Production designer Mark Friedberg and editor Jeff Groth explain how they mapped Manhattan to fit the warped and rotting mind of the clown’s alter ego.
You can’t separate the psychology of the Joker from the psychogeography of Gotham in the new comic book origins story. The destruction of professional clown and wannabe stand-up Arthur Fleck’s personality is rooted in the dysfunctional, dirty and decaying city – best known as the fictional home of Batman.
“Gotham oppresses Arthur as much as anything in the film,” says Mark Friedberg, the film’s production designer. “This version of Gotham is also a version of Joker himself.”
It is also an evocation of New York from the early 1980s when Friedberg and director Todd Phillips were growing up in the city.
“It’s a world we understood personally,” he says. “When I first sat with Todd I pitched an unforgiving view of Gotham. Gritty. Hard. The version of NYC that Travis Bickel and Rupert Pupkin prowled. I didn’t think we should stylise the world, particularly. It should look like we were a crew that tumbled out of a van and just started shooting.”
“Gotham oppresses Arthur as much as anything in the film… this version is also a version of Joker himself.” Mark Friedberg, production designer
Scripted by Phillips and Scott Silver, Joker introduces us to Arthur Fleck, a character marked by a sort of delusional naivety and optimism. He wants to bring laughter to the world but the failing city continues to drag him down.
“It really smells, people are really harsh and it’s hard,” Friedberg says. “Arthur lives in the same dehumanising place as the masses, yet for some reason what affects us affects him more.”
In envisioning Gotham, it helped Friedberg to map it over the neighbourhoods of his hometown, giving him a more authentic sense of history and place to guide his imagination.
“There is garbage everywhere, traffic, the police are corrupt and even the people keep beating him up. Physically we looked for areas that still showed decaying buildings and vacant lots. We also looked for areas with overhead trains that block out the sun in a way that also bears down on Arthur. We tried to make the city labyrinthine. He is a rat in a maze.”
For Arthur’s home neighbourhood, for example, Friedberg chose the South Bronx. “It’s hillier than Manhattan, which helped distinguish Gotham from NYC. The stairs that Arthur climbs are a burden at first but ultimately become his dancing stage when he becomes Joker. That scene is both exciting for him and creepy for us. A very dark Busby Berkeley.”
The filmmakers also had to make their film tonally distinct from the Gotham of Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, since Joker is not, as yet, a continuation of that franchise.
“We didn’t look at any other comic movies at all,” Friedberg says. “We looked at Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Network, Midnight Cowboy. The most important thing was that the stakes are real but where we might get upset to the point of rage, at some point we pull back into civilised society. Unfortunately for Arthur, he is mentally ill and since there is zero societal support for him he turns to his worst instincts. Even though this is an invented environment, it’s a place we understand intimately, with its amorality and the gravity of what people are facing.”
After surveying the city, Friedberg started on concept art inspired by research into TV ads from the period as well as tabloid stories and photography.
“I pitched the idea that the film should feel as doc as possible and that our sets should feel very tactile. It goes back to Arthur’s arrested way of interacting with the world, thinking about it almost like a child running their fingers along a wall. But also, that’s the whole story of urban America – a tapestry of textures stitched through history, painted over or ripped down and sanitised and replaced with cold, smooth uniformity as our cities turn to glass.”
That idea played into lighting textures too. Most of the lighting on set came from practical sources that were rewired into programmable LEDs so that DP Lawrence Sher and his crew could adjust them from an iPad. For exterior scenes, the LED street lights were replaced with ‘70s/’80s era sodium vapor bulbs, accentuating the harsh look.
“We used lots of tungsten and fluorescent – as oppressive and miserable as any concrete wall – built into the sets and wired to dimmer boards,” Friedberg explains.
Sher often shot with a narrow depth of field on Alexa 65, isolating Arthur in his environment – an effect augmented by shooting in 1.85 to pen him in just a little more.
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Scenes of a Johnny Carson-style TV studio, built within a sound stage set, was shot by seven cameras (A and B camera ARRI 65 bodies, Alexa LF and four Alexa Minis) hidden inside props which looked like studio cameras of the 1980s all so that the angles could be cut together as if from the actual TV show. Betacam cameras were used to shoot TV news footage and even VHS was dusted off for comedy club footage of Arthur performing.
It may be a coincidence that Friedberg’s work on films as diverse as Synecdoche, New York; Wonderstruck, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and If Beale Street Could Talk – all feature the city but there’s clearly something about the Big Apple that makes it so malleable to different stories.
“It’s a place where all the world has come in a grand experiment to live differently by each of their own culture and where we live as one,” he observes. “I’ve made Vietnam, Detroit, other planets here. I think you could make a western in Central Park if you needed to.”
Indeed, if Friedberg weren’t a production designer he says he’d be a New York cabbie or a detective.
“I am of this place, made of it. I used to think you could blindfold me and drop me anywhere and I’d be able to tell where I am from the sounds and smells. Now I’m not so sure, but there are very few people who have seen and experienced as much of New York as I have. I’ve been driving around this city since before I had a licence. I used to teach a class called ‘My Best Design Tool is My Car.’ It’s where I start all movies and it’s where I start to see.”
Getting inside Joker’s head
Editor Jeff Groth also approached Joker as a character study but his concentration was on Arthur Fleck.
“We’re not making a Joker movie but a film about the person who became the Joker” Jeff Groth, editor
“We’re not making a Joker movie but a film about the person who became the Joker,” Groth underlines. “Keys to understanding the character is to know that he is wearing this mask of Arthur. He is ultimately always destined to be Joker but when he puts on the Joker mask he is, in fact, taking off the mask of Arthur.”
The response to the film has been schizophrenic. Lavished with praise for braving to be the most political of superhero movies, and winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Festival, it has attracted criticism for its glib portrayal of mental illness and showing sympathy for the devil.
“Because he is the main character you have to be sympathetic with him and his situation to even watch the movie,” Groth says. “The character is kind of romantic. He doesn’t want things to be the way they are but the world dumps on him and it gets worse as he discovers more about his life. At times he is human, and at times homicidal and we’re showing the complexity of the emergence of an evil that happens over a long period of time.”
Much of Groth’s work on the film was figuring out which of Joaquin Phoenix’s many exceptional takes to choose to highlight Fleck’s transformation.
“I’d hold close-ups on Arthur a little longer or remain in wider shots when the consequences of his personal evolution begin to erupt around him. Joaquin is giving an immeasurable amount of himself to the role. You see the progression of his performance in any given shot, so one of my guidelines was to stay out of the way of what he was doing by not overcutting. It’s challenging when you have all these puzzle pieces and several fits in the right spot.”
Send in the clown
In an unusual move, Groth cut the movie as consecutively as possible, working on set for much of principal photography. “I found this helpful because you can see the progression of the character and story, from beginning to end,” he says.
One pivotal scene in Fleck’s transformation is when he first puts on white make-up but is yet to fully add the Joker’s face. He says, “It encompasses so much emotion and tension, horror, and humour. His face is so beautiful and at the same time kind of tragic.”
He also picks out the scene when Arthur comes out of the nightclub with erstwhile girlfriend Sophie (Zazie Beetz) to the song ‘Smile’ by Jimmy Durante. “The lightness and happiness to that scene doesn’t happen elsewhere in the movie.”
‘Smile’ is one of a number of ‘on the nose’ tracks written by Phillips and Silver into the script. Others include Frank Sinatra numbers ‘That’s Life’ and ‘Send in the Clowns’, Fred Astaire dance tune ‘Slap that Bass’ and Cream’s ‘White Room’. The choice of 1972 single ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Part 2’ by Gary Glitter has attracted most controversy and seems designed to stir up a reaction.
“It is time appropriate – it wasn’t really known at that point [when the film is set] what [Glitter’s] thing was,” Groth reasons.
A better defence is when Groth adds that the tracks comments on Arthur’s deranged character. “I guess [everything we now know about Paul Gadd] feels like what [Arthur] listens to inside his head. He doesn’t know the future, but he knows it is disturbing.”
Groth’s own research included watching Patton, a 1970 biopic about a World War II general starring George C Scott. “It’s a great character study with a terrific central performance and score by Jerry Goldsmith. I didn’t need an excuse to rewatch The French Connection and we have a sequence on the subway that recalls its chase scene. Popeye Doyle is an extraordinarily unhinged hero. All of these influences play into your head as you make a movie.”
He adds, “You are seeing a city which seems like New York of the late 1970s but it is never quite the same.”
Even the sound of emergency sirens, part of the background noise familiar to any visitor to the city, are deliberately off-kilter.
“We played around with European sounding sirens before our sound supervisor [Alan Murray] created his own siren. The sirens are not part of the story, they are just background, but things like this may tip your subconscious into believing that something isn’t right.”