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The Agonizing Process It Took To Make Joker R-Rated

Joker, the upcoming standalone from Warner Brothers and DC starring Joaquin Phoenix, promises to be a comic book film unlike any other. Inspired heavily by the works of Martin Scorsese (and co-starring  his frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro), Joker presents for our consideration Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian with a dark, troubled inner life who is forced by circumstances into becoming the Clown Prince of Crime, the most feared figure in Gotham City's underworld.

More character study than superpowered smash-up, Joker is one of the rare comic book films to receive an R rating — and with a property as iconic as its main character, getting clearance from the studio to push the film beyond the boundaries of your average superhero fare was not an easy task for co-writer and director Todd Phillips. In a recent sitdown with the Los Angeles Times, Phillips explained why he decided to use the character to tell a different kind of comic book story on the big screen, and what it took to get the green light to pursue his gritty, hard-R vision.

Phillips explained that the inspiration for the film came as he was attending the premiere of his 2016 dramedy War Dogs in August of that year. Taking it all in, he couldn't help but be distracted by a billboard for a big-budget superhero epic which loomed over the area. (He didn't say which one, but as the Times noted, this was right around the time Suicide Squad opened, which happened to feature a supremely divisive turn by Jared Leto as the Joker.)

Phillips may be known for comedies such as The Hangover, but he is a Scorsese disciple, and had been disheartened by the last couple decades' dearth of in-depth character studies for which the master filmmaker was known — such as 1974's Taxi Driver and 1980's Raging Bull, both of which starred DeNiro. As he regarded the billboard, the seed of an idea was formed.

"I knew that War Dogs wasn't going to set the world on fire, and I was thinking, 'What do people really want to see?'" he remembered. "The movies that I grew up loving, these character studies from the '70s, you couldn't get those movies made in this climate. I'm staring up at this billboard and I said to myself, 'What if you did a movie in that vein, but made it about one of those characters?'"

Perhaps inspired by the character's Suicide Squad depiction, Phillips became focused on the Joker, and as he discussed his idea with the film's co-writer Scott Silver, the pair were emboldened by the fact that the iconic Batman nemesis had never received a proper origin story in the comics, which was by design. While various depictions of the character — including those in Tim Burton's Batman and the TV series Gotham — had settled on the "falling into a vat of chemicals while escaping the Dark Knight" tack, Phillips and Silver decided that it would be much more interesting to offer up their own version of the Joker's origin, one far less fanciful and much more grounded in reality.

"We wanted to look at everything through as real and authentic a lens as possible. I don't believe that in the real world if you fell into a vat of acid you would turn white and have a smile and your hair would be green," Phillips said. "So you start backwards-engineering these things, and it becomes really interesting. 'How about if he's a clown at one of these places where you rent out entertainment?' It was one of the most fun scripts to write, because you were only breaking rules."

Phillips had made The Hangover for Warner Brothers, and since that comparatively low-budget comedy had improbably grossed nearly a half-billion dollars worldwide, the studio's executives were inclined to hear him out on his vision for Joker, certain story elements of which would require the film to carry an R rating. But there was a meticulous process of swatting down seemingly a million different objections to the idea before Phillips and his team were allowed to proceed, and complicating matters was the fact that a major regime change had taken place at Warner Brothers in the middle of the flick's pre-production.

"It was a yearlong process from when we finished the script just to get the new people on board with this vision, because I pitched it to an entirely different team than made it," Phillips recalled. "There were emails about: 'You realize we sell Joker pajamas at Target.' There were a zillion hurdles, and you just sort of had to navigate those one at a time... At the time, I would curse them in my head every day. But then I have to put it in perspective and go, 'They're pretty bold that they did this.'"

Bold, yes, but it's shaping up to be a pretty good call: Joker is the most highly-anticipated film of the fall, and Phoenix's performance is generating strong Oscar buzz on the strength of the trailers alone. So invested was Phillips in his vision that he felt that other directors coming on board the Worlds of DC, which has adjusted its shared universe approach of its early years to focus on more singular, filmmaker-driven projects, may want to follow his lead. As such, midway through Joker's production, he suggested to Warner Brothers executives that they create an entirely new label which could house gritty character studies such as his: DC Black. (Their response: "They're like, 'Calm down with the label — how about you do one movie?'" Phillips recalled with a laugh.)

Although fans' reaction to the flick's trailers has for the most part been exceedingly positive, Phillips understands that his interpretation of the Joker might not be every DC fan's cup of tea. That's just fine with him, for he knows full well that his cinematic portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime will in no way be the definitive one, and it certainly won't be the final one.

"This will not be the last Joker movie ever made. It might be the last one Joaquin and I do, but someone else is going to come along and do another one, just like with Spider-Man. So if you don't like this one, don't worry — it'll get reinvented again," he said. "That's the fun thing about these characters. In a way, comic books are our Shakespeare, and just like there are many versions of Hamlet and Macbeth, they've done four or five versions of the Joker in the last 25 or 30 years. So why not do another one that's wildly different?"

Why not, indeed? Following Heath Ledger's instantly iconic portrayal of the character in 2008's The Dark Knight, fans could be forgiven for feeling that they'd seen the last version of the Joker that they would ever need to see — but if those trailers are any indication, and we think they are, Phoenix is set to prove that there's always room for a different vision. Phillips' take looks to be one that hearkens back to Hollywood's glory days of the auteur filmmaker, while still giving comic book die-hards an interpretation of a legendary character that they can get fully behind.

We know we're a hundred percent on board; we'll be first in line when Joker hits the big screen on October 4.