It’s already one of the most talked-about films of the year, and after the prohibition of reporters asking any questions on the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere of “Joker” two weeks ago, the filmmakers are doing a lot of talking about it.
“Joker,” based on DC Comics characters created by Bob Kane and starring the sure-to-be-nominated Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, hit theaters October 4 and topped the box office again this weekend. It has already grossed nearly $550 million worldwide, and close to $200 million domestically. It premiered at the Venice International Film Festival at the end of August, where it received a lengthy standing ovation and went on to win the Golden Lion.
After a packed Writers Guild Theater screening of the film Sunday night in Beverly Hills, with several dozen people turned away at the door, director, producer and writer Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver took the stage to discuss the movie with Craig Mazin.
Many may not recall that Mazin, just coming off of ten Primetime Emmy Awards for his HBO limited series “Chernobyl,” was Phillips’ co-writer on the two sequels to “The Hangover.” And most would not have been able to predict that these two men with a huge track record of success in comedy would be immersed a few years later in serious drama.
For Phillips and Silver, that included pre-opening controversy about the film’s violence, and concern from the families of victims of the 2012 Colorado massacre at a theater playing “The Dark Knight Rises,” who asked Warner Bros. to donate to charities helping victims of gun violence.
Warning: there are spoilers about “Joker” ahead, including some new information about Phoenix’s creative input into the role of Arthur Fleck, a would-be standup comic and disaffected rent-a-clown who lives with his mother in a run-down Gotham apartment building.
“He’s a villain and we wanted you to love him in the beginning. He started out making people laugh before he became a bad guy,” Phillips said. “The true self is hidden behind a mask. It’s Jungian, and it chips away and it is revealed. He’s a sociopath and narcissistic.”
“Yet everyone is rooting for him and it’s scary,” Mazin noted.
“The silent movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’ and the [Victor Hugo] book it was based on was our inspiration,” said Silver. “But we weren’t beholden to anything, including the 80 years of DC history.”
“Joaquin and I decided not to look back at the work of Heath, Jack and Jared. We used various iterations and tried to make it Chaplinesque,” Phillips said, and noted the scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie used in his film. “It was a slow burn, and referenced the pace of movies of the ‘70s. Joaquin understood that. It was a slow change that was beautiful to watch his transformation.”
There is technically no hero in “Joker,” but there is a Batman origin story, including the scene of a young Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down on a Gotham street in front of him.
Mazin questioned the filmmakers about Joker’s televised murder of talk show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro–and evoking his character in 1982’s “The King of Comedy.”
“The violence and the sound of the gun – why is that his finishing touch?” Mazin asked.
“We wanted it to be very public, and there to be an uprising,” Silver replied. “It had to be on TV and that it ripples through the city,” he said about the shocking scene which creates chaos and insurrection on the streets, with rioters donning Joker masks and face paint.
Phillips said they wanted to run everything through a lens of real and not cartoonish violence, and that they thought of the 1987 on-camera suicide of R. Budd Dwyer, the state treasurer of Pennsylvania, who killed himself with a .357 Magnum revolver during a press conference. (He had been under investigation and then convicted of bribery.)
“Joker” is the first film in which Phillips has done a story about one person and he said everything else becomes a character, including the music and the costumes.
The composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, who also did the music for “Chernobyl,” wrote it from the screenplay, a highly unusual method in film.
Mazin said “Joker” has burrowed itself into our bloodstreams, and that it comes up every day for him.
“There’s something about it that is relevant in our world. Even though the film takes place in 1979-‘80-‘81, we wrote it a few years ago, and it reflects today’s world with everyone shouting,” said Silver.
“I think it’s resonating because it touches on mental illness, the lack of love and childhood trauma,” said Phillips. “As is said in the film, people expect you to behave as if you don’t have mental illness.”
The filmmakers talked about how they got a lot of pushback from Warner Bros. – until the $55 million budget was settled upon, a figure Phillips called an art-house budget for the studio. “They said we could do what we wanted. When I said I needed 20 weeks for a director’s cut and not 10, they said fine, as long as it doesn’t cost any more money. After that they only gave us one note, that there was too much music–so we took out about a minute and a half of it.”
“They originally said people don’t want this thing. But the reaction around the world is that audiences can handle the pace, the story and no CGI. We can use this to our advantage and push the studio system to make things that are not easily digestible,” he said, as the audience made up mainly of writers applauded.
The filmmakers also discussed the scene in Joker’s apartment where he murders the clown company co-worker who had earlier given him a gun as another co-worker, Gary, looks on in terror. The two men had gone to the apartment to console Arthur on the death of his mother, whom, of course unbeknownst to them, he had smothered while she was in the hospital.
“It starts off and then gets horrifying and then there’s comedy,” said Phillips. “Joaquin said we can’t do it. But I said when Gary runs out in the hall we should also do him coming back and knocking on the door because he can’t reach the elevator. Last week in London, Joaquin said we should have done it,” Phillips revealed.
Phoenix told Phillips that the production felt like a student film, and that was a compliment. “We wanted to set the stage for Joaquin and make the movie small. We wrote a good script, but we didn’t write the scene where he gets into the refrigerator. That was his idea. We took a chance because we had the space to do that,” he said.
One of the many ambiguities of “Joker” is whether Arthur Fleck is in fact Batman’s half-brother, that Thomas Wayne is his father. There is clearly a big age difference between Fleck and Bruce Wayne, unlike in earlier portrayals of the Joker-Batman relationship including those depicted in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
“Yeah, he’s absolutely Batman’s half-brother,” Silver said.
“I had no doubt,” said Mazin. “The kid didn’t run when he approached the mansion. There was a thing that they had between them.”
Phillips said he kept the journal that Joker wrote, and that Phoenix did the actual writing, but not the artwork shown inside it a number of times throughout the movie.
During the last scene in the film set in Arkham State Hospital, in which the Frank Sinatra song “That’s Life” plays, Phillips said it is the only time that Arthur is genuinely laughing, the only time that he is truly himself. “We could have ended it with him on the police car, but we wanted to end in a Chaplinesque way, like ‘my life is a comedy,’ as he says.”
Fleck is asked by a hospital psychologist what the joke is and replies with the last line in the movie, “You wouldn’t get it.”
Phillips summed up the experience this way: “It was a crazy script, a crazy movie and a crazy actor. The inmates were running the asylum. Someone in Toronto even said it feels like this was directed by Joker.”