Everyone is talking about Joker.
The new film from Todd Phillips, starring Joaquin Phoenix as arguably the most famous comic book villain ever, won’t be out until next month. And yet, after initial reviews, film festival reactions, and the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, it’s already one of pop culture’s biggest stories.
Which makes sense. There’s a lot going on in the film! But before getting to that, some people may wonder, why make this movie at all? Luckily, Gizmodo was among a group of journalists who got to sit down with Phillips and Phoenix in Los Angeles last month and do a lot of talking.
“I just thought it was an interesting way to tell a story,” Phillips said of his approach to Joker. “I think it’s an interesting new approach to the comic book world.”
In the film, Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a disturbed clown for hire who, through a series of unfortunate events, ends up becoming an ultra-violent villain named Joker. And yet, the film is almost the antithesis of all other comic book movies. It’s a period piece. There are no real special effects.
If you think about it, it almost didn’t have to be called Joker at all. “Could it have been called ‘Arthur’ and it just be about a clown? Maybe,” Phillips said. “I just thought that there’s a new way to tell a comic book movie, and maybe I’m wrong, but let’s do it as a character statement. A big part of what it should be about, more than making a movie called ‘Arthur,’ was to kind of deconstruct the comic book movie a little bit.”
One of the many ways Joker does that by leaving its text wide open to interpretation, which was a mantra very early on in the process.
“Part of, like, the joy of this movie is how the audience interacts with the film, and what they think about the character,” Phoenix said of reactions to the film. “Whenever we got to the 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.”
As a result, Joker almost becomes a mirror on its audience. Phillips even mentioned that, while the film is absolutely not a part of the larger DC film universe, people have tried to see it that way, trying to square the circle on how it could fit into a DC timeline where the age gap between the Joker and Batman.
In the film, Bruce Wayne is played by a young actor named Dante Pereira-Olson, who is nine in real life, while Phoenix is playing Arthur probably in his 40s, though neither character is ever explicitly given an age in the film. By that logic, by the time Bruce becomes Batman, Arthur would be much older than the traditional Joker — but even to Phillips, that people approached his movie that way was an intriguing reaction.
“People I have shown this movie to, they go ‘Oh, I get it,’” Phillips said. “And by the way, I am not saying they’re right but they go ‘Oh, I get it. He’s not the Joker, he’s the inspiration for the Joker. He is somebody that inspired the Joker.’ And you go ‘That’s an interesting way to look at it, why?’ and they go, ‘Oh, their age difference’ and I go ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”
While people can read into the movie however they want, Phillips and Phoenix aimed for most of that reading to be grounded in our reality — making those interpretations less about comic book lore and more about real-world issues.
“The movie, in every way, tries to be grounded in reality as much as possible,” Phillips said. “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, [are we] going to drop him in acid?… While it’s amazing in the comic books and Jack Nicholson and all that, it doesn’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.”
The film’s setting — Gotham City in a once again undefined time period, probably in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s — is also a key factor in conveying what the filmmakers were going for.
“There were a lot of reasons [to set it then],” Phillips said. “One reason was to separate it, quite frankly, from the DC Universe. When we pitched it to Warner Bros and handed the script in, [we wanted to] make it clear, this isn’t fucking with anything you have going on. This is like a separate universe so much so that it takes place in the past before everything else.”
“Another reason is [that], tonally, the movie is very much a character study,” Phillips continued. “These movies we grew up on and loved, you go ‘God, those movies don’t get made as much anymore.’ They get made, these character studies, but… in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were much more frequent. It’s also just an old homage to that time. We’re making a movie that feels like that, why not set it there?”
So yes, everyone is talking about Joker. But in the end, if Phillips and Phoenix were able to ride that line between comics and reality, between the past and present, between social and political, there should be so much to talk about and consider when the credits roll. But in actuality they’re both really hoping is that you don’t want to speak at all.
“I always enjoy movies that are difficult to speak about right after,” Phillips said. “You go, ‘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 is something 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.”
Joker is in theatres October 3.