Joseph Gordon-Levitt screened the first three episodes of his new Pivot television series, HitRECord on TV, at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night. Gordon-Levitt has become a Sundance fixture, ever since he starred in Manic in 2001. His Internet production company, HitRECord—founded in 2005 to showcase videos Gordon-Levitt made in his free time—made its festival debut in 2009. “When we launched the third version of the site that my brother and I made together,” said Gordon-Levitt, whose older brother and creative partner, Dan, passed away in 2010, “we pushed the button here in the snow at Sundance 2009 on Jan. 20.”
Dan, better known as Burning Dan for his many appearances at the Burning Man arts festival in Nevada, was clearly on Gordon-Levitt’s mind as the little website grew into a formidable enterprise with a new TV show. On Friday night in Park City, when an audience member at the post-screening Q+A asked Gordon-Levitt about Dan’s impact and legacy at HitRECord, the 32-year-old choked back tears and gave a stirring tribute:
“So my brother is named Burning Dan and he helped me set up this first website, and he and I ran HitRECord together for the first several years before it became a professional anything. What Dan was all about was getting people to try something that they didn’t think they could do. His favorite book was Green Eggs and Ham. … HitRECord to him — and to me too, but really even more to him — was about somebody who was like, ‘I want to be a writer and I sometimes write but I don’t show it anybody.’ Or, ‘I want to be a singer but I’m too afraid to sing in front of anybody.’ And when he could get people … to do that, that was his… I’m sorry… that was his favorite. And it didn’t matter to him so much how it turned out. It didn’t matter to him so much how it turned out or what the finished product was. He just wanted people to do it and what you’ll find when you come to our site is, even though there’s all this professional production going on and we’re making a tevleision show, there’s a lot of stuff going on besides that. Stuff that won’t make it onto the show — because I’m too brutal a director — but nonetheless, is received with such warmth and encouragement, and that always makes me think of him because that’s what he did, more than I did. … He would be so f–king happy to see all of you guys here, so thanks so much.”
HitRECord on TV, which premieres tomorrow night on Pivot, a new cable venture launched in August by Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, is the latest and most ambitious venture from Gordon-Levitt’s collaborative production company, in which member contributors share, adapt, and enhance each others’ artistic work into eclectic and unusual finished products. Pivot will air eight episodes and recently ordered a second season.
With the website now poised to reach a wider audience than ever, Gordon-Levitt acknowledged how getting bigger also brings new challenges. “It used to be a few hundred people and then it started getting bigger,” said the filmmaker. “And there were some people that were like, ‘It’s changing. I hate it. It used to be so much better when it was just us.’ Then it grew and we started it as a production company, we put forth a terms of service and sort of a way to make money and share the profits with contributing artists, and there were some people that said, ‘This is going to ruin it. As soon as you bring money into it. Root of all evil.’ You’re 100 percent right that there is a reason to wonder whether this new television show is going to somehow have a negative impact on our process and community. I guess I would say so far with that kind of progress, the good has outweighed the bad.”
The first three episodes — the premiere can be streamed below — feature celebrity friends like Elle Fanning, Tony Danza, and Carla Gugino in variety-show sketches, song-and-dance numbers, and short films that, together, share a Jim Henson-like pacing and sensibility. In some cases, more than 930 hitRECord members contributed to any one project, which is a unique and experimental artistic enterprise that challenges the romanticist’s notion that Art must reflect the imagination of a single Artist. If a person in Canada wrote the lyrics, and a person in California composed the tune, and another person in Scotland sings the words, and another 12 people across the U.S. draw the animation for the video, and it was all based on a thoughtful email … then whose imagination is being reflected? It’s an interesting philosophical dilemma — one that that doesn’t necessarily concern Gordon-Levitt. “If you’ve got your masterpiece and you don’t want anybody to touch it, don’t put it here,” Gordon-Levitt warned, pointing out that his site clearly explains its collaborative nature. “In my opinion, the notion of one individual author is a little bit delusional because any author is drawing from all sorts of influences. They grew up listening to this music or watching these movies or hearing those stories. Romeo and Juliet was not written by William Shakespeare and Cinderella was not written by Walt Disney, et cetera, et cetera. So I think that it’s perfectly valid and great for an artist to want to do something they own and finish it and put it out there with what they think is total authority. But it also might be worth it to be like, ‘You know, nothing comes from total scratch.’”