Joker Director Breaks Down the Opening Scene | Vanity Fair

published on July 2, 2020

– Hi, I'm Todd Phillips,
director of "Joker"

and today we're gonna do
a couple scene breakdown

from the opening of the movie

[upbeat piano music]

[crowd chattering]

– Ah!

– Got it!

Go, go, go!

– [Arthur] Hey!

– The main job of a
director, even all this stuff

we talk about, cameras and
depth of field and sets

and wardrobe, I think
really what a director is,

is a purveyor of tone
and I think the thing

I'm most proud about this
film is that unsettling tone

That sort of slow, ramp up into insanity

– [News Anchor] It's day
18 of the garbage strike,

with 10,000 tons of
garbage piling up everyday,

even the nicest sections of
the city are looking like–

– So I always obsess over
the opening shots of movies

My movies, the movies I watch,
I think it's a great way,

it's a great storytelling device,

the very opening of a film

We have the benefit in this
scene of the local news

playing underneath it and
we meet Arthur there alone

at the mirror as he's
putting on his make up

So this was scene was shot
pretty early in our schedule

and it's a practical location,
meaning it's not a build,

we're in a really second
floor storage facility

up in Harlem on the far
west side on Manhattan

It was a beautiful space
with this very sparse

view of the underside of
the West Side Highway,

this sort of structure that
holds up the West Side Highways,

these things we're seeing
out the window there,

and we thought it was a
great place for Ha Has,

which represents the agency
that kind of rents out clowns

and strippers and magicians
and it's where Arthur works

and we find him at the
beginning of the film

– [Television Interviewee]
My business when customers

can't get in here because
of the garbage situation

– [Television Interviewee]
And they're out there alone

to smell it, but I think to
look at it it's terrible

– Everything in the movie
is meant to be unsettling,

so anytime we kind of move
the camera intentionally,

like this, it was always to give off

this kind of unsettling vibe

of this guy who's pretty much
separated from everybody else,

even in this locker room space

You hear the voices of
four or five guys over here

playing cards and talking about
whatever and Arthur's here,

alone, kind of not part of the group,

figuring out how to keep
a smile on his face

And one of the themes in the film is smile

and the idea of putting on happy face,

his mother told him that
he was born to bring joy

and laughter into the
world and is something

that Arthur wrestles with
throughout the movie,

so in this scene we find him
as he's literally pulling

up his mouth and putting down his mouth,

sort of fighting the comedy,
tragedy that is his life

It was really important
to me and Lawrence Sher,

my cinematographer, that the
movie have a handmade feel

We wanted it to feel, we
thought that would lend itself

to the intimacy that we're
trying to get with this

character study of Arthur

So you'll see in this scene,
you can feel there's an

operator there and that's
all really intentional,

and we also loved these kind of

extreme close ups on Arthur

– [Television Interviewee]
The idea of the National Guard

moving in and cleaning up is a good idea

– [Television Newscaster]
In other news, the building

industry and landlords today–

– That by the way, right here,
that tear, it just happened

in one take

Joaquin has a really interesting process

He's not as, a lot of
people always assume Joaquin

would be a method actor and
that, people use that term

loosely, but where he's lost in the part

The beautiful thing about Joaquin is we,

we were shooting this movie
and we'd spend half the time

just laughing off set
and having a good time,

but he's so amazing that
he's able to then sit down,

action gets called and
we do this slow push in

and if I think I remember it right,

in this particular scene I
was playing the score for him,

in the room because we
had Hildur Gudnadottir

who was our composer, I
had her write music before

we shot the movie, which
isn't done very often,

and she wrote it based on the screenplay

and I wanted that because I
wanted the music to really

affect and infect the set in a way

Really kind of even, the camera operators,

the set dressers, the wardrobe,
everybody to feel this music

and if I remember correctly
we were playing her score

when we were shooting this

and all of a sudden as
Joaquin is struggling

with Arthur's smile and his
frown and figuring out again

if his life is a comedy or a tragedy,

this little tear appears
and we just had the scene

and we moved on

[upbeat piano music]

We called this set Gotham Square

And this is sort of our
version of Times Square,

the busy kind of market of Gotham in 1981

And this is interesting
because we shot this in Newark,

New Jersey and here's Arthur down there,

this little clown in
this big, imposing world

I would say pretty much
everything from here back here

is CG world building

The only real stuff is what
you see here in the foreground

We put up things like that,
you know we built this theater,

changed it into a porn
theater of this time,

practically we did all that,

but yeah, all this deep background stuff,

even those cars and the buildings,

that's all put in later in post

I always think this shot
is particularly beautiful

and helps in just setting
the stage of Arthur's world

[upbeat piano music]

[crowd chattering]

And this is really
where Arthur is at home

He's got a mask on,

he's pretending to be
somebody else and he gets lost

in his work

It's also where we learn
that Arthur has music in him,

something I conveyed to Joaquin
was that Arthur is a guy

that has music in his soul
and that will continue

when he transforms in Joker

And this is one of the
visual representations of him

having that music

Joaquin probably practiced
with this sign for about two

or three days

It was more complicated than it looks

– Ah!

– Grab it!

Grab it, go go go!

– [Arthur] Hey!

– And then the other
complicated thing is running

in these giant clown shoes

Like every movie, we spoke
a lot about every element

of the movie, and Mark
Bridges, who's a fantastic

consume designer, designed
all the wardrobe in the movie

and we spoke about this particular
outfit for Arthur a lot,

and also these shoes and
how big can these shoes be,

for him to run through
he streets of Gotham

and how big can this sign
be for him to actually

pull off being able to do this,

like one of those sign
guys you see on the street

And his costume is inspired a
little bit by Charlie Chaplin

There's a grace to Arthur
that if he would just let go

and take off the mask, he would find

And that's kind of what
happens when he becomes Joker

ironically, it's Arthur
taking off the mask,

even though he's putting
on white face paint

and dying his hair green

– Go!

We got the sign!

Keep running, let's go!

– Stop them!

– [Boy] Go!

– One of the complicated things
about doing a period film

is actually all these picture cars

All these cars have to be of the time

We basically had to take over
this whole street in Newark,

so this is what I mean,
this is a big shot,

actually with a ton of
real, practical picture cars

and it goes pretty deep
and again I would say

probably all that is CG back
there, it's world building

A lot of our visual references
were movies that were

late '70s, early '80s films

Larry and I really chose to
shoot a ton of this really

long lens so you have that
real shallow depth of field

that you see in some of
those old school moves

So something like this
shot is a perfect example

of how blurry everything is
back here in the background

and really the only focus
is one, two, three, four,

with the guys you really want in focus

Everything else is kind of blurry,

and that's one of those
things with those old films

that used to basically steal
shots on live streets, right?

French Connection, you
now the camera's over here

and they're just following
a car in real time

And we tried to give it that look

and it gives it a visceral feel

[horns honk]

– [Man] Hey!

[horns honk]

Joaquin has a great stunt
double, named Steve Izzi,

we call him Izzi and
Izzi did all of Joaquin's

kind of near misses and things like that

– [Boy] Got the sign!

You're not catching us!

– Stop them!

– [Boy] Come on, we got it!

– I like the scope of this shot

Again, this is all live
done by Mark Friedberg,

except weirdly because I'm obsessive,

I didn't like the blank space,
so this building's back here,

that's all put in, because
I wanted it to feel really

oppressive and Gotham
is always over Arthur

and we just didn't love
any kind of blank spaces

in the skyline so to speak

– [Man] Get out of the way!

What are you doing?

[Arthur breathing heavily]

– [Arthur] Stop them!


– I remember when I was making a movie

called Starsky and Hutch with Ben Stiller,

I wanted Ben running
in this opening thing,

I forget what it was, and Ben kept saying,

why is he running so much?

And I said, I feel like you
never really know somebody

until you see them run [chuckles]

And there's something about
Arthur running in the opening

that really, the way Joaquin runs,

'cause 99% of this running is Arthur,

the only thing really that
Izzi did there was that slip,

and it's funny 'cause when
tried takes with Izzi running,

it just never worked,

because he just didn't have Arthur's run

Joaquin is so specific in
the way Arthur's run looked,

I thought it was really something

So the slide, which is tough to do,

and impossible for Joaquin
to have pulled off,

Izzi came in and did,

but everything else is really Joaquin

[Arthur breathes heavily]


– [Boys Together] Oh!

– One hit!
– Come on!

– [Boy] Beat his ass up!

– [Boy] Come on!

This guy is bleeding, he can't do nothin'

Harder, harder!

– [Boy] Beat him up!

– This shot is very particular
because Larry and I felt

early on, and we don't do
this a lot in the movie,

but we wanted the frame to
feel out of a graphic novel,

and we don't do this framing a ton,

but this felt like a frame
of any kind of graphic novel,

that you know, you would
read and it's not a normal

necessarily movie angle, to me
it feels very graphic novel

That was an important shot for us to get

[kids laughing]

[Arthur pants]

[mournful music]

So this is one of my favorite
shots in the whole movie,

and it obviously depicts
his loneliness and his pain,

but really the important
part of this shot,

so first he's trying
to reach for the sign,

like maybe I can still fix this,

and then he rolls over [mournful music]

and he pushes that little
button and the water comes

out of the flower, because
what we're saying there

with the water coming out
of the flower, flower,

is he's still Joker, he's still
there to make people laugh,

he's still seeing comedy
in this moment of pain

[mournful music]

We shot these titles on film
and then filmed them out,

and put them back onto
the digital negative

You see this little bleed
you get on the edges

of the letters and those, you
see the grain in the letters

as the film moves you see the grain,

because again, we wanted
this movie to feel

like it could have come
out in the summer of 1979

So little details like that,
like going back and shooting

it on an animation stand,
the way they shot film titles

in the old days was really important to us

and all the titles were
filmed out that way

Joaquin's performance is so nuanced,

so as he shifts from Arthur to Joker,

it's not like Clark Kent
walking into a phone booth,

and he comes out he's Superman,

this is something that
happens over two hours,

and when you re-watch the
film I think you really

get an appreciation for
the work that Joaquin did

to slowly turn that
dial up the whole movie,

and I just tried to match
it with our directing style

So Joker is that sort
of wild stallion running

without a rider

Does that make sense?

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