The highly anticipated Joker certainly paints the titular iconic comics character in a very different light, but as it turns out, finding this specific take on the character was a journey unto itself. The film originated with an idea by co-writer/director Todd Phillips, who approached Warner Bros. with the notion of crafting a standalone, one-off origin story movie about the Batman villain that would feel more like Taxi Driver than Batman Begins. He enlisted phenomenal actor Joaquin Phoenix to fill the role, and the two set about crafting a gritty, violent, disturbing character study about how a lonely man named Arthur Fleck becomes the villainous Joker.
This was a fluid process, however, as Phoenix and Philips’ specific take on Arthur changed in the middle of production. The actor revealed in an interview on the Reel Blend podcast that after shooting his first scenes as Joker six weeks into filming, he and Phillips realized they needed to make adjustments to how they were portraying Arthur:
“The freedom that we had from Warner Bros. to kind of shoot it and discover it was really key. Moreso than you might imagine, because there were some really radical changes to the character several weeks into shooting… It’s always the case when you make movies, you start off in this vacuum, you’re alone in a house and you’re reading through the script and you start imagining things and you start playing with it and rehearsing with yourself, and I think it always evolves. In this one I’m not sure what happened but I had an idea for something—it sounds so stupid now (laughs). I thought it was really good. We just started going down a particular road with Arthur with approaching that character and his behavior, and it was based on a reference that I had found, this kid that is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, and it was really interesting in a particular way of behaving, which I thought was applicable. And it might have been at times.”
Phoenix initially wasn’t too happy about filming the Joker scenes midway through the shoot, preferring instead to save them for the end. But as it turns out, the non-linear schedule was a blessing in disguise:
“Then what happened is the sixth week of shooting was the first time that I played Joker. I was really angry about that because I thought that it should wait until the end, and I didn’t want to kind of shoot it in the middle, but for several reasons we had to. We shot those sequences I think for four days, and we finished, and on the last day of the week we shot the bathroom scene with Thomas Wayne. That was a weird transition and it was a struggle, and after that—after playing Joker—I just suddenly realized, Todd and I got together and we talked about everything we shot, and I just said, ‘I think that we’ve been missing something, and I feel like we’re going down a road that seems wrong in both the look, the hair is wrong, the way I’m wearing the wardrobe is wrong, and a lot of the behavior.’ So we kind of, in that moment and over that weekend, kind of reconceived the character and kind of realized the mistakes we had made.”
That kind of shift was made possible by the fact that Warner Bros. allowed Phillips and Phoenix a lot of room to discover the character and specific moments during production, which was a result of Phillips lobbying for more shooting days early in the process. It’s unclear if Phoenix and Phillips then went back and reshot scenes from those first six weeks to make the aforementioned adjustments, but the actor says he was grateful that playing the finality of the character—“The Joker”—allowed him to view Arthur in a different light:
“It was a really crazy time, but I became so grateful and thankful we shot [the] Joker [scenes] when we did, because exploring that side of the character really allowed me to see this other side. There are just some things that you can’t anticipate, and I think especially with this character it’s just alive in a way that other characters aren’t, and you can’t put your finger on it. It was a wild process. I’ve never experienced anything quite like that.”
It paid off. Whatever you think about the movie, the strength and transformative power of Phoenix’s performance is undeniable, and this is a fascinating peek behind the curtain at how that performance was put together.