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How the Crafts of ‘Joker’ Tell Arthur Fleck’s Story

The phenomenon that is “Joker” continues to break records, as Oscar buzz grows for Joaquin Phoenix and several other categories. It is a film filled with visual and sonic clues to help tell the story of his emotional journey – wherever it takes him.

From the squeaking of the apartment door to the single cello becoming a full orchestra, to the costume design. It’s all there to tell you the story, to complement the story and aid with the emotional journey we go on with Fleck as he descends and transforms into Joker. Watch closely as he ascends the stairs: He ascends as if he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, as he heads up those stairs, home. By the end, it’s a different demeanor entirely. The clues are all there.

Editor Jeff Groth says “The first goal of the editing was to stay out of the way. We didn’t want to distract from the performance Joaquin was delivering.” He continues, “This wasn’t ever a case of editorial building something that wasn’t there in the material, because he is always delivering the goods, and absolutely phenomenal in his explorations. We wanted to make sure we weren’t ever altering that much. Also, once we did have a significant amount of the film cut together, we would go back through scenes periodically to see where we could remove edits. Sometimes we wound up letting shots play a bit longer, which let the whole thing breathe, and for this film that was appropriate.”

Groth worked with Lawrence Sher who served as director of photography on the film. Having worked together before with Todd Phillips and Sher, Groth knew that all their shots served a purpose. “When you get done putting a scene together, it’s very clear nearly all of those bits of purpose have their place. Ultimately, some emerge as redundant and wind up deleted. My first cut always runs long anyway — – at least, I hope it does, because I’d rather try to cut it down than to fill it up – but I’m taking a little extra time during that first assembly to make sure all these aspects are represented.”

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Sher often explored alternate ways to visualize a scene, sometimes taking the camera across the 180-line. “I would say that traditional rules like not breaking the 180-line were issues that didn’t concern us too much,” Groth admits, “because having something captivating to look at lets you get away with things. And we always had that captivating Joaquin. If the question ever got asked, ‘what should we cut to?’ the answer would be, ‘cut to Joaquin.’ He is in every scene of the movie and very nearly every shot. There are scenes with his mother where the camera is focused on her but he is still present in the frame, and there’s always interest; it’s a whole-body performance.”

Groth says the scene that changed the most was when Fleck appears on “The Murray Franklin Show.” It’s a scene in the movie where Fleck gets to meet his idol Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. “That underwent the most change from when I first began it until we locked it,” Groth reveals. “It was a very long sequence featuring a large and elaborate set, so, working with Todd and Larry, we did a thorough previs for it – using computer models that included camera and lens information — prior to shooting, for which I did some cutting. Throughout the scene, there are four television cameras running along with the three or four movie cameras. So we had four live feeds coming from those cameras for every take, plus a view of the live cut that was being handled upstairs. Video assist was getting stuff from all of these sources.”

In the end, Groth had a ten-minute cut sequence that would have been what was seen by a TV viewer if this had actually been broadcast. That version included all of our favorite performances, so even though it didn’t cut together perfectly—there are some continuity errors – it did cover all the story points and gave us a place to start on the rest of editorial.”

Re-recording mixer Dean A. Zupancic says the first third of the film has no dark sounds. The importance of that was that if they went dark too soon, “The viewer would not empathize with Arthur’s character before his decline.”

Listen closely, and you’ll hear how Arthur’s mind and his apartment are the safe places for Fleck. Zupancic reflects this in the sound, while outside the sounds of Gotham are dark, gritty and menacing.

Murray Franklin is another safe place for Arthur. The audience applauds and laughs. It’s a happy and friendly sonic place for him.

Tom Ozanich who is a re-recording mixer on the film says, “One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one where Arthur is waiting to come out from behind the curtain onto the Murray show. There are a few interesting things happening here with the sound. The show is happening live in the studio and we are hearing it as if it’s really happening but on the other side of the curtain. This typically would have been played as if we were sitting in the audience in the studio so that we could clearly understand everything Murray is saying. We took an almost opposite approach. Murray is distant and slightly obscured.“

Ozanich explains the process and what they want us to focus on. “It’s not played clearly, we understand that it isn’t the most important part of the scene, so we look for what is. Then the score is playing louder than it would naturally be played. This not only leads us to focus more on Arthur than all of the activities taking place on the Murray show. It also helps us to understand how Arthur views what’s happening. None of what’s being said matters to him anymore. He has his own agenda.”

Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, similarly starts with a cello or what seems like a single cello, but in reality, she had a 90-piece orchestra. Hidden beneath. “I felt that went well with the character.” She says of the score which also progresses as he descends into madness. The drums get louder and the cello sound darkens. “He is seen in this certain way and there are many layers of complication behind him, but he doesn’t see it. I thought orchestrating it that way, so that instruments are not always audible, you will think you’re just listening to one cello but, like Arthur, there are layers behind it.”

Similarly, Mark Bridges  used blues, browns, maroons and greys for the costume color palette.  “Knowing that some of the character’s movements in the film were inspired by some of Charlie Chaplin’s moves, I worked a little bit with that silhouette, as well as the knowledge that it would be something Arthur’s put together in a very makeshift way. One personal conceit of mine is the little derby he wears, because I’ve always loved that on clowns.” Bridges says.  “Ultimately my work comes down to telling this particular story, where the outfit has to be something very organic to the character: pieces we’ve seen Arthur wear before, now reassembled to become what Joker wears.  I started from the beginning and then took it on a journey—this piece in the comedy club, how it gets recombined with different items at different beats—to get to the final result.  When Joaquin and I had our final fitting for the full suit, it was all put together with the right shirt, the right waistcoat… It was dead-on `70s with a slightly longer line in the jacket, and he took on a strange, slinky confidence that he doesn’t have as Arthur, but which was just right for Joker.  To me, that was really satisfying.”

Production designer Mark Friedberg says, “Arthur lived way uptown, in our world in the Bronx, but in Joker we named it Otisburg.” Friedberg built an environment to reinforce the journey.

In the comics, Joker buys Amusement Mile Park so Friedberg was certain he acknowledged the existing culture of the Joker. “So we tried as much as we could to link our version of Gotham to the comics version. We ended up setting Ha-Ha’s under the elevated West Side Highway on 136th Street and painting giant Amusement Mile Murals on the sides of the buildings there.”

From Gotham City, Arthur’s apartment, Arkham State Hospital, Wayne Hall and the set of “Live with Murray Franklin” all converge. “Ultimately our decaying Gotham City, the character and Arthur Fleck, the character, merge, the social compact finally gives way, and Joker is born.”

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