With Joker, a revisionist take on the origins of one of the most notorious and famous super-villains in comic book history, director and co-writer Todd Phillips moves definitively out of the realm of comedies like Old School and the Hangover trilogy and turns the superhero movie on its head.
In fact, there are no superheroes in Joker: the main character, a disturbed and unlucky loner named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) resides in a gritty Gotham City that seems perpetually on the verge of collapse. Besieged by a system that casts him aside, a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably under stress and the voices inside his own tormented head, it’s no surprise that Arthur devolves even further into an embryonic version of the urban terrorist who has endlessly battled Batman for 80 years.
So what drew Phillips to take on this dark myth and give a back story to a creature who never really had one? “I guess just that, that he didn’t have a back story and that it seemed like a fun sandbox to play in,” says the director. “You know, he says it in the comic books, he prefers his past to be multiple choice. And we said, cool, let’s try choice B and see if that (can be made) into a movie. I mean, there’s a liberating feeling writing and making a film about such an unreliable narrator.”
The Joker is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, but we’ve never quite seen a definitive take on who he might have been before he became the Clown Prince of Crime. When working on the script, who did Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver start with first, Joker or Arthur?
“Weirdly, we started with Joker, which we would never normally do,” replies Phillips. “Except that we wanted to understand — we kind of backwards engineered it because it was all about running everything through a very realistic lens. So, you go, ‘Well, why is his hair green and his skin dyed white, or in our case painted? Why does he have that laugh?’ ‘Okay, well we know we have to get to that. So what if we give him this affliction, and what if he’s a clown?’ So that was actually kind of the fun part of writing it, figuring out how to get to that.”
While Phillips read plenty of Batman comics as a kid and has “certainly seen every movie that has a Joker in it,” he and Silver — like their star — stayed away from previously established takes on the Joker. “We definitely made a choice to kind of put blinders on and not look back,” says Phillips. “Not because we didn’t respect that stuff, but because if we looked at it, we would be paralyzed with fear that we have to live up to that stuff. So, for us, we just thought, ‘Okay, let’s just do our own thing and power on, and see if we can make this make sense.’”
Phillips also admits that there was a lot of creative back and forth about just how much of the larger Batman canon to include in the movie. “Yeah, we would go deeper into it, and then we’d go, ‘Ah, it’s turning into a Batman movie,’” he explains. “Not that that’s a bad thing, but that wasn’t what we were doing. ‘Oh, now we’re explaining too much of that.’ There was definitely, in the writing process, like in any writing process, 90% of it is exploration, 10% of it is typing.”
Perhaps the biggest creative risk of making Joker, however, was finding the right man to play the role, and for Phillips it was always Joaquin Phoenix. But would the actor, who has tended to stay in the indie world and away from mainstream fare, want to paint his face white and dye his hair green to play one of the most recognizable pop culture villains of all time?
“He’s a guy who’s very eclectic in his choices,” agrees Phillips. “But somebody says no, that’s not a risk to me. I’ve been told no before, but I’m also incredibly tenacious, persuasive, I don’t know. I wasn’t taking no in the beginning. I mean, he would have had to say no a lot, but I was showing up at his house — not like a stalker, but like, ‘I’m coming back on Monday. I want to talk more about it.’ So it was a process to get him, but we wrote it for him.”
Asked what made Phoenix right for the part, Phillips remarks, “A, he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation, he could do anything. B, he has a fire in him and a mischief in him, and a chaos in him, in real life, that I think lends itself to Joker.”
It still required a lot of persuasion on Phillips’ part for Phoenix to finally say yes. “He doesn’t head towards blockbuster movie making,” says the director. “He chooses a different path. But I knew if I could really explain it to him, and explain the kind of movie I wanted it to be, I thought it would click in. And it did, but it still took a while for him to trust that that was the movie we were going to make.”
Joker arrives in theaters next Friday (October 4).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye