‘Joker’: The 1 Way Warner Bros. Refused to Give Todd Phillips Creative Freedom

Since its release, Joker has been everywhere. Indeed, director Todd Phillips’ loose adaptation of the DC Comics character has been shattering box office records. For better or worse, Joker is one of the most talked-about films of 2019.

Fans of the film credit that resonance with audiences to Phillips’ distinctive vision. The director intended the film’s story to be open to interpretation, even going so far as to decline from releasing any deleted scenes. But, as boundary-pushing as many consider Joker, Phillips wasn’t given complete freedom in how the story was told.

Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix at the 'Joker' premiere
Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix at the ‘Joker’ premiere | Amy Sussman/WireImage

The cultural impact of ‘Joker’

In so many ways, Joker diverges from traditional comic book storytelling. Where superhero epics usually zig, Phillips decided to zag. And that defiance, the urge to subvert genre expectations, not only fits the character but services the story the director is trying to tell.

To that end, Phillips’ reliance on the clown prince of unreliable narrators — as well as the obvious influence of Martin Scorsese films — will likely contribute to whatever the industry gives us next. No matter how (former?) Joker actor Jared Leto feels about it, Phillips’ film is equal parts throwback and step forward.

However, Joker doesn’t exactly honor the gritty late ’70s/early ’80s aesthetic it’s going for in one specific way. As it turns out, this actually wasn’t how the film was supposed to be presented.

Warner Bros. refused Phillips’ original plan

In a recent piece for Variety, Joker cinematographer Lawrence Sher revealed that he and Phillips initially planned on shooting the movie on 70mm film. The pair have collaborated several times, and the final products were always shot on celluloid. But Warner Bros. wouldn’t allow it this time.

While Sher didn’t reveal the studio’s reasoning behind this, it’s largely assumed to be about cost savings. After all, Joker was always considered a creative risk, which is why Warner Bros. invested a comparatively low $64 million on the film. So opting to shoot on digital because it’s cheaper certainly checks out.

Phillips and Sher reportedly considered other options, such as 35mm film. That would at least keep the more traditional style intact, even if it wasn’t their original goal. The best they ultimately got from Warner Bros. is a limited theatrical run post-converted into 70mm and 35mm film.

What’s next for ‘Joker’?

Of course, now Joker has become the first R-rated film to break $1 billion at the worldwide box office. So we imagine that Warner Bros. will allow Phillips the option to shoot on film next time if he so desires. This is especially true if the studio is able to coerce the director and Joaquin Phoenix to come back to Gotham for more.

For now, Warner Bros. is busy getting Joker ready for its time in the awards season spotlight. Thanks to Phoenix’s performance, the film is essentially a lock for a Best Actor nomination. And we wouldn’t be surprised if Sher and/or composer Hildur Gudnadottir are in the mix as well.

It’s ironic that Joker was once considered a box office gamble, especially looking back at how the larger DC Extended Universe has performed. As usual, Batman’s arch-nemesis appears to have gotten the last laugh.