Why 'Joker' Is Set Decades Ago And How Martin Scorsese's 'The King Of Comedy' Inspired It

We're still weeks away from the wide release of Todd Phillips' Joker, but the world already has Joker fever. The movie has racked up positive reviews at international film festivals and sparked some controversy about its messaging, but let's put all that aside for the moment and concentrate on the look of the film.

At a recent Q&A attended by /Film's Peter Sciretta, Phillips explained why he never assigned a specific date for the movie's setting and how Martin Scorsese's 1982 film The King of Comedy served as a huge inspiration.

Gotham in Another Time

Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) talked about his reasons for keeping the setting vague, which range from not wanting to mess with what else DC was doing in its films to wanting to avoid nitpickers pointing out the models of cars in the background:

"Well for us, we never say in the movie it's 1981. But we always say: it's late '70s, early '80s. Mainly because we don't people to be like, 'Wow, that car wasn't out in 1980.' So it's '70s, early '80s. But the time for me, the reason we set it there, there's a lot of reasons. One reason was to separate it quite frankly from the D.C. Universe for when I pitched it to Warner Brothers and handed the script in, to sort of make it clear this isn't f***ing with anything you have going on. This is like a separate universe. So much so it takes place in the past before everything else.

"Another reason is because tonally the movie is very much a character study that – I'm a little older than you, but the same, this is movies we grew up on and loved. And you go, 'God, those movies don't get made as much anymore.' They get made, these character studies: Social Network is a great one. There Will Be Blood is probably the best in the last 20 years, character study. But in the '70s and '80s, they were much more frequent. So in a weird way, it was also just an homage to that time. We're making a movie that feels like that. Why not set it there? It was not some really great thing, it was just a few reasons.

"And part of the reason that every filmmaker likes to do things period is so you don't have to deal with f***ing technology in movies 'cause it's so frustrating. Well, if they have a cell phone, that gets solved, right? So there's a bunch of reasons, but we just like the, there's something else, like the handmade feel of those movies back then. And we tried to kind of inject that being that we were going basically no CGI, which doesn't mean none. There's obviously some world building we've done. But there's something, real handmade qualities, to those films in the late '70s and '80s that I just always love and I'm sure most people in this room do, that you don't feel as much nowadays."

The King of Comedy Inspirations

Scorsese was originally in talks to be an executive producer on this film. While he ended up being too busy to be a part of Joker in an official capacity, the director's style still left a huge mark on the final product. As Phillips explained:

"Obviously there's a nod to a few things in this movie. King of Comedy for me, you're way younger. I saw it probably when I was your age. And changed my life as well. I just love it so much. And obviously I went to De Niro, sent him the script. He understood the kind of reference, understood the sort of flip of Rupert Pupkin to Jerry Langford. As far as the color scheme, it wasn't honestly – so in that movie, it's a little bit more direct. In this, it's a little bit more random. But a lot of what we took – the curtains, for example, is a little bit of a spin on Johnny Carson's curtains. But certainly there's a touch of King of Comedy in there. There's a touch of Network in there. There's a touch from – we have Dog Day Afternoon. A lot of movies all from that time we were talking about earlier that speak to that kind of again, going back to like, why'd we set it back then? It's just to me not that the movie's a love letter to those movies, but it's very much an homage to that."

At that point, star Joaquin Phoenix, who was also present during the Q&A, hilariously responded, "Yeah. That was f***ing interesting. I wish I would've known that."

Joker hits theaters on October 4, 2019.