'Joker' DP Lawrence Sher on the Influences and Controversy of the Gritty Antihero Movie

The cinematographer discusses his sixth collaboration with director Todd Phillips, this time on the dark, R-rated Warner Bros. film starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Niko Tavernese

Joker cinematographer Lawrence Sher is the guest on the latest episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Behind the Screen podcast series.

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and out in theaters this week, offers a gritty, realistic origin story on Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and the events that lead him to become the deranged clown-faced villain he's best known as in the Batman tales.

Sher discusses a range of topics, including Joker's cinematography, its story, the prerelease headlines and how art is perceived by audiences.

"I don't think the movie deals with [Arthur's] violence irresponsibly or cavalierly in the slightest," Sher says.

"Films that portray troubling things, I think, are thought-provoking in ways that we can have the conversation. I'd rather people go see the movie, sit down afterward and talk about some of the issues in the movie."

Joker is Sher's sixth collaboration with director Todd Phillips. The others are The Hangover series, Due Date and War Dogs.

"I knew about Todd; we run in similar circles. I was a fan of his filmmaking, but Old School I still regard as one of the funniest movies of all time. I wish I was a part of that one," Sher says.

For Joker, he says he and Phillips revisited the movies they grew up watching in the 1970s and early 1980s, such as Serpico (1973), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976) to create a visual aesthetic for their version of the infamous DC Comics antihero.

"That was the initial discussion — it's going to be a character study. This is not a traditional comic book movie, which then starts to take you into a place of other character studies, which were some of those really breakthrough movies of that era in the 70s and 80s," he says.

"So anthropologically, you start watching and thinking about those movies, not only for their influences on the story and the tone but also photographically as to what was it about those movies that made them different from the movies that preceded them, and are different from the movies today."

Hosted by THR tech editor Carolyn Giardina, Behind the Screen features conversations with directors, cinematographers, editors and other artists behind the making of motion pictures and episodic series.

Hear it all below on Behind the Screen — and be sure to subscribe to the podcast to never miss an exciting episode.