Photograph by Steve Yedlin
'There are some things that will transcend time': Like 'Veronica Mars,' 'Brick' (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, pictured) puts a noir-ish spin on the dog-eat-dog world of high school.
High School Confidential
Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks about making 'Brick'
By Richard von Busack
Twenty-five-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a child actor who spent five years in the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun. After he left the show to attend Columbia University, he did some globetrotting to Chile and Israel, eventually returning to acting in indie movies.
Last year, Gordon-Levitt starred in Mysterious Skin, playing a compulsively sexual small-town hustler with unfinished business. Mysterious Skin was one of the key films of 2005.
Gordon-Levitt's newest, the Rian Johnson-directed Brick is just as important. It's a startling and witty yet dead serious redo of the detective movie, set in an affluent Orange County high school. In the lead, Gordon-Levitt plays the wisecracking bookworm who turns shamus when his ex-girlfriend washes up dead in a drainage ditch.
METRO: What it's like to make a movie like Mysterious Skin where you have the line "I fucked every single guy in this town and his ugly uncle—twice" and then have to hear what a revolution Brokeback Mountain is?
Gordon-Levitt: I didn't feel like Mysterious Skin was about the gay lifestyle, whereas Brokeback Mountain is very much about what it means to be gay in America. I dunno, I mean, in Mysterious Skin I guess you could call him gay, but his sexuality is this unique damaged thing. I never really compared the two movies.
METRO: Your scene in Mysterious Skin with Billy Drago particularly astonished me.
Gordon-Levitt: These kind of questions are really easier to answer about Brick, because Brick was so intentional, calculated and analyzed. Everything was done for a reason to intertwine with everything else in the movie. Mysterious Skin was the opposite, very unintentional. I did each scene without a plan. Billy Drago was obviously such a presence all I had to do was pay halfway attention to him.
METRO: Did you see Drago's makeup before hand?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, but there's still was plenty to look at (laughs).
METRO: Is the kind of acting you did in Brick all in the dialogue? Is it a matter of just reading the lines, and all of a sudden you're doing film noir?
Gordon-Levitt: The script Rian Johnson wrote was a much more integral process than anything else I've ever done. Rian constructed his world out of words. Yes, the set design and the cinematography and the music all played into it very well. But nobody uses words anymore in movies ... it's all about coming up with look more than anything else. ... Rian did it by coming up with words. It shocked me, I never saw a script like that before and I haven't since. It was such a pleasure to say the words aloud.
Still, we had been working our asses off to figure out how to go about saying these words. You can't just say them; it didn't work that way for Brick, although Mr. [Richard] Roundtree puts on the glasses and just says them.
Still, I never felt I was in a film noir. Brick has a lot of ingredients. A lot of these are the main ingredients of film noir. But the detective story is thousands of years old; it goes back to Oedipus Rex. Rian told me at the beginning that the reason he wanted to set the movie at a high school was to break clean from those good movies of the '40s.
He thought if he made a movie with men in hats and tommy guns, the audience would put it in a box, and it would fall into parody. Brick is in color, there are no Venetian blinds, there are no hats—yes, there are cigarettes. I guess that goes to show there are some things that will transcend time.
METRO: I've read somewhere that when Bogart wore his trench coat, it sent a message to the audience of the 1930s and early 1940s: that this man was a vet, that he'd been in the Great War, World War I. I was thinking of that when I saw the army jacket you wore throughout Brick.
Gordon-Levitt: Rian and I decided early on not to watch any Bogart movies. The whole point was to get clean of that. I watched other old Hollywood movies. The work of Cary Grant, mostly, to get the speed and precision of the language. I took more of my cues from music, from Tom Waits and Serge Gainsbourg and Wu-Tang Clan.
METRO: What paperback was Brandon reading?
Gordon-Levitt: It was Lord of the Flies. Rian's choice, and I never really pressed him on that. When you get a chance to talk to him, ask him why.
METRO: Can you talk about the locations for Brick?
Gordon-Levitt: We shot at Rian's high school. The reason the locations are so cool is because he grew up there. He wrote that script with all those locations in mind. That retaining wall where I'm sitting is where he used to eat lunch there with his buddies.
METRO: Pretty much all high school students have to be part detective to survive.
Gordon-Levitt: Brick shows exactly how high school feels, subjectively. It's not what it looks like from an adult's point of view, like a Larry Clark movie.
METRO: On 3rd Rock, you worked with one of the best actors I can think of, John Lithgow. What did you learn from him?
Gordon-Levitt: So much, I wouldn't know where to begin. One of the biggest things I learned, which really came to fruition on Brick, was what a work ethic is. A lot of people think of acting as kind of a cushy job. A lot of actors approach their job in kind of a cushy way, and they don't want to try to push too hard. And John always worked his ass off, and we all had to keep up with him.
When it came time to do Brick, I thought of John the whole time. We worked really hard on Brick, we had a short time to shoot, five weeks. We'd shoot, come home, worked, went to sleep. On the seventh day we'd rehearse. In between, Rian cooked for us. He's not a bad cook.
METRO: Is there anything in Brick that got cut, that you hated to see go?
Gordon-Levitt: There was a more extended hallucination scene, a more elaborate one ... it says in the script "EXT: Heaven" and you saw [the dead girl] Emily, with a Nina Simone song playing in the background. Rian's really good at doing these crazy collage animation-type things. Not that there's much in Brick, but there's more in his short films. I loved the heaven sequence, but I could see how it had to go.
METRO: What are you up to now?
Gordon-Levitt: I'd like to keep working with people who care about their doing ... and if people who care about what they're doing keep wanting to work with me, then it should work out pretty well.
I started working when I was six. I was 19 when the show was over. That freshman year was the longest break I'd taken from acting since I was 6. My friends were moving out of the house and doing whatever they wanted to do. I wanted that freedom, to go to school and become a physicist, a journalist, anything. I eventually did come back to acting.
When I was younger I just acted for fun. But back then, I didn't like the other half; I didn't like being watched, I was very neurotic about it. But having moved away, to a different world in NYC—maybe it was just moving away from my parents' house. I realized that I actually cared a lot about what was outside of me. Before, I was mostly interested in me and my friends and the fun that we had. I didn't think there was much more to think about.
After two years of living in New York, I came to realize there's a lot of other stuff going on. Whether I chose to acknowledge it or not, I was part of it. So that begs a lot of different questions, how do I fit into this?
I came around to the thought: you have to do what you love to do, but do it for a reason. It took a while to get hired again, and what not, but then I did Mysterious Skin, and then I did Brick. I did them not only because they were fun but also because they were really worth doing and had something good to say. That makes me feel like, well, shit, there really is such a thing as doing something worthwhile with your life. So if I can keep doing that I'll be a really lucky guy.
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