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An intensely realistic 1981 Gotham City sets the stage for Joaquin Phoenix’s cinematic descent into madness.

Although the setting of ‘Joker’ may technically be fictional, the film’s early 1980s Gotham nevertheless aims for a gritty, visceral depiction of a city on the edge. Inspired by New York of the era, ‘Joker’ borrows real world elements to cement its verisimilitude, right down to ever growing piles of garbage filling the streets, the result of a sanitation strike that actually occurred in late 1981. With a strong foothold in reality, the film lets leading man Joaquin Phoenix begin the story as downtrodden comedian wannabe Arthur Fleck. Suffering from a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at random intervals, Fleck is doing what he can to make ends meet for himself and his elderly mother. As misfortunes mount, however, the already loose fitting mask of sanity threatening to slip completely from Arthur’s face.

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“I love the complexity of Joker and felt his origin would be worth exploring on film,” says Phillips, “Since nobody’s done that and even in the canon he has no formalized beginning. So, Scott Silver and I wrote a version of a complex and complicated character, and how he might evolve... and then devolve. That is what interested me—not a Joker story, but the story of becoming Joker.”

Phillips and Silver wrote the film’s screenplay with Phoenix in mind for the title role. Envisioned by Phillips as a “malnourished wolf”, the character of Fleck led to Phoenix losing 52 pounds to achieve his emaciated look.

“Joaquin’s previous work always stuck with me,” Phillips explains, “but what I really like about him is his style and his unpredictability, which we felt would very much fit into this character. While other people are doing math, Joaquin is playing jazz. He’s just one of the greatest, he’s fearless; his work is brave and vulnerable, and I thought if we could get him, we could really do something special.”

“He starts out just wanting to make people laugh, trying to put a smile on their faces,” adds Silver. “That’s why he’s a clown, why he dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. He just wants to bring some joy into the world. But then the toxic environment of Gotham breaks him down—the lack of compassion and empathy, the loss of civility… That’s what creates our Joker.”

Fortunately for Phillips and Silver, Phoenix had a strong response to their script and soon signed on as the latest talent to portray DC Comics’ Clown Prince of Crime on the big screen.

“I thought it was bold and complex and like nothing I’d ever read before,” says the star. “Todd has a unique way of looking at things that is really perfect, I think, for this movie. When I work with a director, I want somebody who has a singular take on the material, and nobody could have made this movie but Todd.”

For Phillips, getting ‘Joker’ right meant finding the delicate balance between a grounded protagonist and the often bigger than life world of DC Comics.

“In the version of the story we were telling, having a guy fall into a vat of acid didn’t work,” the filmmaker explains, “…[W]e tried running everything through a ‘real world’ lens. To make sense in the world of our movie, we thought, ‘Well, why would he put this make-up on when he eventually becomes Joker? Where did he get this make-up and why does he have it? What if he’s a clown?’ Then, of course, we had to ask ourselves why he’d work as a clown, which we determined was because his mother always told him he had to bring laughter and joy to the world. It all came together from there.”

Part of the fun in telling a story from the Joker’s perspective is that Fleck, who suffers from severe mental illness, quickly becomes an unreliable narrator. Phillips delighted in that prospect, remembering the Joker’s famous line from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s epochal 1988 story.

“You have an intense amount of freedom with an unreliable narrator, and even more so when he’s Joker,” says Phillips. “He even says in the comic book Batman: The Killing Joke, ‘If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.’ So, what really happened, and what you think he is by the end, just depends on the lens through which you watch the movie. You won’t walk away having all the answers and that’s what I think is intriguing about a character like this.”

“There were times when I thought Arthur would enjoy altering his story because of the effect it would have on how someone might feel about him, and there were other times where I thought he’d alter it because it’s what he really believes,” adds Phoenix. “Usually with characters that is frustrating, not understanding their motives; but with this character it became liberating, realizing it could go in any direction. Working with Todd on a scene, if we didn’t find a surprising way of exploring it in the moment, we felt like we weren’t doing it right.”

While ’Joker’ paints a picture of a world lost to madness and violence, Phillips hopes that audiences will leave the theater with a new outlook on the world around them.

“One of the themes we wanted to explore with the movie is empathy and, more importantly, the lack of empathy that is present in so much of Arthur’s world,” says Phillips. “For example, in the movie you see the difference in the way little kids and adults react to Arthur, because kids see the world through no lens; they don’t see rich versus poor or understand a marginalized individual the way adults do. They just see Arthur as a guy who’s trying to make them smile. It’s not inherent, we have to learn how to be unaccepting of others and, unfortunately, we usually do.”

“There were times when I found myself feeling for him,” adds Phoenix. “Even feeling like I understood his motivation, and in the next moment I would be repulsed by the decisions he made. Playing this character was challenging for me as an actor, and I knew he would also challenge the audience and their preconceived ideas about the Joker, because in his fictional world, like in our real world, there are no easy answers.”

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Before there was a Batman or a Joker, there was Conrad Veidt as ‘The Man Who Laughs’.

When the Joker debuted in the pages of ‘Batman’ #1 nearly 80 years ago, there’s no way that anyone involved could have foreseen the lasting impact that the comic book villain would continue to have on popular culture. With ‘Joker’, the new film from writer and director Todd Phillips, DC Comics fans will be treated to an all new origin story for Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime, set in a grim and gritty Gotham City, directly inspired by 1981 New York. To fully appreciate the origin of the Joker character, however, you'll have to go back even further, to the 1928 Universal Pictures silent adaptation of Victor Hugo’s ‘The Man Who Laughs’.

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A massive production for Universal, ‘The Man Who Laughs’ was, in many ways, a major turning point for the studio and for producer and founder Carl Laemmle. Just a few years prior, Universal had struck box office gold with a 1923 adaptation of Hugo’s more famous novel, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. Starring “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, Lon Chaney, in the title role, ‘Hunchback’ proved such a success that Laemmle was eager to have Chaney immediately headline another picture. Plans fell apart for Chaney to lead ‘The Man Who Laughs’, however, and he, instead, took the lead in a 1925 production of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.

Slightly delayed as a result, ‘The Man Who Laughs’ wound up going into production a few years later with Paul Leni in the director’s chair. Leni, who had started his career in Germany, had garnered significant acclaim for his 1924 expressionist horror fantasy ‘Waxworks’ and wound up emigrating to Hollywood for two more features: the spooky mystery ‘The Cat and the Canary’ and a Charlie Chan adventure, ‘The Chinese Parrot’. Both were released in 1927 to much acclaim, although the latter, unfortunately, is now considered to be a lost film.

Having famously portrayed the eerie somnambulist Cesare in Robert Wiene’s 1920 ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’, star Conrad Veidt was no stranger to performing under heavy makeup. He had also worked with Leni on ‘Waxworks’ in Germany, playing a wax figure of Ivan the Terrible, brought to life by magic. To Leni, Veidt was the perfect choice to lead ‘The Man Who Laughs’ as Hugo’s tragic hero, Gwynplaine.

Despite his frightening visage, Gwynplaine is very much a virtuous hero in ‘The Man Who Laughs’. Born a prince, Gwynplaine’s father is killed when he is very young the boy’s face is sliced into a permanent grin before he is left to fend for himself in a cruel world that views him as nothing more than a freak show attraction. It was the scarred smile on Veidt’s face that wound up directly influencing the look of the Joker when he debuted on the printed page 12 years later.

"Bill Finger and I created the Joker," Bill Kane told Entertainment Weekly in a 1994 interview. "...Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, 'Here's the Joker.'"

Those familiar with ‘The Man Who Laughs’ will also find some interesting story beats from the 1928 film reflected in the narrative of Phillip’s ‘Joker’. Speaking at the Venice Film Festival, Phillips revealed that the silent film was a big part of setting his own cinematic take in motion.

“[That’s] is really where this started,” he says. “It's funny. The co-writer, Scott Silver, e-mailed me this morning... He sent me our first e-mails back and forth and I was reading them. They were all about 'The Man Who Laughs'. I almost forget in the process that that was such a big inspiration for us."

Tragically, Leni would only make one more film. The murder mystery ‘The Last Warning’ hit theaters on Christmas Day in 1929, opening to rave reviews and leading Laemmle to sign the director for a big budget adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ with Veidt attached to star. Unfortunately, a severe toothache led to a fatal case of sepsis and, at the top of his creative game, Leni died at age 44. As a result, ‘Dracula’ went to director Todd Browning, who famously set Bela Lugosi in the lead. Although he would continue to act until his death in 1943, Veidt would never again play a role quite like ‘The Man Who Laughs’.

Moviebill’s Senior Editor, Silas Lesnick also worked behind the scenes with Flicker Alley to bring ‘The Man Who Laughs’ and ‘The Last Warning’ to blu-ray and DVD. Both titles feature 4K restorations and are available now at www.flickeralley.com

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