ALL JOKES ASIDE
PHOENIX EARNS ACCLAIM FOR DARK PORTRAYAL OF THE JOKER
Every superhero and, conversely, every villain needs an origin story. Batman’s nemesis the Joker didn’t have one, so filmmaker Todd Phillips decided to create one.
The Oscar-nominee directs, co-writes and produces Joker, the highly anticipated stand-alone film which exists distinctly outside the traditional DC Comics mythology.
“I love the complexity of Joker and felt his origin would be worth exploring on film, since nobody’s done that and even in the canon he has no formalised beginning,” he says. “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.”
Taking place during the early 1980s and taking inspiration from films including Taxi Driver and Serpico, Joker is set in a time of turmoil when the haves and have nots are growing further apart. The tensions are only exacerbated by a weeks-long rubbish strike.
“We included a few elements from the canon and set it in a broken-down Gotham City around 1981, because that harkens back to that era and would remove it from the comic book world we’re so familiar with in film today,” Phillips says.
Joaquin Phoenix is already the subject of Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck/joker – a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society.
Longing for any light to shine on him, he tries his hand as a stand-up comic, but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty and, ultimately, betrayal, Arthur makes one bad decision after another that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events.
“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,” Phillips says.
“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 marginalised 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.”
Phillips not only cast Phoenix but wrote the part with him in mind.
“Joaquin’s previous work always stuck with me, but what I really like about him is his style and his unpredictability, which we felt would very much fit into this character,” he says. “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.”
Phoenix, who lost 22kg for the role, enjoyed working on a character who was always open to interpretation.
“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,” he says.
“Usually with characters that is frustrating, not understanding their motives; but with this character it became liberating, realising 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.”
Joker opens in cinemas on Thursday.