'Joker': How copyright struggles and awkward clown shoes shaped Joaquin Phoenix's twisted look

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker. (Warner Bros.)
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker. (Warner Bros.)

There are a lot of clowns in the world, as it turns out, and they’re pretty protective of their appearances.

Perhaps surprisingly, copyright was the main challenge faced by the crew members tasked with creating the unique look for Joaquin Phoenix’s comedian-turned-criminal Arthur Fleck in director Todd Phillips’ hard-edged comic book movie Joker. Despite the best part of 60 years of comic book and big screen history and expectation, from the iconic purple suit and green hair of Cesar Romero through to the terrifying grunge of Heath Ledger, it was actually the risk of legal action from other, real-life clowns that presented the biggest challenge.

“We would often submit things to the legal department and they would say 'no, it looks too much like this, or this',” says costume designer Mark Bridges.

Make-up designer Nicki Ledermann shares his woes, adding: “There are so many different clowns and they're all under copyright and therefore we are not allowed to use them.”

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The process of Joker was always going to be iterative, say Bridges and Ledermann, finding the sweet spot between achieving a unique vision for arguably the most famous villain in comic book history, while also paying respect to the fans who know the actor better even than any warden at Arkham Asylum.

To the tune of more than a billion box office dollars — the most profitable comic book movie ever — they came through in a big way.

Cinematographer Lawrence Sher, Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips on the set of 'Joker'. (Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros)
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher, Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips on the set of 'Joker'. (Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros)

More than most characters in gritty, violent dramas, Arthur Fleck and his criminal alter ego are make-up and costume-driven affairs. Ledermann concedes that this meant “the pressure was definitely on” when they started work on constructing the look for Phoenix.

She says: “You want to please everybody and you want to do something wonderful and unique. You don't want to fail because you don't want to let down your actor, your director or the other departments you collaborate so closely with.”

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Bridges says the design of any character “evolves” throughout the development process, with his original design for Arthur Fleck’s already iconic Joker coat taking a different shape to the one that was ultimately depicted on screen. He said his biggest headache was trying to create clown shoes for the early scenes in which Fleck portrays a jobbing clown called Happy.

Joaquin Phoenix as Happy in <i>Joker</i>. (Warner Bros.)
Joaquin Phoenix as Happy in Joker. (Warner Bros.)

He says: “I knew he had to run after those kids at the beginning when they steal his sign and I was a little nervous about whether Joaquin would be able to run in these huge clown shoes. He used to take his shoes to choreography practice and work with them. He had an amazing stuntman too and they both learned how to run in the shoes.”

Phoenix was fortunately able to stay on his feet and the design of the Joker costume has quickly achieved a cult following, with it effectively becoming the costume of choice for this year’s Halloween festivities.

Cosplayers in character as the Joker at MCM London Comic Con 2019 on October 26, 2019. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)
Cosplayers in character as the Joker at MCM London Comic Con 2019 on October 26, 2019. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

“I'm flattered that the Joker look has taken off,” says Bridges. “I'm seeing bootleg costumes of my design on eBay and Etsy so that cosplayers can get them. I never would've expected this. It was not on my mind. I went to an interview yesterday and the interviewer showed me her costume she bought from eBay. It's incredible to me. It blows my mind. Never in a million years did I ever think that it would have this far-reaching effect.”

Ledermann says she had “tears in my eyes” after she went with her children to New York Comic-Con in October and saw dozens of cosplayers dressed as Phoenix’s incarnation of the Joker.

She says: “I feel humbled that I was able to work with Joaquin to bring the performance to life, even though of course he did most of the work. It was really hard for him and it was really hard for the crew. It was a very, very intense movie to work on and I think the outcome is very impressive. I think he did such an amazing job and I feel very lucky that I got to be a part of it.”

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The vision behind Arthur Fleck and his journey to becoming the Joker was clear from the beginning, with Phillips providing an outline early on and collaborating closely with Phoenix and the various departments.

“I think it's really important that the design was translated into something very timeless and unique and yet relatable to perhaps all of the Jokers and yet stand out as its own unique design,” says Ledermann. “That was the most important aspect of creating the make-up. I didn't really take any inspiration per se, but at the same time you can't help but get inspired and maybe you use elements of everything and translate it into something unique. You still have the sense that it's the Joker. It's not something completely new, and yet it is.”

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in 'Joker'. (Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros)
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in 'Joker'. (Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros)

If box office and awards success is anything to go by, then the team behind Joker definitely succeeded. The film led the nominations for both the Oscars and the BAFTAs, with Ledermann gaining an Academy Award nomination for ther work.

Ledermann is a first-time nominee and describes the Oscars as “the highest honour” it is possible to receive.

She adds: “This movie, I think was definitely in many aspects one of the hardest movies I've worked on because of the intensity, the expectation and the pressure. But at the same time, I feel like this was also one of the very wonderful few jobs that had a really wonderful collaboration between all of the departments. I felt like we were all in sync with each other. We were all checking in with each other. That was one of the very special things on this movie.”

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Bridges agrees, adding: “Anything like awards is just gravy, the icing on the cake. We love what we do and we're happy to do it. If we're honoured, then it's unbelievable and fantastic.”

With talk of a sequel constantly brewing and Phoenix picking up Best Actor trophies left, right and centre, Joker has clearly made an impact.

The look is already branded indelibly on pop culture, regardless of the film’s divisive reputation, serving as a mark of quality on behalf of the people who helped to put it together.

Joker is available on digital download in the UK from 27 January and on DVD and Blu-ray from 10 February.