Covid-19 Shut Down His New Series, So Joseph Gordon-Levitt Created a YouTube Show Instead

Developed just weeks ago, the unscripted Create Together #WithMe debuts this month

joseph gordon levitt
"We’re telling a story about what’s happening right now,” said Joseph Gordon-Levitt. YouTube Originals

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The Covid-19 crisis has brought most of Hollywood to a halt, leaving actors unsure of what their next job will be or when production will even resume.

For Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was in the midst of writing, directing, executive producing and acting in the upcoming Apple TV+ drama Mr. Corman when production came to a standstill, the answer was clear: use his unexpected hiatus from one series to make yet another show.

“As I was here at home, I knew that if I wanted to stay positive and stay productive and stay sane, I’d have to stay creative, because that’s what makes me happy,” the actor—best known for films like Inception and (500) Days of Summer, and the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun—told Adweek.

That effort to stay creative became the genesis of Create Together #WithMe, his six-part miniseries that will premiere this month on YouTube as part of its new originals lineup. The series, which Gordon-Levitt is producing and hosting, will feature artists and collaborators from around the world participating in various documentaries, music and other projects through Gordon-Levitt’s collaborative creative platform HitRecord.

It will be filmed remotely, with participants submitting their own footage along with their contributions to various collaborations, some of which will be spotlighted through the course of the show.

The miniseries is part of a broader slate of YouTube Originals that are being filmed remotely and reflect the new reality as people around the country and in other parts of the world face extended isolation due to Covid-19 lockdowns. The new lineup has meant development, production and post-production at YouTube have been happening at breakneck speed, with some projects being turned around in about a month.

“I’ve been in development since I was 22 years old, and I’ve never turned content around this quickly,” YouTube head of original content Susanne Daniels said in a recent interview with Adweek. “It’s really been an exciting and interesting experience all at the same time—and nerve-wracking.”

Create Together #WithMe is being turned around “orders of magnitude more quickly than normal,” Gordon-Levitt said.

“We thought, ‘We should be telling this story of what’s happening with this community right now,’” Gordon-Levitt said. “And we quickly put together a pitch, and we pitched it to YouTube Originals, and they bought it. We quickly greenlit it and we’re making it now, and we’re delivering the first rough cuts at the end of this week.”

There’s a sense of urgency around getting the miniseries out into the world while remaining at home is still a reality for many Americans, he said.

“Everyone feels motivated to do it, because we’re telling a story about what’s happening right now,” Gordon-Levitt said. “If we lay out a whole bunch of ambitious creative concepts, but we can’t get them done in time for this to come out while our reality is what it is today during this pandemic, then I think it’ll kind of miss the point.”

Create Together #WithMe isn’t Gordon-Levitt and the HitRecord team’s first foray into serialized programming. In 2014, the variety show HitRecord on TV ran for two seasons on the now-defunct cable network Pivot. While that show and Create Together #WithMe will share some DNA as collaborative creative endeavors, there will be some major differences: While HitRecord on TV was a high production value show centered on the projects themselves, Create Together #WithMe will center more on the process and on the individuals participating.

“We’re going to focus a lot more than we did before on the people and their lives and their stories,” Gordon-Levitt said. “Ultimately, the stories we’re the most interested in is when different people are forming those connections and being creative together.”

It also scratches a different itch for the actor and writer.

“The show I was shooting when everything got shut down, I was writing and directing and acting. It was very much my thing. I was putting myself out there, like, ‘OK, this is the show that I want to make,'” Gordon-Levitt said. “With this, don’t feel the same way about it. It’s not really about me and you. It’s about everyone. And I find with that a real kind of relief.”

Gordon-Levitt’s show joins a growing collection of series and specials across the industry that reflect the reality of widespread lockdowns. Late-night television and some daytime talk shows have figured out their own remotely filmed formats, as have many news productions and several shows on Discovery’s Food Network, HGTV and TLC networks.

There’s an effort, too, to figure out how to make scripted work in a remote setting. YouTube is working on a scripted mystery series that will be filmed from webcams and smartphones; Netflix this week greenlit a scripted anthology series, Social Distance, that will be filmed by actors in their own homes.

Part of working fast to put out a show means its final form won’t take shape until the last minute. There’s no final decision on how many projects will be highlighted in the series or which ones will show up, Gordon-Levitt said, and he likely won’t know until a few weeks before they air.

But some projects are already coming together. One short film, titled Yes Your Plans Have Gone To Shit, began with a piece of writing a collaborator uploaded to the site; Gordon-Levitt iterated on the writing before pulling out a call for voice actors and cinematography. The final short film is being edited by the person who wrote the original piece that began it all.

There’s no guarantee that the people who participate in collaborative projects on HitRecord will actually appear in the miniseries. For Gordon-Levitt, that’s not the point.

“We’re not competing for attention,” he said. “We all have a common goal, which is: We’re making things together. If you’re the type of person who has that creative impulse, this might be a nice kind of refuge where you can contribute to something that’s not just all about you, where you can contribute to something larger than just yourself.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.