Currently in competition for Camerimage’s Golden Frog—the highest honor at the Polish festival, recognizing the work of cinematographers—Lawrence Sher brought visceral, gritty and sumptuous imagery to Joker, in his sixth collaboration with Todd Phillips.
First working with the director on The Hangover, a box office smash which instantaneously became a comedy classic upon its release, Sher felt a strong connection with Phillips from their very first meeting. “I was an obsessive Howard Stern fan when I grew up. I would run home from school, listen to him when he was on [in] the afternoons, and Howard has a very specific personality that’s both loving and aggressive,” Sher says, in the latest installment of Deadline’s Production Value video series. “There was something so familiar about Todd the first time I met him, and I think some of that familiarity was Howard. There was something about Todd that reminded me of Howard Stern.”
While the films Sher had made with Phillips prior to Joker were all comedies, the DP viewed this standalone origin story of an iconic DC villain as a natural progression from the films the pair had collaborated on to that point. “Our conversations, even going back to Hangover, were always about movies and filmmakers that we love, whether it’s Paul Thomas Anderson, or these other auteur-type filmmakers that are able to make these singular pieces. We’re such admirers of those films that even when we were making Hangover, which on its surface is just a comedy, we always treated [it] really cinematically, and took great attention to detail to make [our prior works] pieces of film, not just dismissively some comedy,” the cinematographer says. “So, Joker really felt like a natural progression of that, because in each movie, we always tried to take a lot of risks.”
For Sher, the appeal of Joker was, much the same as it was for Phillips, the ability to “hide this character art piece” in the midst of the comic book genre, he explains. While the DP knew this film would be unlike any comic book film made before—stripping a well-known character of his cartoonish backstory, in pursuit of raw authenticity—he nonetheless found his visual approach to the pic informed by comic book movies, as well as graphic novels that deal in that space.
“One of the things I appreciate is that they embrace aggressive, engaging imagery. Because they have to on the page, and they’re trying to create images that singularly feel beautiful. They don’t have motion, they don’t have these things, but they have to create these striking images,” he reflects. “So, in spite of the fact that it’s meant to be real and authentic, I certainly made a real point to try to create these very striking compositions, with a lot of color.”
Shooting the psychological thriller at a 1.85 aspect ratio, with vintage lenses and a large-format ARRI camera, Sher’s hope was to forge an aesthetic with a handmade feel. “It was meant to feel gritty, authentic and real, but also beautiful, in the way that ugly can be beautiful,” the DP says, “the way that light that’s green and gross, traditionally, in the way we think about it, if you place it against other palettes, can have a beauty.”
On Joker, part of what Sher enjoyed the most was the opportunity to engage in a dance with star Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who moved freely and unpredictably throughout the film’s set. Eschewing camera rehearsals, Sher was often finding his shots in the moment, opposite Phoenix. “With Joaquin, every take is different, in the best way. It wasn’t about continuity because often, we were pretty sparse with our coverage,” Sher notes. “We never had to have him do the same thing twice, necessarily. So, it’s a little bit of an embarrassment of riches with him, where he’s discovering things every take.”
“I was operating one of the cameras, and to me, one of the most thrilling parts of the movie was to actually discover things in real time with him, and not know where it was going to go. And sometimes, it wasn’t like he was running around the room and doing circles. Sometimes, it was just like a slow dance of watching him feeling the performance, and then in real time, making a decision to move in slowly, or come around to the back of him,” he adds. “Me and the A operator, Geoff Haley, would just watch each other, so if he moved, I would move, and we would dance around him, [with] Joaquin in the middle. Man, it was super fun because it was like we were all sort of doing it together, this kind of cool, improvisational jazz thing.”
For more from our conversation with the Joker DP, click on the video above.
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