HFPA in Conversation: Todd Phillips Likes Capturing Mayhem

by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros October 2, 2019
Director Todd Phillips

armando gallo/hfpa

Todd Phillips has unknowingly worked towards Joker his entire career.

“I think that’s a good way of putting it.  It has all lead me to Joker, for good or for bad.  I started doing documentaries when I was 21.  The first one I called Hated.  It was about this punk rock singer we made in New York.  And in a weird way if you just looked at Hated and then just looked at Joker it makes sense,” he tells HFPA journalist Gabriel Lerman.

Over two decades went by between those two projects.  Phillips acted, directed, wrote scripts, produced – mostly comedies.  Borat brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2007 and two years later his The Hangover won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. “I enjoy doing comedies.  But something changed in the world wherein the last few years where for me comedies are always based on truth and truth has become offensive in the last few years and it’s hard to be funny when truth is offensive.”

He thought he could do something else – and that something else was Joker. “The idea was always of what would it look like if you did an origin story of a villain where the villain is the hero in the beginning and you root for him until you can’t root for him anymore?  Don’t forget it’s called the Joker and part of it to us writing it was the joke of it meaning the trick of it, the illusion of it.  We want you to feel for this guy, we want you to invest in this guy and then we want you to question it.”

Working with lead actor Joaquin Phoenix was exciting. “Since a young age, I’ve been attracted to mayhem and this idea that anything can happen.  I like capturing it.  And there is something really exciting about working with an actor like Joaquin and quite frankly working with a lot of the comedy actors I’ve worked with.  You get Will Ferrell in a scene or you get Zach Galifianakis in a scene and there’s this feeling that anything can happen and that’s always an exciting thing on the set of a movie.”

For Phillips, movies are made three times.  “You make a movie when you write it and you see that movie in your head.  Then you go and direct an entirely different movie than the one you saw in your head because everything changes when you’re on set and you have Joaquin and you have all these other great actors.  And then you remake the movie in the editing room.  They’re all different but I would say on this movie the magic happened on set because Joaquin is magic and there’s just nobody like him.”

Listen to the podcast and hear how he felt when he won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival; why manipulating is important while directing a documentary or a movie; what is the one thing that is easier in comedy than drama; how comedy has changed in the last couple of years; why he decided to write and direct a drama; wether he will ever go back to comedy; why he had to drop out of NYU; how he financed his first documentary; why two different deaths were associated with the story of Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies; why he sepnt time talking with a serial killer; who has been his mentors; how was it working at Kim’s Video Store and what he learned about movies while working there; how photography helped him with documentaries; what he would have done if Joaquin Phoenix declined to play the Joker; why the bathroom scene in Joker was unique; why it was easy to edit Joaquin’s scenes; why he has been hanging out with Hulk Hogan; how he would like the studio system to change and how he reacted when he met Robert De Niro for the first time.