Tag Archives: Joker

Todd Phillips talks directing Warner Bros.’ Joker

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.

Todd Phillips directing Joaquin Phoenix

Joker puts comedy even further in his rearview mirror. This bleak, intense, disturbing and chilling tragedy has earned an astounding $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 is also generating a lot of Oscar and awards buzz.

Directed, co-written and produced by Phillips, 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.
(Laughs) Exactly.

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.”

Todd Phillips on set with Robert DeNiro

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.

The gritty and realistic sounds of Joker

By Jennifer Walden

The grit of Gotham City in Warner Bros.’ Joker is painted on in layers, but not in broad strokes of sound. Distinct details are meticulously placed around the Dolby Atmos surround field, creating a soundtrack that is full but not crowded and muddy — it’s alive and clear. “It’s critical to try to create a real feeling world so Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) is that much more real, and it puts the audience in a place with him,” says re-recording mixer Tom Ozanich, who mixed alongside Dean Zupancic at Warner Bros. Sound in Burbank on Dub Stage 9.

L-R: Tom Ozanich, Unsun Song and Dean Zupancic on Dub Stage 9. Photo: Michael Dressel.

One main focus was to make a city that was very present and oppressive. Supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray created specific elements to enhance this feeling, while dialogue supervisor Kira Roessler created loop group crowds and callouts that Ozanich could sprinkle throughout the film.

During the street scene near the beginning of the film, Arthur is dressed as a clown and dancing on the sidewalk, spinning a “Going Out of Business” sign. Traffic passes to the left and pedestrians walk around Arthur, who is on the right side of the screen. The Atmos mix reflects that spatiality.

“There are multiple layers of sounds, like callouts of group ADR, specific traffic sounds and various textures of air and wind,” says Zupancic. “We had so many layers that afforded us the ability to play sounds discretely, to lean the traffic a little heavier into the surrounds on the left and use layers of voices and footsteps to lean discretely to the right. We could play very specific dimensions. We just didn’t blanket a bunch of sounds in the surrounds and blanket a bunch of sounds on the front screen. It was extremely important to make Gotham seem gritty and dirty with all those layers.”

The sound effects and callouts didn’t always happen conveniently between lines of principal dialogue. Director Todd Phillips wanted the city to be conspicuous… to feel disruptive. Ozanich says, “We were deliberate with Todd about the placement of literally every sound in the movie. There are a few spots where the callouts were imposing (but not quite distracting), and they certainly weren’t pretty. They didn’t occur in places where it doesn’t matter if someone is yelling in the background. That’s not how it works in real life; we tried to make it more like real life and let these voices crowd in on our main characters.”

Every space feels unique with Gotham City filtering in to varying degrees. For example, in Arthur’s apartment, the city sounds distant and benign. It’s not as intrusive as it is in the social worker’s (Sharon Washington) office, where car horns punctuate the strained conversation. Zupancic says, “Todd was very in tune with how different things would sound in different areas of the city because he grew up in a big city.”

Arthur’s apartment was further defined by director Phillips, who shared specifics like: The bedroom window faces an alley so there are no cars, only voices, and the bathroom window looks out over a courtyard. The sound editorial team created the appropriate tracks, and then the mixers — working in Pro Tools via Avid S6 consoles — applied EQ and reverb to make the sounds feel like they were coming from those windows three stories above the street.

In the Atmos mix, the clarity of the film’s apposite reverbs and related processing simultaneously helped to define the space on-screen and pull the sound into the theater to immerse the audience in the environment. Zupancic agrees. “Tom [Ozanich] did a fabulous job with all of the reverbs and all of the room sound in this movie,” says. “His reverbs on the dialogue in this movie are just spectacular and spot on.”

For instance, Arthur is waiting in the green room before going on the Murray Franklin Show. Voices from the corridor filter through the door, and when Murray (Robert De Niro) and his stage manager open it to ask Arthur what’s with the clown makeup, the filtering changes on the voices. “I think a lot about the geography of what is happening, and then the physics of what is happening, and I factor all of those things together to decide how something should sound if I were standing right there,” explains Ozanich.

Zupancic says that Ozanich’s reverbs are actually multistep processes. “Tom’s not just slapping on a reverb preset. He’s dialing in and using multiple delays and filters. That’s the key. Sounds of things change in reality — reverbs, pitches, delays, EQ — and that is what you’re hearing in Tom’s reverbs.”

“I don’t think of reverb generically,” elaborates Ozanich, “I think of the components of it, like early reflections, as a separate thought related to the reverb. They are interrelated for sure, but that separation may be a factor of making it real.”

One reason the reverbs were so clear is because Ozanich mixed Joker’s score — composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir — wider than usual. “The score is not a part of the actual world, and my approach was to separate the abstract from the real,” explains Ozanich. “In Arthur’s world, there’s just a slight difference between the actual world, where the physical action is taking place, and Arthur’s headspace where the score plays. So that’s intended to have an ever-so-slight detachment from the real world, so that we experience that emotionally and leave the real space feeling that much more real.”

Atmos allows for discrete spatial placement, so Ozanich was able to pull the score apart, pull it into the theater (so it’s not coming from just the front wall), and then EQ each stem to enhance its defining characteristic — what Ozanich calls “tickling the ear.”

“When you have more directionality to the placement of sound, it pulls things wider because rather than it being an ambiguous surround space, you’re now feeling the specificity of something being 33% or 58% back off the screen,” he says.

Pulling the score away from the front and defining where it lived in the theater space gave more sonic real estate for the sounds coming from the L-C-Rs, like the distinct slap of a voice bouncing off a concrete wall or Foley sounds like the delicate rustling scratches of Arthur’s fingertips passing over a child’s paintings.

One of the most challenging scenes to mix in terms of effects was the bus ride, in which Arthur makes funny faces at a little boy, trying to make him laugh, only to be admonished by the boy’s mother. Director Phillips and picture editor Jeff Groth had very specific ideas about how that ‘70s-era bus should sound, and Zupancic wanted those sounds to play in the proper place in the space to achieve the director’s vision. “Buses of that era had an overhead rack where people could put packages and bags; we spent a lot of time getting those specific rattles where they should be placed, and where the motor should be and how it would sound from Arthur’s seat. It wasn’t a hard scene to mix; it was just complex. It took a lot of time to get all of that right. Now, the scene just goes by and you don’t pay attention to the little details; it just works,” says Zupancic.

Ozanich notes the opening was a challenging scene as well. The film begins in the clowns’ locker room. There’s a radio broadcast playing, clowns playing cards, and Arthur is sitting in front of a mirror applying his makeup. “Again, it’s not a terribly complex scene on the surface, but it’s actually one of the trickiest in the movie because there wasn’t a super clear lead instrument. There wasn’t something clearly telling you what you should be paying attention to,” says Ozanich.

The scene went through numerous iterations. One version had source music playing the whole time. Another had bits of score instead. There are multiple competing elements, like the radio broadcast and the clowns playing cards and sharing anecdotes. All those voices compete for the audience’s ear. “If it wasn’t tilted just the right way, you were paying attention to the wrong thing or you weren’t sure what you should be paying attention to, which became confusing,” says Ozanich.

In the end, the choice was made to pull out all the music and then shift the balance from the radio to the clowns as the camera passes by them. It then goes back to the radio briefly as the camera pushes in closer and closer on Arthur. “At this point, we should be focusing on Arthur because we’re so close to him. The radio is less important, but because you hear this voice it grabs your attention,” says Ozanich.

The problem was there were no production sounds for Arthur there, nothing to grab the audience’s ear. “I said, ‘He needs to make sound. It has to be subtle, but we need him to make some sound so that we connect to him and feel like he is right there.’ So Kira found some sounds of Joaquin from somewhere else in the film, and Todd did some stuff on a mic. We put the Foley in there and we cobbled together all of these things,” says Ozanich. “Now, it unquestionably sounds like there was a microphone open in front of him and we recorded that. But in reality, we had to piece it all together.”

“It’s a funny little dichotomy of what we are trying to do. There are certain things we are trying to make stick on the screen, to make you buy that the sound is happening right there with the thing that you’re looking at, and then at the same time, we want to pull sounds off of the screen to envelop the audience and put them into the space and not be separated by that plane of the screen,” observes Ozanich.

The Atmos mix on Joker is a prime example of how effective that dichotomy can be. The sound of the environments, like standing on the streets of Gotham or riding on the subway car, are distinct, dynamic, and ever-changing, and the sounds emanating from the characters are realistic and convincing. All of this serves to pull the audience into the story and get them emotionally invested in the tale of this sad, psychotic clown.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.