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‘Joker’ Cinematographer on Joaquin Phoenix’s Transformative Performance

TORUN, Poland – “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher received a rockstar welcome at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival on Monday as attendees struggled to squeeze into a standing-room only conference room for a lively and in-depth Q&A session on the making of the box office sensation.

Sher appeared equally excited to be at the event. “Obviously I’ve been wanting to come to this festival for years. … I’ve known about this festival forever and as a DP it’s sort of a mecca, so when I heard that ‘Joker’ would be playing here, I wasn’t going to miss it for anything.”

Discussing the film’s “realistic” take on the famed Batman villain, Sher said it had been his and director Todd Phillips’ objective from the beginning “to always start with real. Take real and then just twist it a little bit, twist it towards surreal, twist it towards sometimes beautiful but sometimes ugly, but always start with real.”

The aim was to “make something wholly authentic” while going for “engaging imagery that would feel much like a graphic novel.”

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The filmmakers never talked about comic-book movies, however. “It was always just, let’s go make a movie that feels hand-made and feels authentic.”

To that end, Sher said shooting in digital allowed him to give the film that hand-made quality. “I spent a lot of time trying to make it feel less controlled than what it is because of course we’re controlling a lot of elements.”

On his approach to lighting, Sher noted that, “amazingly enough,” there was no difference between “Joker” and his past films. “It’s just circumstances I think with the movie and the fact that it’s a character study perhaps allows for a bit more artful approach or an artful result for a movie, and because we’re not necessarily servicing a comedy, perhaps some of the compositions and things like that come to the forefront more than maybe in previous works.”

The scene in which Joker descends the stairs is seen as a celebration for the character and one of the few times there is sunlight in the movie, Sher noted, adding that he had to use artificial lighting for the scene.

“I would have done it with sunlight but New York City at that time the sun never hit those stairs, so I had to do it artificially. I would have taken God’s light instead, but I had to do it that way.”

On collaborating with Joaquin Phoenix, Sher said: “Working with Joaquin was the best experience I’ve ever had because he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen. I’ve worked with some great actors and no offense to them at all. It was literally a transformative experience watching him act.”

Sher added he and Phillips had discussed the film’s potentially controversial aspects early on. “We knew that you’re humanizing somebody who does bad things, so you’re asking the audience to connect [with this character] … even if this character does bad things.” Sher nevertheless rejected accusations that the film was irresponsible and defended the choices that were made in the film.

“We were never setting out to make something so realistic. It was always sort of a magical realism, or enhanced realism, and it even goes down to the framing. … Yes, this was going to be harrowing and dark and at times brutal, but it was going to have just a little bit of whimsy. Some of those choices that certainly I made were to keep a little bit of that whimsy alive.”

Sher also noted that he and Phillips originally planned to shoot the film in 70mm. While Warner Bros. execs quashed those plans, the company ended up opening the film on 70mm in selected theaters.

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