Joseph Gordon-Levitt On His New Apple Series 'Mr. Corman' And Becoming More Collaborative [Interview]

In the new Apple TV+ series Mr. Corman, the title character is a self-centered mess who suddenly finds himself contending with serious anxiety. The show is set in a grounded version of our real world, but is largely seen through the perspective of the main character, whose daydreams and inner thoughts are frequently reflected through visual flourishes. (Example: his anxiety is represented by a vision of a giant flaming meteor hurtling toward the planet.) There are some elements of the series that work exceptionally well (the supporting cast is stellar across the board) and others that don't, but it's another example of Apple TV+ getting into business with an A-list actor and giving them room to experiment and explore.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Looper) created Mr. Corman, and in addition to starring in the show, he also served as a writer and director on the project. We spoke to him this week about some of the show's creative decisions, lessons he learned from his 2012 feature directorial debut Don Jon, how the act of watching something can be a creative process, and more.

There are a lot of dialogue scenes here that take place in long continuous shots. How much of this series was born from looking at the way things are typically done and purposefully deciding to do things differently?

[laughs] Well, I hope I wasn't doing them just to be contrary. But you did notice something that I notice a lot when I watch a lot of movies and shows nowadays: there's a lot of editing. For my taste, it sometimes feels like too much. I want to feel closer to the actual performance that the actors are giving. I don't need you to cut every line. So yeah, that was definitely an intentional choice, trying to put the rhythm back into the hands of the actors. Which was really gratifying speaking as an actor, and then of course, as a director in the editing room later, I can be kicking myself sometimes. [laughs] But I've found that a lot of people who've seen the show have asked me if there was a lot of improvisation, and the answer is actually no. There wasn't really a lot, but I think it feels like that, partially just because there are fewer cuts. So it feels a bit more like you're really there in the room with people.

Were there any lessons that you learned from making Don Jon that you applied here?

I think I got more collaborative. With Don Jon, because it was my first time ever getting to direct something, I was pretty dead set on, "The thing that's in my head is what I want to do." With Mr. Corman, it was much more collaborative. I wrote a couple of scripts before Apple gives the greenlight to hire writers, but we hired four great writers who made the scripts so much better than they ever would have been if I were the only one working on them. Same goes for, there was another director directing episodes, Aurora Guerrero, and all of the actors. I was really, really focused on trying to encourage them to take liberties and embellish and find things. I mentioned a second ago we didn't exactly improvise on the day of shooting because we didn't have time to, but we would rehearse, and we would improvise a lot on days of rehearsal and take down notes. "Let's do this instead of that." I really wanted the actors to bring their own selves to it. So yeah, I feel like the older I get, the more I want to be collaborative. It sounds weird: people have been asking me, "You did so much on this show. You're the writer, the director, blah blah blah." I'd like to try to remind folks that this is not just me, at all. This is a highly, highly collaborative effort.

There are some big philosophical questions presented in this show, and one of the things I found really interesting was this throughline in which several characters claim "there's only one thing that matters." One person says it's family, one says it's the moment we're in right now, and another says it's whether or not someone likes you. Can you talk about that idea, and about using this show as a canvas to explore things like that?

This is a thrilling moment, man. I get so excited when someone notices something that I didn't really notice. I'd never put that connection together that you're saying. You're totally right. I know the exact three lines you're talking about, and you're absolutely right: there's a throughline here of people saying, "Only one thing matters." Swear to God, I never thought of that. [laughs] I love that. It only just goes to show that watching something is a creative process. I don't think audiences take enough credit for how much they bring to their own experience of watching a movie or a show or whatever it is. So bravo to you, sir. That's great. I'm thrilled.

But it's funny. You're talking about the thing that really matters is being present, and that's also a theme that recurs throughout. In various different ways, that idea is being brought up. And sometimes it's spoken in a way that's actually pretty dismissive. But I personally tend to believe that that's a really healthy thing to try to focus on. How can you be present in the moment? I think that's something the character Josh has a lot of trouble doing, and I also personally often have trouble doing. My mind tends to fixate on the past or the future or go around in circles, and as much as I try to stop it, it doesn't always listen to me, and that's maybe something I have in common with the character. By the end of the season, you see him and he's playing music and he has a moment like that, where hopefully you can kind of tell, "Oh, here's there right now." That's the little baby step of growth that we get from season 1.

There's an underlying current of anxiety in this show, represented by this meteor and an ominous "ding" sound. Did you ever worried about leaning too hard into that subplot and actually giving people anxiety by proxy while they were watching?

The simple answer would be yes, I worried about that. But I also personally like things that challenge me. Whether it's a movie or music or whatever, I like stuff that can put me on edge a little bit. It makes the sweet moments all the sweeter.

I thought the sound of that really ominous noise was really interesting, and the sound and the music for the whole series is fascinating as well. I know you worked with Nathan Johnson on that, who is one of my favorites going all the way back to the Brick days. Can you talk about collaborating with him to create the aural landscape of this show?

I love Nathan Johnson. I could talk all day about him. I think he's an incredible artist, and like you said, we've done lots of things together over the years. That sound that goes along with the meteor – and sometimes you hear it and you don't even have to see the meteor anymore, because that sound has become this Pavlovian thing – he built that sound. He would have to tell you all of the parts that went into it. There's like four different weird components that he's combining to make that sound. We spent a bunch of time examining different options of sounds we could combine to make that sound that gives that feeling that, on the one hand, does remind you of what it's like for a meteor to close in on you, and on the other hand, sometimes we use that sound for comedic effect. So there were certain versions of the sound that were actually a lot harder or angstier, and it was like, "That's never going to make anyone laugh." So I hope we struck the right balance, because I guess I might have a dark sense of humor, but I find some of the most stressful or dark or even tragic moments in life can make me laugh in weird ways. That sound is one of them. 

There were a couple of times where I thought the show sort of let it rip about the soullessness of social media. But I know you've spent years building the HitRecord community, and in a way, that's a form of social media. So I guess I'm curious about the potentially conflicting ideas there. You're clearly passionate about a subset of social media, so I just wanted to pick your brain about that.

Yeah, that's a great question and I could talk about this all day, too. This is one of my favorite things to talk about. I really love the idea of computers connecting people, and people being able to relate to each other or collaborate with each other or communicate with each other online. I think that's a very good thing. But there are some problems, I think, with the ways that today's dominant social media platforms work that create some bad incentives that are kind of breaking the world. There are other experts that can speak about it with more authority than I. I would recommend anything written by Jaron Lanier. His most recent one is called "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now." He has others called "You Are Not a Gadget," or "Who Owns the Future?"

His issue that he identifies mostly has to do with the business model. If you offer something for free, and in exchange, you get the right to conduct mass surveillance on people and feed huge amounts of data into machine learning algorithms that will optimize for clicks or "engagement" without any humans ever having control over it, this is what's causing this rise in extremism and tribalism and lack of nuance and misinformation that's happening online. The problem isn't social media in general, according to Jaron, and I tend to agree with him. The problem is how some of the most successful social media companies today are making money. That's something I think we as a generation have to change.


The first two episodes of Mr. Corman premiere on Apple TV+ on August 6, 2021.