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Todd Phillips’ Risky Vision

Helmer’s journey from radical docs to comedies prepared him to create transformative cinema

By James Linhardt

Reeling in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Academy Award-nominated writer-director Todd Phillips decided to come out strong. He wanted to make a film about the evolution of a complex character whose malaise would depict a world profoundly out of sync.

Phillips’ vision would marshal the intellectual property of the DC Comics Universe to tell an original story with its roots in real-world dysfunction. Along with screenwriter Scott Silver (an Academy Award nominee for hit picture “The Fighter”), he imagined a film that would subvert the comicbook genre. It was conceived as not an escape from reality but an investigation of our fraying social fabric and corroded public discourse.

The result is “Joker,” an innovative film — anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s intense, Academy Award-nominated performance in the title role — that reflects both the early 1980s of its setting and a deeply unsettled current cultural moment.

Phillips’ filmmaking origins are in hard-hitting stories about complex characters and social discontent. With “Joker,” he found an unexpectedly perfect opportunity to revisit his cinematic roots.

Finding Unpredictability in Arthur Fleck - Own the 4K Ultra HD, Blu Ray & Digital Movie Now

To break new ground with “Joker,” Phillips ironically looked to Hollywood history — and his own. He began his career as something of a renegade documentary filmmaker, whose edgy projects would go on to become underground favorites. Having come of age as an artist in New York City some 25 years ago, Phillips was inspired by the best of 1970s New Hollywood, including seminal films “Network,” “Taxi Driver” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” And through that lens, he saw an opportunity to reimagine Joker with an examination of a man and a city on the edge.

According to production designer Mark Friedberg, Phillips often spoke with his crew about the idea of the “shadow self” — a facade that masks one’s vulnerabilities — and the subtle visual transformation involved in Arthur Fleck becoming Joker. Together they worked on ways to reveal the character without always relying on dialogue, to tell the story in a way that one could watch the movie without sound and still feel its emotional impact. “Joaquin’s performance is so measured, and he says so much without saying a word,” Friedberg says.

“Let’s do the more outside-the-box thing ... It just felt like people were ready for something different.”

“For the director, protagonist Arthur Fleck’s concerns cut deeply on both a mythic and a historical level, and Phillips and Phoenix joined forces to reimagine Joker as an intensified version of a New Hollywood-style antihero. He’s a man who has been driven to the brink of an emotional cliff by an unkind society. “Arthur is the guy you see on the street who you walk right past — or over,” Phillips says. “With this movie, we get a peek at what’s below the surface.” He suggests that at its core, “Joker” is a portrait of a society devoid of empathy.

To hammer home Arthur’s lonely, misunderstood existence visually, Phillips opted to give his original fiction film a gritty, documentary-style texture. “We included a few elements from the DC canon,” he says of his goal, “and set it in a broken-down Gotham City around 1981, because that harkens back to that [New Hollywood] era.”

According to Friedberg, “The dysfunction, the disconnection from the powers-that-be ... that’s the New York City of my youth. It was dirty. Every city agency was on strike at some point, and the ones that weren’t were corrupt. That’s what I thought made this such a striking piece when I read it. And that’s where our conversation started about this world of “Joker” — a Gotham that is not New York but is its own dark, gritty, tough urban city with roots in our collective past but with an eye toward our current moment.”

Phillips and Phoenix worked in tandem all during shooting to ensure that Arthur Fleck’s transition to Joker was gradual, even imperceptible.

That partnership challenged them both at times, Phoenix says: “I find it very difficult and unsatisfying to work with myself. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Todd. I tested him daily.” He remembers an extreme — and in retrospect, crucial — moment during the shoot, when Phillips made him do the same scene over and over until it hit just the right note, leaving both director and actor emotionally depleted. Of course, they eventually did get their take. As Phoenix recalls of the one that nailed it, “[Todd] said, ‘What was that?’ And I said, ‘Sincerity.’ He said, ‘Well, you should be sincere more often.’ ”

Phoenix credits Phillips’ tenacity with helping him tap into the core of the character. “Working with Todd on a scene,” he says, “if we didn’t find a surprising way of exploring it in the moment, we felt like we weren’t doing it right.”

Directorially, Phillips tapped into his do-it-yourself documentary roots to give the movie an intensified realism and a sense of palpable danger. “You gotta be bold,” he says, “because there’s much more great stuff available than ever, and you’re competing with so many things. So it’s really about cutting through the fog.”

Throughout the production of “Joker,” aesthetic decisions were guided by Phillips’ desire to push the limits of conventionality and aim for something completely new. “One of the mandates we had on this movie was when in doubt, let’s just be bold. Let’s do the more outside-the-box thing. And it just felt like people were ready for something different.”