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Joseph Gordon-Levitt on his whimsical, like-nothing-else TV show

Joseph Gordon-Levitt recruits some of his famous friends (like Anne Hathaway) to help him out with episodes of HitRECord on TV.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt recruits some of his famous friends (like Anne Hathaway) to help him out with episodes of HitRECord on TV.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You're probably most familiar with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a movie actor (unless you're a die-hard 3rd Rock from the Sun fan). One of the most promising talents of his generation, he's starred in great movies both massive (Inception) and tiny (Mysterious Skin). He's putting together the kind of career that any actor would be hugely proud to call his own.

But these days Gordon-Levitt is also a TV host, of a program you may not have heard of but that is nonetheless one of the most unique and unusual shows out there. HitRECord on TV, which airs Friday nights at 10 on the little-known cable channel Pivot, is sourced entirely from footage that's been uploaded to the HitRECord website, which Gordon-Levitt and his brother launched in 2005. Individual clips are patched together into larger works of art, which are then organized by theme and aired as episodes of TV. And Gordon-Levitt often recruits his famous friends (including Mindy Kaling and Anne Hathaway) to bring his collaborators' ideas to life.

For example, in HitRECord's season two premiere, focused on darkness, a song submitted by a young woman in Mission, South Dakota, was performed by several different musicians, who collaborated online to transform a simple tune into something with an epic sweep; they were then joined by even more singers, who gathered in the dark of night (and in the woods, no less) to offer even more aural grandeur.

You can watch the season premiere below. Further episodes are available on Pivot's streaming video site.

Even when it doesn't entirely work (which isn't often), HitRECord boasts an agreeably egalitarian spirit that carries it past any pitfalls. I talked to Gordon-Levitt about the process of creating the show, why he's drawn to artistic collaboration, and more.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff: Who in TV history do you draw your hosting persona from?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I don't know! I'm maybe somewhere between Mister Rogers and Orson Welles.

TV: So much of this show is stitched together through collage and getting people to collaborate. You've enjoyed returning to the idea of building something together throughout your career. What is it about that setup that appeals to you?

JGL: To me, making things, whether it's telling stories or singing songs or putting on a show, so much of it is about connecting with other people. In our culture, it's largely become so much about, "Hey, look at me! Look what I'm doing!" But I think that's not necessarily the only way to do it. It can also be, "Hey, what can we do together?" It feels good to me to connect with someone, to make something together, and open it up and see who wants to add to it, who wants to put their own spin on it.

I think it's actually probably more natural, as far as the way human beings are social creatures and tell stories together. In the old days, people would gather round the fire and tell stories, and it was more collaborative. Lots of people would chime in, and the next week, when you gathered around the fire, someone else would tell the story but put their own spin on it. It wasn't just about everyone sitting silently while one performer who's the professional tells the story, and everyone just shuts up and listens.

TV: When you first started this project, did you encounter any resistance to the idea?

JGL: It's grown so slowly. The first version of HitRECord, my brother helped me make that website in 2005. The resistance would only come if we got a bunch of funding and exploded it really huge before it really got there on its own. Because we never did that, it's all grown gradually, step by step, and so the people that come and become a part of it are the people who are naturally drawn to it. We never had any marketing campaigns or any blitzes like that.

TV: What's the legal process of getting all of these clips cleared for use in the show?

JGL: When you join our site, we've crafted unique terms of service that allows for this. What it says is you're giving us the right, but the non-exclusive right, to use your contribution in one of our productions, and if that production makes money, we pay you. And that's an important detail. In the last five years since we started HitRECord, we've paid more than a million dollars to different contributing artists.

We like to really be up front with what our terms of service mean. When you come to join our site, there's a video that plays right away of me explaining them in summary terms. That's important, too, because I think most internet companies, they ask you to just check the box. You can go and read it, theoretically, but unless you're a lawyer and very educated about that kind of legal language, there's no way you could ever understand it. A lot of these companies are making money off of people in hidden, secret ways that are not clear. We really try to make a point to not do that, to be very up front: "This is how we are allowed to use your contribution. This is how we are not allowed to use your contribution. This is what happens if money gets made. This is how we will pay you."

TV: What's the process of putting together an episode out of all those pieces when you're editing it? You have so many interchangeable parts at your disposal. How do you curate them?

JGL: It's a big puzzle. It takes a lot of work. The bulk of that work gets done by the community, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. But I also have really, really talented editors and producers that are working with me on this show.

For season one, I didn't do an acting job, because we were figuring out how to make a TV show like this. Season two, because we had already answered a lot of those questions and because the community was more productive than it was in season one, I was able to go off and do acting jobs while the show was being produced. To me, that's a real tribute to the community growing and evolving and getting better at what we do, and also the people I work with.

TV: Pivot is a cable channel that a lot of people have never heard of. What's been your experience out in the hinterlands of the television universe?

JGL: The important thing to me is that we got to make the show. The truth is, I don't think that would have happened without Pivot's unique courage and modus operandi. Just the legal department of probably any other television network wouldn't let us do what we're doing. But Pivot is run by Jeff Skoll, who's not only in it to try to make money. He made lots of money already. He's in it to try to make a difference. He's in it to try to tell stories that matter and have a positive impact on people. They've been so supportive in letting us make our show.

You can't really greenlight a show in the normal television industry that doesn't follow a formula, where there isn't a precedent. You can't say, "We're going to do it like this other show." We're making a show where there is not a formula. There is no production methodology. There's no template or call sheets. There's nothing like that. The fact that Pivot allowed us to do that is crucial. We wouldn't have been able to do it anywhere else.

Part of that is the fact that they're a new network, and they're young. All networks, when they're young, take some time to build an audience. I don't mind that. I'm perfectly fine, because I'm so proud of what the show is. If it takes more time for people to find it and see it, that's fine with me. I'm not in a hurry.

HitRECord on TV airs Friday nights on Pivot at 10 pm Eastern. You can catch up on Pivot's streaming site or watch clips on YouTube.