How 'Joker' Director Todd Phillips And Star Joaquin Phoenix Crafted An Iconic Laugh

/Film's Peter Sciretta recently attended a Joker Q&A with director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix, who revealed lots of insight into how far they went into the Joker's psyche, creating their version of the character's memorable laugh by researching real-world traumas, and imbuing the Joker with a physical musicality. Despite the film's grim and gritty tone, it sounds like they both had a total blast making this movie. Read their quotes below.

The Psyche of the Joker

After Heath Ledger's death in 2008, rumors came out about how intensely he dove into the psychology of The Joker in The Dark Knight, with an implication that he was in a dark headspace while playing that role. Despite the fact that those closest to him denied Ledger was consumed by the darkness of the character, that notion seems to have somehow stuck around in the pop culture zeitgeist. So it was a refreshing surprise to hear that Phoenix also wasn't super disturbed while making the movie. When asked how deep he and Phillips went into the Joker's psyche, they responded:

Joaquin Phoenix: I'm honestly gonna disappoint you. I just, I don't think I did. You know, so we had a good time. Honestly. Well, I'm gonna seem like an actor that's not really committed. You know, I had a good time.  

Todd Phillips: We did laugh a lot.  

Joaquin Phoenix: We laughed. I mean, that's the thing. 'Cause I saw somebody in the elevator and they're like, 'That's really f***ing intense.' I was like, 'We laughed like every day.' He was like, 'There's nothing to even laugh at.' I go, "Oh, we kind of are f***ed up." Me and [Todd] are laughing like...

Todd Phillips: Like, crying laughing.  

Joaquin Phoenix: Like yeah, every day going, 'This is ridiculous. This guy is f***ing...' So honestly...I know I love those stories of actors, I kind of do wish that I was that way, 'cause it sounds so cool. But I don't, I didn't have that experience that...

Todd Phillips: No, but, I mean, you also prepare a lot, more than you probably want them to know.  

Joaquin Phoenix: Well, whatever, it's what you f***ing do. It's a regular job. You know what I mean? It's like what you do for your work.

Todd Phillips: Right. I'm just saying you didn't show up and just be like, 'Oh, I can do this.' And we talked a lot about –

Joaquin Phoenix: No. I mean, listen, we would arrive two hours before our call, right? Be in the f***ing trailer working. And then we'd go home and we'd call each other. Well, we'd text for a couple hours. Then get frustrated with the texting. Go just f***ing call. I'd call you, you wouldn't answer a few times.

Todd Phillips: That's true.  

Joaquin Phoenix: And then I'd call you back and finally you would relent. So right?

Todd Phillips: That's true.

Joaquin Phoenix: So there was that.

Todd Phillips: But it was a great process for us.

Joaquin Phoenix: It was inspiring. And so whatever you put into it, it kind of gave you so much back, right?

Crafting the Laugh

At a certain point during the Q&A, Phoenix and Phillips explained how they collaborated to pinpoint and fine-tune the Joker's laugh.

Joaquin Phoenix: Well really, do you remember that I basically I auditioned myself?

Todd Phillips: Yeah.

Joaquin Phoenix: I had you come over to audition the laugh.

Todd Phillips: That's right.

Joaquin Phoenix: 'Cause I didn't think I could do it. And 'cause you showed me some videos, right?  

Todd Phillips: That's right.

Joaquin Phoenix: So he showed me some videos. Of some laughs. And I thought, that's really good. And he – in the script it described the laugh being almost painful. And I thought that was a really interesting way to describe laughter. And so I just kind of like, I don't know, you came over to my house. I tried. And it was really uncomfortable. Because I spent five minutes trying to work it up...and finally you said, 'You don't have to do this.'

Todd Phillips: You already have the part.

Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah. I said, 'No, I have to do this.'

Todd Phillips: Right.

Joaquin Phoenix: I have, 'cause if I don't do this now, if I can't force myself to find it now, then forever we're gonna – I'm gonna f***ing puss out and I'm not gonna do it. we did. 

Todd Phillips: And for him to summon it on the day of the shooting was always different and sometimes he would need time to do it honestly. I'm talking about the affliction laugh. That was to me probably, I can't speak for you, but the hardest one to do. There's the laugh where he's fake laughing to be one of the guys or in the comedy club. And then there's the end in the [spoiler] where he's genuinely laughing at something. But the affliction laugh I think was probably hard to muster up, so there were times on set where he would be a little bit pacing.

Real-World Trauma

We previously heard that Phoenix turned to actual medical conditions for inspiration for the laugh, and the duo expanded on that idea during the Q&A.

Todd Phillips: We researched it. And it was studied that, quite frankly, that laugh which could be in people, it's afflicted in different ways. Some people cry from this. And some people laugh. And it's always at the wrong moment where, it's always this and it's really painful. And what we discovered was it happens from head trauma as a young person. Or even older. And it happens from M.S. We didn't necessarily wanna give Joker, Arthur, M.S.

So we went with this head trauma thing and yeah, I mean, the movie in every way tries to be grounded in reality as much as possible. And it still has a foot in the comic book world for sure. But we just kept thinking, let's put everything through a realistic lens. Like, why does he have a white face? Well we're not gonna drop him in acid. I don't know how real – while it's amazing in the comic books and Jack Nicholson, all that, [it] doesn't feel very real that that would happen if you fell into a vat of acid. So let's come up with a realistic answer for everything. And that was one for the laugh. So yeah, we researched it and does that make sense?

Joaquin Phoenix: In some ways, as much as there was very thorough research and answers for a lot of these things, we also, whenever we got to a part where it felt like we were coming up with a definitive reason for anything, we backed away from it. We found a way to kind of circumnavigate it a little bit, right? 

Musical Movement

You've probably noticed from the trailers that as Arthur seems to become more confident, his body language changes and his physicality becomes more musical in nature. That musicality was an ineffable element of the character, though Phillips says it wasn't built into the script.

Joaquin Phoenix: Well the dance, some of the dancing we knew whether there was a – there was the sequence where he's a clown. And then there was the dance on the steps. So I worked with this choreographer for that. But then something after working with him, Michael Arnold was his name, I just started watching a lot of videos with people dancing, movement.  

Todd Phillips: I think one of the earliest things we spoke about was that, not to cut you off, but that Arthur had music in him. It just existed in him. Some people you know that you might know personally have that feeling. And I always thought that about Arthur, but it was sort of kept in and trapped. And there was something about that evolving, but like the scene in the bathroom which I think is what you're getting to, where he just starts dancing, that's not in the script. That's not in the thing. That's just something that kind of evolved and like, 'Oh this is a moment where we can sort of show that it's kind of fighting to get out,' you know? But I love the dancing in the movie. I think we should have more.  

Joaquin Phoenix: That's a pretty good answer. Was the dancing always there?

Todd Phillips: Well, the only dancing in the script was the dancing obviously as a clown at the beginning, which isn't really much of a dance, it's a performance. But the dancing on the stairs was there. Other than that, we didn't do it. But when we started talking about Arthur and really started talking about music and how he had music in him and that kind of thing.


Joker dances its way into theaters on October 4, 2019.