Introducing Wednesday’s New York Film Festival screening of Joker, director Todd Phillips acknowledged the strong reactions to the film, which finally opens commercially this weekend. “There’s been a lot said about this movie – a lot said by me, too. I’ve learned,” the director told the audience. “I’m really excited that you’re here and we can finally let the movie speak for itself.”
Joker has become a lightning rod at the same time it has accumulated a wealth of initial critical praise and buzz, plus the Golden Lion at last month’s Venice Film Festival. Police in New York and other cities are on alert for this weekend’s opening, given the film’s ties to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, one of which was screening at a theater in Colorado that was the site of a mass shooting. Phillips has faced backlash from his recent comments that he shifted to making dramas because “woke culture” has ruined comedy, the genre where he broke out with hits like Old School and The Hangover.
After the film screened at Alice Tully Hall, Phillips, star Joaquin Phoenix, producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, production designer Mark Freidberg and D.P. Lawrence Sher shared thoughts in a Q&A session. Phillips pushed back on criticism of Joker’s depiction of violence. Some commentators have expressed anxiety over potential copycat behavior, with life imitating the film’s spasms of mob violence unleashed by a loner with a gun – a potent setup in 2019. Phillips said the filmmakers had sought to strip away the usual layers of fantasy and exaggeration of the comic book genre and deliver a character study, albeit one of a homicidal sociopath. Their models were films like Mean Streets, Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he said.
“That’s the surprising thing to me,” Phillips said. “I thought, isn’t that a good thing, to put real-world implications on violence? Isn’t it a good thing to take away the cartoon element about violence that we’ve become so immune to? I was a little surprised when it turns into that direction, that it’s irresponsible. Because, to me, it’s very responsible to make it feel real and make it have weight and implications.”
Phoenix, who has generally been on his best behavior during the initial stage of what is apt to be a long Oscar campaign for his widely hailed lead turn, engaged only sporadically with the discussion. He traded inscrutable inside jokes with the others onstage and at one point repeatedly told moderator Eugene Hernandez, deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, that he couldn’t understand the question he was asking. (It was a real curveball, all right, about how he and Phillips started creating the Arthur Fleck/Joker character.)
After a series of awkward pauses, Phillips drew nervous laughter by joking to the crowd, “You’re getting a real look at what it’s like” to hold a conversation with Phoenix.
At times during the 30-minute Q&A, though, the actor focused enough to shed a bit of light on his approach. He and Phillips began by analyzing and discussing videos of people who have disorders that prompt them to laugh compulsively and at inappropriate times. “Obviously, the Joker laugh is iconic,” Phoenix said. “I thought it was a really smart way of approaching that laugh.”