Joker – An original vision of the infamous DC villain

Directed, co-written and produced by Todd Phillips, Joker is the filmmaker’s original vision of the infamous DC villain, an origin story infused with, but distinctly outside, the character’s more traditional mythologies. 

Phillips directed Joker from a screenplay he co-wrote with Oscar-nominated writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), based on characters from DC. 

Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillip’s during the filming of Joker

Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society.  Longing for any light to shine on him, he tries his hand as a stand-up comic, but finds the joke always seems to be on him.  Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty and, ultimately, betrayal, Arthur makes one bad decision after another that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty, allegorical character study.

It’s the early 1980s, and Gotham City is in turmoil.  But there is no criminal underbelly at work, nor a mob overlord putting all at risk to serve his own interests.  It’s a much more palpable concern for anyone living within the dystopian borders of this divided community of haves and havenots growing ever further apart, the tensions only exacerbated by a weeks-long garbage strike.  Gotham is teetering on the edge of a fall; there is only the city and those who oversee it, and as in any municipality short of funding for the fundless, services designed to alleviate the difficulties of the disenfranchised are being cut.

No, this is not the Gotham, nor the Joker, one would recognize from 80 years of established storytelling depicted on the page or screen.  Rather, this is an original, standalone origin of this infamous character, the tale of an atmosphere of unrest fostering a man on the brink who, like his city—and likely, because of it—grows closer to the precipice: Arthur Fleck.

Filmmaker Todd Phillips (Borat, The Hangover” trilogy) allows, “I love the complexity of Joker and felt his origin would be worth exploring on film, since nobody’s done that and even in the canon he has no formalized beginning. So, Scott Silver and I wrote a version of a complex and complicated character, and how he might evolve…and then devolve. That is what interested me—not a Joker story, but the story of becoming Joker.”

The film features just enough Gotham landmarks, deftly woven into its grimy landscape, to situate the audience and allow star Joaquin Phoenix’s hypnotically raw performance to evoke the requisite emotions to take this journey with Arthur through the city’s—and eventually his own—darker side.  “One of the themes we wanted to explore with the movie is empathy and, more importantly, the lack of empathy that is present in so much of Arthur’s world,” Phillips states.

“For example,” he continues, “in the movie you see the difference in the way little kids and adults react to Arthur, because kids see the world through no lens; they don’t see rich versus poor or understand a marginalized individual the way adults do.  They just see Arthur as a guy who’s trying to make them smile.  It’s not inherent, we have to learn how to be unaccepting of others and, unfortunately, we usually do.”

“He starts out just wanting to make people laugh, trying to put a smile on their faces.  That’s why he’s a clown, why he dreams of becoming a stand-up comic.  He just wants to bring some joy into the world.  But then the toxic environment of Gotham breaks him down—the lack of compassion and empathy, the loss of civility… That’s what creates our Joker,” says
Oscar-nominated writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), who co-wrote the screenplay with Phillips, based on characters from DC. 

The Arthur that Phillips and Silver created is caught in a cyclical existence of misread cues.  Even Arthur’s uncontrollable, inappropriate laughter, which gains momentum as he attempts to contain it, garners no sympathy from those he encounters in his daily life, exposing him to further ridicule and alienation from Gotham society.  “Nowadays, what he has is a recognized syndrome, but in the time our story is set, it was not really diagnosed, though it was a real condition,” the filmmaker explains.

Phoenix concedes that, even during filming, “There were times when I found myself feeling for him, even feeling like I understood his motivation, and in the next moment I would be repulsed by the decisions he made.  Playing this character was challenging for me as an actor, and I knew he would also challenge the audience and their preconceived ideas about the Joker, because in his fictional world, like in our real world, there are no easy answers.”

“We often talk about the tip of the iceberg, but we rarely speak about what’s underneath—about what gets you there,” Phillips asserts.  “Arthur is the guy you see on the street who you walk right past…or over.  With this movie we’re hoping to get a peek at what’s below the surface.”

It was those subjects, along with the filmmaker’s passion for his medium, that evoked the notion of not just any Joker movie, but this Joker movie.  “I was inspired by the character studies that I watched when I was younger.  The look, the vibe, the tone of those films made sense for this story.”

To Phillips, that meant the 1970s and `80s, the era of such great films as “Serpico,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network.”  He says, “We included a few elements from the canon and set it in a broken-down Gotham City around 1981, because that harkens back to that era and would remove it from the comic book world we’re so familiar with in film today.

Phillips not only cast Phoenix but wrote the part with him in mind.  “Joaquin’s previous work always stuck with me, but what I really like about him is his style and his unpredictability, which we felt would very much fit into this character,” Phillips offers.  “While other people are doing math, Joaquin is playing jazz.  He’s just one of the greatest, he’s fearless; his work is brave and vulnerable, and I thought if we could get him, we could really do something special.”

Though he’d resisted any sort of genre-inspired projects in the past, the actor was intrigued when he read the script.  “I thought it was bold and complex and like nothing I’d ever read before.  Todd has a unique way of looking at things that is really perfect, I think, for this movie,” Phoenix observes.  “When I work with a director, I want somebody who has a singular take on the material, and nobody could have made this movie but Todd.”

Arthur’s tale is at once rich and spare in details, alternately focused and skewed.  Crafted with Silver over the course of, as Phillips recalls, “a year in a little office in New York,” they began by determining a path to which such an ordinary man could become such an evil and notorious character.  “In the version of the story we were telling, having a guy fall into a vat of acid didn’t work, while I think it’s interesting, so we tried running everything through a ‘real world’ lens,” he says.  “To make sense in the world of our movie, we thought, ‘Well, why would he put this make-up on when he eventually becomes Joker?  Where did he get this make-up and why does he have it?  What if he’s a clown?’

“Then, of course, we had to ask ourselves why he’d work as a clown,” he continues, “which we determined was because his mother always told him he had to bring laughter and joy to the world.  It all came together from there.”

In addition to the visual expectations that come with the character, there’s a distinct personality trait common across nearly 80 years of the comics and in every moving picture iteration, one which Phillips and Silver wanted to utilize in their storytelling: the classic unreliable narrator who can never fully be believed.  “You have an intense amount of freedom with an unreliable narrator, and even more so when he’s Joker,” the director says of the famously deceptive reprobate, whose penchant for blending fact and fiction informs every frame of the film.  “He even says in the comic book Batman: The Killing Joke, ‘If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.’  So, what really happened, and what you think he is by the end, just depends on the lens through which you watch the movie.  You won’t walk away having all the answers and that’s what I think is intriguing about a character like this.”

To accomplish all that he intended with “Joker,” Phillips and producing partner Bradley Cooper opted to conduct principal photography primarily in practical locations in and around the city that inspired Gotham itself: Phillips’ native New York City as well as neighboring New Jersey.  To that end, they enlisted producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, an expert on filming in the region with connections to the city’s strongest below-the-line talent.  “Emma is one of the great New York producers and we were lucky to get her,” Phillips states.

In addition to handily pulling together and managing all aspects of the physical production, Tillinger Koskoff says, “Todd had a unique and inspired vision of how he wanted the film to look and feel.  My role was to help facilitate that vision and create a supportive atmosphere for him, so that he could focus on the actors and concentrate on what was happening in any given scene. Todd and I were fortunate to work with a fantastic crew—New York’s very best.  There was a level of trust and respect on our set that allowed him to work quickly and creatively.  It was a privilege to watch Todd and Joaquin collaborate on this breathtaking film.”

Phillips’ creative team also included director of photography Lawrence Sher, this being their sixth film together; veteran production designer Mark Friedberg; costume designer Mark Bridges, who has worked several times with Phoenix; editor Jeff Groth, a regular collaborator; and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who began sending pieces of score to Phillips based on script pages alone, before a frame of the film was even shot.

“It’s always incredible to be making a movie when you have such brilliant creative partners,” Phillips says, “and we really had the best there is on this film.”

Those words could easily be used to describe his onscreen talent as well, beginning with what might literally qualify as dream casting for any filmmaker: Robert De Niro.  The legendary actor appears as late-night TV host Murray Franklin, the closest thing Arthur has to a hero and, though a stranger, someone he views as a kindred spirit in comedy.  As many aspiring comics would know, being called over to the couch after your set on a show like Murray’s is more than a game changer, it’s life-altering, and Arthur’s greatest wish…

Why he is the way he is will not always remain a mystery to Arthur, Phillips allows, but when we first meet him, says Phoenix , “Arthur is this guy who’s very much like, ‘I’m going to be the person you want me to be.  I’m going to be proper, I’m going to take the bus and sit here quietly and not interact,’ and so forth.”  But, like a dog that’s been kicked repeatedly by its owner, sooner or later “this time” will be the last time.  “There’s always an inner part of him that has to try to be true to himself, to who he is becoming, and over the course of the story we see it coming out, little by little.”

The truth of Arthur is complex.  He attempts to do stand-up, his dream vocation and one for which he prepares by watching other comics, hoping to catch their tone and timing and adopt it for his own.  Hoping that he, like they, will captivate an audience with witty observations and find an even larger form of acceptance in their applause.  “Unfortunately, how he sees the world and, frankly, what he thinks is funny don’t really work,” Phoenix describes.  “He doesn’t understand their kind of humor and he isn’t able to mimic it, either.” 

Servicing the self-fulfilling prophecy of his mother’s “Happy” appellation for him and long before Arthur musters the courage to try his hand on the comedy club stage, we find him at his day job as a clown-for-hire via a service called Ha-Ha’s.  The job takes him to various parts of the city, but no matter where he goes, the walk home inevitably entails a haul up a lengthy flight of outdoor stairs.

Steps, both physical and metaphorical, factor into Arthur’s world with regularity, from the ones he climbs to the steps he takes to apply his Happy make-up.  Both are just indicators of the many more steps he will take as he metamorphoses into his true self over the course of the film.

Much of that character building came about through Phoenix’s preparations for the role, taking a cerebral preparation and turning it corporal.  In the film, on the advice of his social worker, Arthur keeps a journal, which also contains his drawings, prose and imaginings.  Throughout pre-production, Phoenix himself made several entries.  The actor states, “I was writing in Arthur’s journal when Todd sent me a note about the set of steps in the story.  That inspired me to write ‘step after step after step,’ over and over and line by line across the pages, and then it became something we’d text to each other.”

In order to enhance Arthur’s internal struggles with his own sense of realism, Phillips sought to counter it by grounding the film itself in as authentic an aesthetic as possible.  “As a filmmaker, there are a lot of tools you have to paint with, and locations and set design are big ones in this film.  His environment represents quite a lot in Arthur’s life, so we wanted to use that to the fullest effect.”

Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix

He worked closely with production designer Mark Friedberg who, like Phillips, grew up in New York City and was very familiar with the palette the director sought.  “Mark combed through old photos of New York to find the right level of graffiti, the right amount of trash and the picture cars that we’d want.  His attention to detail was amazing,” he remarks.

The visual style was defined in concert with director of photography Lawrence Sher.  “Larry is probably my most trusted creative partner, we’ve traveled the world together shooting movies,” the director says.

That close working relationship has naturally created the kind of shorthand between them that a true partnership provides.  “Because this is our sixth movie together, the discussions we have are much more about ideas within individual scenes, which then build and create the bigger picture,” says Sher.  “On this film, at one point I remember Todd talking to me about the idea of the shadow self, the shadow representing the other side of ourselves, and the transformation of Arthur into Joker. Those two terms—transformation and shadow—really informed me and gave me an early idea of what themes he was going to explore over the course of the movie, so I could determine how to best express that visually through the imagery.

To interpret the many themes explored throughout the film, Phillips very early on turned to composer Hildur Guðnadóttir.  “Hildur was writing music as far back as pre-production,” Phillips recalls.  “I was sending her script pages and she was writing music before we even shot, and what she did for the film is so unique.”

             Guðnadóttir says, “Todd asked me to write some music based on my feelings from reading the script, which I was inspired to do because it truly resonated with me.”  She sent him a sample and recalls, “He thought that I had really captured the atmosphere of the movie.”

             What struck the composer the most, she says, “was Arthur, this character with a kind of multi-dimensional simplicity, so openhearted and childlike, who is just trying so hard to fit in.  But his circumstances and how people react to him don’t really allow for that to happen.  Musically, that translated to melodies that are very simple and monotonic, because that’s kind of the way he is seeing things.  Then I tried to expand within that simplicity the orchestration around it not with chords or any complicated music, but with texture that I felt resonated with the melancholia of his character.”