Joker writer-director Todd Phillips admits his "biggest fear" about the DC Comics movie, a dark and serious character study examining the downward spiral of failed stand up comic Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), was a concern comic book movie fans accustomed to blockbuster action might find Joker too small scale and "boring." Despite confessing early reservations over stepping into a film belonging to the comic book superhero genre, Phillips and Phoenix's Joker became studio Warner Bros.' highest-grossing movie of 2019 and so far the seventh biggest earner of the year, laughing its way to $1.066 billion worldwide — making it the third best performing DC Comics-inspired film, behind only the action-packed Aquaman ($1.148 billion) and The Dark Knight Rises ($1.085 billion).
"Comic book movies are humongous around the world, and quite frankly most of them are bigger than Joker, so our biggest fear was coming off as boring to that crowd that is used to some pretty spectacular action," Phillips told Variety, who honored the filmmaker with the 2019 Creative Impact in Directing Award. "But it felt like they’ve become such a big thing that we could use that space and do something a little bit different in it."
In making Joker, "We wanted to create something meaningful, that really stayed with you after you left the theater," Phillips added. "There’s so much work involved. No movie is easy. So you want something that really lasts."
Producer Bradley Cooper previously hailed Phillips as an auteur with eclectic tastes, saying the Hangover director possesses a "willingness to just go outside of any boundary and tell the story that he wants to tell," making it "very hard to put him in a box." Cooper added, "I think once you become notable as a comedic director, a lot of people definitely see you as just that. But I’ve always known he’s an auteur."
For Phillips, Joker wasn't an attempt to assert himself outside the comedy genre.
"I’ve never been a fan of other people determining who I am or what my tastes are," Phillips told Variety. "Making Joker wasn’t a reaction to having made raucous comedies. It was just something that seemed interesting to me and thought we could do something really cool."
The filmmaker approached Warner Bros., who backed his Hangover trilogy, with what he called an "aggressive" pitch for a villain-focused label tentatively called DC Black — the first project being one centered around DC Comics' infamous Batman villain.
In Joker: Vision & Fury, a making-of special feature included on the film's home release, Phillips said both he and Phoenix shared concerns over putting a gritty and real spin on a character most famously portrayed on the big screen by Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson.0comments
"Joaquin certainly had a ton of questions, and I think he also had the same thing I had, which is this fear — this is a big thing to take on. This isn’t going to be a small, little anonymous film," Phillips explained. "The Joker’s been interpreted and done so many times over the years, and I think there hasn’t been a bad one yet. So there’s a certain fear."
Joker is now available to own on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray.