How to Be More Creative, According to Joseph Gordon-Levitt
We may be physically apart, but the actor and entrepreneur says we can (and should!) still find ways to creatively collaborate.
In these socially distant times, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a message for entrepreneurs and artists alike: You can still come together to collaborate! He’s best known for collaborations on film and TV, where he’s starred in projects like Inception and (500) Days of Summer — but with production schedules halted, he’s been spending even more time with the company he founded in 2010, HitRecord, which has seen a surge of interest. HitRecord began as a production company, but it has evolved into a platform that enables people to launch and join artistic projects. (In August, it won an Emmy and launched a partnership with the ACLU.) “People don’t just post things they’ve made on their own and say, ‘Look what I made,’ ” he says. “People contribute to each other’s projects. It’s a beautiful thing.” Even from afar, he says, there are many ways we can all create together.
I imagine you haven’t been on set for a while. What’s it been like?
I’ve found that during this strange time of quarantine and isolation, it’s been really helpful for me to stay creative — to do something creative every day. But for me, it can be hard to do that alone. Just, you know, staring at a blank page and being like, Now I will write! Right now, I’m going to make a song! That can be tough. I grew up in more collaborative environments, on movie sets or doing shows, et cetera. I really feed off the creative energy of other people.
A lot of people feel the same way, which I’m guessing is why your platform, HitRecord, has seen so much growth.
It’s been a bittersweet silver lining to see people rise to the occasion and cope with everything by being creative together. A lot of art and creativity that happens online nowadays is about Hey, world, look what I made, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of great art gets showcased that way, and people find audiences, and that’s wonderful. But I love the idea that the internet can be something more than just a way to find an audience; it can be a way to find collaborators. When you do that, you find a really profound human connection with other people.
In the best of times, we might put something online that we think is great, get no feedback, and get depressed. But you’re not just asking people to like something; you’re asking them to build off of that connection.
That’s just the thing. You know, I’m in the privileged position to have lots and lots of followers, so when I post something, there’s always hearts and likes. But it still doesn’t feel good to me, because I’m always like, That’s all? I should have more than that guy over there! It’s a recipe for anxiety. I find social media to be sort of angst-ridden. The creative spirit is a fragile one. And when your own creative process always goes through the lens of How many likes am I going to get?, that’s a poisonous way to think about art.
That’s an unavoidable part of your career, isn’t it? You work hard on a film or TV show, and then the critics take over.
I mean, look, I wouldn’t complain, because I love getting to make movies. But what I love so much about making a movie is the making part. It’s being on a set and collaborating with other people, figuring something out, having a challenge. It’s those moments of the process itself that I feel so lucky to be a part of. When the movie comes out, to be honest, that’s never been my favorite part. That can be a little anxiety-inducing.
I often ask entrepreneurs, “If you weren’t doing this, what else would you be doing?” And they say, “Nothing. This is the only thing I know how to do or want to do.” Do you feel that same way about creativity?
I’m actually getting a really big kick out of building this company, HitRecord. There’s overlap with being an artist and running a company, but it’s also very different. A movie or a show — you put it out and then you never change it again. It’s out there, people like it or they don’t like it, and that’s it. But building a company is an ongoing thing. It’s never perfect. It’s never done. And you’re just trying to make it better, make it better, make it better. It’s a really different creative process that I’m quite excited about.
That’s an interesting distinction. Have you found that the two also require different leadership styles?
When I direct a movie, I like to attend to every detail. I’m completely nitpicky. Whereas running a company day to day, you can’t do that. There’s so much more going on. There’s so many more elements in play.
I discovered this the hard way. For years, we operated HitRecord more as a production company: We made some beautiful art, won an Emmy, all with me approaching it as I’m the director. Lots of people would contribute to, say, a TV show we were making, but we could only include so many of those contributions in the final episodes. That meant a number of contributors felt like Oh, I didn’t make it. And that was never what we wanted.
We started thinking, how could we solve this riddle where not everybody gets to be included? How could we genuinely say, “Hey, everybody’s welcome to be a part of collaborative creativity”? And we realized, well, it can’t always be us. What if we take what we’ve learned doing these collaborative projects and we build tools and empower anybody to start their own projects and find collaborators?
We’d been approaching it like artists, but that left people out. We realized we needed much better technology. We needed a proper product and tech team. And we raised money from Silicon Valley investors. It would have been easier to raise money in Hollywood, but we didn’t need Hollywood investors’ guidance. We needed the connections and guidance from proper tech investors.
So in short: You had a vision, you realized that you hadn’t lived up to your vision, and then you went back to the drawing board. That’s the entrepreneurial process! Do you think it’s also the creative process?
If you approach art and creativity in a results-oriented way — like, I hope I make it big! — it’s always going to be disappointing. And I say that as someone who’s been lucky enough to enjoy some amount of that success. But I can also say from experience that that’s never what’s really satisfying. I’ve never gotten to a point where I felt, Oh, OK, I made it. It never feels the same as the satisfaction I get when I take my focus off external results and focus on the inherent rewards of the creative process itself.