INTERVIEW: ‘Joker’ Cinematographer Lawrence Sher
Whether you love or hate Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker, most of us agree that it looks and sounds pretty fantastic. The costume design by Mark Bridges (known for his work with PTA, including Phantom Thread), the production design by Mark Friedberg (The Ice Storm, Far From Heaven, If Beale Street Could Talk and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic) and the stunning score by Hildur Gudnadottir combine with the cinematography by regular Phillips collaborator Lawrence Sher to create a convincingly gritty late 70s New York, influenced more by Scorcese than other superhero or comic book movies. Sher has already worked on one completely different 2019 release; Godzilla – King of the Monsters and we took the opportunity to discuss with him going from that to Joker, the influences on Joker (including Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer) and working with Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro.
JC: You went straight from Godzilla – King of the Monsters to Joker and both show off a brilliantly vibrant aesthetic, but in very different ways. What was your initial process for creating the colour palette for Joker?
LS: I think a large part of the colour palette for Joker was driven by the reality of my memory of what cities were back in the 70s and early 80s. So, for me a large part of that was all the mixed lights that existed in the real world, when you’re looking at 30-40 years ago and those mixed lights are really the four main colour palettes of Joker . I just tried to make those drive the story maybe a little bit more overtly than I would if I was going for something super subtle. Not to say I was trying to be showy in any way, but more let the colours have a vibrancy in the movie because I like colour, I like mixing colour in movies and certainly, given the nature of the fact that this was a movie that lived, even if it was tangentially, in the comic book space, I wasn’t afraid of letting those colours shine. Those colours really are this deep orange (everything had a bit of green in it) but there’s an ugly orange that exists from the streetlights, the sodium vapour look, then you have the cyan of uncorrected flourescent tubes. Then you have the mixed light of just natural light, dusk blue and pumpkin bulbs that are in his house and then mixed with this uncorrected green that exists in the traditional world of the subway bathrooms, that kind of thing. And then mixing those throughout the movie, the only clean colour that exists in the movie exists in and around the Wayne family, in the rich world that he lives in.
JC: One of your early experiences as DP was on Garden State, which has such a strong look again, in terms of costume and production design. When you’re shooting a film that has such a strong visual style, does that make your job easier or harder, would you say?
LS: That’s a really good question. More fun, I think I would say? Maybe it’s more creatively satisfying, you know, when you’re on a movie in which it’s important that it has a visual language that can be slightly more towards the forefront. One of the things about Joker is because the movie is so singularly about the character of Arthur Fleck and later Joker, you have a lot of scenes in which it’s one person existing within a space, maybe two people, so if you’re servicing a lot of heavy dialogue scenes or maybe you’re servicing scenes that drive comedy to the forefront, more action to the forefront, those are going to make the decisions for you. When you’re dealing with an internal character study like this and similarly, in a way to Garden State which you brought up, it allows for more meditative and lyrical film-making. So it gives the cinematographer more of an opportunity to create more of a visual language. Interestingly enough, Garden State and Joker have one thing in common. Which is that every single scene and every character you meet is through the lead character, no scenes exist outside of that character, that character is in every single scene and that’s pretty unique.
JC: You’ve kind of touched on this, but was there a conscious effort to try and differentiate the look of Joker, compared to other films in the superhero or comic book genre?
LS: Not overtly trying to differentiate them, outside of the fact that Todd and I have our own style. So by our nature, we’re going to make something that’s more our style than a style that has already been established on some of those other movies. So there wasn’t anything where we set out to specifically say “this is what those movies are doing and we’re going to do it differently” we just set out to make the movie that was in our head. And we hoped that it would stand out simply because we were making our own movie. But it definitely wasn’t something where we consciously tried to differentiate from those movies. The biggest outlier to our movie verses some of those others is we were telling this very internal character study and a lot of those movies aren’t necessarily working in that space. Maybe more with a movie like Logan or some of those that maybe feel like they’re delving more into the internal struggle of the character over the course of the whole movie, verses some of the other pieces of storytelling that they have to service.
JC: What was like working with Phoenix, who is known for sometimes making on-the-fly character decisions or improvising and how did that effect the way that you had to work?
LS: For me, it was the most thrilling experience I’ve ever had working with an actor because every single day and every moment that we would shoot was so unpredictable and so filled with danger, in a way. I just never wanted to look away. And that unpredictably and that sense that every take you had the possibility of seeing something totally different kept everybody on their toes. For me, I liked that style. Todd has always created an atmosphere where there’s a lot of flexibility and I think, having done six movies with Todd, this was an extension of that, maybe going to the 2.0 version. We really needed, every day to set up an environment in which we could be totally flexible, throw everything out, give Joaquin and Todd the biggest pallette which they could move within and try not to limit their space. For me, it’s something I quite enjoy even though it can provide challenges to the cinematographer because of it not being crazy precise in the way that we were lighting or you don’t necessarily know where the actor was going to be in the space, there were no marks for the technical crew like focus pullers. But I loved it because it’s just makes everything feel really fresh and immediate and you stay very present, every moment you’re making the movie and Joaquin was certainly the most present actor I’ve ever seen, so it was an absolute thrill making the movie with Joaquin and yeah, it was amazing.
JC: You mentioned there working with the director many times before, presumably you’ve developed a shorthand between you by now? You mentioned that Joker was a development of your process and your style together – could you expand on that a bit more?
LS: Yeah this is my sixth film in eleven years with Todd. One of the things I admired in him early on was that he can be very prepared and have a very specific point-of-view of what he wants, be very decisive and yet he’s also simultaneously extremely flexible and willing to shift as he sees the scene develop. So if we were going down a path and the scene wasn’t quite working or he maybe felt that there was an energy thing that wasn’t quite there, he’d be really quick to shift and find a better plan within the day. That made me recognise that the most important thing I could do to service his films as DP was to provide him with as much flexibility as possible and to always be aware that at any moment we could shift the plan. So I think that over the course of making these movies, I didn’t just recognise that that was a possibility, it almost became part of the plan. Todd would say film-making isn’t math, it’s not science, it’s jazz. There’s a certain level of putting all these pieces in place and then you’re jamming and kind of discovering the music as you play it. I always loved that expression and so that has become part of our process. More and more, the second-hand that we have with each other manifests itself in the way that we would make the movie sometimes very improvisationally. Often I would light the space for a scene and understand that this would maybe take place in the kitchen, but it would also maybe drift into the living room and then we would discover the film in real time, as we made it. So, I was operating one of the cameras, my A operator was on the other camera and we would just go into the room sometimes and we just start discovering the scene with Joaquin in real time. I found that to be exciting and really fulfilling because it’s like playing a sport in real time or like we said with jazz, it’s not so planned out. So this movie consequently has a very handmade feel to it, even though it’s working within the construct of a studio movie. It’s something that has to obviously not just exist within this micro-indie world but it has to tell a story that has enough importance and size and scope that is worthy of the venue that we’re trying to show it in.
JC: What films and other influences (not just within the film world) did you and the director discuss prior to shooting to layout the aesthetic you were looking for?
LS: It’s interesting, a lot of the films we referenced were films that we would talk about and maybe sometimes we would watch, only to discover that they weren’t the film that we wanted to make. So in a weird way, there were all films that maybe had tonal things that we were referencing or story and other things like whether it was King of Comedy or Taxi Driver or Dog Day Afternoon or Straight Time, so we constantly referenced things but then after we got closer to looking to say “could that become the template for the movie’s look?” We would always say “no, we love it, it’s great, I like this element of it but it’s not the movie, it’s not the movie…” And we’d just keep saying that. But I think that, a lot like when you look at locations that don’t work on a movie when you’re scouting. It’s often the ones that don’t work that inform you the most about what you’re looking for. I think it was a constant path of looking at things for what the movie isn’t, until we were actually making the movie and then we knew that was what the movie wanted to be. With all the things we’d discovered it wasn’t, if that makes sense? [JC: It’s a process of elimination] That’s right, yeah. Sometimes I’d find some references for myself that I’d be really intrigued with and then I’d show it to Todd and he’d be like; “what the hell? no!” and yet they still were influences for me.
I got really obsessed with Killing of a Sacred Deer . I think it’s similar in a way to when people say “oh it’s like Taxi Driver” it’s really that it’s a movie about a disaffected person who is seeking or trying to…..whatever the tonal things that Taxi Driver may have in common to Joker. But I think what I was interested in in something like Killing of a Sacred Deer was the way that the frame and the music and the tone provided tension. Because this movie is a lot about tension, it’s about twisting a rubber band until it snaps or boiling water, it’s that kind of tension and I think that movie was intriguing to me for all the reasons that provided that tension, albeit one that is a hard movie to watch. So, I’ll find inspiration from all kinds of things, you know. I definitely sought out inspiration from other movies, I do a lot of image-grabbing, I actually developed a website just to do this research. I definitely draw from other sources, but a lot of that is to feed the brain for the dreams at night, to keep feeding the brain with imagery. So when you come to make the movie, you’ve ingested a lot of ideas and then you can set out to make something that’s your own, but it’s probably filled with all kinds of memories that you’ve had over the course of prep.
JC: How was it creating the studio for the 1970s TV show, with the lighting and the look for the Murray Franklin Show? And I also have to ask – how was working with De Niro?
LS: Well for me, I was an Economics Major in college and when I got really into film my last two years there and really knew I was never gonna go to Wall Street, I was never going to work in Economics, I was going to try and become a cameraman. I remember literally watching Raging Bull over and over again and writing down the speech he does at the end, when he’s performing in that club. So to work with De Niro was like working with somebody who is much larger than life. It was thrilling, to say the least.
Replicating that studio was really fun. Those kind of sets are really fun because you can really go anthropological and use a lot of research to try to be as authentic as possible. One of the things we set out to do in this movie as a whole was to set out to use as much of the old technology as we could. So we were using sodium vapour, we were actually changing the bulbs over, I did use a little bit of LED technology but very little. And on the Murray Franklin Show, I tried to use nothing that wasn’t authentic to that actual time period, so that was really fun because we could actually research Johnny Carson from the day and even Dave Letterman and Murray Griffin and any of the talk shows of that era. We could study them for how they looked, where the cameras were set up and what the lighting plans might have been, what the type of units they used, as far as the actual fixtures, how the backstage might be set up. The only regret I have of that set is we literally built a TV studio, all the way up, literally from the balcony, where the audience is, to the backstage and I just wish we had spent a week and shot a bunch of fake Murray Franklin talk show episodes because it’s such a waste! I was like; “this is amazing! We should actually exploit this for more than just ten minutes on this movie” because we really created basically the exact replica of a TV show from the late 70s/early 80s.