5 Lessons from Box Office Smash “The Joker”

The Joker is now the top-grossing R-rated film of all time. As of December 3, 2019, the Warner Brothers film made roughly $1.049 billion at the global box office, enough to dethrone Deadpool, which made $783 million worldwide when it was released back in 2016. The Joker is now also the biggest October opening of all time.

The film, which was directed by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix as a bullied clown who goes on a murderous rampage, earned a modest 68% on Rotten Tomatoes and a B+ cinemascore (which is based on audience reactions). But clearly the film spoke to more than just die-hard comic book fans.

If you’re a screenwriter or director, what lessons can you take from its success?

Be deliberate with your tone

“Really what a director is is a purveyor of tone,” says Phillips. “And I think the thing I’m most proud about this film is that unsettling tone. That sort of slow ramp up into insanity.”

One of the ways Phillips achieved this tone is by very deliberately crafting the film’s opening. “I always obsess over the opening shots of movies,” he says. “It’s a great storytelling device.”

Create a compelling role

It’s hard to talk about The Joker without talking about the incredible lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix. You may be attracted to an idea because of plot, theme or location. You might also be the kind of direction who thinks about cameras or lenses before story. But your lead character is the emotional core of the movie – the person audience members will connect to (or perhaps be horrified by). Focusing on character will help you appeal to audiences AND skilled actors.

Let your actor find the role and be part of crafting it. In interviews, Phoenix has said that he can’t think of the Joker like a comic book villain. “There’s a lot I don’t like about him, but I can’t do a movie like that,” he says.

You might be surprised to hear that Phoenix was inspired by dance. “I started talking to the choreographer that was brought in,” he says. “It was very interesting to me, to learn about the vocabulary of dance and movement. And we started watching these videos. And one in particular really moved me. It wasn’t the dance with attitude that I liked. The arrogance was what I stole. That was where Joker came out.”

Connect images and sound to character

All your visual and aural choices can come back to the character journey.

“We tried to connect with him through the imagery,” says Lawrence Sher, Director of Photography on The Joker. “Sometimes it was by putting him very small in a huge landscape, like when he’s performing with the sign early in the movie. And only choosing to get close to him in moments when he’s alone.”

“Every single sound in the movie is deliberately thought out,” says Tom Ozanich, a re-recording sound mixer and dialogue mixer on The Joker.

“There’s light buzz and there’s room tone, and there’s just mood everywhere we go,” says re-recording mixer Dean Zupancic. “Even when there’s ‘silence,’ there’s never silence.”

Think outside the box

The Joker is a comic book movie, but also NOT a comic book movie – or at least not in the way we’ve come to think of them.

“Comic book movies are now their own genre,” says Phillips. “And while there’s been some incredible work done in that genre, in that space, they always felt cut from the same cloth in that they were very big, an event, and CGI spectacles to some extent. I was thinking at the time, what would it be like to really strip it all down and do a really intimate character study?”

Is there a genre that you can subvert? A typical structure or shot that you can change?

Controversy may be a good thing

Is there truly no such thing as “bad publicity?” As The Joker opened, some people criticized it for its potential to inspire mass violence, like the shooting that took place in a Colorado movie theater in 2012. But ultimately, the violence in the film didn’t cause exhibitors to pull the movie from theaters. It’s even possible that coverage of the controversy actually put it on people’s minds when it wasn’t before. Some viewers may have been inspired to see it for themselves to decide if it was “irresponsible.”

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