** SPOILER FREE **
I rather loved JOKER. The design. The universe. The cinematography. The story arc. The performance. My god, the performance. The soundscape and music score. Love the music by Hildur Guðnadóttir. LOVE.
Here’s what I think writers can learn from this provocative and compelling film … Ready? Then let’s go!
1) Joker is in almost EVERY scene
This is pretty unusual as most filmmakers and actors cannot pull off such intense optics and story pressure. It sounds easy. It’s not. I can’t think of many actors who can keep our attention for the duration.
It also means the writer has to work just as hard to draw us in deeper and deeper in both empathy and sympathy as well as, ultimately, horror. The story asks us, who does the Joker stand for?
So, who (or what) do your characters stand for? Do they change? Why/ why not? How??
As human beings, we all stand for something. At the very centre we stand for ourselves. If we stand for no one else, we are likely a sociopath or a psychopath and the foundations for an excellent villain or anti-hero.
TOP TIP: Choosing to follow one character is super-challenging … But if you can pull it off, it’s very powerful storytelling.
2) Joker’s Character Arc DESCENDS
As an audience, we LOVE watching characters moving up or down across these thresholds … The greater the leap, the greater the dramatic satisfaction. We love this growth and in some cases it leads to deep redemption for characters (and sometimes, for us at home).
Usually for a protagonist, this arc goes UPWARD. A character will perhaps think only of the self at start, but eventually caring for the community … In contrast, Joker is the opposite.
He starts off in the traditional way, a good guy … Joker cares about his mother. He cares about the kids he performs for as a clown. He cares about his co-workers (though his descent is illustrated in one key scene in this regard). Joker also cares for the city and the people in it. He cares for the woman and child down the hall.
But as the story continues, Joker DESCENDS into darkness. Until finally… he doesn’t care. He has crossed a threshold. It feels truthful and like watching a car crash in slow motion. It lingers as it shines a light into the darkness of our own immature sense of injustice and rage.
TOP TIP: Find visual ways to show how your characters either descend or ascend and cross thresholds in the story.
3) The villain is EVERYTHING in modern storytelling
As Lucy has written on this blog before, modern audiences are fascinated with villains and ‘bad guys’. Gone are the days of the so-called ‘Monstrous Other’, or comic book villain with the nonsensical plan. Hell, the Joker IS a comic book villain, yet we want to know everything that makes him tick!
One topic I will be covering at the upcoming LSFAccelerate is the character arc of the nemesis. The journey of your villain. I think to think of it as The Hero’s Journey, in reverse …
I call it … The Villain’s Journey!
With The Villain’s Journey, we can see how with every single step the protagonist takes, the antagonist can (and should) take similar steps too. They may not be on the page, but they should be in the story universe. It comes down to this:
One strives upward (protagonist) while the other descends ever deeper (antagonist).
It’s fascinating because we spend sooooo much time on our protagonists that we often allow our antagonists to occupy less story space. If if we are not careful, they can become caricatures. Then it’s game over.
The Joker is an antagonist in the Batman universe but is played as a protagonist in the Joker universe. This is one reason I suspect that we see such a backlash from the media. We just don’t like feeling empathy for evil.
But the genius was in allowing us to connect with a human being, then pushing them so hard that they snap. It puts us in an uncomfortable position, asking us how much we could take before WE snap?
It’s unsettling and complicated. People often lament online that Hollywood should do something new with superhero movies … Here it is!
TOP TIP: Put as much energy and time into plotting your story arc for the villain as you do for your protagonist.
Play your antagonists as human beings as well as opposing forces in our stories. Give them depth and vulnerability, love, passion, pain, courage … Make them REAL.
And perhaps, just perhaps, the villain in your narrative has a more compelling story to tell than your hero … So maybe consider telling THAT story instead?
BIO: Written by Chris Jones. Filmmaker, screenwriter and sometimes firewalker. Author of The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook and founder of @LondonSWF.