‘HitRECord on TV’ maestro Joseph Gordon-Levitt on blending community and Anne Hathaway

It was with genuine trepidation that I approached Joseph Gordon-Levitt to tell him that Season 2 of Pivot's “HitRECord on TV” is a much more polished entity than the first.

With its anything-goes crowd-sourced ethos, “HitRECord on TV” has always seemed to thrive on its rough-around-the-edges and lunatics-running-the-asylum aesthetic, so there was at least a chance that Gordon-Levitt might recoil from the notion.

“Oh as such a compliment, man!” Gordon-Levitt laughed.

Naturally, the “Brick” and “The Walk” star credits the improvement of polish to “more community involvement” and getting better at “the process of mass and open collaboration.” 

Indeed, the second season, which premieres on Friday (June 12) night on Pivot finds the show selecting from as many as 18,000 community submissions on topics ranging from The No.2 to Darkness. 

It also helps when you have Gordon-Levitt playing MC, lead storyteller and repertory player and bring in celebrity buddies including Anne Hathaway and Mindy Kaling to star in themed sketches and also to flex their writing and directing muscles.

Gordon-Levitt has a busy autumn ahead of him, with the release of the ensemble holiday “X-Mas,” as well as potential Oscar contenders “The Walk” and “Snowden,” but I sat down with him last week to discuss his Pivot project, which has been a long-term passion for him, dating back to its online and live show days, particularly its roots with his late brother Dan. We talked about evolving the community process and how HitRECord is still fueled by Dan's inspiration.

Click through for the full Q&A…

HitFix: So if I tell you that the first few episodes that I”ve seen this season are a little bit less rough-around-the-edges do you take that as a compliment or an insult?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Oh as such a compliment, man! You know Season 1 was the first time we, or really anybody, had ever tried something like this and I think we learned a lot. I think Season 2 is – I completely agree with you — I think it's way better than Season 1. I still love Season 1. I”m really proud of it but Season 2 is, you know, “less rough-around-the-edges” is one way to describe it. There”s also a lot more community involvement because we got better at sort of the process of mass and open collaboration. 

HitFix: But I was wondering how much the DIY aesthetic was necessary and if there”s a point at which things become too not-rough-around-the-edges and too polished and if that then becomes a problem.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Right, yeah. That”s interesting. I”m not worried about it becoming too polished. [He laughs.] It takes so much work to put the polish on it to the degree that it”s there. And certainly with Season 1, our goal was to try to make something that didn”t look like anything on TV and that felt homemade and communicated that. And with Season 2, we were like, “Okay, let”s do that but also just make it a little more like a normal TV show and so that it”s easier for someone who doesn”t know what hitRECord is to just sit down and watch it and understand it.”

HitFix: Take for example the animation sequences. I thought a lot of them seemed more polished. How much do you think of that is sort of bringing in more and more talented community people? How much is the technology becoming more accessible, really, to everyone. What are the factors?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Oh that”s interesting. I mean certainly the animation technology is growing like crazy. All media technology is. I don”t know if the difference between this year and last year is a big enough difference so where the tech made the difference? I think it was that we had more contributors and we”re just better at it. Anything you do, as you repeat it, you”ll get better at it and I think we just kind of honed our process.

HitFix: What are you learning about the community and what they respond to? Because I know that one of these had 18,000 submissions, one had 8,000, one had 5,000. What causes something to get to 18,000 and what causes something to be at 5,000?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, that”s a really good question. Well the one with the most contributions is the first episode and that was The Dark, which I wouldn”t have necessarily expected to be the most contributed to but it was. And I don”t know. I guess The Dark – it”s just instantly evocative. I think a lot of those contributions were just people drawing really cool dark images, writing down perhaps dark stories. Darkness is, I think, a lot of what art is and certainly in our community a lot of it is people sort of wrestling with their demons. For me when I sit down and write a little story or something, outside of the day job of working on a Hollywood movie, oftentimes it”s because there”s something troubling me and I want to kind of work through it. And so maybe that”s why The Dark was the most popular theme this year. But it”s a great question and I don”t necessarily have the answer. I think that sort of inquisitive curiosity is part of what makes it interesting to see each episode. Because you really don”t know what”s going to come up. We don”t know. We start by asking for suggestions of themes. We didn”t know what the eight themes were going to be until all these suggestions came in and we kind of narrowed it down. And then once we had those themes we didn”t know what the different segments were going to be from those themes. And I think that kind of unexpected quality is what makes the show unique. When you”re dealing with a room full of Hollywood screenwriters, they can be a bit more predictable than a community of hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world.

HitFix: Now when you know, though, that something is capable of getting the 18,000 number and that other things are only getting 5,000, do you start thinking, “Okay, what can we do to tap into what we think is the thing that”s generating this big stream versus the slightly smaller stream”?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Not necessarily. Like we don”t just do it as a popularity contest. And what necessarily gets the most like hearts isn”t always what we use. And that”s important too I think. That it”s not just the purely kind of automated democracy because I think you wouldn”t end up with something that had a unique feel to it. Like, for example, I think the episode that got the fewest contributions this season which was I think what you said 5,000 was the theme of Guns. And but that”s actually one of my favorite episodes this season. It”s kind of the most controversial episode and I think some people shy from that controversy. But the people who don”t mind plunging in have really strong thoughts and feelings and those make for great art. So just because it”s less popular doesn”t mean that it”s less good.

HitFix: I know that this is often very confessional and personal for you and I”m wondering how much you feel like it”s incumbent on you to let those emotions come out kind of as a quid pro quo with the audience, you know, “I”m laying myself bare here. I hope you will do the same.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah that”s always been the case from the beginning of hitRECord. The more that I participate, the more the community is inspired to participate. And I think that”s part of the difference between what we do versus other “crowdsourced” art on the Internet, like Mountain Dew will say like, “Hey crowd, design our new Mountain Dew can” or whatever. I mean people will do it because they want to win the contest or whatever, but you”re not going to get great art out of that because the foundation of it isn”t from a sincere person wanting to express themselves. Whereas what we”re doing, it didn”t start as a TV show. It didn”t start as a production company. It started just as me and my brother doing a thing because we wanted to, because we had fun doing it.

HitFix: And it's OK if you don't want to talk about it, but the part where you talked about your brother in the Number 2 episode was very powerful.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Thank you.

HitFix: Did you know when you saw the theme, “Okay this is something I”m going to have to talk about now”? Or was it something that came out as you were progressing through it, you”re like, “Okay, this is organic.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: There”s usually a documentary in each episode and the doc for the Number 2 theme was “Being a second child.” And I didn”t think of that. That wasn”t my idea. Someone had the idea and contributed it to the site saying like, “Oh there”s the Second Child Syndrome.” And I was like, “Oh, that”s me. Well obviously I”m going to contribute to this then.” And that”s where that came from. 

Yeah, I don”t mind talking about my brother. I love talking about him in terms of hitRECord because what he was all about is very much embodied in hitRECord and he was so positive. He was so encouraging. He always wanted to try to get people to express themselves. He was a teacher of fire-spinning and his whole thing was that when he was younger he didn”t always spin fire. He had a whole career before that in tech, in computers. He was a good coder. And he coded the earliest versions of the website of hitRECord. But at a certain point in his life he decided – he actually saw some fire-spinners. I was with him. We were in Paris and there were these fire-spinners in the street. And he tells this story about how he thought to himself, “That looks like fun but I”m not the kind of person that does that.” And that was this catalyst for him saying, “Well why not? Why couldn”t I be?” And he really changed over the next 10 years or so. He really changed and he decided to be a fire-spinner. And he got really good at it to the point where in the last few years of his life he had a school and he was teaching classes. And so that kind of positive encouragement – he was always trying to teach his students like he would always try to sort of bring in people, not just people who wanted to fire-spin but people who didn”t think they could.

HitFix: It”s all a metaphor.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: That”s exactly it. He would talk to anybody – anybody on the street. If he were spinning fire in Venice Beach or whatever people would talk to him and say like, “Hey, that”s cool.” He would be like, “Do you want to try it?” And generally people were like, “Oh no. I don”t know if I can.” He”d be like, “Sure you can. Yes you can.” And that”s really kind of what hitRECord is about, too. In our culture we are taught, “Leave the entertainment to the professional entertainers. You just sit on your couch and watch our shows. You”re not supposed to be the one telling stories. You”re not supposed to be the one singing songs. If you were to sing a song the 'American Idol' judge would ridicule you.” That”s our culture, but I don”t think that”s actually how it ought to work. I think everyone has a unique perspective and that”s valid. Everyone”s perspective is valid. That doesn”t mean that everyone has the same degree of skill level as an entertainer, but skill isn”t the only important thing. It”s also what kind of perspective and feelings you”re bringing to it. And so Dan would always encourage people. On hitRECord people would be like, “I kind of want to write but I don”t know. I”m scared to do it.” He would be, and I”m talking about early versions of the site in 2006 and 2007, he would be on the site saying like, “You can do it, come on. Just go ahead. Let”s see what you write. It doesn”t matter. Just do it.” And that continues even though Dan”s dead now. People on the site all the time are providing that same encouragement to each other. If someone comes on the site and they”re like, “I don”t know, I like the idea of writing but I”ve never shown anyone my writing before.” I guarantee you people on the site will come and say like, “Let”s hear it, let”s hear it, do it, you can do it.” And I love that and I love that that”s really the foundational level of what ends up being our TV show.

HitFix: With the “stars” — you have Mindy. You have Anne, et cetera — Has the process of who goes to who and who approaches who and who says “I want to do this much but no further,” has that changed in Season 2 versus Season 1? Are people coming to you more frequently maybe?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: No it was pretty much the same Season 1 and Season 2 is friends of mine who heard about this cool thing that I do or whatever and said like, “Hey, what is that? I”m curious. I heard that you do this thing” or “I saw in your Twitter that you do this thing. What is it?” And I say like, “Oh, let me show you.” And the people who express further interest, maybe get seduced into doing our show. And like Annie Hathaway has been contributing to hitRECord for years actually, well before the TV show she did stuff with us. It was just super cool. She”s always been really supportive because she likes stuff like that. She really likes just kind of creative things besides Hollywood, and encouraging people to be creative. She”s very much that way and so she”s always been a supporter of hitRECord. Seth [Rogen] too. Seth and Evan [Goldberg] – we did a collaboration with them years ago and so this is like the second one that they”ve done. Mindy, it was her first time because she and I just met. She”s in “X-mas” and we met over the summer shooting “X-mas” in New York and she asked me about it and I said oh, it would be cool if you wanted to do something. So she wrote this script and we ended up shooting it together. It”s a really great, weird, funny short film.

HitFix: Is it becoming harder to carve out the time in your schedule necessary for this or do you set this as a priority that you need X amount of time?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Well what”s cool is Season 1, you know, last year, or 2013 I should say, I didn”t do any acting jobs other than “Sin City,” which was like four days of work because I was just doing the show because we were figuring it out. Season 2 we already had a bunch figured out and the community was way more productive. So I was able to do other acting jobs this year and do the show. That”s a real tribute to the people who work in the hitRECord office but also and mostly the community of hundreds of thousands of people.

HitFix: This year I have to assume that you”re going to be pretty much locked down from like September through March between promoting things and the awards gauntlet and all of that stuff. Like do you look at that potential sort of stretch of “occupation,” I guess, as something terrifying and hard to get away from or not?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: [He laughs.] There”s always down-time, you know, and that”s actually where hitRECord started was down-time, was when I wasn”t or couldn”t get a job actually is when it started. I don”t feel good unless I”m like making something, doing something. And certainly when I”m working, shooting as an actor, I get the chance to do it all day and it feels great. But when I”m not, if I”m going to be doing, like you say, doing promotion and things like that, stuff that”s less cathartic, less creative, getting the chance to go on hitRECord, seeing what creative challenges are going on that day, participating in something, contributing to something always makes me feel good. 

“HitRECord on TV” premieres on Friday, June 12 on Pivot.