Ever since Todd Phillips’ Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the film has been courting controversy, sparking theories, and setting debates raging about one of the most notorious super-villains of all time. He’s been played by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and now Joaquin Phoenix in a bold new take that plays with the classic comics mythology, takes surprising narrative risks, and leaves plenty of room for personal interpretation.
Which means that when the filmmaker sat down with the Empire Podcast for a spoiler special interview there was tons to talk about – chatting all things Scorsese, sequels, and the meaning behind that dance scene. With a film so rich in contradictions and knotty questions, Phillips both teased some of our suspicions and left a whole lot open for the future – for his Gotham, for his Joker, and for a world’s own theories on the villain no one can forget.
Joker: 7 Spoiler-Filled Things We Learned From Todd Phillips
1) It’s not just influenced by Martin Scorsese
Todd Phillips' take on the Joker origin story owes clear debts to a variety of past films – but the director points to a somewhat left-field choice as one of his first crucial references. "A lot of '70s cinema was a big inspiration for us," Phillips admits, "But the biggest inspiration to start when we were writing was this silent film [from 1928] called The Man Who Laughs, which really explores the idea of smiling through pain." As for '70s cinema, Phillips nods to the likes of Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Death Wish. "These movies help shape what I love about movies, helped shape the things I responded to later," he says. Of course, Scorsese clearly is an influence too, as Phillips pays his dues to Taxi Driver, and bills The King of Comedy as being among his Top 10 of all-time.
2) Todd Phillips has his own theory on what’s real – but he won’t say
There's a lot of questions swirling around what's objectively true in Joker, and so many deliberate loose ends that lie within. Many of Arthur Fleck's relationships are built on delusion, and the milestones that change his world can be tinged by a sense of reality that only he understands. While arguments will likely rage over which sequences are flights of fancy, some fans have speculated that the entire film could be nothing more than a figment of Arthur's imagination. "You could [read it that way]," Phillips says, reluctant to dish up his own take. "I have a firm view on it too, but yeah you certainly could."
3) There was sequel talk on set – but nothing serious
Joker tells the story of how the Clown Prince of Crime came to be, going from struggling comedian to inadvertent rebellion leader. The film ends with the promise of a new beginning, as Phillips' Joker is only a criminal for the very final moments. "Joaquin and I would constantly talk about a sequel on set," the director admits. "We've never seriously discussed it and still haven't," Phillips continues, "because we really always envisioned it as its own standalone thing." While there are no formal announcements on a follow-up film yet, it's clearly at the forefront of some key players' minds.
4) Todd Phillips sees Arthur as an accidental figurehead
In Joker's epic final reel, he finds himself caught up in a riot of clown-masked dissenters as civil unrest fully grips Gotham City. But there's irony there – Arthur's largely nihilistic outbursts are co-opted by the city's more dispossessed citizens using his image to fight against class injustice. Phillips describes Fleck as an "accidental agent of chaos" who comes to be seen as a hero by the rioters. "He says it to Murray, 'I'm not political'," says the director. "He doesn't mean to be what he's ended up being. But when he's standing on the car at the end and he paints that bloody smile on his face, he's exactly where he was meant to be – but he didn't do it intentionally. The accidental anti-hero."
5) Arthur Fleck has three distinct laughs
Part of Arthur Fleck's characterisation is an interesting, and troubling, take on the Joker's chronic laughter – here attributed to a psychological affliction that Fleck can't suppress, often in the most inappropriate of situations. As the director sees it, there are three distinct laughs that Phoenix delivers within his performance. "There's the laugh that comes from his affliction, when he's curled up and in pain, then there's the laugh he does when he wants to fit in and be one of the guys, which is this forced fake laugh," he explains. "The only time Arthur/Joker really laughs for real in the movie is the very last scene."
6) Todd Phillips sees it as a tragedy
There's a line in the film where Arthur Fleck succinctly self-diagnoses: "I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realise it's a comedy." Except, the director sees it otherwise. "To me the film is clearly a tragedy," says Phillips. "Over the years making a lot of comedy films, knowing a lot of comedians, knowing a lot of their comedy comes from pain – [you realise] there's a fine line between comedy and tragedy. We liked playing with and walking that line."
7) The dance on the stairs is the real birth of Joker
It's already been re-scored and interpreted into oblivion, and the impact of the scene where Arthur dances down the flight of stairs between Shakespeare Avenue and Anderson Avenue in the Bronx, already re-dubbed the 'Joker Stairs', is not lost on the director. "The idea is that only when [Arthur] finally becomes the Joker is he fully free," Phillips says. "That dance on the stairs, that's the culmination. It's the one time he's fully free – or from that time forward he's fully free in his mind."
Listen to the full Joker spoiler special episode of the Empire Podcast here, and read the Empire review of the film here.