Joker Bathroom Scene

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.

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