Recently speaking with IGN, Joker writer/director Todd Phillips was asked about audience concerns that the DC origin story could end up inspiring violence in others. It's a hot-button issue, given the recent shootings that have taken place in the United States. Set in Gotham City during the early 1980s, the film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed comedian with serious mental health concerns, who sparks a wave of anarchy and crime when his life doesn't turn out the way he had hoped.
“I really think there have been a lot of think pieces written by people who proudly state they haven't even seen the movie and they don't need to,” Phillips said. “I would just argue that you might want to watch the movie, you might want to watch it with an open mind. The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message."
The movie, which takes a much more grounded approach to the beginnings of Batman's greatest nemesis, co-stars the likes of Frances Conroy, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry, Douglas Hodge, Bill Camp, and Shea Whigham.
“It's so, to me, bizarre when people say, ‘Oh, well I could handle it. But imagine if you can't.’ It's making judgments for other people and I don't even want to bring up the movies in the past that they've said this about because it's shocking and embarrassing when you go, oh my God, Do the Right Thing, they said that about [that movie, too]," added the filmmaker best known for helming The Hangover trilogy. “To me, art can be complicated and oftentimes, art is meant to be complicated. If you want uncomplicated art, you might want to take up calligraphy, but filmmaking will always be a complicated art."
IGN also caught up with Phoenix, who put everything he had into the role of Fleck, going so far as to lose over 50 pounds for the character.
“Well, I think that, for most of us, you're able to tell the difference between right and wrong. And those that aren't are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to. People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. So I don't think it's the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that's obvious," the actor said. “I think if you have somebody that has that level of emotional disturbance, they can find fuel anywhere. I just don't think that you can function that way. The truth is, you don't know what is going to be the fuel for somebody. And it might very well be your question. It might be this moment, right? But you can't function in life saying, ‘Well, I can't ask that question for the small chance that somebody might be affected by [it].’ I wouldn't ask you to do that."
While dialogue over the feature's possible violent ramifications will most likely continue into the near future, one theater in Aurora, Colorado, has already decided not to screen it upon opening next weekend. That would be the same theater in which 12 people were killed (and 70 more injured) by a mass shooting that took place during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July of 2012.
"We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe," wrote the family members of those killed in an open letter shared with The Hollywood Reporter. Directed at Warner Bros., the letter calls on the studio to join the push for stronger gun reform.
“Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind,” said the studio in a statement run by Variety. “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero ... Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues."
“It's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for all of us," finished Phoenix. "I think we all are aware of these issues and we're concerned, and I think that's why we talk about it. I don't think that we can be afraid to talk about it. So I understand why you asked that question. But I think the same way that you feel that you need to ask that question and engage in the conversation this way, I think that's how I feel as an actor. And that's all I have to say.”
Co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, Joker opens in theaters everywhere next Friday, Oct. 4. The project was widely praised following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and even took home the event's coveted Golden Lion award. Early box-office predictions say that the film will make anywhere between $82 - $90 million during its first opening weekend — one of the biggest R-rated debuts of all time.