The director-screenwriter describes his innovative series, hitRECord on TV—which reinvents the variety show format for the digital generation.
Actor-writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Tavis: Joseph Gordon-Levitt excels on so many creative fronts, as an actor, a writer, director, singer – I hate this guy. (Laughter) Now he’s also a variety show host, updating that format for a new generation with an eight-part series called “hitRECord on TV,” which has just debuted on the new network Pivot.
The series makes good on the promise of crowdsharing and features short films, animation, live performances, and true interaction with its audience. Let’s take a look at a clip from “hitRECord on TV.”
Tavis: So that clip gives, I think, some sense of what this is.
But I think this is one of the most innovative and creative concepts for how television can be used into the future, and how you collaborate all these various mediums, social and beyond, to make this work. So that’s my sense of it.
Gordon-Levitt: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: But tell me what you’ve done here and how this works.
Gordon-Levitt: Okay, sure. Well, that’s where film is a good example.
So every episode has a theme. So the episode of our first theme is the number one, so I put out a request, I make a video and I put it on our site, saying writers, come up with stories revolving around the theme of the number one.
It could be first times; it could be unity, solitude, anything having to do with the number one.
Tavis: So whatever one means to you, the number one means to you.
Gordon-Levitt: Whatever the number one means to you.
Tavis: Got it.
Gordon-Levitt: This one young woman from Nebraska, she contributed a story. This is a true story about how she grew up with an eye condition where she couldn’t see the stars, and then when she was 16 her father bought her this pair of night vision goggles from a Russian military surplus catalogue.
So when she was 16, for the first time in her life, she saw the stars. I thought that was a brilliant story, so we proceeded to make a short film out of it, and all sorts of other artists got involved in doing that.
But I think the beauty of this is if I had hired a team of professional screenwriters and said write me a short film based on the theme of the number one, they would never have come up with the idea of a girl who had never seen the stars and whose dad buys her a pair of night vision goggles and sees them for the first time when she’s 16.
They just never would have come up with that. So when you open the door to that kind of collaboration, and that’s what we do, because anybody in the world with the Internet can contribute to our collaborations.
Tavis: So what you’re basically saying to me is that where I have whatever I have, six or eight producers who make this show work every night -
Gordon-Levitt: I’ve got 300,000.
Tavis: I was about to say. (Laughter) That’s where I was headed. So you could literally have 400 or 500 people who all have various pieces in one episode, in a single episode.
Gordon-Levitt: So in our first episode there’s 426 people whose work is all featured in that. In that first short film there were around 1,400 contributions that we whittled down to I forget the exact number, 60-something, and that’s people who did the voiceover, people who played all the different instruments on the score, people who did the animation behind the actress and who contributed the individual illustrations that went into the animation, all coming from different people.
Tavis: So the beauty, I think the beauty – let me back up. I think the beauty of the Internet is that it democratizes this social media space. That everybody has a chance to have his or her say.
I think that’s good as long as they agree with me. When they disagree then I’m not so sure I like that. (Laughter) But everybody has their own voice, his or her own voice.
What does this kind of production mean for the future of television? I don’t think I’m overstating that, because reality TV, whether one likes it or loathes it, changed the whole business, the whole business model.
What do you – stretch out 10, 15 years and tell me where you think this is headed or what this might mean for TV as we know it.
Gordon-Levitt: Sure. Well first of all, since you brought up the business, I do want to mention that we do pay the artists who contribute.
Tavis: That’s kind of you. (Laughter)
Gordon-Levitt: Well, I think it’s only fair. People are doing a lot of hard work in contributing their ideas.
Tavis: But there are a lot – I don’t want to cut you off. I’ll get back to you.
Gordon-Levitt: No, no, please.
Tavis: But there are a lot of people, though – you watch – and I don’t want to call them by name. But you look at all these morning shows and so many other shows. They pull stuff off the Internet -
Gordon-Levitt: That’s right.
Tavis: – and they use it as programming, and they get ratings off of that, they make money off of that, but the people who load up the stuff on the Internet, they don’t get anything out of that.
Gordon-Levitt: You’re 100 percent right about that. So we didn’t want to do that, so – and we’ve been doing this for years now. This television show isn’t the beginning of hitRECord, the production company. We launched it as a production company in 2010.
I was doing it as more of an informal hobby with my brother for five years before that. So we’ve had lots of experience and lots of iterations to figure out what the best way to do it is, and we’ve come up with a way that I think is really fair, where we do pay artists out of the budget of each episode.
There’s $50,000 earmarked for each episode, so for example, those 426 artists whose work is featured in the first episode will all share that $50,000, yeah.
Tavis: Split that, yeah. I wouldn’t have gone here but for the fact that you did, and if I’m pressing too hard tell me and I’ll back up.
Tavis: But you mentioned your brother.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Dan. Can I go there?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, please. Thanks for asking.
Tavis: You mentioned your brother, Dan, and I happen to know and all of your fans know that your brother, Dan, was lost to you at a very young age.
Tavis: But he started this concept with you. How much of this did Dan get to see?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, so he died in 2010, and we had been doing it together since 2005 before that. So he really, he saw it begin to change from a hobby into something grander and more professional than that, and then he died kind of just as we were taking off that way.
But his spirit is very much a part of what goes on on “hitRECord,” and the biggest thing for him was always getting people to try something new, encouraging people to step out of their comfort zone, even if they didn’t see themselves as, like, “Oh, I’m not a writer, I’m not an artist, I can’t draw. Or maybe I do draw, but I never show my drawings to anybody.”
His biggest thing was always trying to get people to give it a try, and that’s a lot of what “hitRECord” is about, because the people who contribute to our collaborations are not people who do it professionally.
Some of them do, actually, but most of them, they’re not professionals. They’ve never been paid for their art, but they’re talented nonetheless. Giving them the first chance to contribute to something like this is a really heartwarming experience, and that’s really what he was about.
Even more than the final product, for him, was just about getting people to get up and give it a go.
Tavis: So I assume he’d be happy with this Pivot project, then.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, he’d be very pleased with it, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. What do you – given what you are seeing with regard to Dan’s point, this notion that every one of us has something artistic, something creative to contribute, at different levels, but all of us have something to offer or we wouldn’t be here, what do you make of what you are seeing vis-à-vis the creativity of everyday people?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, well it’s interesting, because I think our culture sort of says that leave singing and dancing and storytelling to the professionals, but I don’t think that’s -
Tavis: Don’t try this at home.
Gordon-Levitt: Don’t try this home.
Tavis: I’m a professional, yeah.
Gordon-Levitt: You just sit and watch, and pay us to entertain you.
Gordon-Levitt: I don’t think that’s the natural way of things. I think that if you go back before the movie industry or the recording industry or the publishing industry, just go back to early human civilization, you’ll find probably people were all telling each other stories, gathering around at the local tavern or just around the fire, whatever, and all participating in that social activity of communicating and entertaining each other and singing each other’s songs and telling each other’s stories.
I think that’s the natural way that it’s supposed to go, and I think it’s really cool that the Internet is sort of bringing us back to that. Because in the 20th century, with broadcast technology, we all were taught to kind of just sit on the couch and be passive spectators. But I think we’re all more naturally inclined to participate.
Tavis: I’m just imagining some caveman saying, “Did you hear the one about.” (Laughter)
Gordon-Levitt: Exactly. Well, I think that’s how stories come to be. I really do think that’s true.
Tavis: You’re probably right.
Tavis: Speaking of creativity, since I last saw you on this set you have had your directorial debut.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Tell me about that and what you made of it and whether you want to do more of it.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, sure. Well, the movie’s called “Don Jon.”
Tavis: “Don Jon,” exactly, yeah.
Gordon-Levitt: I wrote and directed it and I acted in it. I loved the experience, and I’m proud of the movie and how it turned out. It’s very different than “hitRECord on TV,” because “Don Jon” is sort of a darkly humorous satire about gender roles and about the influence that media has on how people often objectify each other.
Treat each other more like things than like human beings. I play a guy who’s sort of a modern-day Don Juan, who’s very objectifying. Treats women just like objects.
It sort of satirizes him, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. By the end of the story he does begin to take his first steps towards connecting with people rather than just consuming people, I guess.
Tavis: I’ve got it on DVD now. It’s in my collection.
Gordon-Levitt: Oh nice, all right. (Laughter)
Tavis: So you want to do more of this, you think? Directing, that is.
Gordon-Levitt: I would love to. Yeah, and “hitRECord on TV” as a directing job is very different, not conventional directing job, but I loved it. I also want to go do another just normal acting job.
I never want to stop doing that, hopefully, if I have the opportunity, and what can I say? I have an eclectic taste. I like watching all different kinds of movies, listening to all different kinds of music, doing all different kinds of things, eating all kinds of different food.
The variety is what keeps it interesting to me, so I don’t ever want to just only do one thing. If I have the opportunity I’ll always take it to try something new.
Tavis: Well, you’ve done all that. Like I said, the singing and the acting and producing and et cetera, et cetera. Did I read somewhere that your, was it your grandfather who was a director?
Gordon-Levitt: My grandfather was, my mom’s dad, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So it’s in the bloodline.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. Neither my mom nor my dad were in show business.
Tavis: Oh, I love that he corrected himself on television. (Laughter) I love that. Your English teacher would be proud of that.
Gordon-Levitt: And my mother. (Unintelligible)
Tavis: Either-or, neither-nor. He got that right. (Laughter)
Gordon-Levitt: Well we’re talking about my mom and my grandpa. He was a grammar stickler. But yeah, he was a director, and he was actually one of the blacklisted directors who back in the McCarthy era in the ’50s was prevented from working by the government because he had been to some communist meetings.
Yeah, sort of a dark day, dark era in American history where the government was, just for talking, just for going to meetings, was denying people the right to work.
Tavis: We’re out of time here, but I have often wondered what America lost as a result of all those brilliant, talented people like your grandfather and like Paul Robeson and other giants who got blackballed, blacklisted, because of just – it’s insane. And to think that happened in America just completely upends me every time I think about it.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, well, it’s worth remembering, right? Because it wasn’t that long ago.
Tavis: Well, because that doesn’t happen in America anymore these days, I hope, I think, you get a chance to do all the stuff that you’re doing, including “hitRECord on TV,” now on Pivot. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, always good to have you on this program.
Gordon-Levitt: Great to be here, man.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Gordon-Levitt: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: Appreciate you, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
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