“I’ve always enjoyed movies that are a little difficult to speak about right after, and you go, I want to process this a little bit,” Joker director Todd Phillips tells reporters after a September screening. “I always find those to be particularly rewarding in a way. It’s not like that was a specific goal but…I always enjoy movies where you can’t necessarily distill it down to a one line thing.”
A feature-length origin story for one of the pop culture’s greatest villains, Joker is the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a wannabe comedian who lives with his ailing mother, and the increasingly violent spiral of his life. But as Phillips says, Joker can’t be summed up in a single sentence. The movie eschews the operatic blockbuster heights usually associated with Batman movies to tell a disturbing story about malignant narcissism and the violence it begets.
But Joker is no Batman movie, and it doesn’t take place within the confines of any shared cinematic universe. Instead, it takes place in a Gotham that looks uncannily like New York City in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a time period that was deliberately chosen by the filmmakers to help keep it separate from the ongoing concerns of Warner Bros’ DCEU shared universe of films. Phillips says the time period helped “to sort of make it clear this isn’t fucking with anything that [Warner Bros.] have going on,” he says. “This is like a separate universe, so much so that it takes place in the past, before everything else.”
Phillips also says that since they envisioned Joker as a character study, he wanted to set the film in an era that evokes the golden age of those kinds of films. “Tonally the movie is very much a character study …[and] those movies don’t get made as much anymore,” he says. “They get made…but The Social Network is a great one, There Will Be Blood is probably the best [character study] in the last 20 years. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were much more frequent. So in a weird way it was also very much an homage to that time. We’re making a movie that feels like that, so why not set it there?”
It’s inevitable that some of the great films of the era Joker intentionally evokes would have a visual influence on the movie, as well. “Obviously we have a nod to a few things in this movie,” Phillips says. “A lot of what we took, the curtains for example, are a spin on Johnny Carson’s curtains, but certainly there’s a touch of King of Comedy in there, there’s a touch of Network in there, a touch of Dog Day Afternoon, a lot of these movies from that time … that speak to why we decided to set it back then. Not that the movie is a love letter to those movies but it’s very much an homage to them.”
There are more practical reasons too. “Part of the reason that every filmmaker likes to do things period is because they don’t have to deal with fucking technology in movies because it’s so frustrating, like ‘well if they have a cellphone well then that just gets solved’.” Phillips says. “We were basically going low CGI which doesn’t mean none, as there’s obviously some worldbuilding that we’ve done, but there’s a handmade quality to those films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that I really love that you don’t feel as much nowadays.”
With no Batman to serve as a moral center, no wider DC Universe to concern itself with, and a grounded urban setting, the film is anchored by an utterly mesmerizing performance from Phoenix. Phillips knew he wanted Phoenix for the part, and had discussed the script with him long before the actor formally agreed to take on the part of the infamous villain. “One day he just showed up at a wardrobe fitting,” Phillips jokes.
Of course, that isn’t really the case, but neither director nor actor could agree just when they formally agreed to work together on this movie. But Phoenix has never shied away from difficult parts, especially in recent years. And while the Joker is a role that actors have been known to disappear into, Phoenix says that wasn’t the case on the set of this movie, despite his onscreen intensity. “I’m honestly going to disappoint you. I think that we had a good time,” he says. “I kind of wish that I had done it in that way because it sounds so cool. But I didn’t have that experience.” Although Phillips is quick to point out that Phoenix did considerable preparation for the role.
Phoenix’s evolution into the famous villain isn’t merely a matter of putting on makeup. His Joker even moves differently from others we’ve seen, notably with the dancing on the staircase scene glimpsed in the trailers. The actor worked with a choreographer and then “just started watching a lot of videos with dancing and movement,” Phoenix recalls.
“One of the earliest things we spoke about was that Arthur had music in him,” adds Phillips. “But it was sort of kept in and trapped.”
The eerie physicality of Phoenix’s performance helps keep the movie’s focus firmly on Arthur’s journey and descent into madness, and not on recognizable moments from comic book history. While fans might notice familiar elements from Gotham City mythology if they pay close attention, the film doesn’t adhere to any of the character’s established origin stories.
“We didn’t take anything from one particular comic,” Phillips says. “We kind of picked and chose what we liked from the 80-year canon of Joker.”
Of course, fidelity to the source material isn’t crucial if there’s a good story to tell, no matter how beloved (or, in the case of the Joker, reviled) a character might be. But with superheroes and their foes now undisputed box office champions, the director saw an opportunity to do something unexpected with one of the most famous villains in all of pop culture.
“I just thought that there’s a new way to tell a comic book movie, [to] do it as a character study,” Phillips says. “Part of what interests me…was to deconstruct the comic book movie a little bit, that was part of what was exciting about it.”