Take responsibility for your creativity
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a creativity master. Many of us know him as an actor and director, but Joseph also co-created the collaborative media platform HitRECord. Joseph shares the journey of developing HitRECord: how it evolved from a single page of HTML to a global community of creative collaborators. Joseph’s story reveals that you have to take responsibility for your own creativity. Don’t stand by until an opportunity finds you. It’s in your power to participate, find collaborators you love, and share your work with the world.
Table of Contents:
Take responsibility for your creativity
Chapter 1: Push the button
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: So, the very first spark that led to HitRECord was pain and self-doubt. When I was 19, I quit acting to go to college. After a little while, I wanted to get back into acting. I wanted to do the kind of movies that I loved watching, something to really challenge myself as an artist and challenge audiences as viewers, like a Sundance movie. I spent about a year going on lots of auditions, but failing, just getting rejection after rejection after rejection. No one would give me a job. When people know you for being on Third Rock from the Sun or 10 Things I Hate About You, they don’t want to cast you in their art film. It just hurt so much to not be able to get a job. I so badly wanted to express myself in this way and was just not being invited to do it. It felt awful.
I was basically an out-of-work actor living on savings from money I’d made working on television as a kid, had a lot of spare time, and spent a lot of time walking around New York talking to myself. These little turns of phrase became a mindset or a narrative, and this one I kept returning to. Hit Record. It was just this little self-motivating battle cry. This metaphor. I’m going to be the one to push the button, that round red Record button. To hit Record was the future of where art and media was going, that rather than an object to be consumed, this was a thing to do. This was an action. This was a proactive activity. I came around to the realization that I had to stop waiting for someone else to give me permission. I couldn’t rely on a casting director or a filmmaker to accept me. I had to take responsibility for my own creativity.
JUNE COHEN: That’s actor and director Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who you might know from movies like Inception or Dark Knight Rises. But he’s also a tech founder. And he’s about to tell us the story of creating the online community for artists called HitRECord.
This is Joseph’s personal story of finding his creative passion, and encouraging others to do the same. But there’s a takeaway for any creative: Take responsibility for your own creativity. Don’t just stand by until an opportunity finds you.
As Joseph takes us on the journey of developing HitRECord, you’ll hear how he summons the courage to make work of his own. He doesn’t need permission to create, he just ‘hits that big red button’ as he says. Along the way, you’ll hear him discover the surprising generosity of creative communities. You’ll also hear him say “yes” to wildly ambitious projects — and take responsibility for everything that happens next.
And here’s what else you need to know about Joseph Gordon-Levitt and HitRECord. Joseph started acting at age 6, and became a household name with the TV show Third Rock from the Sun. He went on to perform in numerous films and TV shows, including the AppleTV series Mr. Corman, which he wrote, directed, and starred in.
In 2005, Joseph and his brother Dan launched HitRECord as a simple website where Joseph shared his personal creative projects. But it soon evolved into a production company, allowing artists from all over the world to collaborate. In 2014, they debuted a TV show, called HitRECord on TV. In 2021, they launched a learning platform, called Class Projects, which joined forces with MasterClass in 2022.
I’m your host June Cohen, and on this episode, you’ll hear original music composed for prepared piano. For visuals while you’re listening, go to sparkandfire.com
Chapter 2: The website
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I started writing, I started making short films and videos, making songs.
I had made this video called Sugar Town Traders. It was like this horror, murder, drag video. I ended up dead in a dress on the streets of Lawrence, Kansas.
After a while of doing this, I wanted to start sharing. My brother, Dan, he was a software engineer, helped me set up a website. It was a single page of HTML. There were three files on it that you could download: two different videos that I had made and a piece of audio that I had recorded. It had a weird, kind of abstracted silhouette-y picture of me holding a camera. He built a little journal for me where I could make what looked like blog posts. And we called it hitrecord.org.
Chapter 3: Making stuff together
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Dan suggested, “Hey, why don’t we put up a message board? Then people could post messages and have conversations and stuff.” I said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. That sounds like a bad idea. People are so shitty to each other on the internet.” He was like, “Are you sure about that? Come on. Aren’t you an optimist? Don’t you talk a big game about the positive nature of people?” I was like, “Yeah, but no,” and he was like, “Okay, how about this? We’ll put it up and if people are mean and it sucks, we’ll take it down.” I was like, “Okay. It’s worth a try.”
What happened was, people weren’t shitty to each other. People were actually really cool and sweet. We noticed some people were joining this message board to talk about the little songs and stories and videos and stuff that I was making. Some people would even post their own videos and songs and stories. That was really interesting. But what was most interesting was that people started wanting to make things together. They wanted to make stuff together with me. I wanted to make stuff together with them. They wanted to make stuff together with each other. All of a sudden, there was this communal collaborative process happening. The notion that, whoa, someone from Nebraska is creatively collaborating with someone in the Philippines right now in real time and we’re making something together, oh, my God. That was the beginning of the HitRECord community.
Chapter 4: The production company
How do you accomplish your most ambitious ideas? Stop waiting for things to feel safe, and just dive in.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I was working on a play with a dear friend of mine, Jared Geller. One night we were sitting on the floor, listening to Deltron 3030. We were talking about what new sorts of theatrical productions there could be that were more interactive, where there was less of a barrier between the audience and the onstage performers. And that was a theme that ran through our conversations for a couple years.
I remember getting a phone call from him and him saying, “I had this idea about your HitRECord thing that you and Dan are doing. What if that were a production company? You could tackle pro-level projects with this open online collaborative community.” That could be an online platform.
I remember sitting at B&H Dairy. It’s like this delicious old New York, East Village diner where you can get borscht and challah and things like that. Jared and I sat across from each other and we made a list of things we would want to accomplish with this open collaborative production company.
One of the first things on the list was, okay, could we make a whole short film, a short film that could play at Sundance? That went on the list. Could we make music? We could press vinyl. Could we make a book, in this open, collaborative way, that was good enough to publish? At the bottom of the list was, maybe one day, if we got really good at this, could we make a TV show?
We had no idea what we were doing.
We used to always say, “Hey, we’re not a tech company. We’re not going to probably nail the tech. But it only needs to be good enough to let us do the art because the art’s what we’re good at.”
It’s just never going to happen if you’re waiting for it to be perfect and safe. It’s only ever going to happen if you just dive in.
We would just have to put ourselves on the hook to try to do this. Some people like to do things in a safer, more gradual manner, and I completely respect that, and you’re probably right in a lot of ways. But for me, the value of putting yourself on the hook and diving in is then you have to figure it out, knowing that you might not succeed.
Over the next few years, we just started crossing things off the list.
JUNE COHEN: Did you hear the smile in Joseph’s voice when he said “We had noooo idea what we were doing”? For him, taking responsibility for his own creativity doesn’t necessarily mean a pursuit of perfection. It means committing to start, to finish and most of all: to figure it out.
Chapter 5: Our debut at Sundance
What’s the magic trick for inspiring the best work from a collaborator? Be very, very specific.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I was able to convince the wonderful folks at the Sundance New Frontier section, where they do innovative technologically oriented art and cinema and stuff, to let us launch our production company at Sundance 2010, and it was a trial by fire. Our goal was to play a program of short films by the end of Sundance. Anybody at the festival could come in and participate. Also, anybody online could come and participate on our website.
And we only barely kind of knew how we were going to do it.
Late in the middle of the night, early on in our Sundance experience, we realized, “Oh, if we put out a call to action, that’s inspiring for people,” and we started making what we called request videos. It was just me talking to a camera saying, “Okay, here’s this project and here’s what we need and I’m looking for somebody, anybody out there to do this. If you do it, hopefully we can put it in a short film that plays at Sundance.”
We learned there’s an art and a craft to how you articulate that call to action. We were on the hook. We had a deadline. We’re going to have to be very specific. If you say something generic like, “Hey, draw a pretty picture,” no one’s going to be inspired by that. But if you say, “Here’s the story. You can read the story. There’s a cat character in the story and the cat wears a crown. Can you draw the crown?” That kind of specificity is something that, to this day, we always incorporate into our prompts and we just discovered it ad hoc at Sundance, and it’s the whole cliche of necessity being the mother of invention.
I remember editing the last short film that we were going to play on the big night for this music video called “Nebulullaby” that lots and lots of people were a part of. People were in line coming into the theater and I was sitting there on a Mac on Final Cut Pro doing the last bit of editing. It was down to the wire.
Chapter 6: My brother, Dan
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: So, we did not sleep very much at that Sundance 2010. I have a very vivid memory of sleeping on the floor in our art installation and saying, “Okay, okay. I’m just going to sleep for,” whatever it was, “an hour because I need to, because I’m just not productive anymore and just falling asleep.” I was using a sweatshirt for a pillow or something, and I have this very distinct memory of my brother waking me up. The last thing I wanted to do was wake up right then. I was so tired. Waking up and seeing his face there, and he was just so gentle about it.
So, Dan was there at Sundance and was there for most of 2010, when he died in the fall, in October of 2010. There’s no real words to describe how painful that was.
Dan was always sort of a shy dude, introverted, always a really good athlete, was always good at any kind of physical things, whether it was a yo-yo or a hula hoop or volleyball or whatever it was. But he would never have considered himself an artist and would say that. We were able to take this trip to Paris together and we saw these two buskers spinning fire on the streets of Paris and he thought, “Oh, I can never do that. I’m not a performer. I’m not going to put myself in a position where everyone’s looking at me like that. I’m not the kind of person that does that.” He made this very proactive decision to change this about himself. One of the first things he started doing was, he would wear weird loud socks that didn’t match, and that was his dipping his toe into becoming an extrovert, sort of a half-private way to do it safely. I still wear weird mismatched socks, and so do my kids.
He powered his way through the fears and inhibitions and his own identity that he thought he was and changed. He became this extremely extroverted, swashbuckling, fire-spinning artist. So, for him, for Dan, HitRECord was always about this: encouraging people to come out of their shells and be creative. On our early, early message board, his thread that he spent the most time on was called, “Let me make a record of your moment of courage.” His initial post was how he had managed to overcome his notion that he wasn’t a creative person and how he wanted other people who felt like that to contact him and say, “Okay, you think you can’t get on a stage and sing. You think you can’t write a story, but you can, and I’m going to hold your hand while you do it, and I’m going to record the process.
Chapter 7: The TV show
How do you arrive at a truly unique story? Set convention aside, and let unexpected voices in.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: People sometimes use the word crowdsourcing: “Oh, so you’re crowdsourcing creativity.” No. Crowdsourcing indicates some kind of greater cost-effective efficiency or something. The way we made this television show was completely inefficient.
Luckily, we were able to convince the kind executives at Pivot TV. And we were on the hook to deliver a TV show and do it in this way that we didn’t have a roadmap for. The theme of that first episode is the number 1, because it was the first episode. We made a short film called “First Stars I See Tonight.”
A writer named Roswell Gray, she wrote this story about her life. She has an eye condition where she couldn’t see the stars. Her dad had the idea to buy this pair of night-vision goggles that he got from a Russian military surplus catalog. She put them on and looked up at the sky and saw the stars for the first time. When I read this, I was like, “Never in a million years would a team of screenwriters come up with this idea. This is so brilliant.”
I took a pass at taking her story and reshaping the writing into more of a script. Then we got Elle Fanning to play her and shot her in front of a green screen. Then all these illustrators and animators came together to put all the visuals behind the actors and the green screen, and the score was composed collaboratively and then played collaboratively. So when you hear the violins, it’s not a keyboard imitating violins. It’s a whole bunch of different people all over the world playing the violin.
We ended up winning an Emmy Award for it, and so much of its texture and uniqueness and its unique story would never have been possible if you had done it in a conventional way. It would’ve been way cheaper for us to just have the people in the room there in LA making this variety show. Would’ve been so much easier. But when you open up the process, all these unexpected voices come in.
Inclusivity is good, not because it’s more efficient. It’s good because it makes things good when you have a wider variety of people lending their voice.
Chapter 8: Learn by doing
What do you do when you reach the end of your creative list? Help others get started on theirs.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: After we finished our two seasons, Pivot, the TV channel, wound down. We didn’t get to keep making the TV show. And Jared and I had gotten to the end of our list that we had made at B&H all those years ago. We had done all the things that we had wanted to do with this production company. But we had this lovely community full of people who wanted to keep going, and I certainly wasn’t ready to stop. “If we’re going to keep doing this, why? What are we trying to accomplish here?”
When HitRECord first started, when it was this tiny little informal community and a website that my brother helped me set up, my initial focus had to do with, oh, the art that I’m making. And okay, cool, maybe I can make art with other people. For Dan, my brother, his focus was always on helping other people come out of their creative shells. Okay, you’re interested in writing, but you’ve never actually put pen to paper. What will it take?
Sometimes it just takes someone saying, “Come on, do it.” But sometimes you need to go further than that. You need to actually teach them how. HitRECord would actually be really good at that. People already come to our community and participate in our collaborations for the sake of learning how to do different creative skills. You see people in the community all the time saying, “Well, I joined because I like to make music. But then I saw this project where they were asking for animation and I was like, huh, maybe I could learn how to animate. And I did and now I love to animate. Is there any way that we can help people learn?”
I learned acting by just doing it, by auditioning and then getting jobs and getting to work with people and doing it, doing it, doing it. That’s how you learn.
We landed on this phrase learning by doing, and we designed a whole learning service that we built on top of the HitRECord platform called Class Projects.
In my acting class project, I’m not just pontificating about a bunch of acting stuff. I’m like, “Here’s how I do it. This is how I would perform a monologue. I’ll take you through the steps. Here’s how I pick what material I want to do. I’m going to do it in front of you, and then you’re going to do it.”
I guess this gets back to kind of what HitRECord is about, taking responsibility for your own creativity. Ultimately, it’s your choice. You get to decide if you are the kind of person who would spin fire on the street or not. That’s up to you.
Chapter 9: Dan would love it
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I had been friends with a guy named David Rogier, who is the co-founder and CEO of MasterClass. He was sort of a mentor, as well as a friend. I remember the first time we showed him Class Projects. It was way before we launched: Here’s our idea, here’s our thesis, here’s a prototype, and he was like, “Oh, wow.” He said, “What you’re doing is different than what we’re doing, but there’s clear overlap and we’re interested in moving more in that direction and learning by doing. Maybe we could join forces.”
It took a while, as I’ve learned these things do in the business world. Earlier this year we made the move and now I and a bunch of my HitRECord teammates are continuing that mission of helping more and more people find their creativity and doing it under the banner of MasterClass. Any change comes with a certain thrill as well as a certain amount of uncertainty, which brings fear. I knew that it would be complicated for the people who were already part of the community and who cared so much about what HitRECord is.
HitRECord the website, it’s not a business anymore. It’s now gone back to sort of its earliest version of itself, this thing I was doing with my brother. I keep it going kind of just out of the love of it and because I enjoy it and it’s fun to have a place to put just the little things that I make or have a place where the community continued to do stuff together. And then we get to continue on this mission that I grew to really care about quite a lot and do it on a scale that’s way grander than anything we had ever done on HitRECord.
And I always think of Dan when I hear about somebody who’s found that for themselves, who’s decided to change their mind and be like, “You know what? I can be the kind of person who does my creative thing.”
It’s a part of why I’ve continued to do this all these years. I’m sure it’s some kind of coping mechanism for the grief of losing Dan, and I know that he would love it.
Chapter 10: The heart
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I remember a long time ago when I first found this little double entendre, HitRECord, I looked up the etymology of record and record. I’m an etymology geek. I learned that the etymology of record is, there’s two parts to it. There’s the re-, which means again or repetition, and -cord is apparently this proto-Indo-European word that goes back to the heart. This is why in Spanish the word for heart is corazon and why in French it’s le cœur, and why they talk about an apple’s core or the Marine Corps or all these words. It means the center, the heart. So, for me, hitting record or being creative, I think of my own heart. I think of it beating. I think about how if it ever stopped beating, I would die. I know how this might sound when I’m talking about something that these days is now a media tech startup, whatever. But for me, HitRECord has everything to do with how I think of my own self and my life and what it means to live and be a person and express myself and keep going.
JUNE COHEN: I want to thank Joseph Gordon-Levitt for sharing the story of this creative journey with us. I hope you found things in it you can bring into your own creative work.
Maybe, what resonated with you was how Joseph doesn’t wait for opportunities to come his way; he jumps into new creative projects with both feet… no matter how ambitious.
Or maybe it’s Dan’s moment of courage — how he starts with mismatched socks and fire-spinning and goes on to encourage others to become agents of their own creativity.
Or maybe, it’s the etymology of the word “record” itself. That for Joseph: being creative is as essential to life as a beating heart.