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.

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