Everyone involved with the film would like you to know that Joker is not your average comic book movie. There are no big CGI action set pieces, no exhaustive world-building, no capes or spandex. Director Todd Phillips wants this to be a dark, gritty, realistic character study…that just happens to feature the Clown Prince of Crime. As we get closer and closer to Joker‘s worldwide premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Phillips is opening up a bit about how an R-rated, standalone Joker movie got made in the first place.
It Took Todd Phillips a Year to Convince Warner Bros. to Make the Film
While there have been more than a few R-rated comic book movies, it wasn’t easy to convince Warner Bros. to go all-in on Joker. Speaking with the L.A. Times, director Todd Phillips says that convincing the studio to make the film was “a year-long process” from when the script was finished “just to get the new people on board with this vision.” Phillips adds:
“There were emails about: ‘You realize we sell Joker pajamas at Target.’ There were a zillion hurdles, and you just sort of had to navigate those one at a time…. At the time I would curse them in my head every day. But then I have to put it in perspective and go, ‘They’re pretty bold that they did this.’”
A big reason the film was able to get off the ground was the modest budget – at least in comparison to other comic book movies. “There were some hiccups trying to get the green light and there were some concerns about some of the content,” says producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff. “But once we locked and loaded our budget, they really gave us a tremendous amount of space to do what we needed to do. The passion Todd has for this movie is palpable, and when he starts talking about it he’s hard to say no to. At the end of the day, he got to make the movie he wanted to make.”
That budget was $55 million — “roughly a third the cost of Warner’s most recent DC Comics film, Aquaman.”
Hiring Joaquin Phoenix Was a Drawn-Out Process
The biggest draw here – at least for me – is the casting of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is an incredible actor, and he’d been offered comic book roles before and turned them down – most notably Doctor Strange. According to the L.A. Times story, it took a “drawn-out, four-month process” to finally convince Phoenix to take the role. What ultimately swayed Phoenix was the prospect of “creating a complex flesh-and-blood character in shades of gray rather than a black-and-white cartoon villain.”
“That’s really the only thing that’s worthwhile; the other thing is connect-the-dots and paint-by-numbers, and who the [heck] cares about that?” the actor says. “There are certain areas of the character that frankly still aren’t clear to me, and I’m fine with that. There’s something enjoyable about not having to answer a lot of those questions. It requires a certain amount of participation from the audience that feels different.”
Think of the Movie as a 1970s Character Study with Comic Book Characters
When you head to the theater to see Joker, don’t go in expecting a standard comic book movie. Don’t even go in expecting something like Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight Trilogy. Instead, Phillips compares Joker to ’70s character studies – Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Serpico, and of course The King of Comedy, although that was released in 1982.
“The movies that I grew up loving, these character studies from the ’70s, you couldn’t get those movies made in this climate,” says Phillips. “I said to myself, ‘What if you did a movie in that vein but made it about [comic book] characters?'”
I can’t deny it: I’m curious about all of this. And I’m sure I’m not alone. Here’s hoping Joker delivers.
Joker opens October 4.
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