The first portion of this is about hitRECord and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The second is about my experience with hitRECord.
"I'm not playing around here," Joseph Gordon-Levitt laughs. "I'm for real with this shit." He might be laughing, but Gordon-Levitt is perfectly serious.
During an hour-long interview posted to the website of Gordon-Levitt's collaborative production company, hitRECord, Joel Stein of TIME magazine asks about Gordon-Levitt's acting career and also pokes gentle fun at his Francophilia and alleged hipsterism. An acting professional since childhood, the 30-year-old Los Angeles native deals cannily with questions lobbed his way, always approachable, but firm in never revealing more than he intends.
Barefoot in black jeans, wearing a hitRECord t-shirt and drinking Boddingtons, Gordon-Levitt turns the interview back on Stein for a moment, reminding him of his role in this collaboration project, in which users of the site ("hitRECorders" numbering above 50,000) are asked to listen to the interview and then write from it. Stein will then craft two TIME articles from the results. Although the major magazine factor is new, the collaboration principle isn't, at least not for hitRECorders.
As Gordon-Levitt states on the site, answering the question “What is hitRECord?”: “We create and develop art and media collaboratively here on our site. …[R]ather than just exhibiting and admiring each other's work as isolated individuals, we gather here to collectively work on projects together. Videos, writing, photography, music, anything -- we call them all RECords. Now and then, when I think something we've made has come out especially well, I approach the traditional entertainment industry to turn our work into money-making productions; and then we share any profits with the contributing artists.”
Even in an interview that's in part about his celebrity, Gordon-Levitt shuns celebrity culture in favor of talking about his serious desire for the general population to become more directly involved in the creation of art for mass consumption, in a sense returning to age-old methods of story-sharing, before the age of intellectual property rights (that said, hitRECord as a company obeys the laws when it comes to copyright). Given modern technology, and the fact that cameras, gadgets, and editing software are widely available, "we don't need these enormous conglomerates" or exclusive industry connections, he claims.
Gordon-Levitt advocates for Levi's 501s over expensive designer jeans. He comes across as genuine and frank; while he's savvy when it comes to marketing his image, one gets the sense he doesn't have the inclination or, really, the time to bother being untrue to himself.
But how does someone who's been acting since he was six, in well-known TV shows and a blockbuster or two as well as indie films, successfully portray himself as a man of the people true to his hitRECord username of "RegularJOE"? The impersonal machinations of celebrity culture, as much as he eschews them, aren’t really in his control.
Gordon-Levitt can only do his level best to funnel the attention he receives into publicity for hitRECord, and he does his damnedest, tying hitRECord-related events to movie releases (he's already formulating plans for hitRECord PR to coincide with the release of The Dark Knight Rises in summer of 2012, and is calling the hitRECord event following this month's premiere of 50/50 at the Toronto International Film Festival a "release party" for hitRECord’s first anthology). It's as though Gordon-Levitt feels that if he's got to be famous, he's going to use his powers for good.
(Speaking of powers, praise for his acting chops is very much deserved. In the interview, Gordon-Levitt describes being dropped into 50/50 with a few days' notice after the original lead, James McAvoy, was forced to drop out due to a family emergency. Gordon-Levitt's performance, note-perfect and compelling, is all the more impressive given this information on its last-minute recasting.) [Yes, I have seen the movie.]
In many ways, hitRECord represents a revolutionary vision. "Part of what's appealing about hitRECord to me is that more instantaneous thing," Gordon-Levitt says, contrasting the closed process of moviemaking with the collaborative works on hitRECord: people can watch the product being made and influence its evolution by providing instant feedback, enriching and developing the works as they go. Anything posted to the site can be used to create other works; those other works can be "REmixed" in turn. Should something catch Gordon-Levitt's eye, it becomes a featured item he'll encourage others to use. Gordon-Levitt also posts some of his own work, then observes what comes of it. "Having someone take creative liberty with what I've done -- it's fascinating, it's just endlessly fascinating."
For a time, there was not much in the way of tangible final products available for mass consumption from the work on the site; this month, however, brings the arrival of an anthology, RECollection Vol. 1, a hardbound 64-page book packaged with a DVD and CD, including songs, short films, animations, and music videos. The RECollection brings together the text, art, music, and film aspects of the site. Gordon-Levitt explains that hitRECord's live shows (which he encourages everyone attending to document via film, so that clips and photographs can be used in later work on the site) are like finished projects, but are limited in that relatively few people are able to attend. RECollection and a prior, smaller book, The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, take the work beyond both the computer and the live shows.
Gordon-Levitt himself invested capital into the printing of RECollection, wanting a tangible artifact, a physical product to exist. The first 3,000 orders include a free vinyl record; 3,000 also happens to be the number of sales after which the RECollection will turn a profit, and checks can start going out to the 471 contributors.
As a company, hitRECord has a handful of employees, with Gordon-Levitt's father serving as CFO and primary accountant, outside of his own small business. "We don't have offices. We avoid a lot of the traditional expenses of some production companies,” Gordon-Levitt explains.
Possibly playing devil's advocate, Stein expresses some skepticism about how viable hitRECord is as a moneymaker for Gordon-Levitt. He replies, "In 2010 we were playing places that [had] 100 people. In 2011 we're gonna do the Fall Formal [on October 10 in Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theatre] for 1800 people. So what're we gonna do in 2012, and what are we gonna do in 2013?" This is just the beginning, Gordon-Levitt wants you to know; but he also wants it known that this is about more than making money. It’s about creation and collaboration.
In an example of the instantaneous feedback Gordon-Levitt espouses, not long after the interview was posted, hitRECord user “Ozie” posted his musings on it in an audio file. Ozie was skeptical of Stein's tone in the interview, and of the choice of Stein as an interviewer. Ozie went so far as to characterize it as the Sheriff of Nottingham's nephew interviewing Robin Hood, although he acknowledged the TIME piece's necessity as an opportunity for Gordon-Levitt: "I know the rules of the game."
I spent some time the other night over at my parents' place, explaining hitRECord to my mother -- it was only fair, considering that I'd used a story from her childhood memories for a text submission.
I'd drawn something inspired by the Fall Formal event, which will take place in October and is intended to be the biggest hitRECord event to date. I happen to be attending, flying in from the South. For my mother, the standout here was that I'd started drawing again.
In school, especially high school, I displayed a certain amount of talent. I loved creating art. My best friends were in my high school art classes. My favorite high school memories are from our time there.
But when it came time to make a decision about college, I decided I didn't want to depend on the mercurial nature of my creative impulse in order to earn a living. And frankly, I didn't want to be subject to the criticism of others, especially where my livelihood would be concerned; fearful of not being able to withstand it, I didn't want my spirit crushed or my enthusiasm snuffed out. And then there were the private school fees.
Instead, with an eye toward something more practical and money-making, I chose to major in print journalism and minor in film (stop laughing). I initially wanted to be a film critic or an entertainment writer. That fell through, too, although I definitely loved my film studies classes. But again, my enjoyment wasn't something I wanted to base my livelihood on.
On the plus side, after college I had no student debt, as I might have had at an art school; and, I thought, not much emotional baggage from art. On the negative side, in focusing on the written word and a dry career in the non-emotionally-risky field of technical writing, I was blatantly wasting and ignoring my talent in art, with no real excuse. I had art supplies that sat idle for roughly ten years. I had an art desk I hardly ever used. It just became another unit of furniture.
I felt a lot of guilt about not getting back into art, but for me, it's not as easy as just sitting down and drawing something. It is possible to feel self-conscious about something only you will see. And if my drawing wasn't perfect right off the bat, part of me didn't -- and doesn’t -- want to do it at all.
But, of course, like any skill, if you don't practice, your skill atrophies. The longer I went without drawing, the less pleased I was with the results when I did. It fed on itself. But I still wanted to draw, as signified by the longing and frustration I felt in addition to admiration when looking at the work of others.
As with most weird and wonderful developments in my life, I sort of fell into hitRECord. The "how" isn't really important. The important thing, for me, is that it led me to creating again. Even if I'm inconsistent. Even if the terrifying, heady, exhilarating action of posting to hitRECord puts me through an emotional wringer almost every time (I haven‘t posted that much, but still, it’s strangely exhausting). I felt such gratitude for having gotten back in touch with that part of myself. I still had it. I'd actually bitten the bullet and done it, could still do it. I felt good about it all again.
So I showed my mother the work I'd done as I explained how the site worked. "Oh, look, someone's used it in something already," I exclaimed in surprise. And someone had created a collage using my work as well as that of others -- an excellent example of how hitRECord is meant to work. It's not just about drawing something -- the method of the site hinges on collaboration, remixing, and adding to what others have done. When you add something to the site, you're stating that if someone takes the notion to do so, they can remix your work, be it literally remixing an audio track, adding it to a collage, narrating your story, and so on. And the resulting remix can be remixed in turn. The sky's the limit.
I saw that someone else had recommended my work in a video. My mother, being my mother, applauded for me after we watched it.
Then she started demanding that I remix a work she liked by “wirrow,” one of the more well-known users on the site. She was full of ideas. Add stars. Add color.
"I'm not letting this go," she said.