Confused by the dueling reports from the Hollywood trades about the development of sequels to Warner Bros.’s R-Rated box-office “Joker” smash? You’re not alone—director Todd Phillips was caught off guard as well, he admitted to a packed theater at an awards/guild screening of his record-breaking film last night. While THR reported that a “Joker” sequel directed by Phillips was in the works following an October 7 meeting with the studio, Deadline quickly pumped the break and said that no such meeting occurred.
“Yeah that was written about today, and I have to be honest, it came out of nowhere. It referred to a meeting that was never had,” Phillips admitted, confirming Deadline’s story. “I thought it was anticipatory at best. Obviously, sequels have been discussed when a movie that cost $60 million made $1 billion, but we have not had any serious conversations about it.”
Phillips went on to describe the practicalities of negotiations that must be put into place before sequel talk can move beyond speculation. “We don’t have a deal with Joaquin, they don’t have a deal with me and the writer. I don’t know where that came from, honest to God,” Phillips professed. “It’s a hard thing to refute when you don’t have a Twitter account, and you’re not really out there. You just go, ‘Ok, this will disappear in 24 hours, let’s move on.’”
And the conversation certainly did move on. Beyond the news of the day, the vibrant Q&A also touched on a number of other topics keeping “Joker” and comic book movies in the news. The screening was hosted by moderated by Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore, who referred to “Joker” as a “masterpiece” as he opened his dialogue with Phillips. Moore is one film’s many famous fans whose praise for the controversial film has made headlines—Greta Gerwig, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jessica Chastain, and, apparently, President Donald Trump himself.
I was able to ask Phillips if he’d heard any news or reactions from the White House screening of Joker, first reported by CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz and then confirmed by Yahoo! News, and as it turns out, he knows no more than the rest of us. The screening caught him off guard as well, as the requests for movies from the White House get routed through the MPAA rather than individual studios. “I only heard what you heard,” Phillips professed. “I thought it was rather ironic.” Moore added, “Wouldn’t you like five minutes with Trump right after the film, just be like, what did he happen to notice?” (Yahoo! reported Trump liked “Joker,” per a senior White House official.)
Because truly every director must stand and be counted regarding their views on Martin Scorsese’s Marvel opinions, Moore broached the subject with Phillips, who answered earnestly and with great respect for the legendary filmmaker that once circled “Joker” himself. “My only issue with what he said – and I have no issue with anything he ever says, I literally worship the man – is that he’s lumping a lot of movies into one thing, and I think that’s a tough thing to do. I think if we lumped in gangster movies and put in “Goodfellas” and “Casino” with some shit that’s not quite the same…” he offered as an example before trailing off.
“What I know is a lot of great artists who work on those movies, not just directors but actors and craftspeople,” Philips continued. “So I didn’t love that he lumped a whole group. It seemed rather reductive. But I do know what he was meaning. Really, what he’s talking about is exhibition. He’s talking about how they take over the theaters, the multiplexes, the screening spaces, and it does [not] really leave room for some of the other stuff. The only issue is movie studios are going to make whatever movies people show up to. In a weird way, the audience holds the power.”
The Q&A was also notable as it provided Phillips with a chance to reflect on the frenzied discourse surrounding the release of “Joker” with some critical distance. Though the many controversies – some of which Phillips caused himself with ill-advised comments on the press tour—clearly did not put a damper on box office returns, Moore postulated that the hubbub did blunt and distort the conversation around the film’s political resonance. “Some of the press was like, it celebrates the alt-right crazies,” Moore said. “It’s the opposite of that!”
“It was pretty baffling to us,” Phillips replied. He continued: “The thing I had to keep reminding myself was that the last time I remembered a film was met with that much journalistic trepidation was with “Do the Right Thing.” We all saw how that’s aged. So, I thought, maybe it’s that, maybe it’s a moment … I also understood times have changed, everything is divisive nowadays, including the release of a movie. That’s kind of what the movie is about, to some extent.”
“We were not really prepared for the level of discourse and the blame for something that didn’t happen— that might happen.” Phillips detailed his experience of the enhanced security surrounding opening weekend: “Joaquin and I went to theaters around New York the night it opened, and there were six cop cars parked outside of every theater. There were armed police in the theaters. We were like, ‘This is what we’re up against? For real?’ But this is something that was created, not to sound like a wacko, but created by the media.”
Phillips also elaborated on how he was “surprised” by the discourse around why Joker does the things he does. “It’s just a movie looking into these things, what’s the harm in that?” Phillips asked. “We all get up in arms about climate change deniers, people who deny science … but do we want to pretend this [violence] doesn’t exist? Do we want to pretend we’re not failing as a human experiment? Why not shine a light on it? What’s the harm in that? The surprising part was how much left-leaning media was attacking the movie for just that. You don’t have the right to make a movie about someone like this when all that ever happens when these things happen is the left starts to go, ‘we need to talk about gun control,’ and what does the right do? They go, ‘Now’s not the time. It’s not the time to have that conversation out of respect for the victims.’ Ok, how about you have it around a movie? Can we have a conversation around the movie? […] Then all of a sudden it got turned into something else by the left, so it was really a confusing time for us.”
Moore expressed dismay that the “fake controversy,” as he put it, clouded out a more nuanced discussion of what he described as “maybe the most political movie of the year.” Because Phillips does not wield a similarly obvious “sledgehammer” in his messaging, Moore opined, audiences missed out on how the film both responds to and emerges from a widespread American malaise. To that end, Phillips described “Joker” as “more humanist than outright political,” also offering that “both sides see it as an indictment of the other side, which speaks to our times more than anything.”
Whether the enthusiastic support of Moore can change the narrative as awards season approaches is anyone’s guess. But if an overflow crowd of guild members who enthusiastically received the film is any indication, there’s a decent chance that we could see yet another chapter in the ever-twisting saga of the ‘Joker’s complicated relationship to the culture at large.
8 weeks into release, “Joker” is still going strong at the box office, currently at $1.022 billion and counting.
Top photo by photographer Niko Tavernise.