Joker director Todd Phillips says Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro clashed over whether to read through the entire script before shooting. An anecdote from The King of Comedy, one of the films that inspired Joker, tells us a lot about why such preparation is so important to De Niro.
Phillips told Vanity Fair that De Niro wanted to do a read-through of the Joker script before shooting, but that Phoenix preferred to skip a read-through and take a “let it happen” approach. “I’m in between a rock and a hard place because Joaquin’s like, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m doing a read-through,’ and Bob’s like, ‘I do read-throughs before we shoot, that’s what we do,’” Phillips told Vanity Fair.
The actors worked it out—so much so that Phoenix told Vanity Fair that De Niro is his favorite actor. But their disagreement goes to a dilemma that every moviemaker, at every level, has to address: How much prep with actors is too much prep? There’s a point of diminishing returns when something feels too rehearsed.
But clearly, working the material, as much as possible, works for Robert De Niro. He’s won two Oscars.
In the biography De Niro: A Life, author Shawn Levy provides Jerry Lewis’ deep observations on De Niro’s approach to working and reworking material. Lewis co-starred with De Niro in The King of Comedy.
Lewis described De Niro going to extreme lengths with The King of Comedy director Martin Scorsese to get as many takes as possible.
“He knows his craft,” Levy quotes Lewis as saying. “And that his craft needs his time, it needs his gut for it. Marty could tell him from now until next Tuesday that Take 5 was super. But De Niro knows fucking well that if he goes into Take 12 and 14 and 15, he’ll find an ‘if’ and an ‘and.’ If he does Take 20, he’ll pick up a quick turn, and on Take 28 he’s got lips tightening, which he never had through the first 27 takes. I watched him feign poor retention just to work a scene. I watched him literally look like he couldn’t remember dialogue. He knew the fucking dialogue. It was masterful. There’s nothing he did that didn’t stagger me.”
As a young actor, De Niro studied under Stella Adler, and told Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton in 1998 that Adler emphasized “being faithful to the text, the script.”
“Breakdown, for example is something that I had not seen, other than with her,” De Niro told Lipton. “Script analysis, breakdown—which is a really good class in terms of just seeing something for what it is…”
Of course, Phoenix isn’t alone in preferring a “let it happen” approach.
Lewis ended playing late-night host Jerry Lawford in The King of Comedy after De Niro and Scorsese first offered the part to Johnny Carson. Carson was a clear inspiration for the Lawford character.
Levy writes that Carson turned down the part because the rigors of filmmaking sounded like a little much. Levy quotes Carson telling Scorsese:
“One take is good enough for me.” MM
Joker opened in theaters October 4, 2019. Featured image photograph by Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.