Warner Bros. brought the unjustly accused, wrongly convicted and left-behind to Deadline’s Contenders New York on Saturday with close-up looks at Joker, Richard Jewell and Just Mercy.
Todd Phillips, Joker co-writer, director and producer, said star Joaquin Phoenix lost an astonishing 52 pounds in three months for the role: “It was crazy, but in fairness he only had to lose 20,” but he went above and beyond what was required.
Joker is the alter ego of Arthur Fleck, an overlooked, mistreated, unstable comedian in a downward crime spiral. It’s the highest-grossing R-rated film ever — surpassing over $1 billion at the global box office.
Phillips said a society bereft of compassion like Fleck’s is relatable around the world. “We set out to make something meaningful. Compassion is what the movie is about. … told through the Joker.”
The filmmaker said he leveraged his Hangover earnings for Warner Bros. into directing the crown jewel of the studio’s IP. An old-school producer he declined to name reminded him at lunch one day: “‘You’ve earned a lot of good will with the Hangover movies. But good will is perishable, so go use it.’”
There’s no word on a sequel, Phillips said. “When a movie does a billion dollars and cost $60 million to make, of course a sequel comes up,” he said, “But it would have to have real thematic resonance.”
Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell depicts another downward spiral — of a real-life security guard who saved many lives at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics by alerting the FBI to a suspicious backpack. He mistakenly became a suspect as law enforcement and the media looked for a culprit. Jewell was cleared, but quietly. He died in 2007.
Writer Billy Ray said the project languished for four years until Eastwood fast-tracked it. According to Ray, Eastwood told him when they met last May, “‘I’d have to be lollygagging not to get it done by December!’”
Kathy Bates plays Jewell’s mother Bobbi and said the women bonded. “I went to visit her. It was my birthday, she made me a pound cake.”
Bates said many people still link Jewell to the Atlanta bombing, “and the 88 days [of suspicion] they endured are still very fresh in her mind,” Bates said.
The role of Richard Jewell was actor Paul Walter Hauser’s (I, Tonya) first top role in a movie. “I usually come in and do something scary and leave,” he said.
In Just Mercy, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) was convicted of murder in 1988 and spent years on death row for crime he din’t commit. Witnesses lied and the police ignored exculpatory evidence.
The film is based on the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, an executive producer and a Harvard grad who helps the wrongly condemned in Alabama prisons. With his help, McMillan’s conviction was overturned and he was released in 1993. He died in 2013.
Actor Rob Morgan plays McMillan’s fellow death-row inmate Herbert Richardson, a vet who suffered from PTSD and was executed in 1989. “I was thankful to be given the opportunity to tell the story,” Morgan said. All he had to work with was two pictures of Richardson. “Then I pulled from my own experience as a black man in America, combined with past men in my life.”
Stevenson said: “I spent decades on death row where people are told their lives are beyond meaning. Just getting people close to that was my goal.”
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