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'The System's Broken' And 'Joker' Director Aimed To Explore That On Screen

Feb 7, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 10:42 am

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOKER")

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?

DAVIES: The city is going crazy, and the main character is increasingly unhinged in the movie "Joker," which won two Golden Globe Awards and is nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best film, best director and best adapted screenplay. Joaquin Phoenix is nominated for best actor for his performance in the starring role. "Joker" was produced, directed and co-written by our guest Todd Phillips, who also directed the "Hangover" films.

"Joker" is an origin story of sorts for the villain in the "Batman" comics and movies. It's set in Gotham City in 1981, which looks very much like Manhattan in 1981, but the movie isn't a comic book story. The main character, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a man with a history of serious mental health problems. An aspiring comic who works as a clown at parties, he's attacked by three men on the subway while he's wearing a costume and makeup. He's carrying a fellow clown's gun, and he shoots and kills his three attackers. The incident makes Fleck a folk hero in the crime-ridden city, and people start wearing clown masks in tribute to him. Meanwhile, social service cuts have left him without public assistance, and he's forced off his medications. The deterioration of the city and Arthur's mental health feed off each other in a disastrous way.

Terry spoke to Todd Phillips in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Todd Phillips, welcome back to FRESH AIR. "Joker" has really divided audiences and critics, but it's done fantastically at the box office. I'm one of the people who thinks this is a terrific film and a very serious film. You've said that you made the character Joker in order to make a serious movie that's kind of about a comic book character so you could get a big budget. It was, you said, a way to sneak a real movie into the studio system under the guise of a comic book film. Tell us more about that.

TODD PHILLIPS: I was starting to think that films that I grew up on, grew up loving, that - how hard it is to get those movies made nowadays. And I started looking around at the state of the movie business, about what people are showing up to. Clearly, you know, superhero films have taken over. So it really started as an experiment, so to speak, as like, well, you know, maybe you could get one of those kind of deep-dive character study movies done nowadays in the studio system if you, I guess, disguise it as a comic book film - not that it was a trick we were playing. It was just something of - boy, you know, you could do a character study if it was about one of those characters.

GROSS: Let's talk about your vision of Joker, the character of Arthur. He initially paints his face like a clown because he's employed by an agency that basically rents out clowns...

PHILLIPS: Right.

GROSS: ...Like, for your child's party or for, like...

PHILLIPS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The hospital children's ward. But for reasons I won't explain - I don't want to give away too much stuff - you know, he loses his job, but he continues, sometimes, to paint his face. And he has serious mental health problems. There's a history of mental health problems in his family, and he's soon off his meds because he can no longer afford them, and the city can no longer help him because they're shutting down social services. And his mental health deteriorates as the movie goes on. Why did you want this Joker to have a mental health disorder? And...

PHILLIPS: Well...

GROSS: ...Is it a specific disorder that you've given him?

PHILLIPS: Well, it wasn't that we wanted him to necessarily have a mental health disorder. What really we wanted to do and what really the whole MO of the film was - let's make a comic book film where we run everything through as realistic a lens as possible. So why does Joker have a white face and green hair? Well, in the comic books, he fell into a vat of acid. That didn't feel very real to us. If you fell into a vat of acid, I don't know that your skin would turn white and your hair would be green. So we came up - we sort of backwards-engineered everything. The mental illness was also a thing of going - well, a little bit like, where does his laugh come from? And if you see the movie, you realize he has a condition. Joker - you know, the Joker character in the comic book world is famous for the green hair, the white face, the laugh. So we really just wanted to give everything real-world reasons.

GROSS: So the deteriorating mental health gives...

PHILLIPS: Well, that was - OK. So, you know, that's a different question. Two parts - the first thing is we didn't ever really discuss specifically with Joaquin - when I say we, again, me and Joaquin didn't really discuss what we didn't want to put a specific label on what his mental illness is outside of his affliction that gives him the laugh, which is something that's called - caused from head trauma early on in life, which is a real thing. You know, nowadays it's called PBA, pseudobulbar affect. But back then, I don't know that they even had that name for it. But it's a real condition. So we thought, once we found that condition, you know, OK, that answers that.

As far as the mental health thing, you know, we really wanted to make a movie that says something - a statement, if you will, on these modern times. Yes, it takes place in 1981 in a fictional city of Gotham, but we wrote it in 2017 in New York City. And oftentimes, you know, movies are mirrors, and they reflect what's going on whenever they take place. And that was something Scott and I really - was important to us, that we are addressing things that we feel or felt were going on in the world in 2016 and '17, as we were writing it.

You know, we all know the big changes in this country that were happening then. Like, I can tell you when Obama was president, we wrote three "Hangover" movies (laughter). When everything changed, suddenly, things felt darker, you know? Anyway, so the mental illness to us was a lot about, you know, what you hear about when social services get cut. What happens to these people? We really thought it was important to shine a light on the system. You know, I think, like a lot of people, the system's broken. And why not use a film to make a comment on that?

GROSS: You've said that there are a lot of films and filmmakers who were influential on you in the making of "Joker." But I think the one that really stands out the most is Scorsese in terms of, in part, how the film looks. You know, you've got De Niro in the movie, and he was in "Taxi Driver" and "King Of Comedy." There are some shots and some things that are so reminiscent of shots in "Taxi Driver." And even there's two times - like, at the end of "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle puts his finger to his forehead as if the finger is a gun. And then with his thumb, he kind of pulls the trigger of this, you know, imaginary gun.

So another, like, Scorsese reference is the fact that there's a late-night "Tonight Show" kind of variety show that's Arthur's mother's favorite show. And Arthur's grown up watching it, and he loves it, too. They watch it every night together. And in "King Of Comedy," Scorsese's film, De Niro is the obsessive fan of the late-night show, which in that movie is hosted by someone played by Jerry Lewis.

PHILLIPS: Yeah.

GROSS: And De Niro kidnaps the Jerry Lewis character.

PHILLIPS: Yeah.

GROSS: And De Niro's goal is to, like, be on that show himself. And in "Joker," the Joker character gets on that late-night show that De Niro hosts for very misguided reasons on the host's part. So I just wanted to play a short clip. And this is, you know - so, you know, Arthur, the Joaquin Phoenix character, the Joker character, shows up after he's invited on the show. And he's wearing, you know, Joker makeup and clothes.

PHILLIPS: His full look.

GROSS: The full look. And the producer of the show, the Fred de Cordova type...

PHILLIPS: Yes.

GROSS: ...Played by Marc Maron, is, like, horrified. And the Johnny Carson type played by De Niro is kind of like, oh, no. We can make this work. This could be fun. The audience will enjoy it. I think there's one more thing we need to set up, and, Todd, I'm going to let you do it and give away as much as you want to about why they're suspicious of him dressed as a clown.

PHILLIPS: Well, basically, that day, there happened to be a big protest planned at City Hall, so there's a lot of people dressed up as clowns in this Joker look, which was, of course, inspired by him early on - this description given of him from those initial subway killings. So you'll hear them reference - you'll hear Marc Maron reference the sort of protests that are going on in the city and how somebody actually that day - not by Arthur, but was killed, actually, by a policeman in a confrontation.

GROSS: So here's that scene between the host, De Niro, whose name is Murray, the producer played by Marc Maron and Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur, Joker.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOKER")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) What's with the face? I mean, are you part of the protests?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) No, no. I don't believe in any of that. I don't believe in anything. I just thought it'd be good for my act.

MARC MARON: (As Gene Ufland) For your act? Didn't you hear what happened on the subway? Some clown got killed.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) He's aware of that. He's aware of that. Yeah.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) No, I hadn't heard.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Yeah.

MARON: (As Gene Ufland) You see; this is what I'm telling you. The audience is going to go crazy if you put this guy on - maybe for a bit, but not a whole segment.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Gene, it's going to work. It's going to work. We're going to go with it.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck, laughter) Thank you, Murray.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) A couple of rules, though - no cursing, no off-color material. We do a clean show, OK? You go on right after Dr. Sally.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) I love Dr. Sally.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Good, good, good. Well, someone will come and get you, OK?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) OK.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Perfect. Good luck.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) Thanks, Murray.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Yeah.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) Murray, one small thing.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Yeah.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?

MARON: (As Gene Ufland) What's wrong with your real name?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) That's what you called me on the show - a joker. Do you remember?

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Did I?

MARON: (As Gene Ufland) I don't know.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Well, if you say so, kid, you know, Joker it is. It's good.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) Thanks, Murray.

GROSS: OK, so that's a scene from "Joker." My guest is the director and co-writer, Todd Phillips. What was it like to direct both De Niro and Phoenix - Joaquin Phoenix together? Were they both able to arrive at the place they needed to be in terms of getting the character in the same way at the same time? You know, like, some actors like to take a lot of takes. Some actors go to extremes to get in roles. Both Phoenix and De Niro have either lost or gained a lot of weight...

PHILLIPS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...For roles. I mean, they...

PHILLIPS: Right.

GROSS: ...Both get very deep into the characters they're playing, but did they sync up?

PHILLIPS: Yeah, I mean, as much as you want Murray and Arthur to sync up. I mean, they didn't really have to be in sync. That scene is one giant cringe, really...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

PHILLIPS: ...Where you're just like - and so that - you don't necessarily want them to be in lockstep with each other. But yeah, it was amazing to witness somebody like De Niro's approach as opposed to somebody like Joaquin's approach just in general. But again, I've seen that before with actors, just not with Robert De Niro, which was just mind-blowing to me.

GROSS: Could you describe anything about those approaches without violating their confidence?

PHILLIPS: I mean, you know, Joaquin has a lot of questions and really likes to go really deep on stuff. I jokingly have said this about Joaquin to his face, so I could say it now. I say, Joaquin is the tunnel at the end of the light.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PHILLIPS: Just when you think, you know, you've cracked it, there's a whole 'nother (ph) layer to kind of peel back. And De Niro, at least - again, I can only speak with my experience on this movie with these two characters - much more matter-of-fact about it, kind of gets it on the first bounce, understands who Murray is, you know, and where Murray comes from. And - OK, he's been on the air for 30 years. It's just two different approaches. But again, I just want to preface that by saying - or say that I think that's how Joaquin is on this movie. I don't know that he's like that on every movie. It's what he needed for this character.

GROSS: I think we should take a short break here, and then there's...

PHILLIPS: Great.

GROSS: ...Plenty more to talk about.

PHILLIPS: OK.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Phillips, director of "Joker" and, of course, of the "Hangover" movies. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE UNICORNS SONG, "TUFF GHOST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Phillips, director of "Joker." He also directed the "Hangover" movies.

You create some real mayhem in "Joker." And again, without giving away too much - but I know a lot of our listeners have already seen it - Joker has become an - he's taken some vigilante action early in the film and become something of, like, a hero to a lot of people who are feeling, like, angry and resentful and disenfranchised and out of work. And, you know - and they just kind of have a demonstration and erupt, and there's a lot of mayhem. Can you talk a little bit about creating that, creating both the story part of that and then actually literally creating it on set?

PHILLIPS: The movie was primarily shot in New York - in and around New York City - the Bronx, Brooklyn, areas that have yet to be totally gentrified, although I'm sure it's coming. Where we shot the mayhem that you're talking about at the end, the very end, was Newark, N.J., on a street called Market Street. There's, like, a great five-block stretch in Newark where we were able to take over. And Mark Friedberg, our production designer - we were really able to build out what the city would have looked like in, let's say again, 1981 and bring in 500 extras and dress them in clown masks and makeup and others in different things and just, you know, almost approach it like a war movie. OK, people over here, this is the crew that's going to break windows. And this crew over here is going to have fire. And this - you know, and you kind of, with the stunt coordinators and with your AD department, your assistant directors - we just created this mayhem.

I mean, it's fun to do. We shot nights in Newark - probably three nights, freezing nights, over the course of that. It's definitely a fun thing to create, but it's also scary because you have 500 people going crazy. And you want everybody to be safe, and there's fire around and cars flipping and, you know, things happening. But it's an electric feeling to shoot it. I imagine it's almost like shooting a war movie or something.

GROSS: So before I'd seen "Joker" - which, again, I want to mention, I liked a lot, just to be clear on the direction from which my questions are coming - I'd already heard reports about, like, is it too violent? Will it cause violence? And so the trailers I saw before "Joker" were trailers, like, for movies with - like, action movies with a lot of CGI. So I remember, like, one scene where somebody's basically run over by, like - it's either a tank or some kind of, like, large, futuristic iron vehicle. And after being run over, he gets up and starts running away, and I thought, like, this is absurd. Like, there are so many movies like this in movie theaters now, where people just can take any kind of violence and still survive, and it's so unrealistic that - why would a realistic depiction of the consequences of violence be the movie that presents the problem?

PHILLIPS: I know. It shocked us as well. And, you know, when we came out in the summer after, you know, another "Rambo" movie or "John Wick" film - and, again, I think these films can exist, should exist. People - there's an audience for them. But you talk about celebrating violence, and "Joker" is - what "Joker" was guilty of is presenting real-world implications to that violence. And to us - and maybe this was shortsighted - that felt like such a more responsible way of dealing with violence. I think in the end of the movie - by the end of the movie - seven people die in our film, all people that did him wrong. Nobody random dies. He doesn't shoot any - you know, in his head, people who screwed him over. Whether he's right or wrong, that's another question. But he's not killing people randomly. It's not, you know, large-level mass killing.

This is - I mean, this is essentially - you know, you talk about the movie being inspired by "Taxi Driver," but really, we were inspired by a time of films. And I would say there is as much "Death Wish" in this film - it's a revenge film as much as a "Taxi Driver," "King Of Comedy," "Network," "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," all these movies that inspired us. But anyway, it just felt really surprising to us when we started getting attacked for it being too violent, when you're like, wait a minute.

GROSS: Joaquin Phoenix lost over 50 pounds for this role, like he kind of did in "The Master." And when his shirt is off, he looks so undernourished, and you imagine he's, like, emotionally undernourished and spiritually undernourished, that he's undernourished in every way. Like, his bones jutting out is kind of like a metaphor for his whole existence. How did you feel watching him lose that much weight? It's not a healthy thing to do. I understand his desire to do it for the role, and it really is - it's very disturbing to see. It's very effective in the movie. But were you worried about his health when he was doing it, and did you feel very responsible?

PHILLIPS: OK, so first, I should say he did not have any desire to do it. That was something I asked him to do. He really...

GROSS: Oh, really?

PHILLIPS: Yeah. He came to me early in the script. It was written, you know, that Arthur is - I don't know if we use these words, but malnourished and wolf-like in his appearance, you know, or coyote - I don't remember. But it was always really important to me that he was bone-skinny. Joaquin came to me early on in those initial meetings we were talking about doing the movie and said, you know, what do you think if it's the opposite? What do you think if he's sort of, like, heavy Joker, like, you know, just kind of because, you know, he's on all these medications, and sometimes, the side effects of medications is you gain weight. And I said, no, I really think he needs to sort of look hungry all the time, or as you said, just malnourished. And he was bummed because he knew how hard it was because, like you said, he'd done that before in "The Master." He lost a bunch of weight.

I was only concerned because he put it off for so long. He didn't really start losing weight until, I think, May or June, and we started shooting in September. And I kept saying, when do you start doing it? He's like, don't worry. Don't worry. I know to do this. I've done it before. And so I was only concerned with the speed at which he did it, which really - he lost 52 pounds in three months, I think. And now I will also say he had to lose 20, meaning even Joaquin would say he was 20 pounds overweight at that time for him. So, you know, the 20, we're like, OK, good. Now he's back to how he normally is. But then to lose those 30 was no joke.

GROSS: Todd Phillips, thank you so much. It's really been great to have you back on the show. And congratulations on the success of the film. I mean, people are very passionate. People are divided about it, but it's provoked a lot of really interesting conversations. And for - it's a great piece of filmmaking.

PHILLIPS: It has definitely - yeah, it has definitely struck a nerve. And I really appreciate you having me on, Terry. It's a thrill.

DAVIES: Todd Phillips speaking with Terry Gross in January. He produced, directed and co-wrote the film "Joker," which is nominated for 11 Oscars. The Academy Awards ceremony is Sunday. Coming up, we remember actor Kirk Douglas, who died Wednesday at the age of 103. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new Russian movie "Beanpole." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HILDUR GUDNADOTTIR'S "DEFEATED CLOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.