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Joker star Joaquin Phoenix and the film’s director Todd Phillips addressed the controversy surrounding the movie during a post-screening Q&A at the New York York Film Festival on Wednesday evening, saying that they don’t see the onscreen violence as irresponsible.
“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. “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.”
The screening came ahead of Joker’s release on Friday, which will coincide with the deployment of additional New York City police to theaters showing the DC film. Los Angeles police previously announced its department would do the same. Though there haven’t been any “credible threats” connected to Joker, some have condemned its gruesome violence and voiced their apprehension to even see the film after three mass shootings this summer, along with the one that took place seven years ago at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.
At the Q&A, Phillips maintained his previously stated sentiment that even among the ongoing discord, Joker “speaks for itself.”
“I mean, it’s a complicated movie and I’ve said it before, I think it’s OK that it’s complicated,” the director said. “But I didn’t imagine the level of discourse that it’s sort of reached in the world, honestly. I think it’s interesting. I think it’s OK that it sparks conversations and that there are debates around it. My mantra’s always been, the film is the statement. It’s great to talk about it, but it’s much more helpful if you’ve seen it.”
Phillips continued, explaining that it’s the conversations being had by these people that bother him. “There’s been so much conversation around the movie by people who haven’t seen the movie; thinkpieces written by people who say, ‘I haven’t seen the movie. I’m not going to see the movie. I don’t need to see the movie,’ ” he said. “And then they write two pages about the movie.”
Phoenix told the audience that while he typically doesn’t consider what’s going to happen after a movie’s been made, he took some time to decide whether or not to take on the role of the Joker.
“I gave all my sisters the script, and my mom. My whole family read it,” he said. “And we had a lot of discussions about it.”
Throughout the rest of the conversation — which also included Joker production designer Mark Friedberg, cinematographer Lawrence Sher and producer Emma Tillinger — Phillips and Phoenix discussed the actual filmmaking process.
Phillips described taking the Joker character and “running it through as realistic a lens as possible,” by providing believable backstories for commonly known elements of the villain, like how he wears his makeup. The Joker’s infamous cackle was even reframed as part of a real medical condition that causes random bouts of uncontrollable laughter as a result of neurological damage.
“Before I even read the script, Todd showed me videos of people that have these bits of laughter, these uncontrollable bits of laughter,” Phoenix explained. “Obviously the Joker laugh is iconic, and everybody kind of imagined what it is or what it should be like, and I thought it was a really smart way of approaching that laugh. It probably informed the way that I researched the character and how we created it.”
As for the rest of Phoenix’s preparation process, he said “there was a lot of stuff” he did on his own “but it’s just so fucking boring” that he didn’t want to bother the audience with it.
As was the case with the Los Angeles premiere of Joker, the NYFF screening restricted press access on the red carpet.
The initial nix of reporters came after family members of those killed in the 2012 shooting wrote an open letter to Warner Bros. expressing their concerns about the film’s violence and asking that the studio donate to groups that aid victims of gun violence.
Warner Bros. responded with a statement that said in-part, “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind.”
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