By Aaron Hillis
[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, HitRecord.org] 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).