When “Joker” make-up artist Nicki Ledermann came on board, she had some ideas in mind for the film and presented mock-ups to director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix — and both Phillips and Phoenix had already played around with ideas and showed Ledermann photos.
“I had to take the design and it was up to me to put it on him with the right color choices and the right placement,” Ledermann says.
Ledermann also had to explore copyright issues. As it turns out, painting a clown face wasn’t as easy as a white base, red lips and accentuated eye make-up; clown faces are copyrighted. In fact, artists use eggs to paint clown faces on, and then copyright the specific designs. “I had to go through the Clown Egg Register to make sure the design wasn’t copyrighted,” Ledermann explains.
Once she had done that, Warner Bros. had its team get clearance before they could do anything else. The look had not yet been created and they were free to do what they wanted.
Phillips also encouraged everyone in the film to watch the Chantal Akerman documentary “News From Home.” Set in New York circa 1977, the documentary focused on the city’s dirty streets, trash and crumbling buildings. He wanted the documentary to inspire the look of the film’s mood, colors and textures.
Ledermann was also aware that the film was set in the real world and not in a comic book realm. “It was so important that the make-up looked like it was homemade and that he had applied it himself,” she says. The key to that was, while she had the symmetrical look, the make-up was applied to not look too perfect. “I like calling it the Jackson Pollock style,” Ledermann says of the organic progressions. “It needed to smear and fall apart.”
When the audience first meets Phoenix, he’s skinny and gaunt, and painting his working clown face. “It gets smeared as we go through the action, but it’s all based on the same design,” says Ledermann.
Arthur Fleck’s working clown make-up is symmetrical, but as Joker evolves, the make-up becomes uneven. Ledermann points out, “By the end, the eyebrows and the diamonds are uneven. It doesn’t match.”
At the end, Joker is riding in the cop car and steps on top. “I like to call that the resurrection,” Ledermann says. “He’s covered in blood, his make-up is smeared, and then he gives the audience this beautiful blood smile.”
Ledermann points out, by that point, Fleck/Joker has gone through five stages of make-up.