Lawrence Sher has worked on variety of movies over his 30-year career as a cinematographer and director of photography: critically acclaimed independent hit (Garden State), blockbuster comedy franchise (The Hangover trilogy), tentpole monster movie (Godzilla: King of the Monsters), etc. It’s an eclectic resume.
His latest film, Joker, is arguably the most controversial mainstream film of 2019, polarizing audiences before, during, and after its wide release. Coincidence or not, it also happens to be among his most successful work both critically and commercially. Joker earned more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office while netting Sher his first Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. Even the film’s harshest critics have acknowledged the artistry within the immaculately realized world he and director Todd Phillips have created.
Sher is no stranger to success; his long track record of hit comedies could put several generations through college. But entering the highly scrutinized world of comic book material—in an era when fandoms are notoriously harsh to those tackling their favorite properties—presented a different challenge than, say, rom-coms such as I Love You, Man and Dan in Real Life.
The cinematographer recently chatted with Observer about how he approached this origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime, his rapport with Phillips, and why he didn’t set out to make a comic book movie at all.
Observer: Joker revolves around Arthur’s metamorphosis. How did you go about reflecting his inner journey with visual language?
Sher: I attack every movie probably similar to the way an actor or the director attacks it: just basically go through scene by scene and try to create an emotional arc, then create for yourself visual rules that can help bring the audience along on that emotional journey. In large part, the first act is all about making a connection to Arthur, because even going into the movie, everyone knows eventually this person is going to turn to a place of darkness and violence. So it was really important for us to make sure the audience connects with him first and foremost as a human being.
Particularly in the opening five or six scenes, we went more on longer lenses. In large part, you’re able to see him as one person in a sea of many, and slightly invisible at that. That doesn’t mean it’s projected into every shot, but that was an overarching philosophy. If you think about the opening scene of how we find him in Gotham Square, we’re shooting through people. We’re shooting from across the street, far away. I’ve always felt like those longer lens perspectives serve an almost voyeuristic view into a person’s life and to some extent can make you feel more like a fly on the wall. The perspective and the psychological effect that has on the audience, I think, at least by proxy, is to see him in a bigger world as slightly invisible in the same way that we walk by people all the time and don’t see them, particularly people with mental illness.
Then, think about the scene when he’s dealing with the signs. The first time we’re in a wider lens, physically closer to Arthur, is only after the kids beat him up and run away, and that’s the first time we’re telling the audience that when we are alone with Arthur, this is the camera perspective that we are privileged to be in. That’s when we’re wider and closer to him as the camera pulls back when he’s on the ground nursing his wounds. So when Arthur is with the world at large, we try to see him small within that world with longer lenses and then the empathy and the connection with Arthur really comes once we’ve reached his apartment with his Mom and that’s when we start to go to more wider lenses, more connected lenses with him.
What else did you discuss in terms of the visual approach to the movie before production actually began?
One thing, early on in the prep of the movie, that Todd and I discussed is our shadow self. The fact that we have a shadow that follows us around each day, but what if the shadow was the real person we were meant to be? In Arthur and Joker’s world, the shadow is kind of his destiny, the darker side of himself, the side that’ll become his true face. The other side is the façade, the mask that he puts on for the outside world, the face that is smiling but is hiding darkness underneath that is waiting to come out. When we said that, sort of offhandedly six months before we shot, it really held onto me. With all filmmaking, you’re searching for little things to help guide the principles of the visuals and the principles that you’re going to tell the story.
From a psychological standpoint, was it difficult to present Arthur’s isolation and yet still bring the audience in enough to connect with the character?
It’s interesting because we didn’t set out to make a “comic book movie.” I don’t even know what that means really, but we’ve been inundated with twenty-something Marvel movies, a half dozen DC movies, so I think we now have a perception of what a quote-unquote “comic book movie” is. The only thing we did say was that we’re not making a movie in the vein of those movies. It just wasn’t our intent.
Our intent was to make this psychological study of a man and his metamorphosis. Early on, I didn’t really reference any movie or comic books, but I did flip through the pages of the graphic novel The Killing Joke. I remember thinking that the cool thing about comics and graphic novels was that they are about imagery that has to sustain an emotion in a frame, because there is no motion to the pictures. It doesn’t have movement. They have to evoke a certain emotion just in an image, and they can say a lot of words around that image, but each image has to have a lot of power.
I made a mental note to myself that one of the things we could do with Joker was, if we could do it right, make it in a way that felt very true to the emotional connection people have when they are into comics and graphic novels. They bring their emotions in a frame and we could create a series of really evocative frames in this movie. We knew it wasn’t going to be action-packed. It’s very meditative and so the camera movement is very slow, the composition and the framing and the lighting and all those things could possibly help draw the characters in even more.
So using the visual language of the comic book medium for the film was intentional?
It’s funny—it was more intentional for me than perhaps overt conversation with Todd. Todd and I, our number one thing always is, whatever we do, we want to do it with intent, but we never want to feel self-conscious. We never want to feel like we’re making something that is trying too hard to make a statement. So everything we do we hide under the shade of something that hopefully is a bit more subtle.
Even this idea of the graphic novel…Frankly, I never even talked to Todd about it. I just knew that the movie, because it was a movie that was more meditative, it provided opportunities for that. It was more something I looked for each day and thought perhaps this movie could be the kind of thing where you can pause on a still and you know exactly what’s happening to Arthur in that frame. You feel his pain and you could feel his journey even through those stills.
I assume that a movie of this scale has to be planned out. How do you balance that with something like the bathroom scene, which was reportedly improvised?
That, I think, comes specifically from working with Todd on six different movies. We talk about, scene-to-scene, the intent of the scene emotionally. We come in very specifically with an idea about that. But I’ve been working with Todd now for so many years, he’s really good about recognizing that the plan is only working if it’s working. You’ll recognize something is not quite as good as it should be based on your plan. Joker was a really cool combination for us, working on that philosophy of no rehearsals, just feel it out with the actor, but also some scenes that are very planned out.
Famously with the bathroom scene, we shot early in the shoot, within the first 10 days. You want to plan everything because you want to get off to a good start and you put some of the ideas forward so you can see if it sticks. But there, I remember there was a feeling that what we had planned for the scene didn’t really make sense anymore so let’s throw a camera in there and see what happens. He’s gonna come in, he’s gonna close the door and then just between our A operator, who is amazing, and Joaquin [Phoenix], let’s just let them figure it out in real time. What you see in the movie is the first take, maybe the second take. We didn’t do that many takes and they were all in the same vein.
It’s exciting for me, it’s exciting for the operator, it’s exciting for Joaquin to know, if I do something, it’s being captured. We’re not gonna do it in a rehearsal and then have to try to figure out how to get back there when it really counts for real. So certainly over the latter half of shooting the movie I think we really got into this idea of more free-form, figuring stuff out with Joaquin and just letting things happen. It was great. I love that kind of stuff.
Obviously there’s a fair bit of the movie that takes place within Arthur’s mind. Did you use any visual clues to differentiate between what is real and what is fantasy?
The conscious choice was to not put a bunch of clues in there, particularly visually, because we wanted there to be a certain level of interpretation for the audience. We didn’t want to tell the audience everything especially because the Joker, even in the comics and other places in the past, is an unreliable narrator. He lies, he tells stories. We didn’t want to give away more of the clues.
But there are subtle things we did as far as loose rules. We wanted it to be so subtle that you would barely even notice it. We have a lot of handheld stuff in the movie because we love it but we also use techniques—cranes, dollies, all this stuff, steadicam. But we did sort of say, with the Sophie and Arthur relationship, which obviously is proven to be a fantasy in his mind later in the story, there will be no handheld with Sophie and Arthur to represent. So all we need is steadicam one and dolly once he’s gone into this fantasy boat. When he’s talking with her inside the elevator, it’s actually a very quiet handheld, but once he goes outside and he does that thing where he puts the gun to his head and laughs and all that, that’s now back on the dolly. Even when he comes to the door, we’re handheld previous to that, and the the door knocks and we walk back to the door, now that’s steadicam. So little, subtle things like that with that relationship.
Were there any shots you were particularly proud of that didn’t make it into the final cut?
There’s one shot that I remember—when we shot it, I remember thinking, “Aw man, I love this shot.” It was when we filmed Arthur getting fired over the phone in the telephone booth. It was just a lovely little scene. We shot it under the Brooklyn Bridge, we shot it at dusk, he’s in this little phone booth with yellow light over him, and so we shot with two cameras as we often do, and we were on a technocrane that started really far back and ever so slowly pushed in all the way to that shot where he cracks his head on the glass and it was like a “Wow” moment.
Now, in retrospect, of course I understand why Todd didn’t use it because it was actually quite long. The scene right now, let’s say, is a minute. This was maybe two-and-a-half minutes or three minutes, because he’s expressing how much he loves his job and please don’t do this. He’s almost begging him not to fire him because he really wants his job, he needs his job. It’s heartbreaking. It’s a lovely scene. It starts really wide when you see the world of Gotham with all the garbage and the hookers and the police cars and there’s all this information that you see. Then it pushes all the way into that closeup to when he cracks his head on the glass.
This interview has been edited and condensed.