'Joker' Cinematographer Lawrence Sher On Contrasts And Chaos [Spoiler Interview]

Director Todd Phillips and his longtime cinematographer Lawrence Sher knew their latest film, Joker, would have more eyes on it than usual. But neither expected the runaway success train it has become, winning a prestigious Venice Film Festival award, making over $740 million at the worldwide box-office, and attracting awards heat for its star, Joaquin Phoenix.

Sher, who's an economics major with a background in still photography, has been working with Phillips since the Hangover trilogy. Before the duo's first collaboration on that hit series, Sher shot Garden State and I Love You Man, to name just a few. This year, he played on a huge, beautiful canvas with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and was able to make a comic book movie that's a throwback to the '70s and the Martin Scorsese movies that made him want to be a cinematographer in the first place. It's a big year for Sher, who recently talked to us about some of Joker's most memorable sequences, working with Joaquin Phoenix, and the line between fantasy and reality in the movie.

This interview contains major spoilers for Joker.

The scene where Arthur is dancing down the steps and embracing his new identity, how did you want to express what he was feeling in that scene with light and color?

That scene is a celebration of him accepting his truest self, which is his most villainous self and the person we all know. It's unlike the slow, deliberate and very meditative camerawork that exists at the beginning of the movie. In the early scenes on the stairs, we pan very slowly, and tilt-up with him to see those 180 stairs he climbs every day. For the last scene on the stairs, we used a techno crane, which gave us fluidity to move with him and create energy. He dances through the frame, backlit with a hopeful warm sunlight. We are low with the camera and he for perhaps the first time in his life is powerful.

A large part of the color scheme in the movie is based on sodium-vapor lights, which is an ugly greenish-orange that existed in the streetlights back in the day, before they recently switched to LEDs. It represents two sides of him: the dusk blue representing his isolated and lonely side and the warmer light the more hopeful side of someone seeing a different future. Even if that future is with his mom, before we learn the truth about her. When he's watching TV with her or bathing her in the bath, there's a more comforting warmth. Towards the end of the movie, he chooses that dark part of himself and we bring the warmth back. He is, once again, hopeful, even if it's for a nihilistic and chaotic in the future. In his mind, it's the future he wants to embrace.

The movie strikes a nice balance of looking beautiful without painting Arthur's acts in a positive light. How do you pull that off?

The direction we always tried to take, even back in The Hangover days, was to make it feel real and authentic. The violence he commits is quite real and raw. If it feels real to the audience, then it has more emotion. We're just trying to connect people to the character and the story we're telling. I think Todd did a really good job with the violence in this movie. There's no joy for Joker or Arthur when he commits acts of violence. In fact, he always looks a bit sick after it happens, even after the Wall Street guys. The moment he kills that last guy, his ears are literally ringing and the face he's making is one of sickness and deep understanding of the power he's been given. Even at the end with Murray or his mom, there might be a sense of relief, like he's being freed from his old self, but it's not a sense of joy. The violence causes some level of pain in him, even if that side of him is his true self. I think we very intentionally, especially Joaquin with his amazing performance, show that violence has consequences.

What can you tell me about that train sequence? What did you do visually there to show a change within Arthur?

When Todd and I first talked about that scene, he kept talking about it like a fever dream. So, how do you interpret that? For me, it was with the sights, sounds, and lighting, building to a crescendo of confusion. We actually got a subway car, put it on a stage, and created all the backing, so it looked like the car was driving on a subway track, using LED panels and lights. We did this so I had full control over both the lights inside the train, as well as all the lighting that came outside the train.

We have this amazing camera operator we've worked with all the way since The Hangover, Geoffrey Haley, and he was in the subway car with a handheld camera. We ran the scene each time all the way through until Joaquin was punched to the ground, and I would be sitting at a control board with a dimmer, controlling the lights inside and outside the car. At the moments of tension and violence, we could shut the lights off and have flashes of hot lights in different colors from outside of the car. As the Wall Street guys approach, we used the lighting to build the downward pressure of feeling surrounded, confused, like a nightmare. It was about creating the storm of energy he's feeling, that leads to this violent act that'll change his life forever.

joker opening scene

When you have as many variables and extras as you do with all the chaos going on at the end, how did you control the lighting there?

He's surrounded by a city burning because of his actions, which is similar to the dancing scene. It's about giving him power with the lens. He started off invisible, but then ends literally standing above a mob of people, lit by the warmth of the fires blazing around him. Obviously, other elements, like smoke, help create the chaos, but it really comes down to camera positions, showing his sense of power over his environment, which is in complete contrast to his tiny, insignificant self, earlier in the movie.

Everyone always brings up the shot where he's looking out the window of the cop car. Some think of The Dark Knight, which has a similar shot, but it's really a reference to the earlier shot, when he's on the bus. They're very similar frames and, in almost the exact same camera position. That's the contrast there. From his isolation and loneliness to his joy, and the reflection of the world he sees dancing on his face.

In the end, you can question how much of it is actually real. For you, are there any visual cues in the movie that distinguish fantasy from reality?

Well, even the things that are there I'll never talk about. We wanted to make the interpretation of the real versus what's not real, a part of the viewer's experience. For instance, his relationship to Sophie is a fantasy to him. Some people have asked me, "Was she killed?" Todd makes it clear she wasn't killed. Arthur is killing people who've wronged him in a certain way, and Sophie never wronged him. In terms of what we did visually to play with the real and not real, there are callbacks and scenes that mirror each other. We leave hints using imagery or way we covered scenes similarly between scene. Outside of that, I like that people can have the conversation and come to their own conclusions.

What about when he confronts and kills Murray? How did you and Todd want to keep turning up the tension in that scene?

The audience has seen Murray Franklin, as Arthur has his whole life, on TV. The four camera angles that cover Murray on TV, are the angles we're used to seeing. The singles of the guest, the two shot, the shot of Murray, and the wide shot. We wanted to have a vantage point for the ending that the audience at home doesn't see. As far as creating tension that mostly comes from the lensing. The camera goes from frontal angle and wider to over the shoulders of Murray and Joker, tighter each time until finally we are in extreme close up and behind the couch in what we refer to as reverse overs – the off axis over the shoulder that is less commonly scene on screen. It comes very late, like when Arthur yells, "Do you want to hear another joke?" The angles move behind the couch, behind the desk, and looking over Murray and Joaquin, showing us what the audience never sees, the most priveledged angles.

Was it ever surreal filming Robert De Niro, especially in a movie homaging The King of Comedy?

I love The King of Comedy, and Raging Bull is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a cinematographer. Every opportunity I get to work with someone that big of a star, I go to a place of nonplus. As much as it's surreal, I go into professional work mode even more intentionally on those days, which is the best way for me to describe it. I just go, "Another day of work." Usually, when the day's ended I go, "Holy shit, I was shooting Robert De Niro."

I think it was bigger for me when we did a table read in Tribeca at his office, because it was the first time I saw him. That was a little more, like, "Whoa." The coolest thing about working with actors you've seen your whole life is, you see they have a process too. I see an actor and think, "They may have seven Oscar nominations, all the accolades and money, and everything, but they still get nervous, just like the rest of us." It's demystifying in the best possible way, because it puts us on the same playing field. We're all just trying to make something good.

By the way, the movie I directed, Father Figures, I worked with Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, and J.K. Simmons, and shit, you realize, yes, they're larger-than-life. Movies have such power. They create memories in our brains and relationships with people. If a movie is effective, we feel like we know those characters, so there's always a strangeness when you meet them and see them as human beings.

The person I was perhaps most intimidated by was Joaquin. He has such enigmatic, dangerous energy on-screen, even when he's playing somebody hurt and gentle, like he was in Her, which I loved. He's such a powerful actor, even when you're watching him act on-camera in person. He was mesmerizing every single day, in a way you never would want to turn away. Working with him on this movie, I got to see a force in him I hadn't really seen from another actor.

joker box office worldwide

He's in every or almost every scene of the movie. When you have to film an actor that much, what kind of relationship do you have with them?

It's all about creating a level of trust.  The transformation of Joaquin's character also transformed my relationship with him on set. Even in prep, I didn't say two words to him and, honestly, I think I was a little scared of him. I didn't want to step on his process in any way. He does work with a level of artistry, but I knew that he also had a lot of pressure. Taking on that role, you're living in the shadow of Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson and others. We wanted to respect that there's a lot of people watching and waiting to see how he's going to reinvent a character.

In the beginning, I didn't really talk to him that much, but he actually broke the ice first. He apologized, saying, "Sorry, I know I'm acting a little odd, but I'm just trying to do this thing." I went, "Jesus, man, please keep doing whatever you're doing because it's fantastic. If you never talk to me during the rest of this movie, I'm 100% cool with that, too." I didn't want to get in the way, frankly, and just try to capture the moments. I'd think, "How can I work very quickly to keep him in rhythm and make the technical aspects invisible so Todd and the Joaquin could have the most opportunity to capture lightning on-screen?" That was always my objective.

It's funny, once we started shooting scenes with him as Joker, Joker's confidence meant Joaquin was opening up more to me, off screen. Joaquin started watching the dailies to see what I was doing and we started talking more. By the end of the movie, it was a much more open conversation, in ways we could serve each other. Often we'd just roll the camera early and look for nuances of the character, sometimes when Joaquin knew and didn't know. Like him lighting a cigarette or showing nervous energy or waiting for action, as we're ramping up to do a take. Joaquin ended up loving that.  We did it very purposefully, 

The movie has a lot of handheld and improvisational camerawork.  There were never marks or rehearsals. Because I was operating along with Geoff, there was always an unspoken relationship between us, the camera and Joaquin.  I was always watching him and seeing what he was doing, and designing the camerawork around his actions in real time.

Like you said, you want your work to remain invisible to Joaquin and Todd so they can do what they want, so what were some heavily improvised moments where you achieved that? The bathroom dance was, right?

Exactly. We had coverage and storytelling elements in there, like him hiding the gun and washing the makeup off. This process began early enough in the shoot that we were able to say, "Let's throw out what we were going to do and just see what happens." The beauty of that first dance was, it was a oner in the bathroom, lit so he could go anywhere.  Todd started playing Hildur's score [for the bathroom scene], Joaquin came in, closed the door and Geoff and Joaquin just organically worked around each other.  We didn't even tell Geoff what was going to happen. That's how good Geoff is as an operator, he could just flow with it.

Joaquin created that whole dance and, after the success of that scene, we started creating more moments like that.  Like when he's playing with the gun and fires it into the wall.  All we knew was that he'd fire the gun into the wall at some point, but we never planned when or knew that he'd stand and have that conversation with himself and begin dancing.  We just had two cameras in there and let it happen, which became a major part of how we did a lot of things. 

While some scenes were very planned out, like when he's in the phonebooth or walking up the stairs, others had no plan at all.  When he climbed in the refrigerator, we had no idea he was going to do that. We set up two camera positions, and Joaquin just thought about what he would do if he was a massive insomniac. Again, we lit it so he could go anywhere, and the first and only time he did it, we were mesmerized.  I remember thinking, "What is he doing? Did he just crawl in the fridge?" It was as fun and weird for us to watch it too.

I just wanted to say I think you and Todd Phillips make very good looking comedies.

Ah, I appreciate that.

Do you guys just want to make comedy cinematic or just do what feels natural?

It's not as intentional as that. Our approach to The Hangover was no different than Joker, which is: let's start from a place of authenticity, let's take risks, take big swings, and do something that feels different. We never want to play to expectations that a comedy has to be bright or only service only the jokes, but instead serve the story and character first and the jokes will play.  Certainly, we wanted to make The Hangover and the sequels as cinematic as possible.

Every time Todd and I set out to make a movie, we have the same philosophy, "Let's make this the best thing we've ever done. Let's not have any compromises, let's push each other every day." When we get another chance to make a movie, we're aware it's hard to get them made, so we're honored and grateful for the chance.  It's for no other reason than, we're trying to continue to get better at what we do.