LOS ANGELES — The Joker has been around for almost 80 years and there’s no shortage of portrayals. There are even some legendary ones by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. But by most accounts, Joaquin Phoenix’s spin on the quintessential Batman villain is unlike anything audiences have seen.
It’s why “Joker” isn’t being treated like a standard comic book movie release and instead getting the rollout of an Oscar contender with high-profile premieres at the most prestigious fall film festivals — Venice and Toronto — before it hits theaters on Oct. 4. Even Warner Bros., the studio with the keys to the DC Comics universe, largely left writer-director Todd Phillips alone to do what he wanted to do with the character: Make a realistic character study in the vein of Martin Scorsese’ 1970s films about how struggling stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck became the Joker.
“He doesn’t fall into a vat of acid and come out laughing,” Phillips said. “That’s a comic book thing.”
So, Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver (“8 Mile,” ”The Fighter”) ran all the elements of what we know about the Joker, a character without an origin story, through a “real world filter” — his look, his laugh and his personality. For the most part that meant ditching the source material. Even the comedian element, which actually has some basis in the comics, was kind of accidental.
“We didn’t even really know that when we wrote it,” Phillips said of its convenient tie-in with “The Killing Joke” graphic novel.
He’s a “villain” that is presented in an empathetic way.
“You’re kind of on his side until you can’t be any longer,” Phillips said. That point has been different for everyone he’s showed it to so far.
Their unique approach, and that their No. 1 choice agreed to do it, also helped attract talent who wouldn’t necessarily do a movie based on a comic character, including two Scorsese mainstays: Robert De Niro and producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who has been working with Scorsese since “The Departed.”
“It’s not my preferred genre, the comic book genre,” Koskoff said. “I literally can’t watch those movies. I try but I can’t. I should but I can’t. But I love this movie. Even if I didn’t work on this movie I would love this movie.”
She helped make “Joker” a real New York movie, bringing along some of her best crew from “The Irishman” and using her deep knowledge of filming in the city that she describes as both the best and the toughest. They shot in over 30 locations in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the surrounding areas, like Newark, New Jersey, which served as the “Times Square” of Gotham City.
“What Todd did here is really unique and special,” she added. “I think it’s going to catapult him to another level and take him out of the comedy world.”
Phillips became a Hollywood success for making massively popular grown-up frat boy comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover” series. In other words, a serious spin on a comic book character is a departure for him too. And he’s getting used to all the attention and scrutiny in the lead up to the release.
With a character this known and a film that doesn’t seem to fit any mold of what’s come before, some wildly inaccurate information has circulated around the internet. For one, Scorsese was never set to produce. The two had emailed about the script privately, but Scorsese was always going to be tied up with post-production on “The Irishman” right when “Joker” was shooting. Also, Phillips didn’t call the programming director of the Venice International Film Festival and ask for “Joker” to be in competition — they were simply invited and accepted. And that leaked script going around? If it’s what Phillips thinks it is — a draft from April 2018 — he said, “They’re in for a big surprise when they see the movie.” The script changed quite a bit between that version and when they began shooting last September.
Warner Bros. made him jump through “many hoops” before they said yes, but once they settled on a budget number, which Phillips will only say is low for the movie world and enormous for the real world, he said they stepped aside.
“They were incredibly bold in just saying, ‘Ok there are no rules just go do your thing,'” he said. “It was amazing.”
It’s fairly extraordinary considering the character happens to be tied up in the current iteration of the DC Extended Universe films and played by Jared Leto. Imagine Marvel allowing a gritty Thor origin story with someone other than Chris Hemsworth. But still, people have told him he’s crazy to mess with a character this iconic.
“What we’re trying to do with this film is do something entirely different from the comic book movies that have come before. And not because those aren’t cool but just because we want to try something different,” Phillips said. “But this won’t be the last Joker movie ever made. Something tells me that in 10 years someone else is going to do something. There have been five iterations of this character already and they’re all brilliantly unique. This is one more group’s interpretation of a character that can be infinitely interpreted.”
The film is already in the Oscar conversation too, although whether that continues will all depend on how it’s received in Venice and Toronto and throughout the grueling awards season. Phoenix, for being widely known as one of the best actors working right now, has never won an Academy Award.
“Joker is basically set to 11. He’s always at 11. But to see him set to 2 and gradually become an 11 is where the performance is so beautiful. It’s this slow transformation,” Phillips said. “(Phoenix) was deep into the character and it made every day really exciting.”
An Oscar wouldn’t be unprecedented for the character. Ledger won a posthumous supporting actor award for “The Dark Knight.”
It could also signal the start of a new era for comic book films. As Phillips said, they’ve, “become our Shakespeare.”
“They’re kind of a great launching off point to do something interesting,” he said.
By LINDSEY BAHR AP Film Writer