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The untold truth of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker film

As soon as Joaquin Phoenix's Joker origin story film was announced, it started stirring up quite a buzz. Between the star-studded cast and the bits and pieces of plot making it sound like more like a dark character study than your average superhero adventure, director Todd Phillips' take on the iconic villain is one of the more highly anticipated movies of 2019. Set in the '80s, Phillips' film will tell the story of an aspiring stand-up comic who turns to a life of crime after failing to entertain audiences on the stage. 

The studio has been careful not to give away too many details, only describing the project as "an exploration of a man disregarded by society (that) is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale." However, despite the best efforts of the films tight-lipped cast and crew, several tantalizing facts about Phoenix's Joker film have already come to light. Here's a look at the untold truth of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker.

A changing script

As revealed by cast member Zazie Beetz, the movie was rewritten as it was filmed. During an interview with MTV (via io9), Beetz went into detail about the filming process, recalling, "Literally, we would go into Todd's trailer and write the scene for the night and then do it. During hair and makeup we'd memorize those lines and then do them and then we'd reshoot that three weeks later." The frequent rewrites and reshoots suggest a more improvisational approach than most comic book movie directors take, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; it implies the final product will be a more collaborative work incorporating ideas from the cast into the director's vision. 

Although Phillips' approach is unusual, it isn't without precedent. Iron Man, for instance, was also written and further developed as it was filmed. According to Jeff Bridges, who played antagonist Obadiah Stane, the entire project was based around an outline; Bridges and Robert Downey Jr. would improvise their way through scenes under the guidance of director Jon Favreau in their trailers while the crew waited on the set. If Iron Man was shot in such a loose manner and still turned out to be the smash hit that launched the MCU, there's definitely hope for Joaquin Phoenix's Joker.

A surprising director

In a rather unexpected move, Warner Bros. brought on Todd Phillips as director, producer, and co-writer for the film. Although Phillips is a veteran filmmaker, he's best known for raunchy comedies such as the Hangover trilogy, so it will be interesting to see how he fares creating a much darker and more serious film. The studio has promised Phoenix's Joker will be a gritty low-budget character study — quite a departure from the light-hearted slapstick comedies he's worked on before. 

The closest that Phillips has come to working on this type of film before was when he wrote, produced, and directed 2016's War Dogs. Although that movie was an action comedy that touched on some darker elements of human nature, it's already clear from the few glimpses we've had of Phoenix as the Joker that this new project is going deeper and darker than any of Phillips' earlier features.

Hello, goodbye

Casting changes are fairly common in Hollywood, and Joker is no exception — in fact, the film was forced to adapt when two of its biggest names ended pulling out of the project prematurely. In addition to the surprising hires of Phillips and Phoenix, acclaimed director Martin Scorsese raised eyebrows when he signed on to help steer development as a co-producer — but he left the project in July 2018 due to being overextended by prior commitments, and was replaced by Emma Tillinger Koskoff (The Wolf of Wall Street), a producer who's worked with Scorsese for years. 

Another high-profile name who made headlines when he left the project was Alec Baldwin, briefly cast as Thomas Wayne, father of future Batman Bruce Wayne. Baldwin abruptly pulled out of the project just two days after it was announced he would be playing the part, chalking his departure up to scheduling issues and shrugging, "I'm sure there are 25 guys who can play that part."

Heavy hitters

Joaquin Phoenix was a pretty major casting coup for Joker, but he isn't the only impressive name going before the cameras for the film. An equally unexpected addition: Robert De Niro, who's portraying a talk-show host who plays a role in setting Joker down the path that turns him into the sociopathic clown we all know and love to hate. One of the reasons this role may have appealed to De Niro is because the script is reminiscent of a movie he previously starred in, The King of Comedy

In that film, De Niro played a mentally unhinged and wildly unsuccessful comedian who kidnaps a talk show host in order to get his "big break." This sounds eerily similar to the premise of the Joker origin movie, only Phoenix will be playing the deranged aspiring comic and De Niro may be the one getting kidnapped this time. Marc Maron (G.L.O.W.) will be playing a talent agent who presumably works alongside De Niro's character, and Zazie Beets (Atlanta, Deadpool 2) has also joined the cast as a single mother who catches the Joker's eye. Although Beets has a history in superhero films thanks to her work in Deadpool 2, Maron, Phoenix, and especially De Niro seem out of place in a story inspired by comic books.

Mo' paparazzi, mo' problems

Todd Phillips elected to film on location in New York, which meant seemingly anyone with a camera in the Big Apple took a shot at trying to snap photos of Phoenix and his co-stars in costume. Phillips found himself becoming increasingly annoyed by the paparazzi taking grainy photos from whatever long-distance angle they could muster, so he decided to cut out the middleman and put out several high-quality photos himself. 

In addition to teasing filmgoers with a shot of Phoenix in Joker makeup, Phillips has fought to present other members of the cast on his terms. In September 2018 the paparazzi managed to snap a photo of Zazie Beetz's character in full costume, so Phillips retaliated by releasing a professional quality photo through his Instagram feed. When a few fans commented that they were seeing too much of the movie before it was even released, Phillips responded and explained his reasoning behind releasing the image: "We have paparazzi all over our set, at every turn. And it bums me out that they constantly put out their bad shots. So I figure, may as well put out some good ones."

Which Joker will this be?

Jared Leto is still slated to star in his own standalone Joker film despite the backlash over his first appearance as the character in Suicide Squad, which means there will be two different iterations of the villain on screens around roughly the same time. It's unusual for a studio to pit actors against each other this way, but there's a twist: they might not be the same Joker. Phoenix is in his mid-40s, which means Joaquin's Joker will be already be approaching middle age when this origin story unfolds. Since it's been confirmed that Bruce Wayne's father will play a role in the film, this suggests Phillips' story takes place when Bruce himself is still just a child. 

This age difference is important to note because by the time Bruce Wayne would be old enough to start patrolling the streets of Gotham as Batman, Joaquin's Joker would be something like 60 or 70. Since Batman and Joker are typically assumed to be around the same age, some fans have suggested that this iteration of the character might serve as inspiration for the Joker that Batman faces later on.

A frightened Phoenix

Despite being nominated for three Oscars, Joaquin Phoenix found himself thoroughly intimidated by the idea of playing the Joker — which is one of the main reasons he ultimately ended up signing on for the project. Even though Phoenix has a wide variety of experience, playing everything from a famous musician to paranoid emperor in past roles, he admitted to being terrified by the idea of portraying one of the most iconic villains of all time. "There is something very appealing about… working with (Todd Phillips) on this particular project," he said. "It feels unique, it is its own world in some ways, and maybe, mostly, it scares the f***ing s*** out of me or something. It might as well be the thing that scares you the most."

This isn't the first time Phoenix has contemplated playing a comic book character, as he was one of the main actors being considered for the role of Doctor Strange. He ended up passing on the role, saying he was worried that a blockbuster film run by a huge studio would restrict his freedom as an actor — which suggests this Joker will be a one-and-done deal for its star.

Undefinable

Another reason Phoenix ended up agreeing to star in Joker was the fact that he quickly became enthralled with Phillips' vision of a completely new take on a familiar comic book villain. Since there have been so many different iterations of the Joker over the years, some critics were wary of yet another one on the big screen, but Phoenix remains optimistic about the project because it's unlike any other version of the Joker audiences have seen before. 

"I wouldn't quite classify this as like any genre," Phoenix said. "I wouldn't say it's a superhero movie, or a studio movie or a… It feels unique, and I think more than anything, and probably the most important thing, is Todd seems very passionate about it and very giving, so that's exciting." Without the presence of Batman or other widely known comic book characters besides the Joker himself, this film is already headed in a very different direction — and we haven't even seen what else Phillips might have up his sleeve.

Making it up

The first images of Phoenix in costume revealed the grubby makeup he would be wearing as the Joker, and offered some insight into some of the inspirations for this version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Although at first glance the makeup design definitely seems reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker, upon further examination it also seems to draw inspiration from several other sources. 

The color palette used certainly seems inspired by the makeup worn by John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer in the '70s who worked as a clown at parties and events. Gacy's clown makeup also incorporated the wide red mouth and high blue eye paint that appears on Phoenix. The bright blue makeup around the eyes also seems to be a nod to the look that the Joker had in some of the older Batman comics, such as "The Laughing Fish" and "Sign of the Joker."

Urine big trouble

Making movies might seem glamorous, but those days on the set can be long and difficult. According to TMZ, conditions on Joker took a turn for the worse in October 2018 when the cast was filming on location in a Brooklyn subway station. Apparently, a group of extras were actually locked inside a subway car for hours — and although actors are typically guaranteed breaks during filming, sources on set reported that the extras stuck in the car were denied this relief.

Since they'd been locked inside the train car for so long that they needed to use the bathroom, some irate extras ended up banging on the doors and windows — and after still being confined inside despite their protests, some resorted to urinating on the train tracks between cars. Upon receiving complaints about the incident, the Screen Actors Guild sent a representative to handle the situation and monitor Phillips' set for the rest of the shoot.

Not your average superhero movie

In interviews, Joaquin Phoenix has suggested that Joker won't be the typical adrenaline-spiking, CGI-filled action film that Marvel and DC fans are accustomed to. Instead, the studio plans to deliver a low-budget character study. 

As it turns out, Phoenix had actually discussed a similar idea several years before he heard a Joker origin movie was in the works. "Three or four years ago, I called my agent and said 'Why don't they want to take one of these characters and just make a lower budget film about it, a movie but a character study, and why not take one of the villains?' I thought you can't do the Joker, because you know… it's just been done." Although Phoenix's agent tried to convince him to attend a general meeting with Warner Bros. after this talk, Phoenix dismissed the idea. He even forgot about the entire concept until he heard about Phillips' film and realized it was exactly the type of role he'd been imagining. 

Killer inspiration

Based on the brief descriptions of the script, cast, and some set photos, there's ample speculation that Joker will be taking inspiration from a comic considered one of the greatest Joker stories of all time: The Killing Joke. Although i won't be a direct adaptation, several core elements from the comic's storyline could be carried over. Written by Alan Moore, it's one of the best-known and most widely acclaimed Joker stories, and the beginning sounds very similar to the premise of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker. 

Just like Phoenix's character Arthur Fleck, the Joker in The Killing Joke started out as a failed and frustrated stand-up comedian. As the story progresses, he's transformed into the Joker in an accident after getting involved in a robbery with some shady characters in order to support his pregnant wife. Given that Zazie Beetz is playing a single mother who Phoenix's character falls for, it stands to reason that this Joker might also start down a dark path in an attempt to provide for a woman and her child. Another Killing Joke connection comes from some of the first set pictures, which show an area that resembles Amusement Mile — a section of Gotham City that appears in the comic.

Why so serious about stunts?

Even actors in their early 20s aren't necessarily expected to do their own stunts, but Phoenix has been spotted participating in physically intensive set pieces for the film. Paparazzi snapped photos of him in action while filming some type of chase scene as he sprinted down the streets of New York in full clown makeup while being pursued by two of his co-stars, identified as Shea Whigham and Bill Camp, who were both dressed in police uniforms.

Photographers also managed to get a few action shots of the 44-year-old Phoenix throwing himself against the hood of a moving taxi in his Joker outfit, implying that he was struck by a car as he attempted to flee police custody. A short video also caught a glimpse of the actor throwing himself against the car so violently that he rolled up onto the roof. Although the Joker origin story movie seems to be more focused on plot and character development than action, it's still impressive that its star is getting involved in these potentially dangerous stunts himself. 

Less laughing matter

Phoenix has gained a reputation for undergoing dramatic transformations, such as when he played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line or Jesus Christ in Mary Magdalene. When preparing for his role as the Joker, he once again faced a physical challenge. In order to emulate the traditionally scrawny villain, the actor had to slim down considerably

Joker co-star Zazie Beetz revealed that Phoenix's weight loss was so significant that it actually limited the potential for reshoots after the production completed filming. "We had to do everything then because Joaquin had lost so much weight that we couldn't do reshoots later on so we were figuring it out," Beetz reported. Even though drastic physical transformations can take a serious toll on an actor's health, it comes as no surprise that a performer so legendarily dedicated to his craft would go above and beyond to completely transform into his character. 

What's the story?

Apparently, an April Fool's joke went so far that it actually convinced thousands of fans and critics that Phillips' Joker film was set up as a prequel to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films. The whole affair started when Screen Rant shared a fake official plot synopsis which began with: "20 years before Batman saved the city in THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Gotham was a dangerous place. In the crime-ridden Narrows, one man tries to escape his unfortunate lot through a passion for theatrics and stand-up comedy." 

Although the story was later updated with a message revealing the synopsis had been an April Fool's joke, the fake story had already spread through Twitter and multiple news sources — many of which never edited or removed their articles incorrectly claiming that Phillips' Joker is a prequel to Nolan's beloved blockbusters.