By Iain Blair
Filmmaker Todd Phillips began his career in comedy, most notably with the blockbuster franchise The Hangover, which racked up $1.4 billion at the box office globally. He then leveraged that clout and left his comedy comfort zone to make the genre-defying War Dogs.
Joker puts comedy even further in his rearview mirror. This bleak, intense, disturbing and chilling tragedy has earned over a $1 billion worldwide since its release, making it the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2019 and the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Not surprisingly, Joker was celebrated by the Academy, earning a total of 11 Oscar nods, including two for Phillips.
Directed, co-written and produced by Phillips (nominated for Directing and Screenplay), Joker is the filmmaker’s original vision of the infamous DC villain — an origin story infused with the character’s more traditional mythologies. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is portrayed — and fully inhabited — by three-time Oscar-nominee 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, cruelty and, ultimately, betrayal, Arthur makes one bad decision after another that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this powerful, allegorical character study.
Phoenix is joined by Oscar-winner Robert De Niro, who plays TV host Murray Franklin, and a cast that includes Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Leigh Gill.
Behind the scenes, Phillips was joined by a couple of frequent collaborators in DP Lawrence Sher, ASC, and editor Jeff Groth. Also on the journey were Oscar-nominated co-writer Scott Silver, production designer Mark Friedberg and Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges. Hildur Guðnadóttir provided the music.
Joker was produced by Phillips and actor/director Bradley Cooper, under their Joint Effort banner, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
I recently talked to Phillips, whose credits include Borat (for which he earned an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay), Due Date, Road Trip and Old School, about making the film, his love of editing and post.
You co-wrote this very complex, timely portrait of a man and a city. Was that the appeal for you?
Absolutely, 100 percent. While it takes place in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and we wrote it in 2016, it was very much about making a movie that deals with issues happening right now. Movies are often mirrors of society, and I feel this is exactly that.
Do you think that’s why so many people have been offended by it?
I do. It’s really resonated with audiences. I know it’s also been somewhat divisive, and a lot of people were saying, “You can’t make a movie about a guy like this — it’s irresponsible.” But do we want to pretend that these people don’t exist? When you hold up a mirror to society, people don’t always like what they see.
Especially when we don’t look so good.
This is a million miles away from the usual comic-book character and cartoon violence. What sort of film did you set out to make?
We set out to make a tragedy, which isn’t your usual Hollywood approach these days, for sure.
It’s hard to picture any other actor pulling this off. What did Joachin bring to the role?
When Scott and I wrote it, we had him in mind. I had a picture of him as my screensaver on my laptop — and he still is. And then when I pitched this, it was with him in mind. But I didn’t really know him personally, even though we created the character “in his voice.” Everything we wrote, I imagined him saying. So he was really in the DNA of the whole film as we wrote it, and he brought the vulnerability and intensity needed.
You’d assume that he’d jump at this role, but I heard it wasn’t so simple getting him.
You’re right. Getting him was a bit of a thing because it wasn’t something he was looking to do — to be in a movie set in the comic book world. But we spent a lot of timing talking about it, what it would be, what it means and what it says about society today and the lack of empathy and compassion that we have now. He really connected with those themes.
Now, looking back, it seems like an obvious thing for him to do, but it’s hard for actors because the business has changed so much and there’s so many of these superhero movies and comic book films now. Doing them is a big thing for an actor, because then you’re in “that group,” and not every actor wants to be in that group because it follows you, so to speak. A lot of actors have done really well in superhero movies and have done other things too, but it’s a big step and commitment for an actor. And he’d never really been in this kind of film before.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
I really wanted to shoot on location all around New York City, and that was a big challenge because it’s far harder than it sounds. But it was so important to the vibe and feel of the movie. So many superhero movies use lots of CGI, but I needed that gritty reality of the actual streets. And I think that’s why it’s so unsettling to people because it does feel so real. Luckily, we had Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who’s one of the great New York producers. She was key in getting locations.
Did you do a lot of previz?
I don’t usually do that much. We did it once for War Dogs and it worked well, but it’s a really slow and annoying process to some extent. As crazy as it sounds, we tried it once on the big Murray Franklin scene with De Niro at the end, which is not a scene you’d normally previz — it’s just two guys sitting on a couch. But it was a 12-page scene with so many camera angles, so we began to previz it and then just abandoned it half-way through. The DP and I were like, “This isn’t worth it. We’ll just do it like we always do and just figure it out as we go.” But previz is an amazing tool. It just needed more time and money than we had, and definitely more patience than I have.
Where did you post?
We started off at my house, where Jeff and I had an Avid setup. We also had a satellite office at 9000 Sunset, where all the assistants were. VFX and our VFX supervisor Edwin Rivera were also based out of there along with our music editor, and that’s where most of it was done. Our supervising sound editor was Alan Robert Murray, a two-time Oscar-winner for his work on American Sniper and Letters From Iwo Jima, and we did the Atmos sound mix on the lot at Warners with Tom Ozanich and Dean Zupancic.
Talk about editing with Jeff Groth. What were the big editing challenges?
There are a lot of delusions in Arthur’s head, so it was a big challenge to know when to hide them and when to reveal them. The scene order in the final film is pretty different from the scripted order, and that’s all about deciding when to reveal information. When you write the script, every scene seems important, and everything has to happen in this order, but when you edit, it’s like, “What were we thinking? This could move here, we can cut this, and so on.”
That’s what’s so fun about editing and why I love it and post so much. I see my editor as a co-writer. I think every director loves editing the most, because let’s face it — directors are all control freaks, and you have the most control in post and the editing room. So for me at least, I direct movies and go through all the stress of production and shooting just to get to the editing room. It’s all stuff I just have to deal with so I can then sit down and actually make the movie. So it’s the final draft of the script and I very much see it as a writing exercise.
Post is your last shot at getting the script right, and the most fun part of making a movie is the first 10 to 12 weeks of editing. The worst part is the final stretch of post, all that detail work and watching the movie 400 times. You get sick of it, and it’s so hard to be objective. This ended up taking 20 weeks before we had the first cut. Usually you get 10 for the director’s cut, but I asked Warners for more time and they were like, “OK.”
Visual effects play a big role in the film. How many were there?
More than you’d think, but they’re not flashy. I told Edwin early on, if you do your job right, no one will guess there are any VFX shots at all. He had a great team, and we used various VFX houses, including Scanline, Shade and Branch.
There’s a lot of blood, and I’m guessing that was all enhanced a lot?
In fact, there was no real blood — not a drop — used on set, and that amazes people when I tell them. That’s one of the great things about VFX now — you can do all the blood work in post. For instance, traditionally, when you film a guy being shot on the subway, you have all the blood spatters and for take two, you have to clean all that up and repaint the walls and reset, and it takes 45 minutes. This way, with VFX, you don’t have to deal with any of that. You just do a take, do it again until it’s right, and add all the blood in post. That’s so liberating.
What was the most difficult VFX shot to do?
I’d say the scene with Randall at his apartment, and all that blood tracking on the walls and on Arthur’s face and hands is pretty amazing, and we spent the most time on all that, getting it right.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
At Company 3 with my regular colorist Jill Bogdanowicz, and it’s vital for the look. I only began doing DIs on the first Hangover, and the great thing about it is you can go in and surgically fix anything. And if you have a great DP like Larry Sher, who’s shot the last six movies for me, you don’t get lost in the maze of possibilities, and I trust him more than I trust myself sometimes.
We shot it digitally, though the original plan was to shoot 65mm large format, and when that fell through to shoot 35mm. Then Larry and I did a lot of tests and decided we’d shoot digital and make it look like film. And thanks to the way he lit and all the work he and Jill did, it has this weird photochemical feel and look. It’s not quite film, but it’s definitely not digital. It’s somewhere in the middle, its own thing.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.