So many of these WTF happened to videos focus on a film that had behind the scenes issues or were catastrophic bombs in theaters and we dissect what went wrong, but every so often we here at Joblo like to examine what went right with a movie. In 2019, a movie seemingly came out of nowhere to become a cultural milestone that not only sparked controversy but also broke records. Sit back and put on a happy face as we figure out just WTF Happened to Joker.
First appearing in Batman #1 in the spring of 1940, the character of The Joker, created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, based off the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, was originally meant to be a one off villain for the caped crusader who was going to die after his first appearance because Bill Finger thought that if there was a recurring villain, it would mean that Batman was an inept crime fighter. However, Editor Whitney Ellsworth recognized the potential the Joker had and decided to add a final panel to the comic showing he had survived his seemingly deadly injuries. Joker would go on to appear in nine of the first twelve Batman comics and become one of the most infamous bad guys in the history of entertainment.
Over the years, the character has seen many versions on the screen whether it was Caesar Romero’s campy mustached version on the original tv series, Jack Nicholson’s crime boss version in the 1989 blockbuster, Mark Hamill’s darkly comedic animated version, Jared Leto’s much maligned cyber punk version, or Heath Ledger’s academy award winning portrayal in The Dark Knight, the character of The Joker has been no stranger to our screens. So when it was first rumored way back in 2017 that Warner Brothers was in the early stages of developing a Joker origin movie, it was met with a collective “why?” on various internet message boards. Many people pointed out that the mystique of the character was that he had no real origin, he just… was.
In 2014, Joaquin Phoenix, after turning down offers to star as The Hulk and Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would tell his agent he was looking to do a lower budget film that would be a character study about a comic book character, specifically one of the villains. He didn’t know which one and he actually specifically told his agent that it couldn’t be the Joker because that character had been done already. His agent would set up a “general meeting” with Warner Brothers to simply discuss the possibility of the idea, but Phoenix refused to go saying he doesn’t do “general” meetings and quickly forgot about the idea as he moved on to other projects.
Around that same time, Todd Phillip’s who had made a name for himself directing some of the biggest comedies ever made was also being offered the opportunity to direct comic book films, but he always turned them down as he had no interest in directing loud action films, but was interested in the idea of creating a more grounded look at the comic book world. He became intrigued with the Joker, saying that the fact that the character has no definitive back story or portrayal would give him freedom to craft a new take on the iconic character.
Phillips had become disillusion with making comedies and began turning his focus to more dramatic fare which would include the 2016 film War Dogs which would go on to gross $86.2 million. The success of that film would lead the studio to ask Phillips what else he had, so he decided that was the time to pitch his idea for a new take on the clown prince of crime, pitching them on the idea of differentiating themselves from Marvel by allowing stand alone films outside of their own DC connected universe of films.
It would seem, in a case of pure coincidence, that Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix had shared a unique bond in the type of film they wanted to see made. Even more coincidental: Phillips only ever had Phoenix in mind for the role completely without knowing about the conversation Phoenix once had with his agent. Of course the studio had different ideas. After giving Phillips the go ahead to write the script along with writer Scott Silver and Martin Scorsese on board as a producer, the studio had high hopes that they could get Leonardo DiCaprio to sign on for the title role, but Phillips was adamant that the only person he wanted in that make up was Joaquin Phoenix, and Phoenix, upon learning that a character study about comic book villain was actually getting made was absolutely elated. Of course in true Joaquin Phoenix fashion he didn’t sign on the dotted line right away. He admitted that even though this was a dream project, it frightened him.
Of course if Phoenix didn’t take the role, there was one actor ready for his time to shine in a solo Joker film. Jared Leto was apparently so furious when he heard about this new stand alone Joker film due to the fact that when he originally signed on star as the character in Suicide Squad, he did so because Warner Brothers told him that they would make a solo Joker project for him and felt that this version was a slap in the face to that promise.
It would take Phillips and Silver a full year to write their script which they say got a lot of push back from the studio due to its disturbing content with one email even telling Phillips “you do realize we sell Joker pajamas at Target?!” With a new regime in place at Warners and DC due to the massive failure of their own Extended Universe films, Phillips had to fight to get his film made with Warner head Walter Hamada severely cutting Phillips budget in an attempt to get him to walk away. Phillips said that Hamada never truly understood what they were trying to do with the film.
Phillips would take inspiration from many places including films such as Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Serpico, Raging Bull, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Man Who Smiles as well as quintessential comic book stories such as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns which featured a a scene where the Joker murders everyone at a talk show. But one of the biggest influences on the story came not from a movie or comic book, but from real life. Phillips said he based the film in 1981 for two reasons: one was because it would differentiate it from the current DC Extended Universe of films that Warners was releasing, but also because that is the era in which Phillips grew up in the city. At the time New York wasn’t the bastion of family friendly entertainment it is today (that is said with 100% sarcasm!) It was pretty run down with people scared to leave their homes as the streets were filled with unregulated violence. One of the most notorious incidents from the mid 80’s in New York City happened on December 22, 1984 when a man named Bernard Goetz was on the 2 train in New York City and four men approached him allegedly demanding money and flashing signals to each other. Goetz would shoot the four men, not killing any of them, but severely wounding one. Goetz would receive widespread acclaim for his actions with people calling into radio stations in the direct aftermath of the shootings, before Goetz was identified and arrested, dubbing him The Subway Vigilante and praising his actions as people had grown fearful and frustrated with the rising crime in the city.
The film would officially be announced in July 2018 with Phoenix confirmed to star as Arthur Fleck with the films official title finally revealed: Joker. Phoenix would begin his process by starting a very strict diet of just a single apple a day along with some lettuce and steamed green beans to lose the desired 52 pounds. He says that whenever he would go to Todd Phillips office for a meeting, Phillips would mess with him by having a bag of his favorite pretzels just sitting on his desk. Phoenix would not watch any other portrayals of the Joker while prepping for the film saying he didn’t want to be influenced and wanted to create his own character but would study silent film stars such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Ray Bolger to understand their movements while also studying the Scarecrow from Wizard of Oz and Tim Curry’s performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Phoenix says that he also did deep research on political assassinations and other killers to try to understand their motivations. He says that perfecting the laugh was the hardest part of his preparation, but would study people who actually suffer from the real disease known as Pathological Laughter while Phillips would tell him that the laughing was more painful to Arthur than anything else.
The cast would soon fill in around Phoenix with Bryan Tyree Henry, Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Bill Camp, Josh Pais, Douglas Hodge and longtime Phillips collaborator Bryan Callen joining while Zazie Beetz was signed on to play Arthur’s perceived, and I do mean “perceived” love interest. Frances Conroy would sign on to portray Arthur’s mentally ill mother after the producers offered the role to Frances McDormand who turned it down and Brett Cullen would take on his second Batman universe role, after appearing as a congressman in The Dark Knight Rises, this time playing Thomas Wayne in a role that was originally meant to be played by Alec Baldwin who was forced to drop out just two days after accepting due to scheduling conflicts. Justin Theroux would take an uncredited cameo as the guest of Murray Franklin’s who Arthur mimics in preparation for his own appearance. Speaking of Murray Franklin, Robert DeNiro would sign on the dotted line to join the film after he was able to work it out with his schedule shooting The Irishman. That same film would be the reason Martin Scorsese would ultimately leave Joker as a producer as he felt he needed to put his full focus into making that film.
Filming would kick off in September 2018 in New York City under the disguised title of Romeo and go through December 3. There would be a few hiccups along the way including a brief moment of contention between Robert DeNiro and Joaquin Phoenix as Phoenix notoriously hates doing table read throughs, where the cast gets together prior to filming to read through the entire script and get a feel for what they are about to do. Phoenix says he hates doing them because he wants to keep his performance spontaneous and says the anxiety he gets in the lead up to filming is all part of the characters. However, DeNiro likes doing table reads as he says he likes to see the whole movie before they shoot. DeNiro reportedly even told Todd Phillips that Phoenix is an actor and he needs to be there for a read through. Ultimately the pair would come to a compromise as Phoenix didn’t want to upset DeNiro as DeNiro is one of the biggest reasons he wanted to be an actor, dating back to when his brother River Phoenix, brought home a copy of Raging Bull. Even though the pair worked that out, they still didn’t speak very much on set, not out of hatred for each other but out of mutual respect for their respective processes. Of course after the film came out, DeNiro would sing the praises of Phoenix performance and professionalism on set.
That professionalism was sometimes in question though as sometimes during takes, Phoenix would simply walk off set, leaving the other actors in the scene baffled as to what just happened and if they had done something wrong that upset Phoenix. Phillips would explain to the other actors that Phoenix had simply needed to take a break to compose himself from the intense scenes. But it wasn’t just the big name talent in the film that had issues, background performers on the film had to file complaints with their labor union SAG-Aftra after being forced to sit on subway cars for several hours at a time without any sort of bathroom or water breaks. A union rep would visit the set shortly after and resolve those issues. Sadly, it appears these issues are returning for the sequel as a recent article said that background performers on the film’s currently shooting sequel have had similar issues with reports that assistant directors have been screaming and berating the performers for requesting to use the bathroom.
Speaking of bathrooms, one of the most iconic scenes in the film was completely improvised. Todd Phillips had taken a bit of a different approach to how he shot this film. Most movies hire a composer after filming is complete so they can see the footage and compose a score accordingly. Phillips actually hired Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir to begin writing music based solely on the script, before even one frame of footage had been shot. She says that she would work on the score for this film at the same time she was composing the score for the acclaimed mini series Chernobyl and that it was extremely challenging as both scores were vastly different from each other.
In the scene, that takes place directly after Arthur has killed the men on the subway, the script originally called for Arthur to run into the bathroom to hide the gun and wash his face, but Phillips would often play pieces of the score as they filmed to give the actors the mood he was going for in the shot. Phoenix, having studied the film The Old Soft Shoe with Ray Bolger, was so inspired by the piece of music, simply titled Bathroom Dance in the films accompanying score album, that he began a slow, almost intimate dance which became one of the most talked about scenes in the film as it truly conveyed the full release and relief the character experiences after killing for the first time. Phoenix would improvise a lot on the set, including the scene where Arthur empties his refrigerator and gets inside of it. Phillips’ background in comedy made him a great director for these scenes where the performers would go off on their own while he always kept the camera rolling to capture these spontaneously genius moments.
However one thing the production couldn’t make time for was reshoots. Due to Phoenix losing so much weight for the role and the strict diet he was on, it became fairly impossible for any reshoots to be done after production had wrapped. Zazie Beetz says that there were a lot of times she would be handed new pages of script just before filming as Phillips kept changing things up knowing that reshoots were nearly impossible but the cast was always great at adapting to the changes and Phillips would give the performers leeway to improvise.
One of the hardest scenes to shoot in the entire film was actually the stair case dance scene towards the end of the film. Members of the crew said that New York City has no Paparazzi laws, so, many times these people would interrupt filming as they just walked right through scenes. Soon after, grainy images of Phoenix on the stair case would be released on the internet, which annoyed Phillips, so he just decided to release his own high resolution picture on his instagram account. Those stairs have also become so iconic since the films release with many people treating them as a tourist destination much to the dismay of the actual residents of that Bronx neighborhood. Shortly after the films release, if you typed in “Joker Stairs” on google maps, not only could you find the exact location, but it was also labeled a “religious destination.”
Other shooting locations would include Dangerfield’s, the oldest functioning comedy club in New York City, named after the legendary Rodney Dangerfield. In the film the club is renamed Pogo’s Comedy Club, as a reference to serial killer John Wayne Gacy who went by the name Pogo The Clown when he worked as a professional clown.
Even though the film seemed to be coming along great, Warner Brothers started to freak out at the footage they were receiving. The violence seemed to be a bit more than they had anticipated and they reportedly almost forced Phillips to tone the film down to a PG13. Luckily Phillips was able to convince them to keep the film at its R rating as there is no way this movie would have worked as a PG13.
Phillips would fill the film with homages to other Batman stories such as the scene where Phoenix is dressed in a doctors uniform which is a reference to the scene in The Dark Knight where Heath Ledger’s Joker dresses up as a nurse while many believe that the reason Arthur lets his pint sized pal Gary go free after he viciously kills Randall was a nod to the Joker’s first sidekick from the comics: Gaggy The Clown. And while the film was meticulously planned, plotted and shot, there is one thing fans have noticed: every clock in the film is set to 11:11. The internet was rampant with theories as to why that is, including it being a reference to the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 that says “Therefore thus saith the Lord, behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” While others have said it is proof positive the entire film takes place inside Arthur’s mind. As we saw several times in the film, Arthur is an “unreliable narrator” who has several delusions throughout the story that are later shown to be fabrications of his own mind. Could it be Arthur was simply in Arkham Asylum the entire time and the revolution he supposedly started was nothing more than a well crafted tale from inside his own head? Personally, I hope not, but we should get some clarity on that when the sequel is released… hopefully!
The film would be edited by the soon to be Oscar Nominated Jeff Groth who says that producer Bradley Cooper, yes that Bradley Cooper, who stepped in as a Producer after Martin Scorsese departed the project, would be heavily involved in the editing of the film. Groth says that Cooper was often times the first person they called if they got stuck on something and he would come to the editing bay immediately to help figure things out. One such shot that was ultimately cut was a scene that showed Zazie Beetz’ character still alive, watching the aftermath of the talk show murder on TV. In the film it is left a bit ambiguous as to whether or not Arthur killed her. Phillips said he cut that scene because the entire movie is told from Arthur’s point of view and had he cut to Sophie for just that one short shot, it would have shifted that focus.
The films first trailer was released at Cinemacon on April 2, 2019 and online the very next day. The internet chatter went from “this movie is going to suck” to “holy crap, that trailer was amazing” with its genius use of the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile.” While Warner’s would kick their marketing into high gear spending as much as $120 million on marketing costs alone.
Prior to the films release there were echoes of the 2012 release of The Dark Knight Rises when at the very first showing of the film in Aurora, Colorado, a cowardly man entered the theater dressed as the Joker from The Dark Knight and opened fired on the innocent crowd of movie watchers. With this film being a more realistic take on the character and its hard R violence, many people were fearful that a new coward would emerge as a copycat. There were news reports across the country about increased security at movie theaters and even the United States Army sent out an email warning their service members about potential violence at movie theaters, saying that the Joker character had emerged as a popular figure among the Incel community, which is a group of men who are involuntarily celibate who have been linked to many violent and deadly acts in support of their quote unquote cause.
Deadline even did their own separate investigation and found that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security found no credible threats leading up to the release of the film. Although the theater in Aurora, Colorado where The Dark Knight Rises shooting happened did not screen the film after family members of the victims of that tragedy asked them not to. While in New York and Los Angeles, Landmark theaters would not allow anyone dressed as the Joker to enter.
The fear may have been warranted, yet on October 4, 2019, Joker was released to the masses and there was no violence, no shootings, no fights. It actually ended up opening with $96.2 million making it the best October opening of all time and just four weeks later would become the highest grossing R rated film of all time on its way to becoming the only R rated film to ever cross the $1 Billion mark at the worldwide box office where it currently sits at $1,074,458,282. It would make all of that money without a China release which is where many films make the bulk of their worldwide gross. Of the 51 films to gross over a billion dollars worldwide, only 5 have done it without a release in China: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Dark Knight, Top Gun: Maverick, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Joker. The film was so popular that PornHub reported nearly one million searches for “Joker” in the month after its release, which I guess… to each their own!
Critical reception to the film was a bit mixed. Some would call the film flawless and that it would have been just as engaging had it not been tied to any pre-existing property. While others found the film to glorify violence saying that the film almost felt like it was giving validation to people who have committed heinous acts of violence in our society. Phoenix said that you wanted the film to feel real. He said that when you watch a film like The Avengers, where tens of thousands of people die, you grow numb to the violence and deaths, they have no impact. He would add that anyone who saw the film as glorifying what Arthur does may have been looking at the film wrong. But one thing everyone agreed on: Joaquin Phoenix’ performance was damn near perfect. Actors such as Josh Brolin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jessica Chastain, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Brendan Gleeson took to twitter to sing the praises of the performance Phoenix gave.
Even after Heath Ledger won the post-humous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, and many people felt the film was over-looked for a best picture nomination, no one really expected Joker to be a huge awards darling. And yet when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and received an 8 minute standing ovation on its way to winning the Golden Lion top prize at the festival, everyone started paying attention. The film would go on to receive 239 nominations including 14 from the JoBlo Golden Schmoe Awards as well as becoming the most nominated film at the 2020 Academy Awards with 11 total nominations including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director, which officially made Todd Phillips the first director ever nominated for an Oscar for a Comic Book movie. While Joaquin Phoenix would win the Oscar for Best Actor and Hildur Guonadottir would win for Best Original Score, a prize she would also take home from the Grammy’s. The film would also receive a Razzie Nomination for “Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property” which it sadly lost to Rambo: Last Blood.
The film would become a political mainstay in anti-government protests around the world. The October 17 revolution in Lebanon found graffiti artists painting murals of the Joker holding molotov cocktails while protests in Beirut would see face painting stations set up for people to get their faces painted as the Joker. During the Chile protests from 2019-2022 the phrase “we are all clowns” was painted at the base of a statue while in Hong Kong, to combat mask mandates, people would take to the streets wearing Joker masks.
The films ambiguity was one of its biggest strengths, did we just witness the birth of the Joker revolution or was it all part of a mentally unstable mans delusions? People loved that the film ended on such an ambiguous note, so it became a bit of a hot bed topic when on June 7, 2022, Todd Phillips took to his Instagram page to release the official cover page of the finished script for the sequel featuring the title: Joker: Folie à Deux, accompanied by an image of a cigarette smoking Joaquin Phoenix reading it. The films title came into clarity not long after, as Folie à Deux translates to Madness For Two, when it was announced Lady Gaga was joining the cast as Harley Quinn and the film would actually be a musical. So far Phillips has released several official images from the film, teasing us the way he teased the original, and even given us the official release date for the highly anticipated sequel: October 4, 2024… exactly five years to the day since the original film was released.
Joker was a film that no one seemed to want when it was announced, yet two creative forces, completely separate of each other, desired to make a low budget film set in the world of comic books that really took a deep dive into the character. In a world where comic book movies based in continuing universes seem to be starting to grow stale, Warner Brothers along with Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix took a huge risk in presenting a different vision to the world. The results would be one of the biggest films ever made.
And that is WTF Happened to Joker!
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/what-happened-to-joker-2019/