Joseph Gordon-Levitt shares the key to getting creative during COVID-19
The actor and director launched an online creative community — and a new show features the things they've made
When the COVID-19 lockdown hit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was having the time of his life.
Best known for his roles in The Dark Knight Rises, 500 Days of Summer and Inception, the actor, writer and director was three weeks into three months of shooting for Mr. Corman — a new Apple show about a public schoolteacher that Levitt had been working on for years.
Unfortunately the coronavirus had other plans, and like billions of people around the globe, Levitt soon found himself cooped up at home.
To stay happy, he was determined to do something creative every day. Problem was, he's not the kind of creator who can lock himself away and emerge with a masterpiece.
"I feed off the energy of people. I always I have," says Levitt in an interview with q host Tom Power. "I grew up on movie sets."
Years earlier, Levitt and his brother had started HitRecord, a creative community where people post things they've made — and even more importantly, find collaborators for projects.
So a filmmaker can connect with a composer who can create a soundtrack, or a writer can connect with an animation artist to animate a story.
Then in April, Levitt launched a HitRecord project specifically about how COVID-19 is impacting people, and put a call out on Instagram.
"We want to gather a wide variety of experiences and perspectives. Are you staying home? Or are you leaving the house to work, or for other reasons?" he asked.
"Talk on camera about it, shoot some video or photos, write about it, draw about it."
'This should be a show'
The result became Create Together #WithMe, a new YouTube Original series that features collaborative creations from poetry performances to documentary shorts to animation and music.
"During this pandemic, with so many people feeling isolated, seeing how people are overcoming that isolation through making things together, that just felt really uplifting," says Levitt in the CBC interview.
The interactions people get when they're collaborating on a project are very different than when they're just chatting online, he says, because they have a common goal and they're working toward an accomplishment.
"And it's vulnerable and nuanced and it's a creative process. You're collaborators."
Especially during COVID-19, people are going online because they're craving human connection, he adds, but they want something more substantial than the disposable chatter that happens on social media.
"A lot of people were finding that by making things together — making short films or songs or short documentaries or animations or stories," he says.
"I just saw what was happening and said, 'This should be a show. We should be documenting this process of what's going on in our community right now,'" says Levitt. Soon after, he pitched the YouTube series and immediately got the green light.
"TV shows usually take forever to get all together. This one happened real quick."
One of Levitt's favourite pieces is a short doc about how not everyone gets to stay home during the pandemic. It started with a piece of writing by a mom in Oklahoma who is an essential worker, and had to continue going to work to support her kids.
"There were confirmed cases of COVID-19 in her workplace, and so she wrote just this very unfiltered, raw piece of writing, expressing her anxiety and fear and frustration about having to go to work and feeling unsafe," says Levitt.
"And in particular, feeling like, 'There's so much advice coming my way from people who are saying, 'Hey, you have to stay at home.' But people don't always realize what a luxury it is to stay at home.'"
The work evolved to include music, acting, drawing, video and other creative contributions.
"You get this variety of some people who are having to leave the house, some people who feel cooped up in their house," says Levitt.
"And it's just nice to get people with such different experiences collaborating and all working towards a common goal."
'It never gets old for me'
Levitt says these days, our culture is obsessed with the finished project, and we have become accustomed to professionally manufactured pop culture. While he appreciates artistic excellence, he also believes there's great value in what popular culture used to be.
"Popular culture meant music and stories and things like that — of the people, by the people. When your uncle would bring out a guitar and play music, or when you'd sit around a campfire and tell stories," he says.
There's something so valuable about not worrying about the final results and just focusing on how good it feels to do it.- Joseph Gordon-Levitt
"I think there's room for both. I love high-level artistry that pushes itself to the very limits of skills and excellence. But I also think there's something about the process itself of doing it, that it doesn't matter as much if a global audience will like it or you'll get a lot of views or followers or whatever," says Levitt.
"There's something so valuable about not worrying about the final results and just focusing on how good it feels to do it."
He says people shouldn't worry about whether or not something is perfect; instead they should just enjoy the human connection that comes out of collaboration.
"We do have platforms like YouTube, which is a wonderful platform where anybody who's made something can post and hopefully find an audience. But you still have to make the thing on your own," says Levitt.
"And I think that's actually a barrier that's really hard for a lot of people to overcome."
But when there's a community of people willing to help each other out, he says, it's a completely different experience — and people can achieve things they never could have done by themselves.
"It never gets old for me. I still just love it," he says, then offers a piece of advice to those looking for a creative outlet.
"If you're feeling creative and you don't know what to do, collaborate with some other people."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Vanessa Nigro.
Miss an episode of CBC q? Download our podcast.