How Martin Scorsese Paved the Way for 'Joker'

Joker Scorsese - H - 2019
'The Irishman' helmer initially was involved as a producer on the DC villain blockbuster and may even have eyed it to direct.

Martin Scorsese raised the hackles of Marvel fans when he recently told Empire magazine that the franchise "isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being." But it turns out he saw cinematic potential in the DC Universe.

The Irishman helmer was involved with Joker — which opened in the U.S. to $96 million over Oct. 4-6, an October record — as a producer when the project was first unveiled by Warner Bros. in 2017 with Todd Phillips directing. Although he eventually dropped the credit, his contribution has been a mystery. A source close to Scorsese tells The Hollywood Reporter he originally eyed Joker as a potential directing vehicle before Phillips approached the studio with his own take on the nihilistic villain.

Warners declined comment, while Scorsese's rep says he "had no intention to direct Joker" and only "considered producing."

In 2016, Phillips pitched former Warners chief Kevin Tsujihara and former production co-president Greg Silverman his original idea that would stand alone from the interconnecting DC film storylines featuring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Toby Emmerich, now Warners film chief, loved the script co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, but questioned whether it needed to live in the DC Universe at all, lest it be dubbed "dark" like the label that was then sticking to its movies.

Tsujihara and Emmerich greenlit Joker, which cost less than $70 million, leaving Jared Leto — who played Joker in Suicide Squad — alienated and upset by the move. 

Around the same time as Phillips' pitch, Scorsese began focusing his attention on Irishman, as stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino committed and the de-aging technology had finally caught up with the director’s vision.

A Warners source says Scorsese was enlisted simply because the movie needed a producer based in New York, where Joker filmed. But that explanation doesn’t square with Scorsese’s filmography, in which he typically takes a producing credit on projects he originally develops with an eye to direct (like the long-gestating The Devil in the White City, which is migrating to TV) or else to lend his support to up-and-coming indie filmmakers (like the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems). Joker would fit into neither category.

Instead, Scorsese quietly left the comic book-based film, and his producing partner, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, took over Joker producing duties and rolled over most of the crew from Irishman to work on Joker (De Niro also straddled both films). Although it has been speculated that Scorsese initially was brought into the mix to entice his frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio, multiple sources say that is not true, and Joaquin Phoenix was the only actor considered by Phillips.

For his part, Phillips turned down other comic book-based films in the wake of his Hangover trilogy success because he found them to be “loud.” But Joker’s homicidal protagonist managed to entice both Phillips and Scorsese (critics have noted that Joker borrows from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy).

Ironically, Scorsese and Phillips will likely be battling one another in this year’s awards-season race given the reviews both Irishman and Joker have mustered to date.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.