Director Todd Phillips on Joker, the Golden Lion-winning reinvention of Batman’s arch nemesis.
Fresh from its Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival, Joker is sure to be one of the most polarising films of the fall. We attended the press conference straight after the film’s press premiere to hear what writer-director Todd Phillips had to say about his radical take on the demented clown prince of crime.
Considering your past films (Old School, The Hangover series) this is not the most obvious film for you to helm…
I don’t see the movie as that big of a departure for me personally. It’s different tonally to many of the films I’ve done before, but ultimately, it’s all storytelling. I was influenced by the movies I grew up on, the great character studies of the 1970s, and I kept thinking: ‘Why can’t you do a genre film in the comic book world like that?’ I wanted to do a deep dive on a character like Joker.
How attractive was it to write an origin story that was never in the comics?
There was a lot of freedom there, because Joker as a character in the comic books never had one origin story. That was the fun of him. He says in one of the comic books that he prefers to think about his past as ‘multiple choice’. There were no rules and it was liberating. (Co-writer) Scott Silver and I pushed each other every day to come up with something totally insane.
Was Alan Moore’s comic ‘The Killing Joke’ an influence for you?
We were able to pick and choose certain elements from the past comic books… So there is a little bit of ‘The Killing Joke’ with the idea of a failed stand-up comedian. Another big influence for this movie and the thing that inspired the original creators of Joker was the silent film, The Man Who Laughs, which is really where this started.
Taxi Driver also feels like a specific touchstone…
There was a tonne of specific inspirations we had for this movie and Taxi Driver is one of my favourite movies. But it’s not directly that – I think it’s more a time period of movies, these great character studies that they don’t do as much nowadays. Whether it’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, Serpico or Raging Bull, and of course The King Of Comedy… Martin Scorsese was doing a tonne back then.
Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix on this project and on this character?
We spent a lot of time, Joaquin and I, before we started making the movie, talking about the character, talking about the script, about the laugh, the voice, how he dresses, what his hair is like… All these things that you do in general in movies, but it seemed we would go rather deep into it. And even when we were making the movie, it never stopped. Even on the last day, we were discovering things and saying that we should shoot for three more weeks, redo this and redo that, because we were constantly finding new things about the character that we loved and wanted to dig into.
The role of the Joker feels like the American Hamlet, with many actors putting their own interpretation on it, and one that changes with the times. How influenced were you by the time in which we’re all living in?
I think movies are often times mirrors of society, but they’re never molders. Even though the movie takes place in the late 1970s to early 1980s, we wrote it in 2017, so inevitably certain themes find their way into the movie that may exist now. Not everybody sees that – some people just see it as a new take on the Joker origin story. I hate to define it for people, and it’s certainly not a political film. It just depends on the lens which you view it through.
The character always wants to see the world burn…
Yeah, this Joker’s goal was not to watch the world burn. He had an entirely different goal in mind. He’s a guy searching for identity. He becomes, mistakenly, a symbol, someone who didn’t get what he was creating.
Do you see empathy, specifically a lack of empathy, as one of the main themes of the film?
It’s a big part of what the movie is about. It’s about the lack of empathy that we were seeing in the world at the time we wrote it, and that still exists.
Joker hits Berlin screens on Oct 10. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.