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The Truth About Joker's Most Fascinating Scene

When you're working with an actor as talented as Joaquin Phoenix, you learn to expect — and welcome — the unexpected.

In a wide-ranging interview with Slashfilm, Joker cinematographer Lawrence Sher gave some insight into one of the film's most interesting scenes — namely, the fact that nobody on set knew it was coming. 

In the scene in question, Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is clearly struggling with his own mind as he rattles around his kitchen, unable to sleep. He begins obsessively cleaning out the contents of his refrigerator, and anybody who has ever had bouts of insomnia can feel his vibe. But then, something weird happens: once the fridge is emptied out, Arthur crawls inside, shuts the door behind him, and stays there. Sher and director Todd Phillips linger on the appliance, as if to say, "no, really, he's going to be in there for awhile."

It's a unique and brilliant way to shine a light on the inner workings of Arthur's tortured mind as he slowly descends into madness, and according to Sher, it was totally improvised by Phoenix during the first (and last) take of the scene.

"When he climbed in the refrigerator, we had no idea he was going to do that," Sher remembered. "We set up two camera positions, and Joaquin just thought about what he would do if he was a massive insomniac.. we lit it so he could go anywhere, and the first and only time he did it, we were mesmerized.  I remember thinking, 'What is he doing? Did he just crawl in the fridge?'"

He had indeed, and the shot was so singularly bizarre that of course, it stayed. The massive amount of creative freedom Phoenix was given in creating his interpretation of his character was key to Joker's success, and to hear Sher tell it, his biggest fear in lensing the film was that he might somehow interfere with the actor's process.

Did Joaquin Phoenix improvise other moments in Joker?

Sher related that he goes to great lengths to maintain a professional demeanor when on set, even when shooting the likes of Robert De Niro. But during the early days of Joker's shoot, he said he couldn't help but be intimidated by Phoenix, and he went out of his way not to step on the actor's toes. 

"In the beginning, I didn't really talk to him that much, but he actually broke the ice first," Sher recalled. "He apologized, saying, 'Sorry, I know I'm acting a little odd, but I'm just trying to do this thing.' I went... 'Please keep doing whatever you're doing, because it's fantastic. If you never talk to me during the rest of this movie, I'm 100% cool with that, too.' I didn't want to get in the way, frankly, and [I just tried] to capture the moments."

Interestingly, as Phoenix's character grew in confidence, Phoenix seemed to come out of his shell on set. "Once we started shooting scenes with him as Joker, Joker's confidence meant Joaquin was opening up more to me, off screen. Joaquin started watching the dailies to see what I was doing and we started talking more. By the end of the movie, it was a much more open conversation, in ways we could serve each other," Sher remembered.

This led to more frequent instances in which Phoenix was allowed to explore the outer edges of his character, and a surprising amount of the actor's ad-libbed moments — most of them, oddly enough, involving dancing — made it to the screen. The famous sequence in the bathroom was scripted inasmuch as Phoenix knew that Arthur had to hide his gun, for example, and wash off his makeup — but the rest was left to the actor, and with the assistance of ace Steadicam operator Geoff Haley, it paid off.

"[The scene was] lit so he could go anywhere," Sher said. "[Phillips] started playing [the score], Joaquin came in, closed the door, and Geoff and Joaquin just organically worked around each other.  We didn't even tell Geoff what was going to happen. That's how good Geoff is as an operator, he could just flow with it."

Phillips has even previously revealed that the instantly iconic sequence of Arthur in full Joker mode dancing and strutting down a long stone staircase wasn't in the script, but came about as the filmmakers tried to find novel ways to use the talents of their lead to express the evolution of his character.

Sher confirmed that leaning on Phoenix's ability to provide such amazing off-the-cuff moments became "a major part of the way [the filmmakers] did things" during Joker's shoot — all the better to deliver a flick that just won't stop racking up superlatives like "Golden Lion winner," "highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time," and "early Oscar contender."

We suppose that's what happens when you hand Joaquin Phoenix one of the juiciest roles in all of pop culture and just let him do his thing. Joker is about to win its fourth weekend in a row at the box office, helped along by the fact that nothing else of note is dropping in this frame, and all of us here at Looper are going to see it again.