Director Todd Phillips on Making ‘Joker’: Art Is ‘Meant to Be Complicated’

“What’s astounding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda,” filmmaker says

Joker Todd Phillips Joaquin Phoenix

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

This is not a junket interview. Yes, “Joker” director Todd Philips had ground through 46 interviews the day before. He slept fitfully at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills to be on time for a second day of round-robin interviews in the international media machine that is the required job description for big studio releases like one based on a classic DC Comics character. But this conversation is a long, quiet, rambling reflection in a hard-to-find hotel nook on why the creator of the billion-dollar global “Hangover” franchise and other broad comedies like “Old School” decided to co-write and direct a supervillain movie in the style of an art-house ’70s flick. Phillips, a lean and emotionally taut 49-year-old, has a lot to say about the subject, but it boils down to this: He was trying to shake up a saturated studio system. “It’s very difficult nowadays to cut through the fog of all this content,” said Phillips, dressed casually in jeans and a dark t-shirt. “There’s great content everywhere, let alone YouTube and everything. I was just thinking about it more as a movie that can cut through the fog. Not necessarily enter the zeitgeist, which it feels like it’s almost doing on its own. That wasn’t the goal. It was: ‘Let’s tell a cool story.’”
Joker Joaquin Phoenix
Warner Bros.
Phillips first imagined the film when attending the 2016 premiere of his own “War Dogs,” a small dark comedy starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, on Hollywood Boulevard and staring up at a billboard for a much bigger superhero movie that would make a mint (and which he declined to name). Phillips, an ambitious fellow, realized his own film would never get as much attention as the one with a bigger cast, special effects and a blockbuster budget. That’s when “Joker” occurred to him — or rather the idea of creating a new category based on character studies of the DC Comics villains. So Phillips set to work on the script with Scott Silver, and set out to cast Joaquin Phillips in what is being dubbed the actor’s career-best performance. Framed by the superhero universe, “Joker” hangs on the singular performance of a distinctly non-movie-star character actor who appears either in grotesque clown makeup or gaunt, greasy-haired squalor. At $70 million, the Warner Bros. release cost less than half of what the usual suspects in the category do. It’s a subversive move and an undeniable gamble that — based on the early reviews, strong tracking and a surprise win at the Venice Film Festival — could end up as a blockbuster hit and an awards season contender. But the movie is already kicking up controversy for its dark tone, becoming a target for its focus on an irredeemable villain who escapes punishment and for its all-too-realistic reminder of the angry loners who have been committing mass shootings in real life. Why this movie should stand out seems puzzling when I could name a half-dozen movies in recent years that are more violent and have more deeply amoral villains. But people seem disturbed that “Joker” offers a basis for explaining why Phoenix’s Arthur becomes a sociopath.
Robert De Niro Joker
Warner Bros.
To this, Phillips confesses confusion that a movie exploring the psychology of violent characters on screen could provoke fear of violence in real life. “Isn’t it good to have these discussions?” he asked. “Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence? Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?” He continued: “We didn’t make the movie to push buttons. I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months (of preparation) as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film. It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with real budget and we’ll call it f—ing Joker.’ That’s what it was.” Phillips thinks that people are waiting for a target they can pounce on — and “Joker” may be an obvious one. “I think it’s because outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while,” he said. “What’s astounding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye-opening for me.”
Warner Bros.

Pitching the Movie

Phillips had to pitch “Joker” twice. He first suggested the idea in 2016 to then-president of production Greg Silverman and then-CEO Kevin Tsujihara as a label within DC Comics, “DC Black,” focused on stripped-down, CG-free character studies. And “Joker” would be the first. They gave a thumbs up to writing a script . Two years later with a script in hand Phillips found that the entire leadership at Warner and DC Films had changed. AT&T had acquired the studio and Silverman was ousted in late 2016 after a series of flops. “Not a problem,” Phillips recalled. “I had to get DC on board again, I had to get Warner on board again. It’s not an easy thing to swallow.” The studio bosses were hesitant “because we were messing with DC, a thing that doesn’t need to be f—ed with,” Phillips recalled. “I was saying, ‘Do this because instead of trying to emulate Marvel which is this incredible, well-run behemoth, do something Marvel can’t do.’” On the other hand, Phillips has made the studio about $1.5 billion with his “Hangover” movies and was instrumental on last year’s hit “A Star Is Born.” But the studio, including Warner Bros. Picture Group chairman Toby Emmerich and DC Films President Walter Hamada, came around to the idea. “They very rightfully said, ‘Calm down with the label, but great (idea). You’re not starting a label… But OK — do one movie, let’s see.’”
Warner Bros.

Searching for Joaquin

From the start, Phillips and Silver wrote the movie with Joaquin Phoenix in mind. But then they had to get the notoriously selective actor interested. So began a courting process that took three months of Phillips going to Phoenix’s house and talking about the character and what the movie would be. “He would go, ‘All right, that’s great, can you come back on Thursday?’” Phillips recalled. “We were just having these really long conversations about it, going through the script page by page. Talking about the character, talking about what it would look like, what it’s going to feel like.” Interestingly, the conversations did not encompass Heath Ledger or other previous portrayals of the character by Jack Nicholson (in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”) or Jared Leto (in David Ayer’s 2016 “Suicide Squad”). “It would paralyze us with fear to live up to these things,” Phillips said. “We just had to pretend like they didn’t exist to be able to do it in its own space. Not to speak for Joaquin, but it was the same for him. He wasn’t looking back at performances because it would be just overwhelming. Not out of disrespect, but it literally starts to paralyze you.” Finally after three months, Phoenix committed. “I think we had him in the first meeting. Not to be immodest about it, he wanted to dig deeper and dig deeper. I jokingly say, ‘Joaquin is the tunnel at the end of the light.’ That by the way, who said that? Robert Towne,” Phillips said, referencing the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind classic ’70s films like “Chinatown.” Phillips also managed to lure Robert de Niro, icon of ’70s films like “Taxi Driver” that inspired Phillips, in a key role as the host of a nighttime talk show that Phoenix’s aspiring-comic Arthur longs to play.

Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips on the set of “Joker” (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

On the Set  

Phoenix proceeded to lose 52 pounds for the role to achieve a “wolf-like and malnourished and hungry” look, as Phillips put it to the actor. In a conversation at the movie’s premiere in Toronto, Phoenix said the physical requirements for the shoot proved challenging — and he was hungry a lot. But Phillips insists the shoot itself was far from a tense place despite the story’s dark tone and the actor disappearing into the character.”We spent half the day laughing on set,” he said. “Not laughing about what we were doing, but in between takes and telling stories. He’s not someone who was lost in this pain. “It was a very light set overall. I hate to talk about his process because it’s so personal to him, but it didn’t seem Method to me,” he said. “People would be surprised that it was a light set. We had a lot of fun.” Phillips went on about working with the actor during production: “We never stopped talking. We would shoot for 12 hours, whatever. We then would be texting each other for three hours, literally. Then he would say, ‘Why are we texting this? Let’s just get on the phone.’ And then get on the phone until 1 or 2 in the morning, either about what we’re doing tomorrow or what we did that day and what we can do better, if we need to reshoot it. It was an experience I had never gone through before. It was super-collaborative. I learned a lot about being a director. I feel, like you do, that he’s a very sensitive, loving soul. I wanted to lean into that as a director and an actor. I wanted to get on that wavelength.” Maintaining his star’s sense of balance in a challenging role proved crucial. “The point is I didn’t spoil him,” Phillips said. “I didn’t ruin Joaquin. He is still a beautiful sensitive artist that we all know and love. This didn’t take over his soul, I think. If the character didn’t take over Phoenix’s soul, there’s some concern that it might influence the actions of others in a culture gripped by fear of random violence driven by mental illness, guns and a desire for fame. But Phillips wasn’t necessarily aiming for safe. “I didn’t predict what we’re talking about,” he said. “And you know what, if you ask me, art can be complicated. It’s meant to be complicated, and that’s OK. You want safe art, go take f—ing calligraphy. Filmmaking is supposed to be complicated, do you know what I mean?”