Joker: Contemplating Risk in a Cynical World

Above Photo: JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s tragedy JOKER,
a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Niko Tavernise

By Geoffrey Haley, SOC
Originally published in Fall 2019

Joker is a 2019 American psychological thriller film directed by Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver. The film, based on DC Comics characters, stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. The film, which acts as an origin story for the Joker, is set in 1981 and follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City. 

There’s no denying it—folks these days are pretty risk averse—socially, emotionally…professionally.  We generally want the sure thing, the safe bet—and why not? The great part about following the herd mentality is that you feel like a rock star when you’re right, without being ostracized by the herd when you’re wrong. You know what they say, “Bet not, fret not.” Okay, maybe they don’t say that. I just made that phrase up. But admit it, for a second there, you thought that maybe people DO say that, which is really my point. True risk takers are few and far between. That’s why it’s an absolute miracle that Todd Phillips’ Joker ever came into being. 

Wait a minute, back up! “What risk?” Where’s the risk in a movie starring America’s favorite comic book villain, you ask? Well, how about the risk Warner Bros. and DC took in fielding a pitch from Todd Phillips to turn a Joker origin story into Taxi Driver meets Serpico, and then saying to him, “Okay, go ahead and shoot that movie, guy who brought us hard-hitting gritty dramas like Old School and The Hangover trilogy.” That’s Warner Bros. playing Russian roulette with one of its most closely held intellectual properties. That’s a gutsy studio play. And what about Todd Phillips? He re-invented the modern buddy comedy and singlehandedly turned the likes of Will Ferrell, Zack Galifianakis, and Bradley Cooper into overnight stars. Why did he take on Joker? What does Todd have to gain by diving headlong into a fan-crazed, emotionally charged genre he’s never dipped a toe into?

Even Larry Sher, Joker’s cinematographer, took a risk with ultra-moody, minimalistic lighting that was simultaneously dramatic, but somehow pliable enough to allow Joaquin (and the camera) complete freedom to move wherever whimsy took each moment. In my experience, DP’s handle the challenge of lighting for 360 degrees in one of three ways:  1) drench the set with soft top light so that every angle looks equally inoffensive and flat, 2) turn your dimmer board operator into a spring break DJ with constant back and fill fade up’s and down’s, 3) maintain contrast with practical and single source lighting. But that approach requires imagination, tremendous tradecraft, and faith in allowing your actors to interact with darkness and shadows. It also means giving the audience enough credit to know they don’t always need to see every face perfectly lit. Larry’s use of this third method was awe-inspiring, verging at times on the sublime. But it was also risky—his assured embrace of darkness and shadow drew some nervous concern from Todd on more than one occasion. But Larry never retreated from his position, and to Todd’s credit, in the end, he always trusted his DP. That said, I certainly faced my share of struggles with low light levels. At times I felt like I needed Silence of the Lambs-style night vision goggles just to keep from tripping over my own camera. It was no picnic for Greg Irwin (our A 1st) either, though you’d never know it. He’s a focus machine—and he never complains. I don’t know how you teach what he does. I honestly think it’s just a gift, and I was extremely lucky to have him at my side. This film was a risky proposition for a lot of folks on various levels—and as the A camera operator, I was taking my own share of risks too. Allow me to explain:

A Brave New World

A brief glance at my CV will betray that I’m no stranger to big budget action / adventure, comic book, and franchise films. I’ve shot more car crashes, space adventures, and superhero battles than I frankly care to remember. It’s fair to say that when I got the call to join Todd and Larry last September, I was really looking forward to the change of scenery. You see, even though Joker could technically still be considered a “comic book movie,” it was fundamentally different in some crucial ways. There would be no blue-screens, wire rigs, motion capture, pre-vis, pithy one-liners, or grown men parading around in latex unitards. We’d be shooting primarily on location, with real people behaving in REAL ways—in and around New York city, which was dressed up to portray Gotham at the height of the worst garbage strike in the city’s history.

Geoffrey Haley, SOC on the set of JOKER. Photo by Niko Tavernise

The first thing that struck me about Joker was the script, which I read a month before principle photography. It’s fair to say that my initial reaction was…nervousness. The world (including its protagonist) read cold, relentless, a bit detached. But that’s the funny thing about scripts, no matter how well crafted—to the unanointed, they can seem didactic, more like blueprints or road maps. It’s like seeing the Mona Lisa translated into binary code—an endless series of ones and zeroes on a page. But then the computer renders the code back into its graphic representation and we experience the emotional impact of the artwork. So it is with some scripts. They can seem feckless, springing to life only when an actor decodes the words into an expression of humanity.  The problem is, in the hands of the wrong actor or misguided direction, projects like these can easily be driven off a cliff. Now, I’ve done four movies with Todd Phillips. He’s one of the most intelligent, nuanced, and aesthetically mature writer / directors I’ve worked with, so I came to the project with tremendous faith, but I was also keenly aware, given audiences’ lofty expectations, and a completely original approach to a well-loved franchise, that the waters ahead might be treacherous.

A bit uneasy about what to expect when we rolled cameras on the first day of production, I nervously watched through the eyepiece as Joaquin’s character, Arthur Fleck, spilled out onto the street in a performance that took me (and everyone else) by complete surprise. There was a vulnerable, almost child-like quality, a borderline unhinged naivety to his delivery. It felt both grounded and surreal at the same time, and it drew me in completely. This wasn’t the Joker I expected. It felt fresh, but was it going to sustain in the long run? Joaquin and Todd were clearly throwing a Hail Mary pass right out of the gate—very risky. The one thing I realized immediately was that I had found a project that played directly into my own skill set.  This probably warrants some clarification:

The Confession

After over 20 years at this job, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not a very good camera operator—at least not a good technical one. I’m not great with human motion control; landing the frameline on the edge of the toaster every time, or executing the perfect diagonal.  I don’t obsess over gear—don’t pay much attention to the crosshair. If I ever got hired to operate a David Fincher movie, I’d get fired on day one. Truth be told, I don’t even think that much about composition. What I DO think about is William Archer, a 19th century theater critic who summed up storytelling in six words, “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” That’s fantastically simple. By my translation—great stories unfold when we experience the aspirational “near misses” of people we care about. THAT’S what I fixate on—finding visual ways to explore the “near misses” of empathetic characters. Why would an operator value story and emotion over the mechanics of operating? Why not stay in my lane and just…worry about framing the shot? For one thing, I selfishly entered this industry, as I suspect most of us did, to be moved by stories and to move others by telling them. I don’t much care about framing the perfect two shot. Compelling composition is a result of connecting an audience with a moment of truth. For me, all technical and aesthetic details emanate from that truth. So, at any given moment, I expend most of my mental energy on story, emotion, and performance. That means I don’t focus on technical shot execution (i.e. my job) nearly as much as most operators do. If I screw up a shot, I won’t ask for another take if I feel like the actor’s performance has peaked.  I’ll make creative suggestions even if executing them makes my life more difficult. Boom mic dropped into the frame? If the performance moved me, let them paint it out in post—I might not even mention it to the script supervisor.

Now I know this may seem like risky, even reckless behavior, but consider for a moment that my priorities are in perfect alignment with the director’s. A film crew’s often myopic fixation on executing their individual technical tasks can run counter to the director’s overall role of protecting story, emotion, and performance at the expense of all else. It’s a lonely place to be—the director is on an island. But…if I can show that I care more about the director’s priorities than I do my own, that our agendas are completely aligned, I’m able to put myself on the island with the director—there is an immediate bond of trust, and that director will always want me by his or her side. So my risk isn’t reckless, it’s a calculated one—sacrifice my short-term wellbeing to foster a valuable long-term relationship. I haven’t “stayed in my lane” for the better part of the last decade, and so far, it’s worked out pretty well. Now for all I know, this approach may one day backfire, in which case, look out for my next SOC article entitled “I veered out of my lane, and now I live off dry dog food and proceeds from bi-weekly visits to the blood bank.”

On the set of JOKER with Joaquin Phoenix. Niko Tavernise

True to my philosophy, On Joker I was passionate and brutally honest with Todd about thoughts and ideas, as was Larry Sher, who also operated the B camera and has a long collaborative history with Todd. The structure and tonal center evolved dramatically throughout the shoot, as Todd adopted new character perspectives and abandoned others from one day to the next. It was a thrillingly malleable process. Technically, I let a lot of cringe-worthy operating stuff go on my end, for the sake of chasing “truth” and protecting Joaquin’s performance. Joaquin is the kind of actor who submits so completely to his role that you begin to worry about his well-being—like a hyper-energized ebullient child in danger of tripping down the stairs or running into traffic. The pressure for us to nail each take was palpable, partly because every take was so vastly different, AND because you didn’t want Joaquin to have to exhaust himself needlessly by going again due to a technical problem on our end. 

Heavy Nuts and Bolts

Of course, like most films of this nature, we weren’t immune to our share of technical challenges. Now, for those of you waiting for me to get to the “technical” portion of this article, I’ll say this—we shot the movie with some cameras and lenses and dollies and stuff…blah, snore, blech! If you want to know what T-stop we set for subway interiors, go read about this movie in one of the other technical magazines, and then maybe drop some acid and take a walk in the woods, cause I tend to think life’s too short to spend mired in technical minutia. (I kid about the acid—“Hugs not Drugs”). The one thing I will mention on the technical side, is our use of the Alexa 65 large format camera, a beastly-heavy, power-hungry thing akin to the Panavision Genesis or the ARRI 535 (if you can remember that far back). It’s particularly sadistic in Steadicam and hand-held mode, but on Joker, a number of factors mitigated this a bit.  Firstly, I had been physically conditioned somewhat from the past two years of Marvel projects, which also used this camera. Secondly, I’d carry a 100-pound crate of rusty railroad ties in my arms all day just to watch Joaquin Phoenix read the annual U.S. crop report. I think every operator reading this article would agree that the amount of physical pain felt carrying a camera is inversely proportional to the quality of work happening in front of the lens. I experienced a similar endurance boost working with Christian Bale on The Fighter and Michael Fassbender on Steve Jobs. Pain tends to melt away when you are in the presence of transcendent creative talent.  Thirdly, for hand-held work, I began using the Klassen Slingshot (hand-held assist rig) a few years back—it has singlehandedly added years of longevity to my career and vastly improved my hand-held flexibility and performance (especially with heavy cameras) beyond anything I could have ever dreamed. I’m not associated with or compensated by the company in any way, but when I encounter something this revolutionary for our job, I’m not afraid to call it out.  

Geoffrey Haley on the set of JOKER with 2nd AC, Anthony Coan; dolly grip, Joaquin Padilla; and boom operator, Mike Scott. Photo by Niko Tavernise

As an operator, one of the most creatively gratifying moments of Joker (and possibly my entire career) occurred the day we shot a pivotal scene in a dingy bathroom set. As per the script, Arthur was meant to race into the bathroom and do a certain, very specific action that I won’t describe because it could spoil the sequence beforehand if you haven’t seen the movie yet. On this particular morning, although I was typically used to being present for private rehearsals, I was asked to step away as Todd conferred with Joaquin and Larry alone. Not surprisingly, the decision was made to change the scene (scenes were changed or completely abandoned routinely), but this time—by design—I was meant to have no idea how it would be different, so I could experience and react to the moment spontaneously on the day. I was equally not aware that Todd had asked Hildur Gudnadottir, the film’s composer, to record a few thematic tracks for Joker ahead of principle photography (a masterstroke on Todd’s part). I remember, after we hit sticks, nervously standing in the bathroom with my hand-held camera as Joaquin raced in, slammed the door, and collapsed against a wall. Gradually, his frantic breathing and post-traumatic shock gave way to an eerie calm as the air suddenly filled with one of the most hauntingly sorrowful and exquisite pieces of music I have ever heard. Then, out of the corner of my eye…Joaquin’s foot began to sway—I lowered the camera to ground level, completely engulfed in the moment, witnessing what would become Arthur’s fateful transformation…into the Joker. Joaquin metamorphosized a flood of cathartic emotion…into an almost trance induced, spontaneous dance, which I photographed in a completely reactive, hypnotic flow state.  It felt volatile and truthful and immediate. Capturing an emotionally powerful spontaneous moment, accompanied by a mesmerizing musical score, is every operator’s dream—that just doesn’t happen…and I will never forget it.

Confronting a Harsh Reality

I have no idea how Joker will be received by its audience. At the time of this writing, the film hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t know if all the risks that were taken will pay off. What I CAN say is that I saw the near-completed Joker about a month ago and I’m immensely proud of it. It SAYS a thing—and it does so without apology or equivocation. It has also turned out to be one of the most creatively rewarding and professionally challenging experiences of my career. For my opportunity to play a part I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to Joaquin, Todd, Larry, Greg Irwin, Tim Metivier, the rest of the cast, and a fantastic New York crew that busted its ass every day.

Most importantly, I feel like we need films like Joker more than ever. Today’s cinematic landscape is not what it once was. Gone seem the days of the mid-budget thriller or smart romantic comedy. You’re more likely to interest today’s studio exec in a one-bedroom Chernobyl timeshare than the script for Annie Hall 2. In an increasingly polarized world, our fear to offend has begun to outweigh our compulsion to challenge. This is why movies like Joker are so important. They serve as essential affirmations that smart and daring and uncomfortable films are necessary, and can still have mass market appeal. Joker will no doubt be divisive. It will be vilified within certain circles, denounced in others, assailed by DC purists, and dissected in ways no “comic book” film has ever had to endure. But that is exactly why it’s worth the two hour investment of our time. In my 24-year career, I’ve been fortunate enough to scrape together a precious handful of hard-fought projects that truly justify the comprehensive sacrifice and commitment this industry commands of us who work in it. Despite all the risks taken in making this film, or perhaps BECAUSE of them, I am proud to place
Joker…at the top of that precious list. And in this cynical, risk-averse world, I can’t ask for much more than that.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s JOKER, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Niko Tavernise


Geoffrey Haley, SOC

Geoffrey Haley, SOC, is a 24 year veteran camera / Steadicam operator, whose credits include five seasons of Six Feet Under, the Hangover trilogy, American Hustle, four Fast and Furious films, Steve Jobs, Star Trek Beyond, The Fighter, Avengers: Infinity War and Engame, as well as Jumanji and the upcoming Jumanji sequel. A classically trained cellist from age five, he shifted attention to a love of filmmaking when he located to Los Angeles in 1994, after completing undergraduate studies in Psychophysiology at Stanford University. These days, he averages 11 months per year on location, in the perpetual search of compelling imagery, energizing tennis, and the perfect bowl of Ramen.

Photo courtesy of Geoffery Haley

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