Emma Tillinger Koskoff has built a reputation as Martin Scorsese’s right hand, working her way up from an assistant on 2004’s The Aviator to sharing a 2020 Oscar nomination with the filmmaker for The Irishman. But just four days after ending a 108-day shoot on the director’s Netflix film, Koskoff found herself in a scouting van with Todd Phillips, taking a leap of faith with another director. Joker may not have seemed like a natural move for Koskoff, who hadn’t kept up with comic book films since working as Uma Thurman’s assistant on Batman & Robin more than 20 years earlier — and who had never produced a movie not directed by Scorsese.
But her gamble paid off. The R-rated Warner Bros. project, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as loner Arthur Fleck as he becomes Gotham’s psychopathic criminal mastermind, has nabbed the most Oscar nominations of the year (11 nods, including best picture, best director and best actor) and has earned more than $1 billion globally. In the midst of a busy awards season, Koskoff is already prepping her next film, Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Killers of the Flower Moon, and juggling campaign duties on The Irishman as well. But she took some time to talk with THR about the most stressful moments on the Joker set, the prospect of a sequel and why Scorsese still hasn’t seen the movie.
Knowing what Joaquin Phoenix went through on the role, what did his Golden Globes speech mean to you?
EMMA TILLINGER KOSKOFF From day one of principal photography, I literally was like, “This is the most extraordinary acting I have ever had the privilege of watching up close on the day.” I was mesmerized for the 57 days of shooting that followed. I was sort of glossed over, watching him up there, because I was so proud of him and so happy that he is getting the recognition for this performance. I said to anybody who would listen to me that he’s going to sweep and win every possible acting award available to him for this role, and that appears to be what’s happening. Fingers crossed, knocking wood, toes crossed, for what’s still to come.
You are known as the kind of producer who lets talent know you are there to support them, giving them space unless they come to you. Is that doubly so on Joker, with an actor going through such a transformative performance?
Every actor comes with different needs. I have worked with Joaquin only on this film, and you can imagine what he as a human being went through to get to where he needed to be to perform every day — the weight loss that he and Todd decided upon and just the nature of the character. I’m very good at reading the room. I know Bob De Niro’s needs on The Irishman are going to be far different from Joaquin Phoenix’s on Joker. When Joaquin was still new to preproduction and had just come to New York to dive into prep, it was important to me that he knew he was going to want for nothing. I didn’t want to assume anything, and I didn’t want to be that person who would be like, “Hey, are you OK? No. You’re not OK. I know you’re not OK. You’re starving.” I just wanted him to know early on that my lack of checking in didn’t mean I’m not here and I don’t care. I just didn’t want to interfere with what he was dealing with and going through.
What kind of things would Joaquin come to you for?
It was not a lot. He doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles a lot of actors come with. He’s pretty self-sufficient. I wanted to respect his creative space and just take care of whatever came up when it came up. Anything he needed in terms of comfort. Extra time in the morning. Whatever I could do production-wise, from a physical production standpoint. That’s where I come into the mix.
What was the most stressful shot in Joker to get right for you?
The one scene that was very stressful for me was the stair dance, because Joaquin had been working on it for a while. And it’s really the first time you’re seeing the Joker, aside from the reveal in the room. This was an extremely important scene for him. His privacy while shooting the scene was of paramount importance to him. New York City has no paparazzi laws whatsoever. If you are in a public space, they can literally be at the camera. You can’t tell them to get off the set. Every day we were outside we’d be done shooting, and it’d be all over the internet that night. We really wanted to protect this. There were extensive meetings with my key grip and production manager. “Can we flag it?” — meaning, to cover it. But there was no way to shield him. That was a major stress to me, believe it or not, because I wanted desperately to protect that. I’m pretty sure we did. I’d have to go rummage through the internet, but I’m pretty sure we got away with it somehow.
Scorsese has said he hasn’t seen Joker, aside from a few clips. Does that surprise you?
It’s not surprising. I don’t know where that interview was or how that came up within the conversation. You know what this time is like, the madness that is Oscar campaigning. Marty has not seen anything. Joker is just one of the many films he has not seen, so it’s not specific to Joker, it’s just the amount we’ve all been working and traveling and running around. We’re in full prep on the next film, so he’s also prepping a movie. I think when he says, “I’ve seen clips,” he probably means from television — television ads. Having CNN on or whatever.
On that note, have you had time to see the other nominated films?
I haven’t seen all of them. I’m trying to plow through them. It’s an extraordinary year for movies all around. I loved Parasite. I loved it. I loved Marriage Story. Once Upon a Time. I haven’t seen [but want to see] 1917, I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit. There are a couple I’m dying to see and will see before Feb. 9. My schedule has been insane, so it’s hard. But I try to see all the movies by that magical Oscars date. I think that’s Marty’s thing, too. It’s simply time management.
You don’t seem like a franchise filmmaker, but then again neither does Joaquin. Would it take much convincing to join a potential Joker sequel should Todd and Joaquin make one?
I would be there in a heartbeat. It’s a no-brainer. I would be bummed if I wasn’t asked back. It was a beautiful, incredible experience, and I couldn’t be prouder of the film. Todd is an angel and heaven to work for. I would run, not walk, back.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.