For almost 20 years, Todd Phillips has been one of Hollywood’s most successful enfants terribles. From “Road Trip” to “Old School” through all three “Hangover” movies, few directors have more comprehensively catalogued sophomoric self destruction than the Brooklyn-born NYU dropout-turned-hitmaker. But when the time came to take a closer look at what might be underneath that destructive mischief in “Joker,” his transgressive, ’80s set origin story for Batman’s most iconic adversary, the recipient of Variety’s 2019 Creative Impact in Directing Award insists he wasn’t motivated by an impulse to defy perceptions of himself or his well-earned comedic pedigree.
“I’ve never been a fan of other people determining who I am or what my tastes are,” says Phillips. “Making ‘Joker’ wasn’t a reaction to having made raucous comedies. It was just something that seemed interesting to me and thought we could do something really cool.”
Variety will honor Phillips during the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival.
At the same ceremony, Lena Waithe, who won an Emmy for writing “Master of “None” and wrote and produced the drama “Queen & Slim,” will receive Variety’s Creative Impact in Producing Award and Robert De Niro, who is winning accolades for his star turn in “The Irishman,” directed by Martin Scorsese, will receive the Creative Impact in Acting Award.
“Joker” became a phenomenon before its worldwide grosses crossed the $1 billion mark, indeed, even before the film opened in theaters. A Golden Lion win after its premiere at the 2019 Venice Film festival buoyed Warner Bros.’ hopes not just for a box-office success, but a potential critical darling. Meanwhile, early reviews examined connections between its protagonist, mentally ill comedian-turned-criminal Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), and a growing legion of young men who, feeling victimized by the real world, seek empowerment by identifying with sometimes “problematic” pop-culture figures such as the grease-painted Batman villain.
Phillips denies the notion that his film validates the character’s violent impulses. “Movies are mirrors, not molders,” he says. Rather, the director says he and his co-writer Scott Silver were specifically interested in interrogating what lies beneath, and perhaps leads an individual to them.
“While our movie is set in 1981, we wrote the movie in 2016 and 2017. So if you want to talk about what’s going on around the world now, the loss of compassion and the discourse of how we treat people, that could be a really unique way of addressing our modern times.
“I always have movies that nobody wants to make,” he adds. “But I think it’s up to writers and directors to have a sense for where things are headed, or better yet a sense ahead of where things might go.”
His literal billions of dollars in box-office revenues (including “Joker” and the “Hangover” trilogy) indicate he’s joking about studios fighting his ideas, but Phillips’ experiences on several of his biggest hits suggest he knows something that studio executives are slow to learn.
Warner Bros. had such low expectations for “The Hangover” that the studio didn’t bother to sign its stars for multiple films, forcing much higher payouts for parts two and three after the original earned almost $500 million during its theatrical run. And on “Joker,” Warner lowballed the production with a reported $60 million budget, perhaps hoping Phillips abandon what they perceived as a risk to the integrity of some of the studio’s most-valuable intellectual property.
All of which is why it came as a surprise for a filmmaker whose early hits carried forward the mantle of raucous 1970s and ’80s comedies including “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” to make such an unexpectedly thoughtful first foray into comic-book movies, a genre even he’d primarily characterized in the past as “loud.”
“A lot of things that we watch, consume, sometimes can be classified as empty calories,” he says. “[The writers] wanted something that stayed with you long after, that was one of the goals. If we’re going to take on something as big as an origin of this character that’s been around for 80 years, we wanted it to feel like it had meaning.”
But even if his previous films have chronicled, catered to and seemingly celebrated the anarchic excess of his characters, Phillips says such comedies as “Old School” and “The Hangover” have more of a thread of social and personal commentary than they receive credit for.
“That was an exploration of when my mother always said, ‘whatever you do, don’t belong to a group,’ ” he says. “It was all under that ‘why fit in when you were born to stand out?’
“I was amazed by friends of mine who went off to normal colleges and joined fraternities, and [the fraternities] beat you up. Like why would you do that just to be part of a group? If they come off as celebrations, it is because I think it’s funny, but they were explorations. They weren’t endorsements.
I mean, in ‘Old School,’ there’s nobody I would want to be!”
If there’s a theme that runs through most or all of his films, connecting “Road Trip” to “Joker” and everything in between, Phillips says it isn’t “bad male behavior,” but the anarchy that seems to go hand in hand with it.
“What ‘Joker’ has in common with my other movies is the idea of chaos, which always came through in the comedies and definitely comes through in this,” he says. “If ‘Joker’ is an agent of chaos, how do we get there? Is he made that way? Society made him? Is it a combination of events?”
In fact, “Joker” feels like a natural next step in Phillips’ evolution as a storyteller, particularly after he deliberately broke the winning formula created on “The Hangover” to tap into some deeper issues for “Part III” in 2013.
“As I would get more and more quote-unquote power, and I use that term loosely, my inclination is to just go darker,” he says. “It’s just who I am. The first movie I made was a documentary about punk rock singer G.G. Allin, called ‘Hated,’ which is a very dark film. So my tastes are there a little bit.”
At the same time, Phillips clarifies that he’s not trying to needle audiences or antagonize his fans, but to create work that stands out — and endures — in a crowded marketplace.
“It’s not an internal impulse to go darker,” he says. “A lot of it is a reaction to where the way that movie business is now. You can either do something [like] the last three things that worked, which will probably work because the last three worked, or you can do something entirely different. But you gotta be bold, because there’s so much more great stuff available than ever, and you’re competing with so many things. So it’s really about cutting through the fog.”
He recalls that “One of the mandates we had on this movie was when in doubt, let’s just be bold. Let’s make a bold choice here, let’s do the more-outside-the-box thing. And it just felt like people were ready for something different.”
Clearly, his gambit paid off with “Joker.” That is why Warner Bros. is already knocking at his door for a follow-up.
“Obviously when a movie cost $60 million and makes $1 billion, the studio has talked to us about a sequel,” he acknowledges. “But the job of doing another one of these is bigger than being similar to the first. It’s about if we could come up with a theme where that resonated in the same way, where it was about something going on underneath it.”
Being confronted by a challenge to meet or surpass the success of one runaway blockbuster with another is a position Phillips has been in before. That could be why he meets the future with both pragmatism and confidence.
“Comic-book movies are humongous around the world, and quite frankly most of them are bigger than ‘Joker,’ so our biggest fear was coming off as boring to that crowd that is used to some pretty spectacular action. But it felt like they’ve become such a big thing that we could use that space and do something a little bit different in it.
“We wanted to create something meaningful, that really stayed with you after you left the theater,” he says. “There’s so much work involved. No movie is easy. So you want something that really lasts.”