Despite spending four years working in some capacity developing Joker -- director Todd Phillips' controversial blockbuster about the origins of Batman's nemesis -- producer Martin Scorsese ultimately decided not to direct the film.
As audiences know, Joaquin Phoenix's gritty take on the Clown Prince of Crime is inspired by and borrows from such Scorsese classics as The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver (especially the former). And the idea of Scorsese making his first comic book movie, despite his divisive comments about the artistic merits of Marvel's, is worthy of the admission price alone. So why did he abandon the project before it got the greenlight in 2018? His answer may surprise you.
"I know the film very well. I know [director Todd Phillips] very well," Scorsese said in an interview with the BBC (via IndieWire). "My producer, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, produced it. I thought about it a lot over the last four years and decided I did not have the time for it. It was personal reasons why I didn’t get involved. But I know the script very well. It has a real energy and Joaquin. You have remarkable work."
By the time Joker started shooting, Scorsese had likely moved on to prepping The Irishman -- his long-gestating gangster epic that struggled to find a budget that made sense for then-distributor Paramount Pictures before Netflix stepped in with a budget reportedly in the $150 to $180 million range.
Despite the director tackling violent and complex characters like Travis Bickle and the Goodfellas gang, Phoenix's Arthur Fleck/Joker -- a mentally-ill and unsuccessful comedian who becomes Gotham City's most infamous criminal -- proved to be a struggle. Scorsese's primary pain point with the comic book character was the turn when Fleck becomes a comic book character.
"For me, ultimately, I don’t know if I make the next step into this character developing into a comic book character. You follow? He develops into an abstraction. It doesn’t mean it’s bad art, it’s just not for me… The superhero films, as I’ve said, are another art form. They are not easy to make. There’s a lot of very talented people doing good work and a lot of young people really, really enjoy them."
What You Can Learn
Even filmmakers as character-driven and successful as Scorsese can bump into things that they ultimately are unable to find a way "in" that justifies the production commitment. Even though the Oscar-winner spent four years in the film's development orbit, he knew it was "okay" to jump ship and refocus his energies where they would be better serviced for him.
As painful as it is to know we came this close to a comic book movie being released with "A Martin Scorsese Picture" credit, no one wants a director -- or themselves -- to invest the time and care space into making something their hearts are not fully in. Don't be afraid to walk away, no matter what level you are at in your career. It's how and why you walk away that matters, not what you walk away from.
Joker is in theaters now.