“All I have are negative thoughts.” Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) calmly utters this line to his psychiatrist near the beginning of Joker, a line that serves as a chilling metaphor for the tension hidden beneath the surface that is about to boil over. This tension and angst exists in both Gotham City and Arthur, a man who serves as a microcosm of his decaying city. Warner Bros. Pictures releases one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, Joker, this Friday.
In what is sure to be the talk of the town come awards season, Joker is a creative collaboration that pulls together the visions of talented men and women both behind and in front of the camera. Take a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming movie directed by Todd Phillips, written by Phillips and Scott Silver, and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Robert De Niro.
Arthur Fleck/Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) in Joker (2019)
Many fans are well aware of the iconic character of the Joker, who first appeared in the Batman comic book in 1940. Since his debut, Joker has been involved in over 80 years of established storytelling, but Tod Phillips’ new movie is anything but a retread of previous characterization. In fact, Joker is an original, standalone origin of the infamous character that is rooted in realism. “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,” says Phillips. “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.”
Becoming Joker was something for which Phillips thought Academy Award®-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix would be perfect, which is why he wrote the part with Phoenix 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,” says Phillips. Though resisting genre-inspired projects in the past, Phoenix saw something unique in this script. “I thought it was very smart—really unique; it was like nothing I had ever read before,” says Phoenix. “And I thought there were still elements from the kind of DC canon of Batman. There will still references to that world, and yet it also felt like it was something that was brand new and stood on its own. It was irreverent and funny and twisted.”
Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck/Joker) with director/co-writer/producer Todd Phillips on set of Joker (2019)
At the beginning of the story, Arthur Fleck is just a working-class man trying to care for his ailing mother while making a living as a clown in hopes of fulfilling his stand-up comedy dreams. The clown suit, makeup, and violent outbursts associated with the character at the end of the movie are just the tip of the iceberg; they are what everyone sees on the outside, but there is a world of hurt, anger, and mental instability boiling over underneath. “We often talk about the tip of the iceberg, but we rarely speak about what’s underneath—about what gets you there,” says Phillips. “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 becomes increasingly more difficult to understand the character as lines between real and imaginary blur into a subjective reality in the character’s mind—making him the ultimate unreliable narrator. “You never know if what he’s saying is real,” says Phoenix. “But, the thing is, I didn’t think about it saying this may not be real. Whatever he’s saying, it’s very real to him. Now whether it is objectively real, that’s questionable. But for him, it always felt real. So, I felt like I had to approach it sincerely every time, whatever the scene was. But it’s really left up to you, to the audience, to decide what you think is real or isn’t.”
Arthur Fleck/Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) loosening his clown shoes in Joker (2019)
To prepare for the role of Arthur Fleck/Joker, Joaquin Phoenix lost over 52 pounds by consuming little more than an apple a day—an idea that originated with the movie’s director. “I wanted the character to look hungry and unhealthy, like a malnourished wolf,” says Phillips. Arthur’s bony frame is a physical embodiment of his malnourished soul and internal struggles. Simple acts like losing his clown shoes become disturbing images to watch as every muscle and bone protrudes through his skin in an unnerving way. The character’s unpredictable movements are also enhanced by his frail physical form, specifically when he dances in moments of unbridled freedom.
Phillips and Silver chose to take a real-world approach to their origin story, both in the character of Joker and Gotham City. To accomplish this, Phillips worked with a creative team that included producing partner Bradley Cooper, producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, veteran production designer Mark Friedberg, and director of photography Lawrence Sher, a frequent collaborator that has now worked on six movies with Todd Phillips.
Director/co-writer/producer Todd Phillips with Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck/Joker) on location for Joker (2019)
In order to ground the story in as authentic a location as possible, which in turn serves to enhance the internal struggles of the main character, Phillips and Cooper chose to shoot the movie primarily in practical locations in and around Phillips’ native New York City, the original inspiration for Gotham. The result is a gritty, tough setting that is simultaneously a collective memory of 1970s New York and a unique creation all its own. Production designer and New York native Mark Friedberg notes it’s “a Gotham that is not New York but is its own dark, gritty, tough urban city with roots in our collective past.” Elements from the Gotham City canon were often slightly altered to conform to the movie’s more authentic approach. “Arkham Asylum in our movie is called Arkham State Hospital, because that seemed to us what they would really call it,” says Phillips.
Arthur’s apartment building is a direct correlation to the dirty, tough streets he finds outside. It seems as if Arthur is surrounded by dirt and grime everywhere he looks, but he eventually learns to embrace it. In one pivotal scene, Arthur lets go of his troubles and dances freely in a rundown bathroom, embracing his environment and his unhinged actions. Director of Photography Lawrence Sher explains, “Philosophically as a DP, and paramount to Todd in the way we photograph movies, is that we light the environment and let the actors exist within the whole of that environment, which allows them full freedom of motion.” Many times, Sher and his “A” camera/Steadicam operator, Geoff Haley, would enter a scene not knowing what Joaquin Phoenix was going to do, resulting in a set up that would allow the actor space to do whatever he wanted. “That started with the bathroom scene—and Todd and I love grimy bathrooms, you’ll find bathroom and elevator scenes in all six films we’ve done together,” says Sher. “We set the mixed lights, uncorrected fluorescents, had no rehearsal for camera, and when we rolled, we just stayed with Joaquin.”
Arthur Fleck/Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) in Joker (2019)
Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival where it took home the Golden Lion, the festival’s highest honor. The movie has since screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and is already being discussed as a potential Oscar® candidate for Best Picture. “What I like about this movie is I think that there are several different reactions that people can have, and they’re all valid,” says Phoenix. “And there’s something really exciting about being in a movie that requires the audience to participate with the character in a different way. Usually, characters’ motivations are so clearly defined that we’re telling the audience precisely what to feel and when. And what I like about this movie is it’s really up to interpretation.”
Joker comes to Regal this Friday!