Inside the Madness of ‘Joker,’ a Conversation with Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix

Earlier this month, The Nerds of Color, along with several other members of the press, were invited to partake in the madness that is Joker, with a screening of the film and mini-panel with director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, War DogsOld School) and the Clown Prince of Crime himself, Joaquin Phoenix. Together they tackled what it was like to put this project together, and about what it is that separates this film from so many previous comic book adaptations. Here’s what they had to say. (NOTE: Possible light spoilers ahead! Be warned!)

“I find it difficult to talk immediately after a lot of films. This film in particular for me,” Phillips started. “I found that as we’ve shown it to people… they need time. A little bit to process it. We don’t have that luxury, but we can answer stuff if you have questions.”

Phillips and Phoenix were asked if the goal was to create a film that would be difficult to speak about right after seeing it.

“For sure. I always enjoy movies that are difficult to speak about right after,” Phillips continued. “I always find those [you have to process a little bit] to be particularly rewarding in a way. It’s not like that was a specific goal, but it’s something I’ve always enjoyed about movies. Where you can’t necessarily distill it down into a one-line thing really simply. So yeah. Somewhat.”

Phoenix was asked about the physicality of Arthur Fleck/Joker, and the dancing he does within the film, and how he developed that throughout the film’s shooting.

“Some of the dancing we knew right there, a sequence when he’s the [regular] clown, and a dance on the steps [for instance],” said Phoenix, “so I worked with a choreographer for that. But I remember watching a lot of videos of dancing and movement as well [for those scenes].”

Phillips chimed in, “One of the things we spoke about was that Arthur had music in him. It existed in him. Some people you may know personally have that feeling. And I always thought that about Arthur, but it was always kept in and trapped. And there was something about that evolving. But the scene in the bathroom… that’s not in the script. That was just something that evolved, and became a moment to show that [music] fighting to get out.”

The pair was asked about the period setting of the film taking place in 1981, and why that was chosen.

Phillips stated, “We never say in the movie that it’s 1981… we set it there for a lot of reasons. One was to set it apart from the DC Universe when we pitched it to Warner Bros and handed the script in. To say this wasn’t [messing] with anything they had going on. This is a separate universe. So much so that it takes place in a past before anything else. Another reason was because tonally the movie is very much a character study… same as the movies we grew up on and loved. Movies that don’t get made as much anymore. Social Network is a great one. There Will Be Blood is probably the best one in the last 20 years. But in the ’70s and ’80s, they were just more frequent. So in a weird way it was also just an homage to that time. We’re making a movie that feels like that, so why not set it there. It wasn’t this great thing, just a few reasons… I also like the handmade feel of those movies back then. We wanted to inject that.”

Phoenix was asked about his transformation into the character of Arthur Fleck/Joker and how deep/dark he got to become Arthur.

“This is going to disappoint you. I don’t think I did. I think to be honest I just had a good time. We laughed a lot on that set,” said Phoneix. “Honestly I love those stories of actors [who go that deep]. I kind of wished I was that way because it sounds so cool. But I didn’t have that experience at all… Whatever you put into it, it gave you so much back.”

Phoenix was also asked about how he found his “Joker” laugh.

“[Todd] showed me some videos. In the script it described the laugh being almost painful,” Phoenix stated. “And that was a really interesting way to describe laughter… and [Todd] came to my house to help me find the laugh, and it was really uncomfortable. And I spent about 5 minutes trying to work it out in front of [him]. And [he] said, ‘you don’t have to do this, you already have the part.’ And I said, ‘No I do! Because if I don’t do this now — if I can’t force myself to find it now, then I’m going to piss off everyone.'”

Phillips also continued. “For him to summon it on the day of shooting was always different, and sometimes he’d need time to do it… The ‘affliction’ laugh was always the hardest one to do. There’s the laugh where he’s fake laughing to be one of the guys in the comedy club. There’s [the laugh] where he’s genuinely laughing at something. But the ‘affliction’ laugh was hard to muster up.”

The pair was then asked about the research regarding the medical conditions that went into the film, including Arthur’s laughing condition.

“We researched and studied that laugh,” Phillips began. “Some people cry from this [condition] and some people laugh. And it’s always at the wrong moment, and it’s really painful. What we discovered was it happens from head trauma as a young person, or older, and it happens from MS… We went with the head trauma. The movie in every way tries to be grounded in reality as much as possible. It has its foot in the comic book world, for sure, but we just kept thinking we should put everything through a realistic lens. Like why does he have a white face? Well dropping him in acid is amazing in the comic books and the Jack Nicholson [version]. But it doesn’t feel very real that would happen. So let’s come up with a realistic answer for everything. And that was one with the laugh that we researched.”

“[However,] in some ways, as much as there was research and answers for things, whenever there was a part where we came up with a definitive answer for something, we backed away from it,” Phoenix continued. “We didn’t want to be locked into that… part of the joy of this movie is how the audience interacts with the film and what they think of the character.”

“True. It’s always difficult when you make a movie to define it for people,” Phillips added. “Your job is to make the movie and let them define it.”

Phoenix and Phillips were asked if their interpretations of the film lined up.

“No,” stated Phoenix, smiling.

“Nope,” Phillips added. “We don’t really talk about it like that… I think we like that there’s a bit of mystery to it, and it’s liberating for us making the movie that it isn’t really a super defined thing. One contends to question things a lot.”

The final question was about the positives and negatives of making a Joker movie.

“I just thought it was an interesting way to tell a story — a new approach to the comic book world,” Phillips stated. “We didn’t take anything from one particular comic. We picked and chose what we liked from the 80-year canon of Joker. We pulled a few things that we liked. Could it have been called Arthur and been about a random clown? Maybe. But I just think there’s a new way to tell a comic book movie. And maybe I’m wrong. But let’s do it as a character study. The interesting thing about it was to deconstruct the comic book movie a little bit. That was part of what was exciting for me.”

Joker hits theaters October 4.

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