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Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Life-Changing Sundance Saga Started With a T-Shirt

This film about a Jersey guy brimming with toxic masculinity was Gordon-Levitt’s feature writing and directing debut. He starred as the title character, with Scarlett Johansson as the woman of his dreams, who still can’t match his distorted, X-rated expectations.

“That’s what I always wanted,” he says. “Direct a movie that plays Sundance. It was a life goal. Funny enough, I remember loving the experience of watching the movie, but one of the things I remember most afterwards is talking to my mom about the movie. Don Jon deals heavily with the objectification of women—and men as well—but this is something that my mom always raised my brother and me to be quite focused on. And I made a movie about that, but in a roundabout way. It satirizes it and brings that objectification right into your face.”

“The movie is playing at Sundance, where I wanted it to play, and it played well in front of a big audience, and all that external validation was there. But actually, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of that night is a conversation I had just with my own mom,” he says.

Years would pass before his next big Sundance experience, but that one would involve the story of a mother too.

2023 — Flora and Son

Eve Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Flora and Son.

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Gordon-Levitt’s latest film, Flora and Son, is set to debut on opening weekend of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Eve Hewson stars as a single mom in Dublin whose struggle to earn a living while raising a troubled boy has withered most of her other hopes and dreams. She still clings to music as a passion, and Gordon-Levitt plays her online guitar teacher.

The musical is directed by John Carney, the filmmaker behind the 2007 Sundance musical hit Once. “He strikes a balance between bringing that kind of magic that only a musical can bring, but on the other hand, grounding it in real, human, heartfelt life in a way that I think is pretty unique,” Gordon-Levitt says. “Getting to finally do some music in a movie is momentous for me in a new and different way. Even though it’s kind of a humble musical—that’s more my style.”

Despite his long history at Sundance, Gordon-Levitt says the annual gathering means more to him than just a platform to show off work. He thinks of it as an inspiration, and quotes something he once heard from that guy who gave him his first Sundance T-shirt. 

“I would just echo Mr. Redford in trying to direct our focus back to the creative process itself,” Gordon-Levitt says. “Ultimately that’s what the spirit of Sundance is, in my opinion. And the creative process itself is something that people can have—you can have, I can have, anybody can have—whether you get into Sundance or you don’t get into Sundance. It doesn’t have to all be this elite clique of the industry. It can be anybody, everybody.”

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