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Interview: Joaquin Phoenix & Todd Phillips Talk ‘Joker’, ‘The King of Comedy’ Inspiration and More

A few weeks ago Geeks of Color had the chance to attend an early screening of Joker with fellow journalists, followed by a Q&A with the film’s star Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips.

As we put down our recorders at the front of the theater, Phillips started the Q&A by welcoming us:

Todd Phillips: I find it difficult to talk immediately after a lot of films, this film in particular for me. And I found that as we’ve shown it to people, even when I just bring someone to the editing room and show it to a friend, a filmmaker friend, whoever, and then it’s over and then they need time – a little bit to sort of process it honestly, in a way. But we don’t have that luxury, but we can answer stuff if you have questions. We can talk about things. Go ahead.

Q: Just going on what you’re saying, was that your goal from the beginning when you were thinking of pitching this idea?

Phillips: The goal that you can’t talk about it after?

That it has a sort of profound impact.

Phillips: Yeah. I mean, a little bit. I mean, not a little bit, yeah, for sure. I always enjoyed movies that are difficult to speak about right after, and you go, “You know what? I want to process this a little bit.” I always find those to be particularly rewarding in a way. It’s not like that was a specific goal, but it’s something that I always enjoy about movies, where you can’t necessarily distill it down into a one-line thing really simply. So, yeah, I suppose it was somewhat of a goal.

Q: The physicality of Arthur’s character is fascinating, and I’m curious how you developed that?

Joaquin Phoenix: Well, some of the dancing, there was a sequence where he was the clown and then there was the dance on the steps. So, I worked with this choreographer for that, but then something after working with him, Michael Arnold was his name, I just started watching a lot of videos of people dancing, movement-

Phillips: I think one of the earliest things we spoke about was that Arthur had music in him. You know, like it just existed in him. Some people that you might know personally have that feeling, and I always thought that about Arthur, but it was sort of kept in and trapped. And there was something about that evolving, but like the scene in the bathroom, which I think is what you’re getting to, where he just starts dancing, that’s not in the script, that’s not in the thing, that’s something that kind of evolved and like, oh this is a moment where can sort of show that it’s kind of fighting to get out. You know? But I love the dancing in the movie. I think we should have more of it.

Phoenix: That’s a pretty good answer. Was the dancing always there?

Phillips: Well, the only dancing in the script was the dancing obviously as a clown in the beginning, which isn’t really much of a dance. It’s a performance, but the dancing on the stairs was there. Other than that, we didn’t do it, but when we started talking about Arthur, we started talking about music and having music in him and that kind of thing.

I’m curious about for the writing and for the performance aspect of it, there’s stuff in there that as far as having head trauma and the implication that—I have a family member that literally has a lot of the affliction that’s in this, from head trauma as a kid. That wasn’t coincidence.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Phillips: No, we researched it, and I studied, quite frankly, that laugh and people it’s afflicted in different ways. Some people cry from this, and some people laugh. And it’s always at the wrong moment, and it’s really painful. And what we discovered is, it happens from head trauma as a young person or even older. And it happens from MS, which we didn’t necessarily want to give Joker/Arthur MS. So we went with this head trauma thing. The movie in every way tries to be grounded in reality as much as possible. It still has a foot in the comic book world, for sure, but we just kept thinking, “Let’s put everything through a realistic lens.” Like, why does he have a white face? Well, we’re going to drop him in acid. While it’s amazing in the comic books, and Jack Nicholson and all that, it didn’t feel very real that that would happen if you fell into a vat of acid. So let’s come up with a realistic answer for everything, and that was one for the laugh. So yeah, we researched it. Does that make sense?

Phoenix: It does, but even that, we don’t know.

Phillips: Right, we don’t even know if he’s putting it on.

Phoenix: In some ways, as much as there was very thorough research, and answers for a lot of these things, whenever we got to a part where we felt like we were coming up with a definitive reason for anything, we backed away from it. We found a way to kind of circumnavigate it a little bit. Right? We just wanted it to be—

Phillips: He hates logic.

There was a moment where he says something like, “You told me it was an affliction, that I had a condition, but I don’t.”

Phillips: Right. You say that’s the real me, and that’s an important part because oh wait, it isn’t. But what is this?

Phoenix: And I don’t think we necessarily want to answer those things for ourselves or for anyone else. They’re part of the joy of this movie, how the audience interacts with the film and what they think about the character.

Phillips: I’ve had younger people watch the movie, and just go, “This is an awesome origin story of the Joker that I would have never thought of.” And then we’ve had other people that are more seasoned watching movies that see references or see, “Oh, this is reflective of what’s going on today.” And blah blah blah. And it’s just two as-valid responses. And so it’s always difficult, when you make a movie, to define it for people, because your job is to make the movie and let them sort of…

Q: How’d you find the laugh?

Phoenix: The laugh. Which one?

Phillips: To me, there’s like three different laughs in the movie.

I guess whatever you would deem the most iconic, fully formed laugh.

Phoenix: Well, really, do you remember that I auditioned myself? I had you come over to audition the laugh.

Phillips: That’s right.

Phoenix: Because I didn’t think I could do it. And you showed me some videos, right?

Phillips: That’s right.

Phoenix: So you showed me some videos of some laughs and I thought, “That’s really good.” In the script, it described the laugh being almost painful. I thought it was a really interesting way to describe laughter. And you came into my house, and I was really uncomfortable. I sat there five minutes trying to work it up, and finally you said, “You don’t have to do this.”

Phillips: You already have the part, yeah.

Phoenix: And I said, “No, I have to do this. Because if I don’t do this now, if I can’t force myself to find it now, then forever I’m going to fucking puss out.” So I did it.

Phillips: And for him to summon it on the day of the shooting was always different and sometimes he would need time to do it, honestly. I’m talking about the affliction laugh, you know that was to me, probably, the hardest one to do. There’s the laugh where he’s fake laughing to be one of the guys or put in the comedy club. The affliction laugh, I think, was probably hard to muster up, so there were times on set where it would be a little bit…so I would throw out a private joke to him that would try to make you laugh about somebody on the crew or something.

Phoenix: I never made fun of people on the crew.

I was kind of struck by the period setting, the fact it was specifically, I guess, 1981 and I’m in my mid-forties and a lot of the stuff I kind of forgot about growing up, about how kind of ugly a period of time it was in the late 70s to the mid-80s. If you could talk a little bit about that kind of choice of that- I had even forgotten about Zora the Gay Blade.

Phillips: It came out in 81.

Even like the Bernie Getz kind of thing, it sparks the whole thing.

Phillips: Well, for us, in the movie, we never say it’s 1981, but we say it’s late 70s or early 80s, mainly because we don’t want people to be like “Wow, that car wasn’t out in 1981.” So late 70s or early 80s, but the time for me, the reason we set it there, was a lot of reasons. One reason was to separate it, quite frankly, from the DC Universe. When we pitched it to Warner Brothers and handed the script in to sort of make it clear, this isn’t fucking with anything you have going on. This is like a separate universe. So much so, it takes place in the past before everything else. Another reason is because tonally, the movie is very much a character study that—I’m a little older than you, but same as movies we grew up on and loved, and you go, “God, those movies don’t get made as much anymore.” They get made, these character studies, but you know. The Social Network is a great one. There Will Be Blood is probably the best character study in the last twenty years. But in the 70s and 80s, they were much more frequent, so in a way, it was also just an homage to that time where making a movie that feels like that, then why not set it there? It was not some really great thing, it was just a few reasons. And part of the reason that every filmmaker likes to do things, period, is so you don’t have to deal with fucking technology in movies, because it’s so frustrating. Like “Oh, if they have a cell phone that gets solved.” So there’s a bunch of reasons, but there’s something else. I like the handmade feel of those movies back then. And we tried to kind of inject that. Being that we were going basically no CGI, which doesn’t mean none, there’s obviously some world building we’ve done, but there’s some real handmade quality to those films in the late 70s and 80s that I just always loved, I’m sure.

Q: So I watched King of Comedy last night for the first time, changed my life. So one thing I realized was the color patterns on the clothes kind of matched the backgrounds. I noticed you did that in this one too. Did you do that on purpose?

Phillips: Obviously there’s a nod to a few things in this movie. King of Comedy for me—you’re way younger, I probably saw it when I was your age and it changed my life as well. I just love it so much. Obviously I went to De Niro, sent him the script, he understood the kind of reference, understood the flip of Rupert Pupkin to Jerry Langford. As far as the color scheme, it wasn’t honestly something—in that movie, it’s a little bit more direct. In this, it’s a little bit more random, but a lot of what we took… the curtains for example, is a little bit of a spin on Johnny Carson’s curtains, but certainly there’s a touch of King of Comedy in there, there’s a touch of Network in there, there’s a touch from me of Dog Day. There’s a lot of movies all from that time, we were talking about earlier, that speak to that kind of, again going back to why did we set it back then. It’s just, to me, not that the movie’s a love letter to those movies, but it’s very much an homage to that.

Joaquin, what did you think? Have you watched it in full?

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

PHOENIX: Have I seen the movie?

Phillips: Yeah.

Phoenix: What do I say?

Phillips: Is that a hard question to answer?

You started to answer.

Phillips: He came over to my house and watched the movie. There are many cuts, the first cut to this movie is two hours and thirty-five minutes, he saw that. And right now it’s two hours and two minutes, I think with credits. So you’d have to ask him.

Phoenix: I know. And what’s so hard?

Phillips: It just sounds lame either way.

Phoenix: No matter what you say, you’re like…you sound like a conceited thing.

Phillips: Right.

Joker also stars Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Shea Whigham, Frances Conroy, Bill Camp, Brian Tyree Henry and Glenn Fleshler.

If you haven’t already, you can check out spoiler-free review here. Joker hits theaters October 4th.

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