For Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2013 directorial debut Don Jon, he challenged himself to write and play a character far removed from himself. He certainly achieved that with the titular porn-addicted playboy with anger management issues.
But for his second major directorial project, the Apple TV Plus series Mr. Corman, Gordon-Levitt wanted to mine closer to personal truths and revelations.
“I looked back at some of the earliest notes [for Mr. Corman], the first time I ever wrote down the idea, it was from 2015, which is the year I first became a dad,” says Gordon-Levitt in the latest episode of Fast Company’s podcast Creative Conversation. “Until that I was like, ‘am I an adult? When do you really cross that threshold?’ But once I became a dad, there’s just no question. So that made me reflect a lot on: What is my life? Where have I arrived at?”
In a way, Mr. Corman is the version of himself that very easily could have been.
After breaking up with his fiancée who was also his bandmate, Josh Corman (Gordon-Levitt) fell back on teaching fifth grade and put any aspirations of being a musician on the shelf. However, once severe anxiety starts bubbling up, Josh beings to question who he is as a person while facing all the what-ifs in his life.
“I did get lucky to some degree,” Gordon-Levitt says of his marriage, family, and career. “And so starting to think about what would my life be if there were a few of these differences—that’s where this character came about. His name is Josh Corman instead of Joseph Gordon. He walks and talks like me. He’s from where I’m from. He went to high school where I went to high school. I always thought that if I didn’t get to do what I’m doing in show business, that teaching is something I would really love doing.”
What could have been another show about 30-something malaise is accentuated by surreal visual touches that contrast all the more sharply against Josh’s rather ho-hum existence. From vibrant musical numbers and comic book-style brawls to collage-like dream sequences, Gordon-Levitt takes bold creative swings in Mr. Corman—and he has his friend and fellow director Rian Johnson (Knives Out, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) to thank.
Gordon-Levitt, who starred in Johnson’s films Brick and Looper, gave him one of the earliest drafts of Mr. Corman to read.
“His biggest piece of feedback was, ‘this all feels really great and really grounded, but you and I know you have this playful streak,'” Gordon-Levitt recalls. “‘If this is a show you’re going to do, are you going to love doing it over and over and over again? What’s going to really turn you on? What are you going to have a lot of fun doing? Because I want to see that.'”
Johnson’s note immediately clicked with Gordon-Levitt.
“I started peppering in weirder things because that’s my taste,” he says. “If I’m making the show, then this could happen and that could happen. We could do this, we could do that. And once those flood gates opened, the possibilities just felt endless.”
“What I always try to focus on with Mr. Corman is making it feel real,” Gordon-Levitt continues. “Sometimes old-fashioned song and dance or a bizarro fight sequence are the only ways to really capture how life can really feel, because sometimes [it] does feel larger-than-life.”
In Gordon-Levitt’s full episode of Creative Conversation, he explains more about his collaborative process, how he wrestles with feeling guilty for his “luck,” and how he gets past the blank page. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.