Director Todd Phillips will be the first one to tell you that he’s not exactly a huge comic-book person. Sure, Phillips — best known for raucous hit comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover” — read comics as a kid, and he’s seen films like Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. But for the most part, going to see comic-book movies, let alone making them, has never really been his bag.
“I’ve been offered a few over the years and my thing was always: I don’t watch those movies,” Phillips said on a recent afternoon at his production office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. “It’s not because I don’t think it’s cool. It’s just like, quite frankly, they’re always so loud.” He laughed. “It was just never something I imagined doing.”
It may seem surprising then that, with his highly anticipated new film, “Joker,” Phillips finds himself delivering a fresh take on the origin of arguably the comic world’s most iconic villain, a fiendish criminal mastermind who has battled Batman through eight decades of pop culture history. But then again, “Joker” is not exactly what we’ve come to expect in a comic-book movie.
Hitting theaters Oct. 4 after spins through the Venice and Toronto international film festivals, “Joker” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a troubled clown-for-hire and aspiring stand-up comedian living on the margins of a crime-ridden Gotham City circa 1980 or so. Budgeted at just $55 million — roughly a third the cost of Warner’s most recent DC Comics film, “Aquaman” — the R-rated “Joker” is closer in spirit and substance to gritty cinematic portraits of antiheroes from the 1970s — “Taxi Driver,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Serpico” — than your typical modern comic-book movie.
There is no shiny CGI spectacle. No high-speed chases in high-tech vehicles. No capes. No quips. It’s some 45 minutes before anyone so much as fires a gun.
“You’re not starting on 11,” said Phillips, who co-wrote the film with Scott Silver. “You’ll get to 11, but we’re really starting on 2, and it goes from 2 to 3 to 4. It’s a slow burn.
“It really came from this idea: What if you just did a comic-book movie differently?” he explained. “We all grew up on these character studies, and they’re few and far between nowadays. So it was like, ‘Let’s do a deep dive on one of these guys in a real way.’ No one is going to fly in it. No buildings are going to collapse. It’s just going to be on the ground, so to speak.”
At a time when comic-book movies have come to be a key economic pillar of the studio system, precision-tooled for global domination, Warner Bros. — which has had a bumpy track record with its DC films compared with Marvel Studios’ virtually unbroken string of blockbusters — is gambling that there is an appetite for another kind of comic-book movie altogether.
Going beyond the gravity Nolan brought to his acclaimed trilogy, “Joker” exists entirely apart from the rest of the current DC cinematic universe, which introduced Jared Leto as the villain in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” and will launch a reboot of the Batman franchise in 2021. Phillips’ film isn’t designed to kick-start a new series or generate ancillary revenue streams from toys, video games and theme-park rides. It is its own one-off experiment, the success of which will be measured as much in critical plaudits — and potential awards — as in box office receipts.
“This is a very gutsy move for Warner Bros., and I commend them,” said “Joker” producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff. She came onto the project via her longtime partnership with Martin Scorsese, who had considered becoming an executive producer on the film before becoming too busy with his upcoming gangster epic, “The Irishman.” (In just one of numerous examples of Scorsese’s influence on “Joker,” Phillips cast Robert De Niro as a late-night TV host, a nod to 1982’s “King of Comedy,” in which De Niro played a struggling comic who kidnaps a legendary talk-show host.)
“There were some hiccups trying to get the green light, and there were some concerns about some of the content,” Koskoff said. “But once we locked and loaded our budget, they really gave us a tremendous amount of space to do what we needed to do. The passion Todd has for this movie is palpable, and when he starts talking about it, he’s hard to say no to. At the end of the day, he got to make the movie he wanted to make.”
Phillips first struck on the germ of the idea for “Joker” in August 2016 as he stood outside the premiere of his dark dramedy “War Dogs,” staring up at a billboard for a new comic-book movie on Hollywood Boulevard. (He doesn’t say which film it was, but “Suicide Squad” opened that month.)
“I knew that ‘War Dogs’ wasn’t going to set the world on fire, and I was thinking, ‘What do people really want to see?’ ” recalled Phillips, who grew up in Huntington, N.Y., and attended NYU film school before dropping out to finish his first feature, a 1993 documentary about punk rocker GG Allin. “The movies that I grew up loving, these character studies from the ’70s, you couldn’t get those movies made in this climate. I’m staring up at this billboard and I said to myself, ‘What if you did a movie in that vein but made it about one of those characters?’ ”
As a conductor of cinematic mayhem, Phillips was drawn to the Joker’s anarchic nature and felt liberated by the fact that the character had never had a single definitive origin story. Drawing elements from the 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke,” which depicted the Joker as a failed stand-up comedian, and a handful of other sources, Phillips and Silver dispensed with the most common take on the character’s roots — in which the Joker was disfigured after falling into a vat of chemicals — and concocted their own original storyline.
I don’t believe that in the real world if you fell into a vat of acid you would turn white and have a smile and your hair would be green. So you start backwards-engineering these things and it becomes really interesting.
‘We wanted to look at everything through as real and authentic a lens as possible,” Phillips said. “I don’t believe that in the real world if you fell into a vat of acid you would turn white and have a smile and your hair would be green. So you start backwards-engineering these things and it becomes really interesting. ‘How about if he’s a clown at one of these places where you rent out entertainment?’ It was one of the most fun scripts to write because you were only breaking rules.”
Having generated some $2 billion at the box office for Warner Bros. (2009’s “The Hangover” alone grossed $467 million worldwide), Phillips had a large reservoir of goodwill to draw upon with the studio’s executives. But while then-studio chief Kevin Tsujihara and then-production president Greg Silverman immediately sparked to his idea, shifting regimes at Warner Bros. and DC soon brought shifting questions and opinions about what the movie should be.
“It was a yearlong process from when we finished the script just to get the new people on board with this vision, because I pitched it to an entirely different team than made it,” Phillips said. “There were emails about: ‘You realize we sell Joker pajamas at Target.’ There were a zillion hurdles, and you just sort of had to navigate those one at a time.... At the time, I would curse them in my head every day. But then I have to put it in perspective and go, ‘They’re pretty bold that they did this.’ ”
It was another drawn-out, four-month process for Phillips to persuade Phoenix to step into a role that had been indelibly played before by Jack Nicholson and, in a performance that earned a posthumous Oscar, Heath Ledger. In the end, Phoenix, who had reportedly spurned earlier offers to play comic-book characters like Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Doctor Strange, was drawn in by the idea of creating a complex flesh-and-blood character in shades of gray rather than a black-and-white cartoon villain.
“That’s really the only thing that’s worthwhile; the other thing is connect-the-dots and paint-by-numbers, and who the [heck] cares about that?” said Phoenix, who, according to Phillips, lost 52 pounds prior to shooting. “There are certain areas of the character that frankly still aren’t clear to me, and I’m fine with that. There’s something enjoyable about not having to answer a lot of those questions. It requires a certain amount of participation from the audience that feels different.”
As for the inevitable comparisons to earlier Joker performances, the actor said, “All I can do is approach the character the way I do and that’s it. I just tried to do something that we felt was honest and unique. However you guys want to talk about it, knock yourself out.”
Phillips is well aware that the scrutiny of comic-book movies is intense, and though he may not be one himself, he knows that die-hard fans can be touchy about deviations from the canon. At one point during the development of “Joker,” he proposed to Warner Bros. executives that they create a separate offshoot label called DC Black as a kind of laboratory for what he calls “independent-minded films about these characters.” (“They’re like, ‘Calm down with the label — how about you do one movie?’ ” Phillips said with a dry laugh.)
But, days away from the world premiere of “Joker” at the Venice Film Festival, Phillips was feeling optimistic. “There are always going to be naysayers, but from what I gather about the momentum of the movie and the response to the teaser we put out, the majority of fans seem to be excited about going down a different road,” he said.
He shrugged. “But also this will not be the last Joker movie ever made,” he added. “It might be the last one Joaquin and I do, but someone else is going to come along and do another one, just like with Spider-Man. So if you don’t like this one, don’t worry — it’ll get reinvented again.
“That’s the fun thing about these characters. In a way, comic books are our Shakespeare, and just like there are many versions of Hamlet and Macbeth, they’ve done four or five versions of the Joker in the last 25 or 30 years. So why not do another one that’s wildly different?”