Director Todd Phillips: ‘Joker’ Sprang From Concern Over World Without Empathy

TheWrap Screening Series: The comic character piece emerged in discussions after Trump election

Since “Joker” took home the top prize at the 2019 Venice Film Festival last September, it has been defined by controversy — whether that be over Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of a classic character, the film’s political message or its use of violence.

But as the discourse around the film dies down, director, producer and co-writer Todd Phillips says he’s remained focused on its effect on audiences — especially the portrayal of mental illness.

“When I talked to you in Toronto [in September] about it, everybody was talking about the violence,” Phillips told TheWrap editor Sharon Waxman, who spoke to Phillips as part of TheWrap’s Screening Series at The Landmark in Los Angeles. “What I didn’t have the benefit of knowing then was really how that mental illness through-line would affect people,” he said. 

The movie follows the mentally ill, failed standup comedian Arthur Fleck as he is repeatedly shut out of society, leading him to descend into madness and become the iconic Batman supervillain. At many points, it is Gotham’s lack of empathy that pushes Fleck toward violence, which Phillips said struck a chord among the audience members he spoke with.

“I had so many people come up to me, write me emails or write on Instagram, about you know, ‘I have a sister who is schizophrenic and I watched your film and I realized I need to be more patient with her. I need to be more understanding,’” Phillips said. “Some people will ask if I feel vindicated by the box office … but honest to God, it was never about that. We wanted to make something meaningful,” he explained.

Still, the director addressed the political critiques of the film, which was called a toxic rallying cry for incels” by Indiewire critic David Erlich

“Movies tend to be a mirror, they hold up a reflection of what’s going on in society. And I do think sometimes when you hold that mirror up, people don’t always like what they see,” Phillips said. Although the director sees the movie’s politics as progressive, “it’s been this weird Rorschach test. Both sides see it as an indictment of the other side.”

Phillips, who had previously directed broad comedies like “The Hangover” and “Old School,” said his choice to step away from comedy was inspired by what he saw as a dark turn in world events: “It had everything to do with Donald Trump.”

“I think what you realize as you get older and you see where the world is going, you go ‘God, you know, I’m being given these opportunities, so why not do something impactful?” he said. “When Obama was there, I did three ‘Hangover’ movies … but the world has changed drastically.”

“And if Bernie gets there, I’m going back to comedy,” Phillips added with a laugh, referring to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“Joker” has proven to be a hit among audiences, topping $1 billion in global box office and earning the title of highest-grossing R-rated film worldwide on a $60 million budget. It leads all films with 11 nominations at this year’s Academy Awards, including a nomination for best picture. This has led to speculation about a sequel, but Phillips said he’s hesitant at the prospect.

“Those people came up to me after screenings because of the emotional resonance and the thematic resonance in the film. And so what Joaquin and I have said to each other is if we could figure out a way to do a second one, we would need to find themes that would resonate in a similar way. We don’t want to do one where he’s now the clown prince of Gotham just doing whatever he does,” he said.

“Joker” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.