Summer 2009 is packed with plenty of action-fueled blockbusters that are certain to grace theaters everywhere with their high-intensity fight scenes and super special effects (hello, Transformers 2). But while the adrenaline rush rocks, sometimes it’s nice to expose yourself something that stimulates your heart and mind rather than just your eyeballs.
Enter Fox’s newest “romantic comedy” (500) Days of Summer, a story about love — but not a love story, the trailer differentiates. North by Northwestern sat in on a web conference with the stars of the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Dechanel. Both actors further separate (500) Days of Summer from the predictability of its default genre by explaining the unique way it shows the audience how love feels rather than what it looks like. The duo answered questions selected by a moderator and shared a few laughs throughout the interview.
Now, this film is being released against summer blockbusters, what do you think sets this movie apart from the rest to lure in audience?
JGL: It’s awesome.
ZD: Because it’s awesome. Yeah, I mean, summer blockbusters … it’s hard to connect the two. I mean, I know it’s a movie and those are movies, but you’d be looking for a very different type of entertainment. And if you’re looking for something a little bit more light-hearted.
JGL: Yeah. Maybe a few less like timpani drums and blood and more like Joy Division and kissing…
ZD: Yeah, if you like Joy Division and kissing, this is the movie.
JGL: What summer blockbuster has Joy Division and kissing?
ZD: Wolverine? No.
JGL: No. No. Transformers 2?
ZD: No way. No. No.
Zooey, music has surrounded you for a good part of your adolescent/adult life. Summer is a very musically-inclined character in (500) Days. Is that something that attracted you in this picture, or is that something you brought to the picture?
ZD: All the music references were there in the film and they were all — it was like both Tom and Summer have what I considered to be very good taste in music. But I think one of the things about the film more than anything that it’s saying is that like these are sort of how we present ourselves to the outside world. Music isn’t just something to be inspired by and moved by, but also it’s a way that we express ourselves — our taste in music is a way that we express ourselves. [...] The way we communicate with others is partially like our taste. So I really like that aspect of it, for sure. And it was nice to work on a set where music was a really big part of it. And everyday Marc [Webb, the director] would play music and we’d bring in music and we’d dance.
JGL: Uh-huh. Dance party.
ZD: Everyday, in the hair and makeup trailer, we’d have a dance party…
JGL: I think it’s a sign of the times a bit because now more than ever, we, and any music-lover, has this super abundance to choose from. It’s not just what’s on the radio and it’s not just what’s at the record store, you can get anything. And so, what you choose is kind of an art and a craft in itself. It’s like the art of the DJ or the curator. And I love that about now, about the 21st century. I’m glad that it’s sort of evident in (500) Days of Summer.
Joseph, what made you decide to do more independent work after 10 Things I Hate About You?
JGL: Well, I actually don’t really make such a distinction between independent work and studio work or whatever. You can put things in a lot of different categories, but what’s important to me is there a good script? Is there a cool filmmaker that I connect with? Who else am I gonna be working with? That’s what matters to me. That’s what matters to me, and (500) Days is a perfect example. I mean, it’s kind of an indie movie, but it was actually produced by Fox Searchlight, who’s owned by Fox. I think the point is it doesn’t really matter necessarily who’s paying the bills. What matters is who are the people that are making the movie.
Now, this is Marc Webb’s first feature-length film. He uses some interesting techniques, from incorporating graphics, animation and even to dancing as you guys just discussed, all done in a nonlinear time frame. Before filming, did you have a sense of what he would use stylistically for both of you?
ZD: I knew his aesthetic in terms of making music videos, which, I mean, it definitely spans the gamut. He’s versatile, but he has his own style. But I knew that he was going to do an amazing job visually, but like I kind of forgot about that part because he was so great at working with actors and just such a lovely genuine person that he just seemed like an actors’ director. As soon as I was on set, I forgot about everything else, and then seeing the film, I was reminded that his background is in music videos, which is mainly a visual medium, so I was reminded by being completely blown away.
JGL: Well, he was also really good at describing what it was gonna be, and that’s always a sign of a good director. I mean , the movie turned out very similarly to what I had envisioned based on what he told me, and that’s not always the case at all.
What would you two say your personal favorite romantic comedies?
ZD: Oh, wow. I mean, it’s hard because the genre of romantic comedy seems to, at this point, refer to a very, very narrow set of films that seem to have the same plot. So I’m gonna go back a little bit in the past and say that, like Broadcast News is kind of like a romantic-comedy but that was a kind of… it had drama and I love that film, and I love Annie Hall. And that’s also kind of like a romantic-comedy but also has dramatic elements.
JGL: Yeah, Manhattan.
ZD: Manhattan. I love Manhattan. And I love all the screwball comedies from the 30s that are basically, I guess, what we’d call, if they came out today, we’d probably call them romantic-comedies, but they’re the Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and like Bringing Up Baby and 20th Century with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore.
JGL: I’ll be a little more, I don’t know, not so cool. But I’ll admit it. I love Swingers. I really like it. It’s kind of a cliché thing for a guy my age to say, but I really like that movie, a lot. It meant a lot to me when I was 16, and it still means a lot to me.
What clichés do you think (500) Days of Summer avoids?
JGL: (500) Days of Summer doesn’t so much avoid clichés as it kind of walks right up to them and has a conversation with them, and sort of follows some of them and deviates from other ones, and that’s what I like about it because avoiding clichés, I think, then you just start becoming obscure.
You know the exaggerated realm of this movie. How do you keep your characters grounded, keeping them from being too naive and love-drunk or too much of a cold witch?
ZD: I think we’re both just trying to be as sincere as we could in the moment. I mean, Summer is pretty straightforward about her wants and needs and where she is; and then Tom has his own thing, so your feeling with it is sort of more of just an unfortunate event than anything, I think.
JGL: And I think all of the sort of larger-than-life elements of the movie, they don’t come, well, because we just wanted to do this larger-than-life thing. It all comes from a sincere point of view, even the most surreal parts like the dance number because I know how it feels when you finally got to be with the girl that you’ve had a crush on for so long and it feels like that. And so it doesn’t come from like, “Well, it’ll be great if we throw in a dance number.” It comes from like, “How does it feel? How can we describe how it feels?” It just looks like someone may be smiling to themselves, walking down the street, but what feels like is a dance number. There you have kind of the summary of what (500) Days of Summer is.
Last question is what would you both like, “I insist to take away from this film”?
ZD: I don’t really like to tell people what they should take away because I like to go see a movie and be allowed to feel. I don’t want to feel that somebody is trying to teach me a lesson about something, and I think it is like a very, just sort of sacred relationship you have with your audience as an artist. I think it is best to do my part and then hand it over to those who are going to experience it because it’s a very personal thing watching a film.
JGL: I think it’s a more 20th century attitude that watching a movie is sort of, well, I’m an audience member and it’s a passive thing and I sit here and watch, but I think that watching a movie can be and ought to be a creative act… you come up with what it means. And what I would hate is if I told you what I wanted you to take and then you were having a conversation with someone later about the movie and they were like, “You know, it meant XYZ to me,” and then you said, “Well, that’s not what it means because I heard this interview with the actor and he said it means this, so you’re wrong.” And that would kill the whole purpose of art. So, I hope you won’t mind if we just sort of humbly decline to tell you what we want you to think it means.