A Look Behind the Scenes of “Joker” with Editor Jeff Groth
Even with all the other major films that came out in 2019, few have caused such broad commentary and discussion as Todd Phillips’s Joker.
A fascinatingly dark and divergent take on this long-established character, Joker draws from the spirit of the best of 1970s American cinema to paint a new origin story for Batman’s sinister arch-nemesis. This time around we meet aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck, who, after an extreme path of circumstances, becomes the Clown Prince of Crime.
We spoke with Joker editor Jeff Groth about his work on the film, how he prepared for it, his experience collaborating with Todd Phillips, and how he tackled Joaquin Phoenix’s award-worthy performance.
Getting Ready for Joker to Begin
Jeff Groth first received the Joker script about a year and a half before shooting even began. Some might think it unusual for an editor to be involved so early in the production, but director Todd Phillips likes to keep his frequent collaborators, like Groth, in the loop early on. This gave Groth the opportunity to familiarize himself with the material he’d eventually be working on, and to offer his own creative voice into the story.
“If I’m looking for anything, I’m looking for things that we might not need,” Groth says, meaning scenes he can already tell can be removed. “But for the most part I don’t want to stop anybody from shooting something, because, of course, I’d like all the footage that I can get to ultimately put the pieces together.”
Groth also uses lead time before production starts to begin brainstorming ideas and seeking inspiration for how he’d approach the project. “After reading I’m internalizing it, thinking about it, and watching other movies to say, ‘Okay, what can I take from other things? What have people done in the past that are similar to this? What other sources of inspiration can you take from it?’”
The four films that ended up guiding Joker most were Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Network, and The Master. But Phillips also encouraged Groth to watch American films from the 1970s, especially those set in New York City, since the Gotham City of Joker has an unsettling, seedy, almost gross feeling similar to the Big Apple of the 1970s.
As Groth took those movies in, he studied how they were edited, often with a lack of rapid cutting. It’s something he decided he wanted to emulate to better serve the powerful performance they were expecting from Joaquin Phoenix.
Cutting During Production
Joker was shot using Alexa 65, Alexa LF, and Alexa Mini cameras, in ARRIRAW 4k at 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The resolution varied from camera to camera, but they were all shot open gate, with the 3967×2160 portion extracted. The footage was then edited in Avid MC v8.11/Nexis with DNx115 transcodes in 1920×1080 (letterboxed).
Groth had his assistants process dailies in groups and clips, marked by starts and stops for takes. Because he was working in Brooklyn during production, dailies were picked up from shoots in Manhattan every day, and eventually sent to a second assistant in Los Angeles to create and organize the bins. Since the team was split between the Eastern and Pacific time zones, the Brooklyn team always had fresh dailies ready for them and ready to go when they came in every morning after new footage had been shot.
Groth dives into dailies as soon as he can, starting with his notes, and then honing in on preferred takes. “I’m always making selects off of the best performance. That’ll be my bar. So, let’s say if you have ten takes and take ten is the preferred take, I’ll look at take ten first and then I’ll work my way backwards,” Groth says.
After that, Groth gets to work cutting. “I look through things, drop them into a timeline, and make my own sequence of selects. I’ll have a bin that has a long sequence of selects in it, put vaguely in the order of the scene, then I’ll either set that aside or go immediately into cutting it.”
When he does start cutting, he most often makes a copy of the select sequences and works from a copy, preserving the original untouched timeline in a bin.
From there, he prefers to cut scenes in sequential order. “If on day one they shot scene one and scene thirty, and on day two they shot scene two and scene forty, I would cut scene one and then scene two and leave 30 and 40 until I got to them,” Groth explains.
As for his philosophy of trimming those scenes towards their final form: “Let’s say it’s a one-minute scene, I might have fifteen minutes of selects that ultimately become that one-minute scene. I watch the selects and then start to pick apart the things we don’t need, so I know I can cut this and this and this. I’m looking specifically at moments I really like, and I’m building the remainder of the scene around that. Once I’ve got that scene built, it’ll live in that bin until I have the other scenes around it that I can connect together.”
Some of those connections can’t get stronger until after production wraps, since he cuts dailies in story order.
“At the end of production, the movie is largely complete, except toward the end where it starts to drop off. So, where I had a complete reel one that was fairly polished, when we got into the director’s cut stage, my reel seven was not complete at that point.”
Collaborating on Editing an Intricate Performance
When production wrapped, and post-production moved to Los Angeles, Todd Phillips joined Groth in the editing room, where the director very much feels at home.
“He loves the editing process as much as anything, and he knows how to work in Avid. He understands what I’m doing in a timeline. He even has his own mouse that he’ll use. I’ve not seen him lock a movie without kind of scrolling through the timeline one last time,” Groth says.
Phillips stayed in close contact with Groth throughout production, sometimes requesting a scene be put together to check coverage, but the real collaboration begins in post-production
“He wants to be a part of all of it,” Groth says of Phillips, and he prepares for that even during production. Todd is a writer-director. He put the words down on paper, and he likes to be able to go back to that virtual piece of paper to see what each version of that line that they wrote is,” Groth explains.
Throughout their collaboration, Phillips and Groth were highly focused on one element of the film in particular. “A lot of our work was figuring out how to meter out Joaquin Phoenix’s performance,” Groth says. “It was very nerve-wracking at the beginning. I was definitely worried. I didn’t want to do anything to screw this up. His performance was so good that I worried even cutting it hurt the outcome on screen.”
But there was also the need to figure out how to calibrate the intricate arc of Phoenix’s character. “He’s so complex and was constantly evolving. Certainly, during shooting, but then even after shooting we were still asking, ‘What’s he capable of and what is his reaction to that? And is that too intense or is that not intense enough?’”
That wonder, incidentally, was another reason Groth edited the film in story order. “This whole creative process was basically a character study, this long progression of the character over the course of the film, and so I thought it better to track that progression by cutting things in order as the character develops before your eyes,” Groth explains.
“The first part of the story is really about building his life, so the question is what do you want to show and how much empathy do you want to have for this guy at the beginning of this movie? What’s mundane and what is needed to make this story special? And then as more of the mystery unfolds, it’s figuring out how/when does he change and evolve, and at what point does he realize he’s broken from reality. His reality is not reality.”
To fine tune the plot and character progression, Groth and his team frequently rearranged the scenes, which they did with visual scene cards on a large story board.
“Moving scenes around was simple. It’s just a matter of push pins and a 3×5 paper cards. As scenes changed, we had to make the cards fit the mood of the scene, and everything around it in the story. Of course, figuring out how to do that in service to the story was the hard part,” Groth says.
The whole experience was an intricate puzzle, unlike any Groth had worked on before. “Getting the tone and arc right was as much of a chess game as anything I’ve ever worked on in terms of how one thing would affect another. We had the opportunity to make this great move, but we always had to check if our editing decisions put other parts of the story in jeopardy.”
In the end, the quality of the performance helped lead the way. “You’re always taking the best pieces and putting them together, building something that wasn’t just there in any one shot, but a collection from all of them.” Groth says.
Which happens to be a fitting summary of what great editing does, and what makes Joker – and Groth’s work on it – stand out.
Photography by Irina Logra.