Oscars: 10 Things to Know About Best Picture Nominee 'Joker'

8:54 PM 2/2/2020

by Christy Piña

Todd Phillips' take on the nihilistic Crown Prince of Crime, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen is up for 11 Academy Awards.

Joker Still 5 - Warner Bros. Entertainment Publicity-H 2019
Warner Bros. Pictures

Todd Phillips' take on comic book villain The Joker is going into the 2020 Oscars as the most nominated film with 11 nods from the Film Academy for everything from best picture to best sound editing and best adapted screenplay.

One of nine films up for the top prize of the night, best picture, Warner Bros.' Joker also received nominations for best actor (Joaquin Phoenix), original score, director, cinematography, sound mixing, best costume design, best film editing and best makeup and hairstyling.

The film follows failed-comedian-turned-professional-clown Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) as he tries to form connections with people throughout Gotham City, like his next door neighbor and a little boy on a bus. As he imagines things around him going the way he'd like, Arthur attempts to blend in with society, only to be constantly pushed to the edge. Isolated and bullied, Arthur begins transforming into the Clown Prince of Crime known as The Joker.

Joker has already won a number of awards this season, including at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics' Choice Awards and BAFTAs.

From Martin Scorsese's involvement with the film to the real meaning behind its storyline and Thomas Wayne's big secret, here are 10 behind-the-scenes facts about the film, including some spoilers.

  • A 'Joker' Sequel Is in the Works

    After all of the success the film has had, including grossing more than $1 billion worldwide at the box office, it's no surprise that a Joker sequel is in the works.

    Not much is known about the sequel, except that Phillips and Scott Silver, nominated for the best adapted screenplay Oscar for their work on Joker, will be writing the script together, with Phillips in talks to direct. Though that's pretty much all that's known about a second film, Phillips did toy with the idea of Bruce Wayne's origins in the first film.

    Arthur finds a letter his mom, Penny (Frances Conroy), wrote to Thomas Wayne, hinting that Bruce and Arthur are half brothers. Throughout the film, Penny's not the most reliable person, and sometimes makes things up, like Arthur does, so there's no guarantee that Bruce and Arthur are related at all. But, seeing as Phillips and Silver put that possibility in motion, there's definitely a chance it could be further explored in the sequel.

    However, they probably won't explore Bruce's origins too much because there is already another Batman film in the works at the hands of writer-director Matt Reeves, set to hit theaters in June 2021.  

  • Former Joker Jared Leto Wasn't Happy With Phillips' Project

    In October, sources told The Hollywood Reporter that early on in the making of Phillips' dark version of Joker, onetime Joker actor Jared Leto tried to get the film shut down by asking his music manager, Irving Azoff, to call the leader of Warner Bros.' parent company. Someone close to Leto denied that he made the request, while Azoff declined to comment.

    Leto felt "alienated and upset" when Warners greenlit the project, and believed the studio had strung him along with promises of his own movie after he played the grinning villain in 2016's Suicide Squad.

    Despite Leto's unhappiness with the studio, his rep says he's still joyously working with them, currently shooting Little Things, John Lee Hancock's upcoming film with Rami Malek and Denzel Washington.

    Sources also said that Leto probably won't get the chance to play the Joker again after Phoenix's performance. "How do you play the Joker you established following [Phoenix]?" one person involved in the situation said. "It kind of ends his Joker run.”  

  • Martin Scorsese Was Originally Involved With the Film

    Scorsese might not be the biggest Marvel fan, but it seems he does see potential in the DC Universe. When Joker was first unveiled by Warner Bros. in 2017, Scorsese was listed as a producer, alongside Phillips directing. Scorsese eventually dropped the producing credit, and what he contributed to the film is still unknown.

    A source told THR that Scorsese was even eyeing a director credit on Joker before Phillips came along with his take on the comic book villain. Warners didn't comment, but Scorsese's rep said he "had no intention to direct Joker."

    Around the time of Phillips' pitch to Warners, Scorsese started switching his focus to The Irishman, after Robert De Niro and Al Pacino committed to the project and the de-aging technology caught up to Scorsese's ideas for the film.

    A Warners source said, at the time, that Scorsese was involved simply because Joker needed a producer based in New York, since it filmed there. When Scorsese stepped back from the project, his producing partner, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, took over production.

    Though Scorsese didn't end up being involved in the film's production, Phillips told THR during its annual Director Roundtable that Scorsese's work in the 1970s and '80s greatly inspired the film. 

  • Before the Film Hit Theaters, There Were Fears It Would Incite Violence

    In the days leading up to Joker's theatrical release, fear that the violence depicted in the film would inspire copycats spread, so much so that the New York City and Los Angeles police departments increased their presence at movie theaters over opening weekend.

    Though there were no "credible threats" the week before the film's release, the LAPD released a statement encouraging everyone to go about their typical weekend plans and to rest assured the police were being extra vigilant.

    The Thursday night before the film's opening weekend, a theater in Huntington Beach, California, closed because the venue received what the police considered a credible threat, but nothing happened. The following day, the theater resumed its normal hours.

    Phillips struggled to get Joker made because of the violence portrayed in it, he told THR's Director Roundtable. His take on the comic book villain received a lot of criticism for the violent content, but Phillips didn't think his decision to make the film was irresponsible, like some people did.

    "To me, I thought, isn’t it a good thing to put real-world implications on violence? Isn’t it a good thing to take away the cartoon element of violence that we’ve become so immune to?" Phillips said during a post-screening Q&A at the New York Film Festival in October. "So, I was a little surprised when it turns into that direction, that it seems irresponsible, because to me it seems actually very responsible to make it feel real and make it have weight and implication."

    During the Roundtable, the award-winning director said he didn't subscribe to the notion that his film was dangerous or could incite any sort of violence and considered the media responsible for spreading that. "They just pick a movie every so often and declare it means something that it doesn't," he explained. 

    Phillips emphasized that the film wasn't about the violence and was actually about something much deeper, but "everybody always wants to talk about the spark and not the powder," he continued. "The film's really about the powder, what makes that happen." 

  • Phillips Says 'Joker' Is "About Childhood Trauma"

    Phillips felt that people worrying about Joker inciting mass mayhem and violent eruptions across the country showed they were missing the message he was trying to convey. 

    "To us, the movie was always about childhood trauma, about lack of love and the loss of empathy," the writer-director explained. "How do you make a guy like Arthur? Where does he come from?"

    In one of the film's most iconic scenes, Arthur dances on an outside stairway in the Bronx after fully emerging as the Clown Prince of Crime. Since Joker's release in October, people have flocked to the staircase, often decked out in red suits and green wigs.

    "They all told us weeks before anybody saw the movie that it would inspire mass mayhem," the director said. "Now, we realize it's just inspired people to dance on a staircase in the Bronx." 

  • The Director Only Wanted Phoenix for the Role

    "[Phoenix] seemed to me like an agent of chaos, and I really did feel like the person who does take this role on, you have to have that inside," Phillips said, jokingly describing the 45-year-old actor as "the tunnel at the end of the light."

    One of the things that most appealed to Phoenix about Arthur was his laughing disorder. He found the struggles that come with a compulsive laugh and the fact that it was rooted in a real condition interesting. 

    Before committing to the film, Phillips and Phoenix were discussing it at the latter's home in Hollywood Hills when he demonstrated Joker's joyless giggle. "The first time he did it was fantastic, like amazing," the director remembered.

    The two discussed the role for months, and one day, without even really saying yes, Phoenix showed up at the wardrobe fitting.  

  • Brett Cullen Played Thomas Wayne as if He Is Connected to Arthur

    Brett Cullen, the actor who plays Thomas Wayne in Joker, was just as surprised by the possible relationship between Arthur and the Wayne family as viewers were when they saw it in theaters, he told THR.

    The film indicates that Thomas Wayne could be Arthur's father, as a result of an affair with his mother Penny, but it later hints that Penny may not be the most reliable person due to her compulsive lying, leaving viewers uncertain of the true relationship between Arthur and the Waynes.

    When Cullen approached Phillips about the plot twist, he recalled Phillips asking him what would be a compelling reason for Joker to hate Batman as much as he does. "The idea that the Joker is an illegitimate child that didn't get anything from the Wayne family is a very compelling motivation for his character's hatred," Cullen explained. "This movie makes you feel for Arthur when you see him struggling with his mother and she's saying, 'Go see Thomas Wayne, he'll help us. He's a good man.' It's gut-wrenching."

    Though the film keeps the truth about Arthur's relationship to the Waynes a little fuzzy, Cullen said he played the part of Thomas as if he and Penny did have an affair, making it a high possibility that Arthur really is Thomas' son.  

  • Working With Phillips and Phoenix Was Intense

    Cullen also told THR about the intensity of working with Phoenix and Phillips. "I would call it electric," he said. People didn't hang out on set, they were working hard constantly, following the director and lead actor's footsteps.

    Phoenix and Cullen had great conversations in the makeup trailer, but as soon as Phoenix became Joker, he shut down and was fully in character. "He lived that part, losing the weight, getting into the spiraling mental state, it was damn impressive," Cullen stated.

    They often shot scenes in several different ways, trying to figure out if particular scenes were too dark and should be lighter or vice versa. 

    One especially difficult scene to shoot, which took multiple takes and script rewrites, was the confrontation between Arthur and Thomas, when the former asks the latter if he really is his father.

    At a point during shooting, Phoenix started rubbing his face, walked in a circle and left the set. "I thought maybe I'd done something, but Todd said, 'No that's just how he is. Something was bugging him, and he needs to reset,'" Cullen shared.

    Cullen prepared for the first rewrite of the scene the following day at 3 a.m., then he received an entirely new version when he arrived for makeup, and then an even newer draft when they started rehearsals. "I told them, 'Guys, I don't know these pages at all.' Joaquin laughed and said, “It's OK, neither do I. By the time we shoot we'll probably have it.' I really relaxed at that point," Cullen said.  

  • Zazie Beetz's Sophie Survives

    Phillips intentionally left certain parts of the film up to interpretation, like the fate of Zazie Beetz's Sophie Dumond, Arthur's empathetic neighbor about whom he fantasizes he has a romantic relationship with.

    The last time Sophie's seen onscreen, Arthur walks into her apartment and she barely recognizes him, which reveals that all of Arthur and Sophie's previous scenes together were a part of his imagination. When Arthur leaves her apartment, it's unclear if she's alive or not. Beetz is 100 percent certain her character survived, and Phillips confirmed it shortly before the film crossed $1 billion at the global box office.

    "It was always very self-evident to me that she didn't get killed. Arthur was avenging himself against people who did him wrong, and I didn't [wrong him]. I acknowledged him," Beetz told THR. "I think when he comes into my apartment, he understands what the situation is and that I would feel fear in that moment. I still function in an act of trying to take care [of him], like, 'Should I call your mother?' or, 'Do you need help right now?' I never felt that [she died], but a lot of people did." 

  • 'Joker' Broke Numerous Records

    Despite the fears of violence surrounding Joker's release, the film broke multiple box office records during its opening weekend and beyond. The film had the biggest October domestic opening of all time, raking in $96.2 million and a record for opening day at more than $39 million.

    Some of Joker's other records include: biggest October international opening of all time, biggest Imax October opening and biggest worldwide launch of all time for October. Its opening was a career best for director Phillips, lead actor Phoenix and co-star De Niro. The film also marked Warner Bros.' biggest domestic opening in two years, since It in 2017.

    Domestically, since its release, Joker has earned almost $335 million and $736 million overseas. Worldwide, it surpassed Deadpool as the top-grossing rated-R film, bringing in over $1 billion so far.