Interview: ‘Joker’ Cinematographer Lawrence Sher

❉ Lawrence Sher on the smash hit Joker, what inspires him the most as a visual craftsman, and much more.

Director of Photography Lawrence Sher

Director of Photography Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Garden State, Dan in Real Life, Kissing Jessica Stein) has forged a distinct artistic relationship with writer/director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy, Due Date, War Dogs), and their latest collaboration, the smash hit Joker, has become a lightning rod for controversy, passion, misunderstanding, and derision. But above all else – it’s cemented itself as one of the singular films from 2019 that you must see in order to fully appreciate the discussion. Sher spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about his excitement for the project, what inspires him the most as a visual craftsman, what Joker fans might expect in the near future, and much more.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me again, Larry. I saw the film last week and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s a big accomplishment for you and the entire creative team and I’m just genuinely surprised that a film like this – something this transgressive and different from the norm – was embraced by a major studio, and then has grabbed the public’s fascination in a way that can only be described as mind-blowing. How have the last few weeks been for you?

It’s been crazy! I’m super proud of all of the work we did on the film. Todd Phillips made a great movie and did something very different than what people were likely expecting and it’s thrilling to see it connect so quickly with audiences.

Before we jump into the movie, we should start at the beginning. How did you get your start as a cinematographer? Who or what inspired you to become a visual artist?

I started in a bit of an indirect way.  My dad, a doctor, was an avid amateur nature photographer and gave me his old 1960’s Nikon F to play around with.  I loved it and it started an interest in photography.  In college as an economics major, I was re-awakened to that love of photography after taking a film survey class and then there was no looking back. I remember distinctly reading about the random way legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall became a cameraman, after choosing straws with buddies making a film and it demystified the whole journey in a beautiful way and made it all seem possible.   I spent all my energy learning about motion picture photography and moved to Los Angeles after graduation and wedged my way into the camera department as a loader, and shot any chance I could get. Besides my dad, Conrad Hall, Owen Roizman and Caleb Deschanel were and still great influences and inspirations to me.

 What are some of the first films you can remember seeing that made a big impact on you in terms of how they “looked”? Was there something about a particular film’s visual style that made you pay attention in a new way?

Raging Bull was a very early one.  I just remember so vividly seeing that the camera and its placement to the actors and their place in the frame could really help tell the story – not simply the actors and script.  And then after that, Tootsie – as a comedy that could still be visual and cinematic. Being There as a study in simple elegance, framing, and bold lighting and contrast.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for tone and the energy that camerawork can bring into play in terms of the overall impact of a movie.  The chase and hunt scene is almost silent and the camera plays such a vital role in telling that part of the story.  And finally, Jaws, for how effective and powerful movies can be to a larger audience, and how it introduced me to my love of hand-held camerawork.

Let’s talk about Joker. What was your reaction when you read the script for the first time?

First, I thought it was one of the best scripts I had read in ages.  It had so much power even on the page without an actor to see the juxtapositions and the journey and humanity of this character.  I was very excited to be a part of it and immediately started taking notes in the margins of first visual thoughts that popped into my head.

Did the folks at Warner Brothers actually read the script during the process? This is an edgy film to mass market to a worldwide audience and it feels like a true departure for the genre.

I read a very early draft of the script, and to my knowledge, nothing changed in terms of any of the edgier content being excised. They always knew what we were trying to do – the movie we were all making, or trying to make. They were incredibly supportive of the overall vision, and it’s because Warners has this trust built-up in Todd, all of this goodwill from the previous successes, so there was never any creative pushback. We made it for a price that they were happy with and now look what happened. And that’s what’s so awesome about the entire thing – it was an uncompromised vision and it’s exactly what we set out to make.

So there won’t be a “Director’s Cut” coming out on Blu-ray?

What we released is the “Director’s Cut”! Every movie that I’ve made with Todd – Warners has never messed around with him or his creative process. And we’ve done some dark stuff – from Robert Downey Jr. punching the kid in the stomach in Due Date, to a lot of the stuff in the Hangover sequels which got increasingly more deranged and dark – they’re OK with the complexity. And to me, that’s the most exciting thing, when the studio gets behind the vision. Todd is my most important collaborator in the business, and before Joker we’d shot five other films together. He looks at every movie as a way of pushing the envelope and making his projects as cinematic as possible.

Director of Photography Lawrence Sher and producer/director Todd Phillips

As of this interview, Joker has grossed $712 million dollars worldwide in roughly 20 days. That’s a staggering achievement for a film that doesn’t walk the usual line for a “superhero movie.” But then again, this isn’t really a “superhero movie” in the traditional sense of that phrase.

Wow, that’s just extraordinary to think about – $700 million. I mean, I figured it would make $300-350 million worldwide. We made it for $55-60 million, and then I figured it’d do respectable box-office. Nobody loses their shirt. The studio makes a little money and we all make something that’s more artful. But this response is just insane. And it’s not slowing down any time soon.

Do you think there’ll be a sequel? This doesn’t seem like the sort of pre-planned trilogy that nearly everything gets these days, and I believe I’ve heard comments suggesting that nobody signed long-term contracts.

I mean, look, the film is doing huge business. They’ll end up throwing a lot of money at those guys and it’ll be hard for them to say no. But no, this was never conceived as a trilogy of films, and I don’t think that Todd or Joaquin would have signed on to do it if the studio was simply interested in creating some sort of immediate franchise. But now that it’s a massive hit, there’s some vindication to the entire project. But the real reason I think there will be a sequel is because of how much Joaquin loved playing the character. He would have kept filming for as long as possible and he was so committed to the role – it was extraordinary to witness.

Did he go all “method” on everyone during filming, with staying “in-character” when the cameras weren’t turned on?

No – and that’s the other thing – he was his usual self in between takes. He’s able to turn it off and be “normal” when we’re not filming, so it’s even more exciting to see him go from zero to 60 in terms of his creative process. I’ve never seen anything like it before on any other show I’ve done. And going back to Joaquin’s process – he was just fully there during every moment. You felt his pain while watching him on-set and I think that’s what really gets under people’s skin about the performance.

And that’s something that not a lot of people realize, either. A lot of rightful emphasis is placed on the actor when he or she does something fully transformative with their performance. But it’s the cinematographer’s job to look through that view-finder, or watch on those monitors, the intricacies of the performance and how it’s interacting with light and texture and composition. So by doing your job, you’re becoming fully intimate with these performances. And when they go to the dark side…

Exactly – it’s tough and exhausting and yet at the same time, it’s extremely rewarding when you’re in the middle of seeing something special happen right there in the room. When you have those moments were you’re least expecting something magical to happen, and then they do. Those are the instances when you realize that you are making “art” – and I don’t want to sound pretentious – but honestly, it’s what we’re doing, or trying to do, every day – make something that’s both commercial and artful at the same time. 

Before Joker, would you have considered yourself a “DC guy” or a “Marvel guy”?

Neither! To be totally honest, I was neither. Superhero stuff has never been “my thing” and outside of the Christopher Nolan films – his Dark Knight trilogy – and the last couple of Avengers movies, I really haven’t paid much attention. I love how heavy and cinematic the Nolan films were and how he made it an emotional journey for the hero.

Who are some of the filmmakers that are currently working whom you admire the most?

There are so many great people making movies right now, and you always want that feeling of exhilaration when you leave the theater. For me, guys like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino are making films I really respond to. The first time I saw Magnolia I was overwhelmed and I knew I had to immediately see it again. There Will Be Blood is one of the most well executed films I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Pulp Fiction – life changing.

So what was it that made Joker so exciting for you?

I think it’s because we were truly making a character study. It was a chance to do something radical within a known genre, and I think to subvert those expectations that people have for a movie like this – it makes people excited and gets people talking. It was always going to be extremely grounded and done in a very realistic mold, and we absolutely wanted to evoke that disgruntled loner spirit. We really got the chance to do something significant but also with the safety of knowing it was a Joker movie, and that it was something that people would be waiting for.

When did you think you were “on to something” during production?

You know, when Todd released that little make-up and hair teaser, and the response it engendered – that’s when we really understood the magnitude of what we were setting out to do. We knew that photographers were going to be all over us during production looking to get snaps of Joaquin, so we wanted to control the narrative a bit with the release of information. You always want to take a big swing in a big ball park, and it’s always best to be super passionate about what you’re doing, and also, to face some level of pressure. Pressure it good – pressure makes diamonds.

Before we get into the technical side of our discussion, much has recently been made over “how much is real” during the course of the rather twisted narrative that Joker presents. Because we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, there are many interpretations as to the final outcome of the story, and I’m just wondering, are you able to offer any conclusive or definitive word on “what really happened,” or is that an aspect to the film that isn’t of major concern for you?

I’m not going to elaborate any further other than to say that I certainly have my own personal point of view about what’s real and what’s not real – what Arthur Fleck’s reality truly is. But I’m not going to step in the mud of someone else’s point of view, or how they perceived the story to be unfolding. That’s the genius to the script that Todd and Scott Silver wrote – you can view the movie multiple times under the guise of various endings and outcomes. And the other thing I love about the project is – how do you make an origin story to a character who literally has no backstory? And then to throw in the unreliable narrator aspect, it all very much comes together.

Someone I know pointed out that Joker has some visual call-outs to The Man Who Laughs – was that ever discussed during any point of the production?

No, that one never came up with me. Maybe Todd had some ideas kicking around from it, but he never brought that one up to me. We really just wanted the film to feel handmade. Something that I was inspired by for Joker was the way Nolan established his sense of “world building” through aerial shots in The Dark Knight Rises, how he changed Manhattan and Brooklyn in subtle ways. That film has a massive sense of physicality, and while we weren’t shooting on that type of level, I wanted to make everything feel real and tangible. The aerial shots in The Dark Knight Rises were certainly used as key points of visual reference for us. And Mark Friedberg, our production designer, he did an extraordinary job.

One can rattle off some of the inspirations that can be felt throughout Joker – those instances that bring to mind Taxi Driver, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The King of Comedy, Death Wish, and The French Connection. Was there something you guys really latched on to during production?

You know, it’s funny, we didn’t really hone in on any-one-thing in particular. There was definitely discussion of Taxi Driver, but we just wanted it to feel cut from the same cloth as those films you reference, and others from that time period. We wanted it to feel like a movie from that time period, and less like a modern approximation of what that time period looked and felt like. And really – because we knew that so many people were waiting for this movie – we wanted to make it as distinctive as possible.

I want to talk about your depiction of Thomas Wayne’s murder. This is of course one of the most iconic moments in the lore of Batman, that moment when Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed. And in nearly every other version of the story, Thomas Wayne is shown as this idealistic and progressive and honorable man. And in Joker, well, he’s basically a stand-in for Donald Trump. So, when that moment arrives, it carries a different sense of meaning. How did you approach that pivotal and oft-filmed sequence?

Ha! Well, you know, yes, we made Thomas Wayne an asshole in the movie, and we wanted the sociopolitical context to feel immediate and of the moment. I researched all of the different versions of the Thomas Wayne murder sequence on YouTube. It was really the only scene perhaps where we wanted to make a nod to the previous versions but also make it our own and new – otherwise why do it at all? We really wanted it to feel violent and visceral, but at the same time, it has to have some emotional undercurrent, because it is about a young boy witnessing the murder of his parents.

One big thing about the visual approach to Joker that I noticed – and just on a solo viewing – is how there’s very little unmotivated camera movement. Everything has a very clear and precise sense of itself, and I was wondering, how locked in to your ideas were you before you got to the set or location?

We were always trying to be as artful and as simple as possible. We did lean heavily on a more graphic novel approach to the visuals in this movie, and less the traditional comic-book or superhero route, and every day, if possible, our goal was to create four or five frames that could tell the story purely in visual terms with no words. And in terms of preparation, yes, we always arrived on the day with something specific in mind, but we’re always open to new ideas that spontaneously occur.

Did you have the feeling that Joaquin’s dancing on the steps would become the film’s signature moment?

No. It was certainly a scene that we had a lot of discussion about because of how important it was to the arc of his character and this celebration he was having over the embrace of his true darker self.  But in the heat of shooting it, no, we had no idea. That was shot near the end of the shoot, during the last three or four days of production, and because of that, there were all of these other shots and things we needed to get accomplished before we ran out of time. We had paparazzi on top of buildings, trying to snap pictures of Joaquin, and we’re trying to keep the secret of the film, to maintain that sense of mystique. And we were never trying to be precious or indulgent – it was scripted one way and then Joaquin took it to the level that he went to. We never had time to pat ourselves on the back because we were all working so hard, and we never knew that moment would become what it’s become.

Since you’ve started working with Todd as his main director of photography, you can see the visual progression from film to film. I’ve long said that he has one of the best eyes for style in terms of big-budget comedy directors, and honestly, many studio comedies are notorious for being visually flat and harshly lit. You guys favor bold, saturated colors and 2.35:1/2.40:1 widescreen. But in Joker, you restrained your palette and went with the 1.85:1 format – why did you decide on that aspect ratio? Was it to accommodate IMAX screens in a more conducive way?

Honestly, it was just what felt right for the project. Very early on, we looked at each other and we both said: “1.85.” It was just the intuition that we had and I think it was a smart decision. It makes it a more intimate viewing experience in that format. And we went with a lot of close-up photography.

Yes, the use of close-ups in Joker is striking.

I knew I’d be using lots of close-ups because ultimately it’s a movie about extremes and you really want to get the audience invested in Joaquin’s performance, and the trauma that Arthur Fleck is facing. And there’s no better way to do that than with the use of close-ups and extreme close-ups. You can peer into the mind of the character a bit more, and Todd and I wanted to use all the tricks in our arsenal to make it a very intimate and visceral experience for the audience to be on this ride with this main character.

How do you respond to those people out there who have called the film “irresponsible”?

Listen, art is always subject to debate, but I can tell you this – it’s not an irresponsible movie. It’s a film that has a strong viewpoint with a message about society, and we’re never celebrating this character’s more despicable actions. There’s no glorifying violence here – we wanted this film to feel ugly and born from rot. But you should watch the film and experience it before being able to comment on it.

Yes, there was a ton of early hype and nonsense in the media about the film being a harbinger for theater-shootings and it was almost as if journalists in the media, and certain news outlets, wanted there to be a shooting, so that they could feel justified in writing and publishing these click-bait stories which get shared around on social media.

Yes, there’s definitely some of that at play, and I don’t think we made a dangerous movie. And as I said earlier, Warners supported us the entire time, never asking us to soften or cheapen anything. And they’ve always been a “director first” studio. They’re the ones who released A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers and Falling Down and movies of that sort – they are used to controversy and they knew that we were making something substantial and of merit.

Now that Joker is out there for the world to see it, what’s the end result of the production experience?

It was thrilling. It’s the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had making a film and just watching Joaquin work every day was a treat. I’d go home and tell my wife about whatever scene it was that we were shooting that day and I’d tell her how mesmerizing he was to be watching in action. And we didn’t do a ton of takes, usually two or three, sometimes four at maximum, and each time, Joaquin brought something new to the table creatively which made the experience even more rewarding. I’m thrilled that the film has gotten the response it’s gotten, and it’s obvious that it’s struck a chord with viewers and that we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Larry, I can’t thank you enough for your time – this has been such a treat to talk with you about this movie. Congratulations on everything.

Thank you so much, it really has been a fantastic time with making this film and now seeing it become a massive success. That doesn’t occur every time out.

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

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