After unveiling footage at industry events and dropping the latest trailer just this week, Warner Bros world premieres Joker at the Venice Film Festival today. The most anticipated film of the event, the Todd Phillips-directed DC origins story screened for Lido press this morning — with the longest lines I have ever seen for a movie here (the 8:30AM showing actually started 15 minutes late, and that never happens). The press corps later packed the conference room to give Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix and Zazie Beetz a very enthusiastic greeting.
The trio discussed a liberating process of building the character’s origins story, the slow-burn/gut-punch violence in the movie and whether it has a political message. They also delved into Joker’s “new and exciting” laugh — and Phillips, sort of, answered a question about DC v Marvel.
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Joker‘s Venice presence indicates an eye on awards season, it’s already generated early Oscar buzz before arriving here. The original reinvention of the familiar mythology is a unique standalone story that introduces Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night, but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events.
Phillips is best known for The Hangover movies, but said he doesn’t see Joker as that big of a departure. “It’s different tonally than a lot of my work, but ultimately it’s storytelling. I was influenced by the movies I grew up on, character studies of the 70s, so I thought why can’t you do genre film like that in the comic book world — a deep dive on a character like Joker. I thought with a great actor we could really do something special.”
Phoenix said he was drawn to the project because “we were going to approach it in our own way. I didn’t refer to any past iterations of the character. It just felt like it was our creation.”
He expanded on that to add, “I think what was so attractive is he’s so hard to define and you don’t really want to define him. There were times I would find I was identifying certain parts of his personality and then I would back away from that because I wanted there to remain a kind of mystery. Every day felt like we were discovering new aspects of the character.”
Phillips described his take on Arthur as “a guy who is searching for identity who mistakenly becomes a symbol. His goal genuinely is to make people laugh and bring joy to the world.”
An early reference for Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver was 1928’s silent film The Man Who Laughs. They felt they had “a lot of freedom because Joker never really had an origins story in the comics. We thought it was really liberating because there really were no rules or boundaries, Scott and I just pushed each other every day to come up with something totally insane.”
In terms of prep, the first part for Phoenix was physical: “You really start to go mad when you start to lose that much weight in that amount of time.” He also read about political assassins and would-be assassins, but was careful not to overly define Arthur. “I wanted the freedom to create something that wasn’t identifiable. I didn’t want a psychologist to be able to identify the kind of person he was,” he explained.
A key element of finding the character came during rehearsal when Phillips gave Phoenix a journal which acts as a prop in the film. Said Phoenix, “That was really helpful but I wasn’t sure how to start… It became a really important part of discovery for me at that time.”
As for the character’s laugh, which Phillips broke down into three types: “the affliction laugh, the one of the guys laugh and the authentic joy laugh”, the director described it to Phoenix as “something that is almost painful, part of him that’s trying to emerge.” That was “a really interesting way of looking at this laugh. We all assume what a Joker laugh is. This was new and exciting.”
Probed about gravitating towards tormented characters, Phoenix disagreed and said he had been “interested in the light of Arthur for lack of a better word. It wasn’t just the torment, it was the joy, his struggle to find happiness and to feel connected. To have warmth and love. I don’t think of a character as tormented.” Ultimately, Phoenix said of Arthur/Joker, “He was so many different things to me at different times… The more unpredictable it was the more inspiring.”
When asked about violence in the R-rated film, Phillips said, “Violence in the movie was always meant to be a slow burn. People assume and think it’s going to be a really violent movie; it affects you differently. You could watch something like John Wick 3 and there’s a much higher amount of violence. We tried to paint it with as realistic a brush as possible so that when it comes it feels like a punch in the stomach. But it’s all a balancing act of tone.”
And what about that tone? “I think movies are oftentimes mirrors of society, but never molders. We wrote it in 2017 so inevitably certain themes find their way in.” When he continued, “It’s not a political film” there was laughter in the press room, and he added “for some… I think it depends the lens which you view it through.”
And does Joker mean anything for the DC/Marvel rivalry? Phillips didn’t take the bait. “I’m not about the competition with Marvel and I’ve not been in the comic book world. When we conceived of this idea, it was a different approach. I don’t know the sort of effect it will have with other filmmakers. Comic movies are doing really well. They don’t need to change.”