Joker director doesn’t care about the movie’s backlash
WRITER-director Todd Phillips' radical take on the Joker became a genuine pop culture phenomenon last year.
With the always unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix - unbackable favourite for the Best Actor Oscar - in the title role previously made famous by Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson, the "anti-superhero" movie made more than $1.5 billion dollars at the box office and is up for 11 statues at next month's Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Phillips.
With Joker just released on home entertainment and streaming, Phillips reflects on why his movie struck such a chord - and sparked such outrage in some quarters - and how Batman might fit into the inevitable sequel.
Congratulations on the Oscar nominations for Joker and particularly your Best Director nod. How did that feel?
It's been a crazy couple of weeks. It's all just been outstanding and surreal for me. All the company with Tarantino, Scorsese, Mendes and director Bong is just amazing. It's been pretty wild.
Does the success of Joker mark a change of attitude in Hollywood towards comic book movies, or rather reflect how different yours is from most?
I think we wanted to create something meaningful and something that stayed with you long after you left the theatre. That was the goal in working in the comic book space. I think that it does signal a little bit of a change that people aren't necessarily only looking for processed food, so to speak. I think studios in general have an assumption that people like things that go down easy and are a little more clear cut than Joker is. But the response around the world is really a great signal for studios and filmmakers that you can try stuff at least a little bit outside the box and audiences might turn up.
Why do you think Joker resonated so strongly with so many people?
There are a couple of reasons. Obviously it's called Joker so we had a leg-up there, riding the wave of the films and comics that have come before. But at the same time, I feel like the themes really connected with people. The movie takes place, let's say in 1981, but we wrote it in 2017 and it's definitely a mirror for what's going on, at least in the States. And I think people really connected with some of those themes.
How much were you writing about real life - can you draw a direct line between the Kill the Rich movement in the movie and the real-life Rise and Resist movement? Or between Thomas Wayne's "clowns" and Hillary Clinton's "deplorables"?
Some people can draw that direct of a line but for us what the idea started from was more about a film that illustrates the lack of empathy that so many people are feeling around the world and certainly in the States, and how the discourse has changed. I jokingly say when Barack Obama was president, I wrote and directed three Hangover movies. And then everything changed - and this is what happens. That's where Joker comes from.
It's certainly been one of the most divisive movies of recent years - a lot of glowing reviews but also a lot of people upset and even angry about it. How did you react to that?
I think it's sort of appropriate that a movie called Joker makes people crazy.
There is also an odd tendency for some people to mistake representation with endorsement - in this case of violence.
I have always been surprised by that idea. Representation does not equal endorsement. I don't know when it ever has in movies and I don't know why we were suddenly being held to a different standard. I think shining a light on something like mental illness and more specifically, the lack of care of people who are mentally ill - I am surprised that people don't want to talk about that. I'm joking about the making people crazy thing but I was surprised at the level of vitriol aimed at the film and filmmakers for trying something different.
Is that all part and parcel of outrage culture in 2020?
It does seem to be, doesn't it? But I have gotten in trouble for saying that before, so I will abstain on that one.
When a movie makes more than a billion dollars at the box office, talk of a sequel is inevitable - where are the discussions at and where could you take this?
You might not believe me, but we really haven't discussed it in that much detail. Of course Warner Brothers has expressed interest and for Joaquin and I, the few times we have talked about it, it's really been about can we find something meaningful to lock into thematically that would have the same resonance that the first one did. It wouldn't be a sequel just to make a sequel.
This iteration of the Joker is so grounded in reality, can he even exist in a world where Batman exists?
That's a really interesting question and I don't know. Or more specifically, what does Batman look like in that awful and bleak version of Gotham and with a dad who was that version of Thomas Wayne. Thomas has always been painted as an altruistic, great guy and the city and community loved him and this is a different kind of person, so what does that Batman look like? Those are the things that would be interesting.
And it's hard to see the more fantastic DC characters like Superman or Wonder Woman having a place in your universe …
Yes, I would agree with you there.
You wrote Joker with Joaquin specifically in mind - what did you see in him?
Outside of the fact that he is one of the greatest actors of my generation, I look at him and I see an agent of chaos. He has a bit of a wild streak in him, and an unpredictability. I think if you were to find a common link between Jack Nicholson and the great Heath Ledger and Jared Leto as actors, they also had this sort of mischievous, wild streak in them.
You said that what he is doing on stage is like jazz, which is something I believe you subscribe to as well, is that why you worked so well together?
My background in doing comedies leads to a bit of a looser, improvisational approach sometimes to film making. Oftentimes people have commented on my sets that it feels like the inmates are running the asylum. For Joaquin, for this movie, that really helped him. I don't know that he needs that on every movie, but on this film, the styles just meshed in that way.
How did his approach gel with someone like Robert De Niro, who I imagine has a different, more methodical approach?
Actors love to play. And while that might not necessarily be Bob's style, a pro and a veteran like him appreciates that that's how Joaquin goes about it and they can usually find their footing in that. Nobody is more of a pro than Bob, right? So while I am not sure that he normally works that way, I think he had a really good time on the film.
Joaquin so utterly commits to Joker that it's almost frightening - the weight loss and the extraordinary physical transformation - what was it like to see that up close?
I spent months with Joaquin day in, day out before we started shooting the movie, so that weight loss was happening less dramatically than it appears. But it definitely affected his mood, as anybody who is starving themselves for a couple of months would. But beyond how is worked for the character, the look of it and the mood affectation even helped him get into the mindset of Arthur.
Did it ever get to a point of concern where you had to rein him back?
No. He's done the weight loss thing before, he has a doctor that helps him. We were never at a point where it was 'oh my God, he's going too far'. He was in control of it.
Joaquin rather beautifully thanked Heath Ledger at the SAG Awards recently and said he was standing on the shoulders of Heath - did you guys discuss his performance as Joker?
Joaquin was clearly riding in the wake of and fuelled by these performances that had come before but we couldn't look back. Not out of disrespect to those movies and those performances but more out of the fear of paralysis. It would be too intimidating to look at Chris Nolan's films or Tim Burton's films for me as a director. And I know for Joaquin as an actor, if he were to study what Heath was doing or what Jack Nicholson was doing, in a weird way it would just get in your head too much and become paralysing. So while we have both seen those movies, we had to put them on the backburner and say 'OK, we are just going to do our own thing here'.
How do you like your chances for Oscar night - and what are your plans?
I don't know. Not because I am busy or cool, but I just don't want to sweat that stuff too much because the more I think about it, the more panic attacks I get. I'm just thrilled to be in the company I am in and amazed that our colleagues both here in the UK where I am right now and in America have connected with the film and understood what we were trying to say with the movie. This has all just been icing on the cake for what has been the wildest ride for releasing a movie that I have ever had in my life. And hopefully ever will.
Joker is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K UHD and in the Foxtel Store