?

It sounds simple, but I just want to be in good movies. I’m not so concerned with whether it’s studio or indie so much as “Is it a good script?” or “Do I like the director?” “The Lookout” is far from an indie movie, y’know; it was made by Miramax. But even though it was produced by a corporate studio that’s ultimately owned by Disney, it has the integrity of an independent because Scott Frank cared so deeply about it and was given the power to make the movie he wanted to make. That, to me, is ultimately much more important than where you’re getting financing.

What’s the difference between a worthwhile script and a waste of your time?

That’s a good question. It’s hard to put your finger on what makes something good. I can just tell if, while I’m reading it, I’m inspired. If I get excited, stand up, pace around, if I start wanting to read the words aloud, if it makes me think or laugh, things like that. It’s the same criteria, I guess, as what makes anyone like a good movie or book. I read a lot of scripts and most of them are bad. [laughs] It’s always funny to see where that point is that I’ll be like, “Okay, maybe this is going to turn around.” I read a little bit more: “This could be good, maybe if…” Read a bit more: “No, it’s bad.”

I don’t know exactly what it is, but I guess if it’s boring, fake or simplistic. Or a gimmick. Or I feel like it’s shamelessly pandering to money instead of genuinely trying to say something.

“The Lookout” is a very screenwriterly film, even referencing the art of storytelling within an otherwise unrelated heist set-up. When you collaborated with Frank, did he come across as a writer first, then director?

Well, yes. It’s easy for a director to get caught up in moment-to-moment visions, what’s a great-looking shot, things like that. Scott’s prime concern every day was telling the story. Every single scene in the movie moves it along — it’s very tight that way. And he needed to make sure all those moments landed while we were shooting. As far as how I should be feeling or looking, he mostly left that to me because he wanted it to happen naturally. Still, Scott had a very specific idea of what he wanted the movie to look like. When I first met him, he started showing me books of photographs of grand vistas from the middle of the country. The movie is shot in a wide aspect ratio, and that’s been his vision, that’s what he wanted to make.

So many actors would have superficially hinged everything about this character on his brain trauma, but I think you’ve done well in fleshing out Chris without making his injuries the crux of his personality. How did you approach this?

Thank you. Isla was telling me I didn’t look “retarded” enough. [laughs] Well, I spent time with people who had suffered traumatic brain injury like Chris had, which meant everything to me. I couldn’t have done it without the help of these guys — Darren, Dan, Ryan — all of whom had very different experiences so you can’t make any generalizations. Every time you try to draw a boundary around somebody, [then] examine it closely, you find that those boundaries are arbitrary illusions. I hung out with this one guy named Dan, whose injury was quite a bit worse than the character I was playing. The first thing I noticed about him was that he wouldn’t stop cracking jokes. He had a real sense of humor about the whole thing, making fun of himself, his arm that didn’t work, his accident… I don’t even want to go into the details of what happened to him. It was a horrible, tragic thing, and he would laugh at it. That really struck me.

I think “The Lookout” could’ve been a really morose, dark, terrible movie, and I’m really glad it’s not. Scott always kept an eye on that, too. He wanted it to be a fun thriller, and I think he really accomplished that. It’s funny, actually: when I finally saw the movie, I was surprised by how entertaining it was because my subjective experience of shooting it was a struggle [with] a lot of pain, darkness, hard, slow life for three months up in the Winnipeg prairie. I was like, “This isn’t slow. This isn’t a struggle. This is fun. I’d go see this with a girl on a Friday night.” I did not expect that.

I’ve heard you’re a bit of an audiophile. What have you been listening to lately?

These days, I’m trying to listen to nice, pretty music because for the last year, I did three movies where I was listening to nothing but hard, hard — and I don’t mean metal — music about aggression. With “The Lookout” — I hadn’t done before — it somehow worked for me to only listen to one band. For the whole three months, once I got to work until we were done at the end of the day, I’d only listen to Pearl Jam. Maybe it was because I’ve been listening to them since I was 12, or maybe it’s because they really strike a perfect balance between having that hard, aggressive, manly thing and also being emotionally expressive, kind of vulnerable.

I think it did something to me to only ever hear that one voice. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is, but it somehow worked with what I was trying to achieve in making this guy whose brain doesn’t work like ours does, to have it just repeat and repeat and repeat like that. They have eight albums, so it’s not like I was listening to the same songs over and over again, but it really worked; it helped me keep my focus. When I finally saw them on tour, it was a big part of allowing me to shed some of the layers that I had put on myself to play the character.

What do you think is missing between the interaction of film and music?

Let me tell you, I’m glad you asked. [hands me a card for his website,] This is the first time I ever made business cards. That’s my idea; it’s some stuff I made, some videos, films, writing, songs. The coolest thing on there, I think, is a little short where I made the audio first and put visuals to it afterwards, based on a resuscitation poem. I think movies are inseparable from music, and the way they make movies nowadays where you shoot, then the guy comes in, watches and scores it — it works sometimes, but it’s also gotten old. [Director] Rian Johnson’s cousin Nathan made the music for “Brick.” Rian’s making his next movie right now in Europe, and Nathan’s there with him. The composer of the score is there on set working on the music as they’re making the movie. That’s cool.

“The Lookout” opens in limited release on March 30th (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.