Where do we even begin with this week’s Sunday Script Club read? I stumbled across the screenplay for JOKER by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver on Indie Film Hustle and just had to share it with fellow Sunday Script Club readers. Thoroughly enjoyed this week's read, and kind of want to re-read it already. There's a lot you can learn from this gem, so my initial thoughts / notes are below. I think for next week's read, I might try a little 'Ten Things I learnt about...' because I feel like I can waffle on for eternity, and them some.
During the opening scene, as the reader / audience, we discover a lot about who Joker is, internally, through dialogue with his social worker in her office. We are introduced to the overriding theme of the screenplay - society's relationship with mental health - from the get-go. By page 5, we already know his deepest internal, psychological desire: ‘I just don’t wanna feel so bad anymore.’ Psychological desire of a protagonist is often the driving force of their actions throughout an unfolding story. But even before this moment, in this same scene, we also discover his biggest dream in life: ‘Did I tell you I’m pursuing a career in stand-up comedy?’ For a protagonist-driven story, internal deep psychological goals (that a character may or may not even be aware of when the story starts), and ‘external’ goals, outward-facing goals are hugely telling of who the protagonist is at the start of a story. The writers kill it with this 5-page opening scene. There is no messing around, and in its subtleties, we have a great understanding of whom we are dealing with a baseline level.
Following which, we delve into his external world, his job, his ‘career’ as a clown, spinning a sign around. We watch as Joker is hit by his first obstacle; I really enjoyed is the writers’ ability to execute exposition so effectively and seamlessly. As the reader, we are given a glimpse into his world, not only how he’s perceived but also a sense of his character and how he reacts in adverse situations. Fight or flight? His interactions with these children (bullies), gives us a better understanding of who he really is. Above all, he’s got a great work ethic, and despite his own safety and self, he’s more concerned about the ‘Everything must go’ sign. Priorities. How much does this job really mean to him? And why does it mean so much?
Joker’s external goal / biggest dream is weaved throughout the first act of the story and we soon realise everyone and their dogs knows about Jokers’ goal of being a stand-up comedian. His boss, his co-workers, his neighbour and his mother. As the audience, we question his capability as a stand-up comedian but we barely know the guy, but his own mother doesn’t even believe in him,‘I mean, don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?’.
By page 17, we’ve got our inciting incident: the simple gesture of one worker giving his fellow co-worker a gun in a brown paper bag. As subtle as this is, this is a game-changing scene, and one which sets the whole story in motion. Page 29 is the beginning of the end as we know it. It begins with the brief, half-page scene in the children’s hospital ward, which then results in Joker getting fired from perhaps the only thing keeping him sane. This then sets into motion a beautifully written 7-page scene which perfectly breaks the end of act one, and sets into motion the origin story of Joker with explosive exposition interspersed with song lyrics through dialogue which makes for a far more enjoyable reading experience and does a good job of breaking up the exposition. In addition to losing his job, he also loses his social worker – the two aspects of his life that were keeping him in line, and somewhat sane. However, after completing his first triple-homicide, Joker feels something he’s never felt before – power. He gets he girl, and takes control, and realises his biggest dream on stage of being a stand-up comedian.
The power drive increases when Joker learns his triple homicide is being celebrated and his face is now on masks. He even makes an appearance on the Murray Franklin show whilst his mother is in hospital. There are a few scenes in the screenplay which didn’t make it to the big screen, and my favourite is perhaps the scene on page 69 with one of my favourite exchanges of dialogue where we see, perhaps for the first real time, the dark side of the joker culminating in, ‘If I were you, I’d walk away from this table before I strangle all three of you with that fucking stethoscope hanging from your neck.’
They say that a man’s relationship with his mother is a testament of his true character in a relationship. Joker's relationship with his mother is the second story of this screenplay. He begins a kind soul, and they are incredibly close. His mother is clearly the most important thing in his life when we join the story. This underlying and developing subplot questions what the reality of the relationship is between Penny Flack and Thomas Wayne, and as the audience, we’re led in one direction, which is brilliantly turned on its head with the shock revelation that Thomas Wayne is Joker’s father, if only for a split second.
Joker learns the truth about his mother and her real relationship with Thomas Wayne, but more importantly, his mother's own personal mental health struggles, even being committed to Arkham Asylum for delusional psychosis and narcissistic personality disorder, and his own real childhood and relationship with his mother. The scene where I personally disconnected from being on the Joker’s ‘side’ was the scene in the hospital. There is no coming back from this; i.e. the point of no return and all that jazz. Joker has well and truly changed.
"The worst thing about mental health is that people still expect you to behave as if you don't."
The writers hint to the fact that the delusional part of his character has always been there – before all shit went crazy, and this is done so beautifully with the suggestion that the orange cat Joker has a close relationship with doesn’t actually exist through showing us it doesn’t have a reflection which I don't think actually made the scene in the end. And for that matter, I don't think the orange cat was even in the film?
On Page 101, Joker identifies no longer as Happy. In the dressing room of the Murray Franklin Show, ‘Hey Murray,--on small thing? When you bring me out, can you introduce me as ‘The Joker’? This is a new era, a new chapter in his life. His clown face is no longer for work, but is now his identity. He’s created a movement and he is their leader, although they don’t know it just yet.
If we’re talking about a battle scene in this screenplay, the battle scene is the one played out in the Murray Franklin television show between Joker and how he sees it, ‘a system that abandons him and treats him like trash’, and this begins with a confession and ends with a shock murder, which in Joker’s eyes, leaves him victorious.
And so beautifully, we end the film how it started. In the hospital, with a therapist, and a journal. Except this time it’s blank, and this time, he’s a completely different human being. He’s the darkest version of himself, and in his eyes, the truest version of himself: 'Now he is the Joker.'
Also, was it just me, or was the infamous scene on the steps playing homage to Heath Ledger in the 1999 classic, 10 Things I Hate About You? Just me? Yep, thought so.