It was late ‘70s/early ‘80s and Gotham City was in turmoil. The city was on the edge of crumbling, from widespread crime and corruption, littered with graffiti and garbage; the result of a sanitation strike. Similarly, Arthur Fleck, one of the fictional city’s residents, was struggling to find his way through a society that was greatly divided between the haves and the havenots.
For Fleck, a career clown by day and sole caretaker for a frail mother by night, his turbulent and heartbreaking childhood have deeply affected his mental stability while more recent incidents of bullying and physical attacks all are contributing to his complete emotional and moral collapse. Audiences watch Fleck’s decline play out on screen, as he loses his final grip on reality and heads completely into darkness, giving rise to one of Gotham’s most infamous villains and one of Batman’s most notable arch enemies — the Joker.
Photo (L-R): Phoenix and Phillips, on-set
Director Todd Phillips leads three-time Oscar-nominee Joaquin Phoenix as the title character through the Warner Bros. origin story, Joker. Through picture and sound, audiences are on edge, watching Joker on the path into complete madness.
“I love the complexity of Joker and felt his origin would be worth exploring on film, since nobody’s done that and even in the canon he has no formalized beginning,” says Phillips. “So, Scott Silver and I wrote a version of a complex and complicated character, and how he might evolve...and then devolve. That is what interested me — not a Joker story, but the story of becoming Joker.”
Phillips put together a stellar crafts team, which included DP Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Hangover trilogy), film editor Jeff Groth (War Dogs, Hangover Part III), composer Hildur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl, Sicario: Dav of the Soldado), and two-time Oscar winner (American Sniper and Letter From Iwo Jima) Alan Robert Murray who, as supervising sound editor, was charged with helping bring the dark and gritty city of Gotham to life.
“Todd and Jeff Groth had a very extensive plan for the sound on this movie,” says Murray (pictured, left). “We went through it and the direction was, make Gotham gritty, nasty, loud and threatening. We tried to do that throughout the opening scene by using big V8 engines and car mufflers that reflected the time period the movie is set in, threatening horns, different types of police sirens, which always keep the city alive and on edge. That was the initial direction. Then we went through an extensive preview period where everything we put into this movie was examined, looked at, talked about, so it was a very well-perceived plan of what we were going to do with the sound on this film.”
Murray explains that as the film’s scenes play out, the soundscape changes accordingly. For instance, he points to one of the film’s key sequences — a subway ride which, for Fleck, starts off innocently enough. “But then, all of a sudden, things start going a little askew,” explains Murray. “Lights start flickering, suddenly things are a little more sinister. We start adding a little more low end on the subway car and then these guys in suits confront Arthur, we start hitting with trains going by in the opposite direction, everything becomes more sinister in the sound palate, and that was the direction — to start off normal and then build the scene, like a symphony, as Arthur moves through everything that’s happening to him. The crescendo, of course, is when he shoots the guys on the train and then we go outside the subway train and hear the gunshots as they echo down the tunnel. The sound design reflects when he realizes what he did and then has this horrible tinnitus ringing in his ears. Everything was kind of set up to build from the start of the scene all the way through to its conclusion.”
According to Murray, one of the ingredients in creating that gritty city sound was having production mixer, Tod Maitlind, who lives in New York, use an ambisonic microphone (Rode SoundField NT-SF1) to record simultaneous front and surrounds that would translate into a 7.1 soundtrack — the real-life sounds of New York City.
“He went out on the subway trains late at night and into the tenements and the neighborhoods just to capture that city-on-edge sound,” he explains.
Additionally, the team brought an ADR group out onto the streets of the Warner Bros. set to record additionally yelling and combined those results with Maitlind’s NYC sounds.
“That’s how we did the whole end scene of the movie where Joker is laying on the police car and he’s surrounded by the gangs of people,” says Murray. “We did all these intricate call outs — and they weren’t people chanting ‘Joker,’ they were more like wounded animal cries from the crowd and that reflected how the Joker finally went into the dark edge.
He says there was a lot of pre-planning that went into how the film would sound, but that also, Phillips was cautious about keeping the film from sounding like a “DC movie. We toned back on the sound design and made it more realistic and gritty.”
For Murray, one of the biggest challenges in creating sound for Joker was in capturing the mood of the city.
“The balance of being dark and horrific when they called for it and then laying back on other scenes,” he says. “We also had to come up with different types of sirens that would be unique to Gotham. It couldn’t just sound like New York, so we put a lot of effort into that. Building the sounds of like Arthur’s apartment, too, was a challenge. We go in and out of his apartment so many times throughout the movie, but then towards the end, when he’s putting on the white face, we introduce new sounds that reflect what’s going to happen. It’s subtle, but it’s there. For instance, the first time his door has a sinister creak to it is when he opens it up to let his two clown buddies in…that’s right before the killing…so it’s introducing to the audience that something’s not quite right here and then continuing to build on that. So, I think that was the biggest challenge, going over and over things and making sure they were in the right place, the right sounds.”
For Foley, Murray worked with LA’s One Step Up, which he describes as “one of the best Foley groups in the industry. That’s Dan O’Connell and John Cucci; they always capture the essence of the character. I can always count on their Foley fitting in with production and being natural and creative. Again, it was all very layered and well chosen areas where we use Foley, like the chase into the subway car where the police are chasing Joker, we had to get that metallic something clamming when he’s running up the stairs and that tied together with the subway car screeches and everything had to be on edge and add to the tension of the scene. Also, his dance in the bathroom after the subway scene was very subtle with little bits of lights flickering and the great score by Hildur. It was always about the composition and what played together. If things got muddy or got confusing, it was taken out.”
He goes on about Hildur’s music, saying “we had Hildur’s music right from the start, so right in the early process of temp mixing the movie we were able to balance our sounds against hers. There were areas where it was just her and we were suddenly accompanying her score. I just think she did such a remarkable job on capturing the mood and his dive into the darkness – her score blew everybody away.”
The mix was native Atmos, completed on Warner’s Dub Stage 9.
“We started in Atmos and went down to 7.1 and 5.1 from there,” explains Murray. “We used some cool reverb plug-ins, Pro Tools, we all use Pro Tools, and this ambisonic mic that I sent back to New York, the Rode SoundField NT-SF1, which I started to use quite a bit because it’s nice to have a 7.1 end result with an initial recording after you run it through the plug-ins.”
According to Murray, his favorite scenes are the subway (“We built that like a symphony; it was really cool”) and the end, rioting sequences. “I love the song, ‘White Room,’ so when that song was put in the movie, it was about trying to get the action going behind it, such as sirens, and making sure they were in the right range that would play well with the song. We really wanted it to come through nice and full.”
He finishes by saying, “We knew when we were working on it what a remarkable movie it was…I’m very proud of the work we did on it. It was quite a process to go through, but I think the end result is pretty awesome.”