Prior to his dark take on the Clown Prince of Crime, Phillips, 48, was known for irreverent comedies such as “The Hangover” trilogy, “Old School” and the remake of “Starsky & Hutch.” In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, the director sounded off on how the current hypersensitive climate that comedies find themselves in made him turn away from the genre.
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he told the outlet. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the f---ing funny guys are like, ‘F--- this s---, because I don’t want to offend you.’”
“It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies – I think that what comedies in general all have in common – is they’re irreverent,” he explained.
“So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but f--- comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
Phillips noted that the decision led him directly to Joaquin Phoenix and “Joker.”
The film depicts the infamous Batman antagonist in a never-before-seen light, offering a unique origin story to the immensely dark character and separating him from most of the Caped Crusader’s typical lore.
“Joker” has been the subject of controversy after early screenings due to its depictions of violence and attempts to have the audience sympathize with the villain, a down-on-his-luck comedian shunned by society.
“We’re making a movie about a fictional character in a fictional world, ultimately, and your hope is that people take it for what it is. You can’t blame movies for a world that is so f---ed up that anything can trigger it," the director explained.
“That’s kind of what the movie is about," Phillips added. "It’s not a call to action. If anything it’s a call to self-reflection to society."
Meanwhile, the titular star of "Joker," Phoenix, 44, acknowledged that he predicted at least some criticism of the movie due to its subject matter, but that he hopes it will spark more meaningful conversations once people actually watch it.
“I didn’t imagine that it would be smooth sailing,” the actor admitted. “It’s a difficult film. In some ways, it’s good that people are having a strong reaction to it."
The "Walk the Line" star explained that he wanted to play the iconic “Batman” baddie in a way that the viewer could "sympathize or empathize with this villain."
“It’s so easy for us to — we want the simple answers, we want to vilify people. It allows us to feel good if we can identify that as evil,” he said. “But that’s not healthy because we’re not really examining our inherent racism that most white people have, certainly. Or whatever it may be. Whatever issues you may have. It’s too easy for us and I felt like, yeah, we should explore this villain. This malevolent person."
“There’s no real communication, and to me that’s the value of this," Phoenix continued. "I think that we are capable as an audience to see both of those things simultaneously and experience them and value them.”
Fox News' Jessica Sager contributed to this report.