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‘Joker’: How Todd Phillips Infiltrated Hollywood Through the New York Underground

Phillips' early days as a documentarian and film festival programmer are key to understanding his multimillionaire success story.

Todd Phillips in the early nineties.

Todd Phillips

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In 2019, no movie became a greater flashpoint for cultural debate than “Joker” — and Todd Phillips sat happily at the center of the battlefield. To some, Phillips looked like he wanted to provoke the ire of the moment — the bearded reprobate with a naughty grin and cynical gaze, the Hollywood bro who made those “Hangover” movies and gave up on comedy to avoid the sensitivities of the moment, a Tinseltown huckster straight out of the “Entourage” mold who cared less about the art of filmmaking than contorting it into the ultimate blockbuster coup.

But these readings tend to ignore his roots, and how they set him up for everything that followed. Phillips’ origin story has been obscured by the sheer scale of his commercial successes, and even he’s reticent to look back. “People don’t always know about my beginnings, and I get it,” Phillips told me when we met at a midtown Manhattan hotel last November, fiddling with a vape as he rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to do a deep dive on me.” He chuckled and exhaled a foggy cloud. “Please. Don’t.”

Well, it was too late for that, and well worth the journey. Twenty years ago, Phillips was a scrappy anarchist whose rough-hewn portraits of punk rockers and frat boys explored the self-destructive impulses of masculinity gone wrong, long before “Joker” became that subject’s master text at the box office. With 1993’s “Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies,” followed by the 1998 Sundance-winner “Frat House,” Phillips climbed inside the psychology of deranged men and scrutinized — as he puts it in the dry voiceover of “Hated” — “a part of America most people would rather not think about.”

Phillips later injected that mentality into a larger machine, and “Joker” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival before it went on to gross over $1 billion worldwide. It also elicited fears of violence and accusations of sympathizing with the darkest tendencies of Joaquin Phoenix’s grinning psychopath. Last fall, Phillips told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson that it felt like the initial accolades painted a target on his back.

Growing up on Long Island in the ’70s and ’80s, Phillips was a child of divorce whose father worked as a customs inspector at JFK. He decided to be a filmmaker after he watched the Maysles brothers’ seminal Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter” on a VHS tape he borrowed from one of his dad’s friends. In the movie, the Maysles famously went into the editing room to revisit an infamous murder at one of the Stones’ concerts while the band looked on. “I didn’t know how movies were made, I didn’t know anybody in the movies business, but I saw the editing room and that was when I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Phillips said. “I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker because that just seemed attainable.”

That impulse deepened when Phillips went to NYU. “You go to these writing classes and you have to write and you’re like, ‘Well, I haven’t lived yet, really, right? What’s the most horrific thing I went through?’ My parents divorced when I was five,” he said. “So documentaries also represented a way to live life on fast forward.”

He took a liking to the rascally documentary film professor Christine Choy, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” in 1989. Choy guided Phillips through the production of “Hated,” which he made in part through resources from her classes. It later became part of her curriculum.

Todd Phillips as a NYU film student

Todd Phillips as a NYU film student

Todd Phillips

“I show his films very often,” Choy told me. “Making documentaries made him get to know real people, and that later enhanced his ability to write screenplays about those kind of characters.” Phillips echoed that sentiment: “I go off and do a thing on fraternities in upstate New York,” he said. “All of a sudden, three years later, I’m writing ‘Old School.'”

It’s not that simple, of course: “Frat House” elicited an admirer in comedy guru Ivan Reitman, who enlisted Phillips to direct “Road Trip,” establishing the template for many raucous party movies to come. Watch Phillips’ first two documentaries, however, and it’s hard not to imagine what might have been if he had stayed the course with non-fiction.

“Hated” remains a riveting, tragicomic showcase of one man’s destructive attempt to transform his rage into a personal art project. Punk rocker GG Allin gave nude performances that often culminated with him defecating on the floor and smearing his feces on his face. Phillips captures all of that, with Allin and his fans attempting to explain his aggressive aesthetic as an almost spiritual trajectory that Allin suggests might end in public suicide. (It didn’t. Allin died of an accidental heroin overdose in 1993.)

Equal parts Marquis de Sade and Marina Abramovic, the subject of “Hated” yields one of the most disturbing soul searches ever caught on film. Beyond the provocations of the concert footage, the filmmaker also traveled to Allin’s small-town New Hampshire town to explore how his low-income roots, and absent father, set him up for the twisted rebellion of his career. If Phillips’ later movies invite audiences to laugh at corrosive male antics, perhaps that’s because he learned early on that dark urges need constructive outlets. “If I didn’t do what I did onstage,” Allin tells Phillips, “I’d probably kill somebody.”

In “Frat House,” Phillips and fellow NYU student Andrew Gurland dug into the outrageous ecosystem of fraternity life long before the country turned against it; in retrospect, it’s an essential document of the animalistic extremes emboldened the fraternity system.

As Phillips reveals sickening parties and hazing rituals, the movie unfolds with an ethnographic precision of “the lengths men go to belong,” as Phillips narrated. The movie foreshadows the maniacal thrill of “Joker” protagonist Arthur Fleck, who achieves his euphoric ideal not from ideological convictions but the capacity to command an army of troublemakers. It’s not the farthest cry from one of Phillips’ “Frat House” subjects telling the camera that “hazing is like having the power of a god,” without a hint of irony. (HBO bought the movie out of Sundance, but shelved it after accusations that Phillips staged some scenes.)

Phillips’ ramshackle nonfiction projects often got him into trouble. In one of the most unsettling sequences from “Hated,” the filmmaker reserved a spot at the student recreation center for one of Allin’s notorious performances. It was Hawaiian night, and some audience members brought fruit. As Phillips’ camera looked on, Allin grabbed a banana, stuck it in his rectum, and chucked the fragments at the crowd. A riot ensued, Allin got banned from NYU, and Phillips was summoned to an administrative hearing.

Choy stood up for him. “Todd was really shaking,” she said. “They asked me what I thought. I said, ‘This is the best thing that ever happened in documentary film! You got a scene unfolding so unexpectedly!’ So he got off.” She cackled. “He’s crazy.” Phillips gave her a special thanks in the movie’s credits. (Watch the film in its entirety below.)

Phillips often says he never finished film school (Choy disputes this, saying she double-checked NYU’s records), but he crafted a unique support system for his projects. While working as a manager at the fabled Kim’s Video, he bonded with regulars like “Kids”-era Harmony Korine, but eventually lost the job when the owner busted Phillips for sleeping on the counter. At the 1992 edition of IFP’s Independent Film Week, he tracked down directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to ask them about how they self-released their murder-mystery documentary “Brother’s Keeper” around the country.

According to Phillips, Sinofsky told him, “You call up the manager, you send him a VHS of your thing, you put together a press kit and you ask him to book the film. The film is booked, you split the money with them, life goes on.” Phillips asked him to name the theaters. “Honestly, we’re trying our own network, but I can tell you five big ones,” Sinofsky said. “But the names of the theaters you can find.”

So Phillips came up with a new plan: He applied for a thankless job in the grosses department of Miramax Films during the heyday of the Weinstein brothers. “In the old days, you would call up the very independent theaters and ask, ‘How much did “The Crying Game” make last night?'” he said. “And you would write down $680 or whatever and bring it to Harvey Weinstein.” Phillips said he stuck with the job for three weeks.

“I stayed every night and I copied every fucking theater list and every manager, and then I left,” he said. With that list, he embarked on a year-long distribution journey, booking “Hated” around the country.

“It was this Dischord approach to distribution a film,” he said, referencing the seminal D.C. punk label. “I learned everything about that process. I got it into like 45 theaters and it made money. In the long run, it probably grossed a million dollars.”

Todd Phillips at NYU

Todd Phillips at NYU

Todd Phillips

When “Hated” failed to get into Sundance, the filmmaker grew restless. “It felt like there weren’t any festivals that were showing films that were further outside the ‘indie’ box,” he said. After Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas showed “Hated” in its initial run, Phillips approached the avant-garde legend about starting a new festival. With Gurland, Phillips launched the New York Underground Film Festival; founded in 1994, in ran for 15 years. “The main impact it had on me, besides getting to know Jonas better, was being exposed to so many filmmakers that were making really crazy shit from around the world,” Phillips said.

By 2000, Phillips was very much in the mainstream with “Road Trip” and he hasn’t made a documentary since. (He moved to Los Angeles, but maintains a home in Manhattan.) At one point, he was slated to direct the 2006 Sasha Baron Cohen prank movie “Borat,” but left over creative differences. Shot in a documentary fashion that found Cohen eliciting anti-semitic and xenophobic tendencies from baffled Americans, the edgy production style felt like a natural extension of Phillips’ earlier instincts. When Phillips dropped out, some reports suggested he was thrown by the liabilities of the shoot, which often incited riots over Cohen’s behavior.

Until now, he has never spoken publicly about his issues on the set. “No, I did not leave the project because I thought it was dangerous,” said Phillips, adding that he came up with the initial idea based around Cohen’s television persona. “The original concept was about a documentary filmmaker making a film about Borat. It was a film about America’s relationship to this immigrant.”

Just as he did in his documentaries, Phillips planned to be an active participant in the narrative. “About three weeks into shooting, we were having issues,” he said. “It was a flawed idea. The magic of Borat was that the people in the film had no one to turn to. The inmate was running the asylum. By having a filmmaker present, it would ruin some of the setups.” Nevertheless, some of the material Phillips shot made it into the end result, including the infamous rodeo sequence, and he scored an Oscar nomination for co-writing the loose screenplay. “I obviously love the film and what it turned into and I am proud of the involvement that I did have,” he said.

The same year that “Borat” hit theaters, Phillips directed “School for Scoundrels,” the dopey story of a meter maid (Jon Heder) taught to overcome his awkwardness by tough guy Billy Bob Thornton. Financed by the Weinstein brothers, the movie pulled in around $25 million on a $35 million budget. “Harvey and Bob Weinstein asked me to turn it from a rated-R movie to a PG-13 about a month before we started shooting,” Phillips said. “Obviously, not an ideal situation, but we didn’t have much of a choice. That was a mistake. … Sometimes, when you please everyone, you hit no one.”

“The Hangover”

By the end of the decade, he was working on “The Hangover” with a renewed ethos. “I learned to be absolutely stubborn in terms of tone, and certainly rating,” Phillips said. He made the first installment of the boisterous Vegas bachelor party saga for $35 million, secured final cut and insisted on an R rating. It grossed nearly $500 million worldwide, and led him to start a production company with its star, Bradley Cooper.

Phillips applied that same mentality to “Joker,” which cost around $60 million. When a zany dude comedy becomes a commercial hit, audiences tend to chuckle at its crass punchlines or simply stay away. With “Joker,” its popularity and its Oscar prospects meant that Phillips faces a new kind of critical scrutiny. Many cinephiles wondered what the hell Venice jury president and cerebral filmmaker Lucrecia Martel was thinking. As for the raging arguments about whether “Joker” inhabits or condemns its violent anti-hero, Phillips seems content to shrug his way through the season.

“I don’t know that we ever really specifically talked about depiction versus endorsement because, to me, there’s nothing to talk about, meaning making a movie about something is not endorsing something,” he said. However, he bristled at accusations that he celebrated toxic masculinity, whether through “Joker,” his three “Hangover” movies, or anything else.

“I was raised in a female household,” he said, citing his mother and two sisters. “So I had this sort of obsession with how men behave because I was never around it. And then you go to NYU, you don’t meet that kind of guy ever, you know? It was always this weird fascination of the lengths men go to to belong to a group, because I was always raised to just sort of not be part of a group. If you don’t dismiss ‘Old School’ and the ‘Hangover’ movies as frat boy comedies, if you really see them as sort of a look into that behavior and not necessarily a celebration of it —  I mean, ‘The Hangover’ did phenomenally overseas. Why did that movie connect overseas when so many comedies don’t translate? I think that international audiences kind of looked at it as an indictment of America; as like, ‘Oh, yeah. This is how Americans behaved.'”

“Joker”

Other filmmakers have built on Phillips’ template with their own ambiguous studies of appalling men. Joshua Safdie, who co-directed a combustible Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems,” sang the praises of “GG Allin” and “Frat House” alike. “The latter is an incredible hybrid film masterwork of regional filmmaking,” Safdie told me. “I was ripe to love his ‘Hangover’ trilogy. Todd does things his own way and that’s inspiring.”

Choy said she initially viewed Phillips’ commercial achievements with profound skepticism. “For a long time, I thought a lot of his films were too shallow, too surface-deep, too willing to please,” she said. With time, and the excuses to revisit his earlier work, her perspective has evolved. “There’s a streak of anger in his films,” she said. “Todd is extremely calm, but there’s a repressed pain that I always felt with him. That kind of rebelliousness is very personal. I do see a correlation there.”

Phillips still insists that he engineered “Joker” as a plea for the kind of support his wayward villain never receives. “I think ‘Joker’ has more in common with the Mister Rogers movie than it does with violent movies that it gets compared to or lumped in with,” he said. “The loss of empathy in society has become pervasive.”

“Joker” reportedly made Phillips $100 million, affording him the opportunity make any number of movies beyond Hollywood constraints. But don’t count on it. “It’s more fun to do shit like that inside the system,” he said. “That’s what ‘Joker’ felt like to me. There is something more subversive to me about doing it inside the system.”

Phillips checked his phone. “I have to go,” he said. “I’m actually meeting my mom for dinner.” Heading to the door, he was puzzled by how long he had spent revisiting his early days, rather than defending comments and assessing the ethics of new movie. “I do think that in the culture of sound bites and clickbait, certain things get reduced,” he said, flashing that grin. “None of this will never make it to your story. It’s so boring.”

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