One of the biggest decisions director Todd Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver made for their revisionist comic book drama “Joker” is to have it be a period piece. The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix as an unstable stand-up comedian who becomes the notorious Batman villain, takes place in Gotham City around the late 1970s, early 1980s (early reports said 1981, although that’s not mentioned in Warner Bros.’ official synopsis). The time period allows the movie to wear its influences on its sleeves, as Lawrence Sher’s cinematography evokes the city decay of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.” But evoking Scorsese’s gritty New York isn’t the only reason Phillips settled on making “Joker” a period piece. As the director recently told CinemaBlend, the film’s setting was also made in order to guarantee the film had nothing to do with Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe.
“The time [period] for me…one reason was to separate it quite frankly, from the DC universe,” Phillips said. “When I pitched to Warner Brothers, and handed the script in, to sort of make it clear, this isn’t fucking with anything you have going on. This is like a separate universe. So much so, it takes place in the past, before everything else.”
Since “Joker” was officially announced by Warner Bros. it has been stressed the movie does not connect with the studio’s polarizing DCEU, which has recently course-corrected its critical buzz with entries like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman.” Phillips has been adamant that “Joker” is a standalone movie. Earlier this month, the director shot down rumors “Joker” was being set up to crossover with Robert Pattinson’s Batman in the future (Pattinson is starring as the superhero in Matt Reeves’ 2021 tentpole “The Batman).
Phillips was also intent on making an R-rated character study similar to the 1970s movies he grew up with like “Taxi Driver” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The director has said he spent a year trying to convince Warner Bros. to let him do an R-rated “Joker,” and the studio would have never allowed that rating had the film been tied with the DCEU movies, which have all been rated PG-13 (interestingly enough, this is an issue facing Disney as it must figure out how to integrate the R-rated Deadpool into its PG-13 rated MCU).
“Joker,” which won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize and earned more Oscar buzz at TIFF, features production design by Mark Friedberg, who also worked on “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Wonderstruck.” The film’s period details have been largely praised (IndieWire recently named the “Joker” production design a craft highlight of festival season) and Friedberg could find himself in the Oscar race depending on how strongly Oscar voters take to the movie. Warner Bros. is opening “Joker” nationwide October 4.