SPOILER WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Joker. Proceed at your own risk.
Joker is the kind of film that stays with you way after you’ve seen it. A comic book movie, Joker adapts the story of one of the comic world’s most iconic villains, with a generous helping of gritty realism. Drawing comparisons to some of Martin Scorsese’s most important, perceptive, and violent works — namely The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, which still resonate today (perhaps even more so) — it’s not surprising that Joker is one of cinema’s most controversial releases in recent years. Indeed, that director Todd Phillips suggested members of the talented creative team watch Chantal Akerman’s documentary News From Home in preparation underlines his insistence on grounding the film in real-life, thereby heightening the impact of its events.
Charting 1977 New York, News From Home — according to Joker‘s make-up maestro, Nicki Ledermann — “features how really run down and messy and gritty and dirty New York City was at that time.”
For Ledermann, and the rest of the team, “it was really helpful in terms of colours and textures – especially the mood of the documentary; to use that mood and translate it into building and designing our character.”
Ledermann seems glad that the film has garnered controversy, and explains it as both an unavoidable by-product of watching something so visceral and provocative, and also very necessary.
“I knew that violence wasn’t being glorified in this movie. Quite the contrary … but it is a kind of reality,” she says. “It’s a way of exposing what violence is and why violence is … sometimes to be hit over the head with something really violent is important, otherwise people won’t understand the heaviness; the weight of it.”
Within the film’s two-hour running time, there are a couple of standout moments that are particularly confrontational. One of those is the subway shooting scene, where we first witness Joaquin Phoenix’s wretched Arthur Fleck snap, and begin his transformation into the character of the Joker. In the scene, which you can watch below, he is taunted and then attacked by three men harrassing a woman on a subway train. As he is being kicked on the floor, Arthur pulls out a gun and shoots and kills two of the men before persuing the fleeing third man off the train and shooting him dead as he attempts to run for his life.
Fandom sat down with Ledermann and Joker Editor, Jeff Groth, to break down this scene — in which both make-up and editing are particularly significant — and uncovered some behind-the-scenes gems about how the scene was crafted, and its importance within the film’s overall framework.
“At the beginning of the scene, you find [Arthur] at his lowest point so far,” says Groth. “You kind of see where his life is, and the one thing he was hanging onto was his job. And he’s lost his job. The course of the scene [is that] he goes from being the hunted into being the hunter, and you begin to see the emergence of where you’re going, with the Joker. So where the whole movie is this long slow tipping point from turning from Arthur into the Joker, this scene is definitely one of the axes on which it turns.”
You can see the influence of specific moments of Akerman’s film clearly in this scene. There are several moments in News From Home where Akerman’s camera depicts the New York subway. Whether on the train or off, these sequences have major echoes in Todd Phillips’ film. The flashes of blackness in the train cars, for example — which were critical to the discourse of the scene and something it was important to get right.
“On the older subways, there would be a pad that would connect and disconnect the electric line,” says Groth. “Once we established that they were there [in Joker], we were using those to cut around the [action]. So you didn’t necessarily expect when you came back into the light you would be in a different place … which serves to throw the audience off-balance, and makes it a little less real and a little more tense. Because you don’t quite know when you’re going to go to in each spot. Typically, when you cut it, you’re saying, ‘Okay, when do we want to see the next thing?’
Groth continues, “In this version, when the train blacks, we’re saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to show you something maybe before you’re ready for it’. It’s meant to be a little bit of a fever dream; once you get to see him laughing, it’s obviously something that he’s not able to control. So in that way we are feeling somewhat out of control with him in that moment.”
The film therefore cleverly uses a period New York subway characteristic to work harder for Joker than simply delivering authenticity.
Says Groth, “Those flashes were designed for [the fever dream feel]. Certainly, there’s the tension [it delivers too], but it was definitely the idea that it would cut to black for that purpose.”
Recreating a NY-Style Subway
You could be forgiven for thinking that the scene was shot on a real subway. It wasn’t. And there was a compelling reason not to do so.
“That subway is on a stage,” explains Groth. “It’s not a live subway – they used LED screens where they could control the motion of the subway and I think that was essential. Joaquin does so much with his body, and with his face, that they were able to capture those small pieces without having the extra variable of a moving subway. [They were] able to get in close, and with the subtle changes that he was making over the course of the scene, getting in close on his face when he’s being kicked, you can see where he goes from not being able to do anything to ultimately fighting back.”
For Ledermann, that fight scene presented a challenge of a different kind – keeping Arthur’s clown make up intact. Ledermann points out that the idea that Arthur is dressed as a clown at this moment is critical to the way the audience feels about the scene, about Arthur, and about the three men who taunt and then physically attack him. And so for the make-up to smear at this point would ruin the effect they were going for.
Ledermann explains that they wanted to create a makeup look that conveyed the impression that Arthur is “a man — a working clown — that is relatable; that is not threatening; that is also reflecting the ridiculousness of the situation in itself. Guys really attacking a clown, making fun of a clown, harassing a clown? How pathetic is that? So to have the image of that clown, it was really important to convey [him] as almost like a victim – as a metaphor, really.”
She adds, “It was really important that I keep that make-up – the image of the clown – as clear as possible. There are stages of the movie where the make up smears a lot but in this case, I didn’t want it to smear. I wanted it to always stay clean — except for the blood that is smeared later on – because I really wanted the image to stay in your head. This is the clown that the world is pissing on.”
Joker’s Turning Point
Ledermann, like Groth, sees this scene as a turning point in the film.
“It’s pretty clear that his character is really vulnerable, and starting from that really vulnerable place, there’s a turning point [in the film] that turns into a liberation,” she says. “And when we talk about the subway scene, at that point it’s like the turning point of the liberation.”
Ledermann had a very clear idea of what the make-up needed to be in the scene.
“The clown has to be visually very crisp in your mind,” she says. And to do this it was necessary to keep the make-up as crisp as possible. “Even though it’s very ‘handmade’.”
The switch – or ‘turning point’ that Ledermann speaks of — in Arthur comes during this scene, and it’s after this that the make-up shifts a gear and enters “a different phase”. Later in Joker, you see his clown make up evolve to become less “human”, “vulnerable” and “authentic”, as Ledermann describes his look here.
For Ledermann, despite the grittiness and horror that unfolds during this scene, there is, at this point, still a glimmer of hope, as she puts it – or at least a hopeful mood undercutting the action.
“You have a clown – a clown is funny, happy, and wants to make people happy. So, to have the contrast of Arthur Fleck, who is deeply depressed, mentally ill, neglected, and who is working as a clown because he wants to make people happy, that in itself is [inherently] an inkling of hope,” says Ledermann. “And that has to be portrayed in the clown make-up. You have this perfect symmetry in the clown make up, which [conveys] positivity, versus when he evolves into Joker clown make-up where he becomes free, and goes against the norm, and is breaking all the rules. The make-up becomes asymmetric versus symmetric. It becomes smeared and crooked [as opposed to] more perfect in application.”
The biggest challenge for Ledermann was keeping the make-up as crisp as she needed, and making it last so that it minimized touch-ups so as not to keep interrupting Phoenix’s flow – a performance that many would describe as “genius” (including Ledermann herself) and one which is drawing plaudits from all over this awards season. She found herself having to think on her feet during production after she ran into trouble during another scene shot earlier on, in which the regular water-soluble make up she used smeared, and it wasn’t supposed to. She managed to find a solution and the results are up there on the screen for all to see. You can see Arthur getting beaten up, but that clown smile remains in place.
“It’s a very complex scene,” says Groth. “There’s more going on than just these people [on the train] have entered his life. If he had been able to without laughing then he would have just watched them and in a way attempted to learn how to be the person he wants to be just by trying to watch and learn from others. Yes, he’s picked a bad example [here] – but then he can’t help but insert himself into the scene because of his laughter.”
Groth says that Arthur is always wishing for a different life – and this scene gives him the opportunity to seize one, however voluntarily or involuntarily.
“You’ve forgotten in a way that he’s holding a gun, and obviously he decides to use it,” he says. “He’s picked it up and felt it before, and felt its power, so he’s decided to make that choice, whether it’s conscious or not. He doesn’t quite know what he’s doing when he does that. So, there’s a sense of confusion; he’s confused about maybe what he’s done, he’s confused about how he feels about that.”
It’s the moments that follow his shooting of the first two guys that Groth found the most challenging to work on.
“The moment between having shot the first two [men] and when the subway stops, and the [remaining] guy has moved to the next car, figuring out exactly what his reaction to that is [took some effort],” he says. “Because he’s living in a very strange space where he’s committed this crime and now he’s got to figure out what’s next and how does he feel about it.”
Groth suggests that picking the shots to use here wasn’t easy.
He explains, “As the other guy’s in the car trying to get away, you see [Arthur]. He spins around the pole and he looks, and he starts picking up his stuff. It’s a certain [type of] normal thing, as if you had just dropped your bag. He’s even thrown by the subway as it comes to a stop. He’s not in control and he doesn’t quite know what to do. He hears the cries from the other car and it kind of clicks in again — ‘I haven’t finished what I’ve started here’ — and he decides to see it through. Representing that moment that exists between the action was a very interesting moment to explore. There were a lot of versions of it.”
Empathy For Arthur?
The accusation from some quarters that the film glorifies violence can be in part potentially attributed to the empathy we feel for Arthur Fleck, at least at the start of the film.
“I think throughout the movie you are supposed to empathise with Arthur,” says Groth. “For everybody, [though], there’s a different point [at which that subsides] … The idea was that you’re with him until you’re not. Viewers bring so much to this movie, that’s why I can never pinpoint a [precise] spot. And that was kind of the idea. It’s a bit of self-exploration. At what point do I say I can’t be with this guy anymore?”
For Ledermann, who rejects the notion that the movie glorifies violence, the three perpetrators in this scene are a metaphor.
“For what society is doing, what the politicians are doing, what the government is doing, and what humanity is doing to its own,” she says. “I think the right feeling is to not feel sorry for [these three men] but at the same time, just because one is violent doesn’t mean the other can be violent too. It shows that there is a problem that cannot be solved by an eye for an eye … we need to find a solution to fix that.”
Joker is available now on Digital Download and on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 10th. You can pre-order now.