Critics gave the press screening one of their most enthusiastic receptions yet, applauding the 122 minutes of Phoenix’s brilliant physical performance well before the credits began to roll. Oscar buzz was already brewing for Phoenix before the film’s debut and is sure to grow after its Italian launch.
The Joker character has been depicted numerous times on film and TV, most famously by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for the role a decade ago.
Phoenix negated being influenced by past silver screen Jokers. “For me the attraction to make this film was we were going to approach it in our own way. I didn’t refer to any past iterations of [the Joker]. It just felt like our own creations, which was really important to me and the key to it.”
Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the part, fully inhabiting his own version of the character which first appeared in the original Batman comic in 1940. Losing weight in such a short time helped Phoenix get in character. “It turns out that affects your psychology. You start to go mad,” he said. Todd Phillips also gave him a blank journal/joke book which helped him uncover his character as he began to fill in the pages, with words and images that are seen in the film.
Phillips’ Joker, a stand-alone film in the DC universe, is set in 1981 Gotham City. Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a man living in near-poverty with his mother (Frances Conroy), struggling to make ends meet as a clown-for-hire. Affected by a brain trauma, Fleck served time in a mental ward, is treated by a listless city social worker who oversees his seven different medications and struggles with a condition that causes him pathological laughter at the most inopportune times.
Gotham is plagued by giant rats, uncontrollable trash, and a deep divide between rich and poor, causing ongoing tension that results in daily street fights and beatdowns among the city’s less fortunate. Fleck has dreams of being a stand-up comedian and starring on the popular late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But his propensity toward sadness and laughing fits set him up to be ridiculed once he gets his stage time.
When Fleck reaches his limits in being beat down, it’s the perfect setup to create one of cinema’s most terrifying villains. The film also stars Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Brett Cullen, Brian Tyree Henry and Glenn Fleshler.
“He’s so hard to define and you don’t really want to define him,” said Phoenix, saying he shied away from giving him any kind of recognizable mental health diagnosis. “We would get close at times where I found that I would identify certain parts of his personality or his motivation, and then I would back away from that because I wanted there to be a mystery to the character.”
“Throughout the course of shooting it felt like every day we were discovering new parts of his personality, up until the very last day,” said Phoenix.
“It was his struggle to find happiness and to feel connected and to feel warmth and love, and that’s the part of the character I was interested in,” he said. “He was so many different things to me. Who he was in the first few weeks of shooting was completely different than who he was in the end. He was constantly evolving. I’ve never had an experience like this. The more unpredictable and looser we left it, the more exciting it was.”
Phoenix also went in-depth into how he developed his signature laugh for the role, saying it needed to be “something that’s almost painful. I think for Joker it’s a part of him that wants to emerge. I think we all kind of assume what a Joker laugh is and it felt like a new, fresh way of looking at it.”
The laugh itself was many months in the making. “I didn’t think that I could do it,” he said. “I kind of practiced alone but I asked Todd to come over to audition my laugh. I felt like I had to be able to do it on the spot and in front of somebody else. It was really uncomfortable. It took me a long time.”
For his part, Phillips described the different modulations on the laugh as the “affliction laugh,” trying to be “one of the guys laugh” and the final developed laugh of “authentic joy.”
The film team described creating the character’s backstory from scratch as incredibly liberating. “There’s a lot of freedom because Joker in the comics never had an origins story,” said Phillips. “He said in one of the comics that he preferred to think of his origins as multiple-choice.”
Phillips described the co-writing process with Scott Silver as one without boundaries or rules. “We pushed each other every day to come up with something totally insane,” he said.
The director declined tying any of the set design to other DC references. “When you make a comic book film, a lot of people find meaning in things where we never meant it.” Instead, he drew influence from 1970s character study films like Taxi Driver and Serpico, as well as the 1928 Paul Leni film The Man Who Laughs.
Phillips said that the lack of empathy in the world was a big part of what the film was about. “I don’t think this Joker’s goal was to watch the world burn. This Joker had an entirely different goal in mind. In the beginning of the movie he’s searching for identity. I think he mistakenly became a symbol. His goal was to genuinely make people laugh. He made a few bad decisions along the way, but that was not his goal.”
Phoenix largely dodged questions around potential sequels or awards buzz, but did jokingly add his own acceptance speech when prompted for a comment. “I would like to thank myself for not answering your question.”
Joker has its world premiere in Venice on Saturday. It opens in the U.S. on Oct 3.