Why Joker Director Todd Phillips Wanted to Make a Movie That’s “Not For Everybody”

Joker is “not a movie for everybody,” says director Todd Phillips, who specifically crafted his R-rated Batman villain origin story with a narrow focus. Centered on mentally unwell failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), Joker was Phillips’ response to the comic book movie genre “taking over” theaters: to cut through the noise, Phillips would disguise his deep-dive character study inspired by films of the 1970s and ‘80s as a superhero spinoff examining DC Comics’ most infamous villain.

“I just was thinking about, really, quite frankly, the state of the movie business, and how movies that do cut through the noise. We all make movies and they’re far too difficult and expensive to be a hobby,” Phillips said on Deadline’s Behind the Lens. “The reason you do them is to get people to see them, and it’s hard to deny that comic book movies have kind of taken over, as far as the theatrical experience has gone. So I just thought, maybe there’s a way to use that, and do something a little bit different.”

Phillips previously cited the works of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy director Martin Scorsese as inspiration on Joker, as well as Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico.

“I had grown up loving these sort of intense character studies of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I thought, ‘God, you could probably get one of those made nowadays if you did it about one of these characters,’ and it was that basic of an idea,” the filmmaker said. “I’d always been attracted to Joker because he’s an agent of chaos, which I’ve always liked, so I thought that could be an interesting approach to do a deep-dive character study on a villain. That was the genesis of the idea.”

Neither the Joker creative team nor studio Warner Bros. ever anticipated conversation around the film to turn to worries it might spark real life violence, but Phillips was “going for an unsettling tone, for sure.”

“It’s not a movie for everybody, and that was one of the things I said to [Warner Bros.] in the beginning. Comic book films are generally PG-13, kind of aiming at four quadrant, so to speak, but we were very specific in that this is not necessarily a movie for everybody,” Phillips said. “If it ends up attracting everybody, great, if it crosses over, and people discover it the way they seem to have with Joker now, but we made it in mind, very specifically, narrow focus, if that makes sense.”

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He continued, “Sometimes when you aim for everybody, you end up making a movie for nobody. And I always thought that with the R-rated comedies I made, because I’ve had studio executives tell me, ‘Maybe you make it PG-13, and soften this, and soften that.’ Sometimes then it sort of becomes for no one. So my thing has always been a very narrow focus, and if you kind of thread the needle, others will come.”

Joker has grossed $1.02 billion worldwide since its Oct. 4 domestic opening.