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‘Joker’ Director Spent One Year Convincing Warner Bros. to Say Yes to R-Rated Vision

"Joker" is not like the R-rated fun of "Deadpool."



Warner Bros.

Despite the blockbuster success of the R-rated “Deadpool” franchise and Warner Bros.’ own R-rated “It” (the highest grossing horror film worldwide with $700 million), the studio still remained hesitant about green-lighting the R-rated “Joker.” In a new interview with the Los Angeles Times, director Todd Phillips reveals he spent a full year trying to convince the studio to allow him to make the violent and edgy comic book movie. The filmmaker revealed it was “a year-long process” from when the script was finished “just to get the new people on board with this vision.”

“There were emails about: ‘You realize we sell Joker pajamas at Target,’” Phillips said. “There were a zillion hurdles, and you just sort of had to navigate those one at a time…At the time I would curse them in my head every day. But then I have to put it in perspective and go, ‘They’re pretty bold that they did this.’”

While the “Deadpool” movies are rated R, they feature tongue-in-cheek humor and self-referential gags that lighten the tone despite relying on graphic violence. “Joker” is not the R-rated good time that “Deadpool” is and it was never pitched that way. Phillips’ movie reference points were all serious-minded R-rated adult dramas: “Taxi Driver,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Serpico,” and “The King of Comedy.”

“The movies that I grew up loving, these character studies from the ’70s, you couldn’t get those movies made in this climate,” Phillips said. “I said to myself, ‘What if you did a movie in that vein, but made it about [comic book] characters?’”

One component that encouraged Warner Bros. to take a chance on Phillips’ potentially alienating vision was the budget. “Joker” cost $55 million to produce, much lower than other comic-book movies. The Los Angeles Times reports the “Joker” budget is “roughly a third the cost of Warner’s most recent DC Comics film, ‘Aquaman.’”

As producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff explained, “There were some hiccups trying to get the green light and there were some concerns about some of the content. But once we locked and loaded our budget, they really gave us a tremendous amount of space to do what we needed to do. The passion Todd has for this movie is palpable, and when he starts talking about it he’s hard to say no to. At the end of the day, he got to make the movie he wanted to make.”

Joker was recently rated R by the MPAA for “strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images.” Getting Warner Bros. to sign off on the film was one hurdle, and it was followed almost immediately by another. The Times reports it took a “drawn-out, four-month process” to convince Joaquin Phoenix to take the title role. The actor only signed on once it was clear he would be allowed to play “a complex flesh-and-blood character in shades of gray rather than a black-and-white cartoon villain.”

“That’s really the only thing that’s worthwhile,” Phoenix said. “The other thing is connect-the-dots and paint-by-numbers, and who the [heck] cares about that? There are certain areas of the character that frankly still aren’t clear to me, and I’m fine with that. There’s something enjoyable about not having to answer a lot of those questions. It requires a certain amount of participation from the audience that feels different.”

“Joker” is world premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival and will also screen at TIFF and NYFF. Warner Bros will open the movie in theaters nationwide October 4.

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