October 10, 2019

'Joker' Director Todd Phillips Breaks Down the Opening Scene

The Joker is the No. 1 movie at the box office and a cultural sensation. How did director Todd Phillips nail the opening scene? 

Unlike some of our other columnists, I spent the money and saw Joker opening weekend. 

The movie is a twisted descent into insanity that follows Arthur Fleck as life treats him like a dog and he succumbs to his more animalistic tendencies and learns to laugh -- as horror beleaguers the city of Gotham. There are parts I liked, parts I didn't, but overall I think superhero movies are better for Joker existing. I think the door is open for new tones and genres, and at the end of the day that means more jobs for us writers and directors.

One thing I did admire about Joker was the direction and cinematography. 

Lucky for us, Todd Phillips recently broke down the opening scene and discussed his tactics when it comes to opening a movie. I think it's a valuable lesson in pacing and tension. So let's diagram what Joker got right. 

Check out the video from Vanity Fair and let's talk more after the jump! 

Todd Phillips, like us, obsesses over the opening shots of his movies. Opening shots and scenes are so crucial to the audience enjoying the story. In fact, the first ten pages are where your story makes or breaks with most studio executives

In Joker, our first scene is the portrait of a man beaten down by life. This is so important to set up right away because the entire world hinges on this slow burn. 

The other cool thing is that this movie tried to shoot practical locations as much as possible. So you're looking at a real place in Harlem. The practical stuff in this movie always gives us a sense of reality and foreboding. It would be refreshing if more comic book films made the effort to go practical. Even with scale. 

Another aspect of the process Phillips dispels in the video is that of Phoenix's Method acting, and that it causes trouble. His anecdotes about people on set laughing and having fun feel genuine. I legitimately would have lost my mind if I was working on Suicide Squad with that iteration of the Joker, where Leto allegedly sent used condoms to fellow cast members. 

The making of this movie feels almost like an indie. Where the crew and cast were a family. 

Vanity Fair's video also touches on the importance of details. Like the sign being upside down and the worn clown shoes. These are details you can build into your screenplays to bring life to the characters, even if they go unnoticed on the screen. They build a vibe and a tone that translates to our story and the people in it. 

Lastly, I want to highlight Phillips' use of mirroring. 

The sequence begins with a slow dolly in, and we end with a slow dolly out. 

This shot mirroring is so special because it plays on us entering and leaving Fleck's state of mind. By always putting us on his level, we constantly are forced to identify with the character. This gives us empathy for his cause, and sets us up to be on his side as shit continues to hit the fan. 

It's a clever way to highlight the sequence of the movie and set us up to follow Arthur for even his most perverse and strange decisions. 

Send in the clown! 

What's next? Write your own epic opening scene

I think we can all agree that when the rewriting process happens, we spend the most time changing the opening ten pages of our feature film. We all know those are the pages where we can hook the reader, where we can promise them a fun romp and introduce them to characters they will remember for a lifetime.

So learn to write them in the best way possible!      

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