- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
On Apple TV+’s dark comedy Mr. Corman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Josh Corman, a fifth grade teacher living in the San Fernando Valley. Facing loneliness in his late 30s after a breakup and struggling to connect with others (including his kindhearted roommate as well as his tough mother, who is played by Debra Winger), Josh muddles through his days, creating music in his bedroom and hoping for an end to his neurotic, anxious view of the world. Gordon-Levitt, who also created the series and directed eight of its 10 episodes, reveals to THR a collection of inspirations for the look and feel of the show that range from his own experimental work in film and music as well as the movie that showed him how to find “cinematic beauty in a place that might seem mundane.”
Photo Taken at Van Nuys High School
Gordon-Levitt grew up in the San Fernando Valley as he began his career as a child actor. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Corman takes place in the Valley, with the title character teaching at an elementary school in Van Nuys. “I went to Van Nuys High, and the look and feel of that place is a big part of the show,” Gordon-Levitt says. This photograph of the actor (left) — alongside friends John, Mike and Ian — was taken by another friend, Josh, in their first year of high school. “He was, at the time, that kind of artsy kid who experimented with photography,” Gordon-Levitt says. “Photography meant something a little different back then before everybody had digital cameras on their phones.” Because the black-and-white snap of the four friends resembled a band photo, its photographer asked the youngsters to autograph the image.
First Stars I See Tonight
Josh Corman is a man in search of connection in an overconnected world, and much of his melancholic mood stems from the lonely nature of creating art on his own. It’s a fitting theme for Gordon-Levitt to explore, as he co-founded the online collaborative platform HitRecord in 2005 with his brother, Dan Gordon-Levitt. With hundreds of creative contributors, HitRecord has produced short films, music and prose, plus an Emmy-winning show that ran for two seasons.
It was through the collaborative process on HitRecord that Gordon-Levitt began experimenting with animation and greenscreens (both appear in Mr. Corman). “There’s a series of greenscreen sequences where Josh is daydreaming, and you get to see writ large in grand, cinematic fashion his feelings that are too strong or powerful to really capture with realism,” Gordon-Levitt explains. “The way we would do it on HitRecord is a bit different than what we did on Mr. Corman. We would put the [footage of actors shot in front of a greenscreen] online for anybody to see, even though it wasn’t finished, and then people would add [their own] visuals.” Gordon-Levitt notes that the photo-collage sequences in Mr. Corman were done in “a more orderly fashion,” but he points to one of HitRecord’s short films, First Stars I See Tonight (which features actress Elle Fanning), as an example of the multimedia process.
“Take Time” by The Books
Although his days are spent teaching fifth graders, much of Josh’s free time is spent working on his music. “Nathan Johnson — who composed the music — and I are great friends,” Gordon-Levitt says. “One of the things we talked about was [that] Josh’s music should be stuff that he could make in his bedroom.”
Gordon-Levitt points to the experimental duo The Books as an influence on Josh’s music. The New York City-based band — comprising guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong — released four albums between the band’s founding in 2000 and breakup in 2012. Their songs are a mixture of folk melodies and samples sourced from cassettes purchased from thrift stores; eschewing traditional percussion instruments, the band favored using everyday objects in lieu of drums. Gordon-Levitt calls out the song “Take Time,” from the band’s sophomore album, The Lemon of Pink, as the way into Josh’s musical sound. “The Books is music that someone could make in a bedroom,” he says, “but it’s incredibly expensive and creative and beautiful.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature was his third (following Boogie Nights and Magnolia) set in the San Fernando Valley, where he was raised. For Gordon-Levitt, the idiosyncratic romantic comedy — which starred Adam Sandler in his first dramatic role as an awkward man riddled with anxiety alongside Emily Watson — changed his perspective about how he saw the area of Los Angeles in which he grew up. “It finds cinematic beauty in a place that might seem mundane,” notes Gordon-Levitt. “If you were standing in the alley where Adam Sandler’s character works, you probably wouldn’t think to yourself, ‘Wow, this would be a gorgeous location for a movie.’ “
Gordon-Levitt credits Anderson’s particular vision of the Valley as inspiring the way Josh views the world. “Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t decorate the place — it’s just a question of how you frame it,” he says. “I love the idea that, depending on your perspective, a place that seems ordinary or not particularly special can take on so much beauty.” Gordon-Levitt adds that it’s the “life lesson” of his series: “Mr. Corman is about having a negative perspective versus a positive outlook. It’s about taking the mundane and making it beautiful.”
Fostex Four-Track Recorder
Gordon-Levitt says he’s been making music since he was a teenager. “When I was 15, I got a four-track — which is what we would call them back then,” he recalls of when he began recording his own songs, a time long before digital recording devices were commonplace. “You would record onto a cassette — just a normal, blank cassette — but this machine [would allow you to] record four different tracks on one [tape].”
Josh composes new music throughout Mr. Corman in an effort to work through his anxious mind. Gordon-Levitt admits it was his own passion for music-making that influenced that element of Josh’s character. “I recorded lots of little songs starting from age 15. I always loved doing it — I still love doing it,” he says. “That hobby of mine became an important part of Mr. Corman and Josh’s character. If you took that 15-year-old and fast-forwarded to his adult life, it would be Josh in a lot of ways.”
As Josh composes his music (each episode begins with Josh tinkering in his bedroom, albeit on a computer rather than an analog four-track), we slowly hear what he’s been working on with the show’s finale. “All these parts,” he says, “are actually part of one song.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day