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'The System's Broken' And 'Joker' Director Aimed To Explore That On Screen

Producer, director, and co-writer Todd Phillips talks about his new film which is a sort of origin story for the villain in the Batman series.


Other segments from the episode on January 6, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 6, 2020: Interview with Todd Phillips; Review of CD by Michael Formanek.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?

GROSS: The city is going crazy and the main character is becoming increasingly unhinged in the movie "Joker," which won two Golden Globes last night, for best actor in a movie drama, Joaquin Phoenix, and best original score. The movie comes out on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K tomorrow.

"Joker" was produced, directed and co-written by my guest Todd Phillips, who also directed "The Hangover" films. "Joker" is an origin story - sort of - for the villain in the Batman comics and movies. But the movie isn't a comic book story. It's set in Gotham City in 1981, but Gotham looks very much like Manhattan in 1981. The main character, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a troubled man with a history of serious mental health problems. It's Arthur's dream to be a stand-up comic.

At the beginning of the film, Arthur dresses in a clown costume and makeup because he works for an agency that rents out clowns for parties and occasions. One night on the subway, he's attacked by three young white men in suits. He defends himself with a gun and kills them. There's so much crime in the city and people are feeling so victimized that Arthur becomes a folk hero, and people start wearing clown masks in tribute to him. Meanwhile, the city is so broke it's cutting social services, and for Arthur, that means he's forced off his meds because his assistance has been cut. The deterioration of the city and of Arthur's mental health feed off each other in a disastrous way.

Todd Phillips, welcome back to FRESH AIR. "Joker" has really divided audiences and critics, but it's done fantastically at the box office. I'm one of the people who thinks this is a terrific film and a very serious film. You've said that you made the character Joker in order to make a serious movie that's kind of about a comic book character so you could get a big budget. It was, you said, a way to sneak a real movie into the studio system under the guise of a comic book film. Tell us more about that.

TODD PHILLIPS: I've started to think that films that I grew up on, grew up loving, that - how hard it is to get those movies made nowadays and how - not just because studios don't want to make them; people don't want to show up to them, necessarily. And I started looking around at the state of the movie business about what people are showing up to. Clearly, you know, superhero films have taken over. The comic book genre didn't even exist when I was younger, right? There were horror movies, comedies, romantic comedies, dramas. But now, you know, the comic book movie is its own genre.

And when you're making a film, you know, whether it's good or bad, it takes you two to three years, and it's disappointing when audiences don't show up. And so it - to me, it was a way of kind of wrapping the movie in - a way of cutting through the fog, so to speak. You know, nowadays with Netflix and all the content that's out there, films really have to kind of cut through all the noise to get people to show up to the theaters.

So it really started as an experiment, so to speak - is, like, well, you know, maybe you could get one of those kind of deep-dive character study movies done nowadays in the studio system if you, I guess, disguise it as a comic book film. Not that it was a trick we were playing; it was just something of, boy, you know, you could do a character study if it was about one of those characters. Does that make sense?

GROSS: Yeah, it does to me. So "Joker" is always described as an origin story for the character of the Joker. But, you know, the movie's called "Joker," not the Joker.


GROSS: So it seems to me like you're hedging a little bit. It's like, yeah, he's Joker; he's not necessarily the Joker.

PHILLIPS: Well, I mean, I think ambiguity is a fun part of this film and I think films in general. And we do like putting little things out there. If you actually see the screenplay, we wrote on the cover - it says Joker, and then under it, it says an origin, not the origin.


PHILLIPS: And it's not, like, hedging our bets as much as it is saying - you know, the Joker - I don't know how much you know about the character - but he's famous for not having an origin story. He's famous for saying in one of the comic books - or "The Killing Joke," I think - where he says, I prefer my past to be multiple choice. We knew we were going to have some pushback from - or we thought we were going to have some pushback from comic book fans saying, well, hang on a minute - you know, this is sacrilegious, so to speak. You can't give an origin to Joker. That's part of the fun thing about Joker.

GROSS: So the film is set in the early '80s in Gotham, which has meant to be kind of like New York in the early '80s. You were, I think, 10 or 11 in 1981.


GROSS: In the film, there's, like, a garbage strike. There's tons of garbage piling up around the city. Super rats have infested this city. There's cuts in social services, unemployment, anger, hostility. The mayor's declared a state of emergency. What's your connection to 1981 and Manhattan and, also, to the decay and despair and the crime and poverty and garbage and chaos that you associate with Gotham in your movie?

PHILLIPS: (Laughter) Well, I mean, my connection to it is, you know, having grown up in New York. I wasn't in Manhattan when I was 10 or 11. At that point, we had moved to Long Island. But my mother worked in the city, and oftentimes I'd go in with her to work when I had a school day off, and she didn't - we didn't have a babysitter because, you know, I grew up with a single mom and two older sisters. So oftentimes I would go with my mom. And I do remember the city back at that time and it feeling like - kind of a broken-down city on the brink.

And to us, it felt like - when I say us, Scott Silver and I, who wrote the script - it felt like the right setting for creating a character like Arthur Fleck-slash-Joker. We wanted that kind of hopeless feeling. We wanted everything to be kind of coming down on Arthur - the mounds of garbage everywhere. I mean, these are - obviously, it was based on a real time in New York. There were real garbage strikes in New York. New York's always had rat problems. I remember seeing the cover of the New York Post once saying super rats. So, you know, you pick and choose and you take things from your past, and then, of course, you create new things and you build off of it.

GROSS: Let's talk about your vision of Joker, the character of Arthur. He initially paints his face like a clown because he's employed by an agency that basically rents out clowns...


GROSS: ...Like for your child's party...


GROSS: ...Or for, like, the hospital children's ward. But for reasons I won't explain - I don't want to give away too much stuff - you know, he loses his job. But he continues sometimes to paint his face. And he has serious mental health problems. There's a history of mental health problems in his family. And he's soon off his meds because he can no longer afford them, and the city can no longer help him because they're shutting down social services. And his mental health deteriorates as the movie goes on. Why did you want this Joker to have a mental health disorder? And...


GROSS: ...Is it a specific disorder that you've given him?

PHILLIPS: Well, it wasn't that we wanted him to necessarily have a mental health disorder. What, really, we wanted to do and what, really, the whole MO of the film was, let's make a comic book film where we run everything through as realistic a lens as possible. So why does Joker have a white face and green hair? Well, in the comic books, he fell into a vat of acid. That didn't feel very real to us. If you fell into a vat of acid, I don't know that your skin would turn white and your hair would be green. So we came up - we sort of backwards-engineered everything.

The mental illness was also a thing of going - well, a little bit like, where does his laugh come from? And if you see the movie, you realize he has a condition. Joker - you know, the Joker character in the comic book world is famous for the green hair, the white face, the laugh. So we really just wanted to give everything real-world reasons.

GROSS: So the deteriorating mental health gives...

PHILLIPS: Well, that was - OK. So, you know, that's a different question - two parts. The first thing is we didn't ever really discuss specifically with Joaquin - when I say we, again, I mean me and Joaquin - didn't really discuss what - we didn't want to put a specific label on what his mental illness is outside of his affliction that gives him the laugh, which is something that's called - caused from head trauma early on in life, which is a real thing. You know, nowadays it's called PBA, pseudobulbar effect. But back then, I don't know that they even had that name for it. But it's a real condition. So we thought once we found that condition, you know, OK, that answers that.

As far as the mental health thing, you know, we really wanted to make a movie that says something, a statement, if you will, on these modern times. Yes, it takes place in 1981 in a fictional city of Gotham, but we wrote it in 2017 in New York City. And oftentimes, you know, movies are mirrors, and they reflect what's going on whenever they take place. And that was something Scott and I really - was important to us, that we are addressing things that we feel or felt were going on in the world in 2016 and '17, as we were writing it.

You know, we all know the big changes in this country that were happening then. Like, I can tell you when Obama was president, we wrote three "Hangover" movies (laughter). When everything changed, suddenly things felt darker, you know. Anyway, so the mental illness to us was a lot about, you know, what you hear about when social services get cut. What happens to these people? We really thought it was important to shine a light on the system. You know, I think, like a lot of people, the system is broken, and why not use a film to make a comment on that?

GROSS: And in that sense, when he can't take his meds anymore because the system is broken, there's a lot of damage that is done as a result and not just to him.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. I mean, really, the real-world implications of these things. It just felt like a great thing to explore. If we're really going to, you know, turn the comic book genre upside down - or maybe that's too big a way of saying it - but if we're really going to dive into that sandbox, you know, let's do something - let's make something meaningful.

GROSS: I think we should take a short break here, and then there's...


GROSS: ...Plenty more to talk about.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Phillips, director of "Joker" and, of course, of "The Hangover" movies. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Phillips, director of "Joker." He also directed "The Hangover" movies.

So I want to talk with you about the dance (laughter) that Joaquin Phoenix does. You know, without giving too much away, there's a - he shoots three people in the beginning who have been taunting a woman on a train. Two of them attack him physically. And after that, he goes into - he runs away with his gun, goes into a public bathroom, a kind of really grimy, deteriorating...


GROSS: ...Public bathroom that fits into the whole mise-en-scene of the movie.


GROSS: But anyway, so he goes in there, and he starts doing this very strange dance. A lot of people have seen the movie and know this dance or have seen clips with the dance. But to me (laughter) - and I want to hear what you think. To me, this dance is just a kind of visual representation of his mind, that, like, in there someplace, there's, like, feeling and artistic creativity, but it's so kind of twisted. Like, his body, as he's dancing, seems twisted, and it's both tense and loose at the same time. But there's - it's, like, coiled. There's this tension at the very core of his body.


GROSS: And the dance that he's doing, it looks like a combination of, like, some weird version of ballet and tai chi.

PHILLIPS: (Laughter) Yeah, that's a good way to describe it. You know, very early on, when I was meeting with Joaquin about doing the film, something I said that really stuck with Joaquin was that Arthur has - Arthur might feel like this bottled-up, sort of uptight, you know, afraid-of-his-own-shadow, kind of one of these invisible people that we pass in the world, but he has music in him. And Joaquin really liked that and really ran with that. You know, the dance represents a lot of things. It represents, of course, the metamorphosis of Joker coming out.

Not to get too heady about this film, but one thing we talked about really early on was this sort of Jungian philosophy that people - this idea of the shadow. You know, we wear masks in life, this sort of thing we put forth to people that know us. But what happens, you know, when you take that mask off? And for Arthur, when he removes that mask, that shadow that's revealed is Joker, and so that bathroom scene really represents one of the early times of him lifting that mask, so to speak.

GROSS: But when he lifts that mask, you see a very troubled person.

PHILLIPS: Mmm hmm.


GROSS: I mean, it's not like you see - he lifts the mask and you see this joyful person underneath dancing. No, he's really, really troubled.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, he's struggling. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So I read someplace that he'd studied Ray Bolger's dancing in "The Wizard Of Oz," Scarecrow's. Is that right?

PHILLIPS: (Laughter) Yeah, a little bit of that. And that was more about the - there's a lot of dancing in the movie. There's about five times where Joaquin dances. The Ray Bolger one was tapes - or YouTube videos he looked at for the dance at the end on the stairs.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Yeah.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. It wasn't so much that. The thing in the bathroom was, really, made up on the spot by Joaquin. That was something that we didn't even have scripted. We had other dance sequences scripted in the script, but that one wasn't supposed to be that. But we didn't really like what we were doing that day or what we were set to do that day, and we just started talking about other ideas to do in the bathroom. And he just started showing me this dance that he kind of came up with on the spot. We didn't even have a choreographer for that day. And it was just so beautiful that I just brought the camera operator in and said, start on his foot. And we played some music, and we just went with it.

GROSS: I want to play the music from that scene. I love the score for this movie, and it was written by Hildur Gudnadottir.

PHILLIPS: Gudnadottir.

GROSS: Gudnadottir.

PHILLIPS: You're right.



GROSS: And she's a cellist, so I assume this is her playing cello in the score.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, it is. There's also, you know, a full orchestra behind her. They kind of sneak in.

GROSS: So listen to this. This is the music that Joaquin Phoenix is dancing to in the bathroom. As this scene changes, the music is going to shift, too.


GROSS: I think that music is such a good representation of what we think is going on in his mind. It's very dissonant. It's very disturbing-sounding.


GROSS: And that drumbeat, it sounds like a death march or...

PHILLIPS: A storm is coming.

GROSS: A storm is coming, yeah.

PHILLIPS: One of the interesting things about that piece right there is - you know, normally, when you make a film - or at least what I've done normally is you make the film, and you start sending scenes off to the composer. And they start, you know, writing music for the scene that you've edited together. But with Hildur, when I contacted her to do the film, I asked her to just read the script, which she really responded to. And I said, I want to do something different. Would you just write music based on what you've read? I'm talking - this is five months, four months before we started filming. And she started sending me pieces of music just based on the feeling she got from the script and, as I said even to her, the music in Arthur's head.

So we were able to have that music when we were shooting, which is - you know, I've never had before. Most people don't do it that way. And it was really beneficial to us, and it was liberating to us, and it was - it sort of infected and affected the set in a great way. It was playing in the camera operator's ear. It was playing for Joaquin. So he was, you know, dancing to that piece of music in that scene. It was really, really special.

GROSS: Did it help you establish the tone of the movie in your mind?

PHILLIPS: Oh, for sure.

GROSS: How did it help?

PHILLIPS: I mean, just - it's just a shortcut, as music often is in movies. And for us, you know, I was - I mean, I was playing that music all day every day on set to the point where it was probably offensive to most of the crew and it wasn't a happy place to be around. And just that music running through the day - or if we would watch playback, we would play the music, or if we would rehearse a scene, we'd be playing the music. It just kind of seeped its way into the DNA of the film and the rhythm and the pace of the film.

GROSS: You create some real mayhem in "Joker." And again, without giving away too much - but I know a lot of our listeners have already seen it - Joker has become - he's taken some vigilante action early in the film and become something of, like, a hero to a lot of people who are feeling, like, angry and resentful and disenfranchised and out of work. And, you know - and they just kind of have a demonstration and erupt, and there's a lot of mayhem. Can you talk a little bit about creating that, creating both the story part of that and then actually literally creating it on set?

PHILLIPS: The movie was primarily shot in New York - in and around New York City - the Bronx, Brooklyn, areas that have yet to be totally gentrified, although I'm sure it's coming. Where we shot the mayhem that you're talking about at the end, the very end, was Newark, N.J., on a street called Market Street. There's, like, a great five-block stretch in Newark where we were able to take over. And Mark Friedberg, our production designer - we were really able to build out what the city would have looked like in, let's say again, 1981 and bring in 500 extras and dress them in clown masks and makeup and others in different things and just, you know, almost approach it like a war movie. OK, people over here, this is the crew that's going to break windows. And this crew over here is going to have fire. And this - you know, and you kind of, with the stunt coordinators and with your AD department, your assistant directors - we just created this mayhem.

I mean, it's fun to do. We shot nights in Newark - probably three nights, freezing nights, over the course of that. It's definitely a fun thing to create, but it's also scary because you have 500 people going crazy. And you want everybody to be safe, and there's fire around and cars flipping and, you know, things happening. But it's an electric feeling to shoot it. I imagine it's almost like shooting a war movie or something.

GROSS: My guess is Todd Phillips, who directed and co-wrote "Joker," which comes out on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K tomorrow. We'll talk more after a break, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by Michael Formanek. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Todd Phillips, who directed, produced and co-wrote "Joker," which won two Golden Globes last night for best actor in a dramatic film - that went to Joaquin Phoenix - and for best score. The movie comes out on DVD tomorrow. Phillips also directed the "Hangover" films.

The "Hangover" movies that you're famous for are comedies, and "Joker" - although the main character sees himself as a comedian, this film is far from funny. It's a very grave movie. And you said that you made a drama in part because it's hard to make a comedy nowadays. It's hard to write comedy with woke culture. And, like, you know, comics are very afraid to offend, and you can't argue with 30 million people on Twitter. Have you gotten pushback for your comedies, or were you just thinking of other people who had?

PHILLIPS: No. In that quote of mine that - I was really referring to very specifically maybe 10 or 11 things me and the writer were talking about that were in, let's say, "Old School" or the "Hangover" films that you literally couldn't do nowadays, that I wouldn't do nowadays, by the way, and probably shouldn't. So it was more about that - it wasn't a statement about comedy in general.

GROSS: Oh, I think you were really misinterpreted. If that's true...

PHILLIPS: I know, I know.

GROSS: ...You were really misinterpreted. And I'm glad you set the record straight on that.

PHILLIPS: I know, and the problem is I don't have a Twitter account to set the record straight, so I just ignore it and just say, everything goes away.

GROSS: Because it seemed like, oh, you cannot be funny anymore 'cause of woke culture, and that's apparently not what you intended to say.

PHILLIPS: Not at all. No. I was literally talking about 10 or 11 things we were going through in those movies that you just couldn't do nowadays. So it wasn't - it's not so much a statement on the state of comedy, "Joker." You know, I actually - if you rewatch the "Hangover" movies - and I'm not suggesting you do this, but - if you watch all three in a row, they get progressively darker. The more freedom we had, the bolder we got with sort of almost jumping genres and playing with the darkness a little bit. "Hangover II" is way darker than the first one, and the third one is barely a comedy, intentionally. We almost jumped genres in the film. So that's just a little bit where my tastes were headed - it's not so much a reaction to, you know, the state of comedy or a grand thing. But yeah, "Joker" is clearly much more a tragedy than a comedy. And in fact, a lot of the movie is about, you know, just that - about, you know, is his life a comedy, or is it really a tragedy?

GROSS: You know, so you've made this, like, tragedy, as you say, about someone. And, wow, it's been so controversial. It's done extraordinarily at the box office, but people are so divided about it and divided about what you're trying to say and what it means. Like, the film has been accused of celebrating incel culture - and incel, for anyone who doesn't know the term...

PHILLIPS: I know. It was something...

GROSS: Let me just explain for people who are out of the loop on this. It's a shorthand for involuntarily celibate, referring to, like, young men who don't have or maybe never had, you know, a girlfriend. It's connected with misogyny and racism and anger and resentment. So people have accused you of glorifying that because that's the part of the culture that this is set in. But, I mean, again, the main character, I don't see him as an incel - I see him as somebody who's really becoming unhinged.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. I mean, to be honest with you, we didn't know that term ourselves when we started getting accused of making a movie for incel culture. It was new to us. That definitely wasn't the agenda. It's not, I think, anyone - you know, I think a lot of those things that came out came out before people saw the movie. I don't really believe people think that after seeing the film. But I do think it's divisive. I think, you know, there's that famous quote. Sometimes, you know, art comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. And I think, you know, "Joker" tended to do that with some people. To us, it was really - it was surprising, the reaction, because - didn't feel like, by making a movie about something, you're celebrating it. You know, representation is not endorsement. So it just - it always felt very off to us.

GROSS: So before I'd seen "Joker" - which, again, I want to mention, I liked a lot, just to be clear on the direction from which my questions are coming - I'd already heard reports about, like, is it too violent? Will it cause violence? And so the trailers I saw before "Joker" were trailers, like, for movies with - like, action movies with a lot of CGI. So I remember, like, one scene where somebody's basically run over by, like - it's either a tank or some kind of, like, large, futuristic iron vehicle. And after being run over, he gets up and starts running away, and I thought, like, this is absurd. Like, there are so many movies like this in movie theaters now, where people just can take any kind of violence and still survive, and it's so unrealistic that - why would a realistic depiction of the consequences of violence be the movie that presents the problem?

PHILLIPS: I know. It shocked us, as well. And, you know, when we came out in the summer after, you know, another "Rambo" movie or "John Wick" film - and, again, I think these films can exist, should exist. People - there's an audience for them. But you talk about celebrating violence, and "Joker" is - what "Joker" was guilty of is presenting real-world implications to that violence. And to us - and maybe this was shortsighted, that felt like such a more responsible way of dealing with violence. I think in the end of the movie - by the end of the movie - seven people die in our film, all people that did him wrong. Nobody random dies. He doesn't shoot any - you know, in his head, people who screwed him over. Whether he's right or wrong, that's another question. But he's not killing people randomly. It's not, you know, large-level mass killing.

This is - I mean, this is essentially - you know, you talk about the movie being inspired by "Taxi Driver," but really, we were inspired by a time of films. And I would say there is as much "Death Wish" in this film - it's a revenge film as much as a "Taxi Driver," "King Of Comedy," "Network," "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," all these movies that inspired us. But anyway, it just felt really surprising to us when we started getting attacked for it being too violent, when you're like, wait a minute.

GROSS: It's interesting that you say that the movie is so much about, you know, empathy and the lack of empathy in the world, and then your movie comes out, and people are so divided about it, and there's so much, like, anger between the two sides...


GROSS: ...The people who love it and the people who hate it and think it's a reprehensible movie. Like, everything is so divisive now.

PHILLIPS: Yes, yes. It's true.

GROSS: How did you react to that? How did you feel about, like, witnessing this really divisive reaction to your movie, like, on Twitter, or in, you know - in other places?

PHILLIPS: Well, luckily, I'm not on Twitter, so, luckily...

GROSS: Oh, right, right, right. So you're not...

PHILLIPS: ...I was able to avoid all that.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

PHILLIPS: But I definitely got - heard back about it from friends of mine that are on Twitter that love to report when you're trending for some reason. But yeah, no, it was - it's a tough thing to go through, you know, because we know - we knew our intentions in making the movie. It kind of bummed us out that it was so divisive. But it does seem to be that we live in an age of outrage now when people look for things to be outraged about. And they're going to be outraged just about that comment, probably. You know, it's become a thing. The good news is, you know, the movie obviously struck a chord. And people were having discussions about it and arguing about its merits.

GROSS: And it's, in part, about outrage.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, it really is. So yeah, it was not lost on us. But it was something to go through, for sure. And it was stressful. But it was also at the same time - luckily, the movie was released. Luckily, most people saw it for what it is - a movie about childhood trauma, a movie about the lack of love in the world, a movie about the loss of empathy in society. Most people saw that for what it is. I can't tell you the amount of emails or messages I got on my Instagram of people talking about how - what a wonderful depiction of mental illness it is.

You know, the thing that seemed to resonate most with people is when Arthur writes in his notebook - he writes, you know, the worst part about having a mental illness - people expect you to behave as if you don't. And that really spoke to people that have it because it's - you're suffering, but you're not wearing a cast. You're suffering, but you're not in a wheelchair. So people think, well, what's wrong with you? You're fine. And I think that really connected and resonated with people in a meaningful way. So that kind of thing makes it worth it, not that it erases everything else. But, you know, it it connected with the people that had to connect with.

GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and then we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Phillips, director of "Joker." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Phillips, director of "Joker." He also directed the "Hangover" films. You've said that there are a lot of films and filmmakers who were influential on you in the making of "Joker." But I think the one that really stands out the most is Scorsese in terms of, in part, how the film looks. You know, you've got De Niro in the movie, and he was in "Taxi Driver" and "King Of Comedy." There are some shots and some things that are so reminiscent of shots in "Taxi Driver." And even there's two times - like, at the end of "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle puts his finger to his forehead as if the finger is a gun. And then with his thumb, he kind of pulls the trigger of this, you know, imaginary gun.

So another, like, Scorsese reference is the fact that there's a late-night "Tonight Show" kind of variety show that's Arthur's mother's favorite show. And Arthur's grown up watching it. And he loves it, too. They watch it every night together. And in "King Of Comedy," Scorsese's film, De Niro is the obsessive fan of the late-night show, which in that movie is hosted by someone played by Jerry Lewis.


GROSS: And De Niro kidnaps the Jerry Lewis character.


GROSS: And De Niro's goal is to, like, be on that show himself. And in "Joker," the Joker character gets on that late-night show that De Niro hosts for very misguided reasons on the host's part. So I just wanted to play a short clip. And this is, you know - so, you know, Arthur, the Joaquin Phoenix character, the Joker character shows up after he's invited on the show. And he's wearing, you know, Joker makeup and clothes.

PHILLIPS: His full look.

GROSS: The full look. And the producer of the show, the Fred de Cordova type, played by Marc Maron, is, like, horrified. And the Johnny Carson type played by De Niro is kind of like, oh, no, we can make this work. This could be fun the audience will enjoy it. I think there's one more thing we need to set up. And, Todd, I'm going to let you do it and give away as much as you want to about why they're suspicious of him dressed as a clown.

PHILLIPS: Well, basically, that day, there happened to be a big protest planned at City Hall, so there's a lot of people dressed up as clowns in this Joker look, which was, of course, inspired by him early on - this description given of him from those initial subway killings. So you'll hear them reference - you'll hear Marc Maron reference the sort of protests that are going on in the city and how somebody actually that day - not by Arthur - but was killed, actually, by a policeman in a confrontation.

GROSS: So here's that scene between the host, De Niro, whose name is Murray, the producer played by Marc Maron and Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur, Joker.


ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) What's with the face? I mean, are you part of the protests?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) No. No. I don't believe in any of that. I don't believe in anything. I just thought it'd be good for my act.

MARC MARON: (As Gene Ufland) For your act? Didn't you hear what happened on the subway? Some clown got killed.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) He's aware of that. He's aware of that. Yeah.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) No, I hadn't heard.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Yeah.

MARON: (As Gene Ufland) You see. This is what I'm telling you. The audience is going to go crazy if you put this guy on. Maybe for a bit, but not a whole segment.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Gene, it's going to work. It's going to work. We're going to go with it.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck, laughter). Thank you, Murray.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) A couple of rules, though. No cursing, no off-color material. We do a clean show, OK? You go on right after Dr. Sally.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) I love Dr. Sally.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Good. Good. Good. Someone will come and get you, OK?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) OK.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Perfect. Good luck.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) Thanks, Murray. Murray, one small thing.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Yeah?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) What's wrong with your real name?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) That's what you called me on the show - a joker. Do you remember?

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Did I?

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) I don't know.

DE NIRO: (As Murray Franklin) Well, if you say so, kid. You know, Joker it is. It's good.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) Thanks, Murray.

GROSS: OK. So that's a scene from "Joker." My guest is the director and co-writer, Todd Phillips. What was it like to direct both De Niro and Phoenix - Joaquin Phoenix - together? Were they both able to arrive at the place they needed to be in terms of getting the character in the same way at the same time? You know, like, some actors like to take a lot of takes. Some actors go to extremes to get in roles. Both Phoenix and De Niro have either lost or gained a lot of weight...


GROSS: ...For roles. I mean, they...


GROSS: ...Both get very deep into the characters they're playing, but did they sync up?

PHILLIPS: Yeah, I mean, as much as you want Murray and Arthur to sync up. I mean, they didn't really have to be in sync. That scene is one giant cringe, really...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

PHILLIPS: ...Where you're just like - and so that - you don't necessarily want them to be in lockstep with each other. But yeah, it was amazing to witness somebody like De Niro's approach as opposed to somebody like Joaquin's approach just in general. But again, I've seen that before with actors, just not with Robert De Niro, which was just mind-blowing to me.

GROSS: Could you describe anything about those approaches without violating their confidence?

PHILLIPS: I mean, you know, Joaquin has a lot of questions and really likes to go really deep on stuff. I jokingly have said this about Joaquin to his face, so I could say it now. I say, Joaquin is the tunnel at the end of the light.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PHILLIPS: Just when you think, you know, you've cracked it, there's a whole 'nother layer to kind of peel back. And De Niro, at least - again, I can only speak with my experience on this movie with these two characters - much more matter-of-fact about it, kind of gets it on the first bounce, understands who Murray is, you know, and where Murray comes from. And OK, he's been on the air for 30 years. It's just two different approaches. But again, I just want to preface that by saying - or say that I think that's how Joaquin is on this movie. I don't know that he's like that on every movie. It's what he needed for this character.

GROSS: Joaquin Phoenix lost over 50 pounds for this role, like he kind of did in "The Master." And when his shirt is off, he looks so undernourished, and you imagine he's, like, emotionally undernourished and spiritually undernourished, that he's undernourished in every way. Like, his bones jutting out is kind of like a metaphor for his whole existence. How did you feel watching him lose that much weight? It's not a healthy thing to do. I understand his desire to do it for the role, and it really is - it's very disturbing to see. It's very effective in the movie. But were you worried about his health when he was doing it, and did you feel very responsible?

PHILLIPS: OK, so first, I should say he did not have any desire to do it. That was something I asked them to do. He really...

GROSS: Oh, really?

PHILLIPS: Yeah. He came to me early in the script. It was written, you know, that Arthur is - I don't know if we use these words, but malnourished and wolf-like in his appearance, you know, or coyote - I don't remember. But it was always really important to me that he was bone skinny. Joaquin came to me early on in those initial meetings we were talking about doing the movie and said, you know, what do you think if it's the opposite? What do you think if he's sort of, like, heavy Joker, like, you know, just kind of because, you know, he's on all these medications, and sometimes, the side effects of medications is you gain weight. And I said, no, I really think he needs to sort of look hungry all the time, or as you said, just malnourished. And he was bummed because he knew how hard it was because, like you said, he'd done that before in "The Master." He lost a bunch of weight.

I was only concerned because he put it off for so long. He didn't really start losing weight until, I think, May or June, and we started shooting in September. And I kept saying, when do you start doing it? He's like, don't worry. Don't worry. I know how to do this. I've done it before. And so I was only concerned with the speed at which he did it, which really - he lost 52 pounds in three months, I think. And now I will also say he had to lose 20, meaning even Joaquin would say he was 20 pounds overweight at that time for him. So, you know, the 20, we're like, OK, good. Now he's back to how he normally is. But then to lose those 30 was no joke.

GROSS: Todd Phillips, thank you so much. It's really been great to have you back on the show. And congratulations on the success of the film. I mean, people are very passionate. People are divided about it, but it's provoked a lot of really interesting conversations. And for - it's a great piece of filmmaking.

PHILLIPS: It has definitely - yeah, it has definitely struck a nerve. And I really appreciate you having me on, Terry. It's a thrill.

GROSS: Todd Phillips produced, directed and co-wrote "Joker," which comes out on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K tomorrow. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by Michael Formanek. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORACE SILVER TRIO'S "OPUS DE FUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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