Joker director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix improvised the now-iconic scene where Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), on the run after gunning down three Wall Street types on the subway, takes refuge in a bathroom before slinking into an elegant dance that serves as the emergence of Joker. As scripted, a panicked Arthur flees into a bathroom, discarding his murder weapon inside a grate before scrubbing his face clean of his identifying clown makeup. In Joker: Vision & Fury, a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette included on the Joker home release special features, Phillips and Phoenix reveal the origins of the scene in the finished film:
"We had scripted a scene where Arthur runs into the bathroom and he has to get rid of this gun that he'd been given that was now evidence, and so he pulls the grate off the bathroom wall and he hides his gun in there. And then he kind of washes his face, the makeup off his face, and all this stuff," Phillips says. "When we got in the bathroom that day, it was just me and Joaquin, and we're standing there [saying], 'Should we put it in this grate?' We just start talking about, 'Does Arthur care about evidence? And does Arthur even know enough [to do that?] What, did he see this in a movie? Why is it even in his language to do that?'"
Phoenix recalls the scene, filmed in only the second or third week of shooting, was "really a defining moment both for the character but also for me and Todd's dynamic of working together."
"It was originally envisioned a different way, and we talked about kind of the possibilities, and we couldn't really land on anything. It was really hard to identify what it was that we were after," Phoenix says. "And Todd was great, he said, 'Let's just go onto the set, alone, just you and me, and let's talk it through.' And it really seemed like it was a moment that had to be about the emergence of Joker."
After an hour, Phillips and Phoenix ended at a standstill. "We hadn't really figured it out," the director admits. Adds Phoenix, "I said, 'It almost seems like it's a dance, but not big movements. Some kind of movement, but I don't know what it is.'"
When Phillips played a piece of music from composer Hildur Gudnadottir, sent to him just the day before, Phoenix "loved it," Phillips says, "and he just started doing this dance to it." Phillips had the idea to start on Arthur's foot, which glides and gives way to an elegant display of self-discovery.
"We didn't talk about it more than that," Phoenix says. "We said, 'Let's just set it up and shoot it.'"
"I think it's a really great moment in the movie, and it's a really much more effective way of illustrating the beginning of the transformation, with grace that kind of comes out of nowhere. You kind of feel that he has it in him," adds Phillips. "We wrote in the script there's a certain elegance to him, and a certain romance … he has it in him. There's music in him, so to speak. But that's the first time we really see it come out."
Phoenix worked with choreographer Michael Arnold, who introduced the actor to "a lot of ideas about movement and dance," including one clip in particular: Ray Bolger's performance of "The Old Soft Shoe."
"And for some reason, it encapsulated, for me, Joker trying to kind of come out," Phoenix says. "Trying to emerge."
Joker is available to own on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray January 7. Follow the author @CameronBonomolo on Twitter.