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Close-Ups

Cutting Like Crazy: Manufacturing Madness with Jeff Groth, Editor of Joker

Nominated for multiple awards, Groth shares the solutions he and director Todd Phillips devised while editing the Joaquin Phoenix tour de force

February 11, 2020

Oscar nominee Jeff Groth, editor of Todd Phillips film Joker

Joker netted eleven Academy Award nominations this year, including Best Film Editing. We spoke with the editor, Jeff Groth, who also received an ACE Eddie nomination for his work on the movie, to find out more about his approach to the project. On Joker, Groth makes the leap from comedy to drama with long-time collaborator Todd Phillips, nominated for three Oscar categories: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. He and Groth draw upon the tone of late-70s and early-80s cinema to create a grimy, realistic world in sharp contrast to most DC/Marvel films. Within this frame of realism, they explore Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) journey to self-realization through madness. By establishing a baseline of reality, they’re better able to depict Arthur’s drift away from it as he becomes The Joker.

Groth walked us through the thought process and decisions that went into scenes that subtly deal with the titular character’s tenuous grasp on reality. These are moments when Arthur straddles the line between real and imagined rather than crossing it completely. We assume readers’ familiarity with the film, so consider yourself warned — spoilers ahead.

Subway vigilante

In a scene inspired by real-life subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, Arthur finds himself at a low point. It’s thirty minutes into the film, and he’s just been fired from his job as a clown for bringing a pistol to a children’s hospital. He boards the subway home, but a group of Wall Street-types enters and begins harassing a young woman. Arthur can’t summon the courage to get involved, but the stress triggers his Tourette-like involuntary laughing, drawing the abuse of the Wall Street bullies. Groth’s editing ratchets up the tension to a boiling point, and the audience gets their first brief glimpse of The Joker.

Groth discussed the elements that went into creating that tension. The first technique exploits the train’s fluorescent lighting to amplify the power of the cuts. The subway car’s lights blink in and out, and once the attack on Arthur begins, several cuts occur in those moments of flickering darkness.

“That was something that Todd wanted to do,” says Groth. “Not every cut happens in a flash. The reason those flashes were there was to disorient the viewer and make this whole sequence become something of a fever dream for Arthur.” 

It was about finding the moments when the hidden cut would amplify the emotionality of the scene. “A lot of times with a cut, you’ll anticipate where you want to see next, and we’ll take you there. In a situation like this, when you’re cutting in the black, you anticipate that when you come back out of black, you’re going to see the same thing,” says Groth. “But in our version, when we’re cutting [in the black], you see something different. So we’re jumping perspectives before you as a viewer are necessarily ready for it. It was meant to evoke anxiety and build tension.”

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Groth continued, “When [Arthur] starts that laugh, that’s something he can’t control. That’s another thing we’re trying to evoke is that feeling of we’re not in control anymore.”

The sound design in this scene takes environmental sounds — screeching brakes, the rattle of the car, the whoosh of passing trains, buzzing fluorescents, sparks off the third rail — and organizes them into an anxiety-inducing symphony. “Our sound designers and mixers made it more sinister from beginning to end,” says Groth. “If you’re listening to the beginning, they didn’t change it significantly, but they changed it gradually [throughout] the scene to where those sounds, by the time you get to the end, they’re screechier and more sinister.”

Music played another critical role in building the scene’s tension. The subway vigilante scene has no score until after the Wall Streeters’ leader sings “Send in the Clowns,” and they physically engage with Arthur. The missing score was intentional, Groth explains: “You let that quiet and that tension hang there, and then we bring the music in once [the Wall Street guys] begin to interact with [Arthur]. Once they steal his bag, it’s broken a certain amount of tension because now there’s going to be a conflict. That’s where the music starts to come in.” 

That music comes courtesy of Oscar-winning composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, who also won Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for her work on Joker. She read the script and composed several tracks in pre-production for Groth to use as temp music. Guðnadóttir’s composition for the subway slowly builds to the scene’s big turn when Arthur shoots his assailants.

“That’s another thing we’re trying to evoke is that feeling of we’re not in control anymore.”

 

But Groth and Phillips deliberated over which piece of music to use. “We did experiment with using what ultimately became the score in the bathroom where he’s discovering himself,” Groth says, referring to a scene following the subway incident where Arthur revels in the afterglow of the murders. “We decided it’s too early to do that. Let’s follow this emotion that he’s still going from being the hunted to being the hunter [on the subway]. But it doesn’t fully form until you get to that bathroom dance.”

Groth designed the moment when Arthur fires on the first Wall Street assailant for maximum surprise. The various tension-building techniques — hidden cuts, swelling score, sinister sound design — have reached their peak. The attackers mercilessly kick Arthur, who’s curled up on the subway floor, mirroring an earlier scene where a gang of kids similarly beat him. The moment had to be perfect, right down to the look on Arthur’s face. “We talked about that a lot,” says Groth. “[What] do we see in his face? Do we see something there, or do we see him just taking it and then surprise you with the gun, with the shot?”

Four minutes of screen time have elapsed since we last saw the gun, and it seems to come out of nowhere. “It happens all of a sudden. What you see instead of [Arthur] drawing the gun in the black flashes, as he’s on the ground and they’re kicking, you see him grit his teeth. It’s a turning point where he’s moving from victim to aggressor,” says Groth.

We don’t know Arthur still has the gun until we hear the shot, and the Wall Street thug drops dead. We then see the reaction of his friend; only after that do we see Arthur holding the gun. “That was a conscious decision,” says Groth.

The subway killings, which begin as an act of self-defense, conclude with the cold-blooded slaying of the final Wall Street bully on a subway platform. It’s one of those scenes that just comes together seamlessly from the outset with minimal reworking. “That part of the scene did not change significantly from the first cut because they shot that so beautifully,” Groth recalls. “If you watch even the way that Wall Street Number Three falls, he falls hard on his knee. It’s a beautiful fall . . . and obviously, Joaquin is incredible, especially once he’s fired the gun — just what he’s doing with his face and his body, his reactions to not fully understanding what’s just happened. It’s pretty amazing. He deserves every award.”

Arthur flees the scene of the crime and hides in a public bathroom. What follows gives the audience their first real look at The Joker — having just murdered three people, Arthur begins to dance.

Film still from Joker of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dancing in bathroomScene from Joker: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dances. Credit: Warner Bros.

“There are only about four cuts in [that scene]. There’s really not much to it. It’s just three takes. You see [Arthur] come in and slam the door, and then, once he starts to move, that was, I believe, take four of that setup,” says Groth. He then cut to an angle within a bathroom stall. “We liked that shot because it set him on a stage. It gave him defined walls on either side, and it said, okay, he’s doing this performance within a space now. You almost get to feel him on a stage.”

Groth considered ignoring the shot from the bathroom stall and allowing the dance to play out in a single, uninterrupted shot. His rationale for inserting the stall angle was to suggest a level of unreality appropriate for the character and moment. “The idea that he’s on the stage, it’s as much in his head as anything,” says Groth.

Rehearsing for Murray Franklin

That same question — hold on a single spellbinding take or break it up with shots that comment on Arthur’s mental state — would arise again later in the film. To prepare for an appearance on the late night show of his idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur mimics the mannerisms of guests on a VHS recording of the program.

“There are a couple of interesting things here. One is that first take — there’s a long first take where [Arthur’s] at the TV, and he goes behind the curtain, and he comes back out, and he’s doing a great imitation of what’s on the TV,” says Groth. “At that point, we had to make a decision because that would have worked as one take. We could have played that whole take as one. He was doing a great job, and it was that good, but we also wanted to feel like now he’s in his head, and he imagines this TV appearance,” Groth says.

Instead of holding on the master as Arthur rehearses a conversation with Murray, the film goes into a series of setups that mimic the angles and cutting patterns associated with a late-night TV appearance. The resulting scene subtly blurs the line between Arthur’s reality and his fantasy of being on Live! With Murray Franklin.

To accentuate this drift into fantasy, the sound, motivated by the playback of the Murray Franklin VHS, morphs into the response Arthur hopes to receive on the show. “It’s not something that was in the script. It is the real Murray Franklin audience, but we recorded that audience as extra audio for the TV appearances,” says Groth. “We just experimented with putting [the audience] under there. I did that in the first cut of that scene. It was not anything that we spoke about, but I really loved it. Todd liked it, and it was something that lived forever after.”

The fine line between fantasy and reality

Throughout the film, Groth and Phillips intentionally kept the border between fantasy and reality ambiguous. Arthur’s performance at an open-mic comedy night and his subsequent date with Sophie (Zazie Beetz) are the pair of scenes that best illustrate this ambiguity and the narrative necessity behind it.

Film still from Joker of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) at comedy clubArthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) at the comedy club. Credit: Warner Bros.

Arthur’s open-mic scene begins grounded in the real. He’s backstage awaiting his turn in an extended single take that follows him onto the comedy club stage like a fighter entering the ring. But his stage fright sends him into a laughing fit that lasts a full minute of screen time. “We watched that scene many times, deciding just how to calibrate the laughter,” explains Groth. “There’s one point in particular where he’s just about to speak, and then he goes back into the laughter. It was kind of a late cut, and we really loved that one.”

Arthur deals with the stress of the situation by connecting with Sophie in the audience. This connection signals his shift into fantasy because Sophie is, for those who don’t know, a figment of Arthur’s imagination. Groth says, “[Arthur] has learned how to cope with [stress], and it’s by evoking Sophie. It’s like we stepped into this other reality.” Groth demarcates that new reality by dropping out Arthur’s performance audio and kicking off a date night montage to Jimmy Durante’s romantic, hopeful version of “Smile.”

Movie still of actress Zazie Beetz and actor Joaquin Phoenix playing Sophie and Arthur Fleck respectively in JokerSophie (Zazie Beetz) and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) on the dream date. Credit: Warner Bros.

Romantic, hopeful, and montage are three ingredients otherwise out of place in Joker, but intentionally so. The wrongness of it pays off when the film reveals Sophie to be Arthur’s delusion. Groth describes the montage as “another one of my favorite moments of the movie because once you transition out, it becomes this date. I mean, it’s briefly another movie. It’s a movie that plays in Arthur’s head. Ultimately, I think Arthur’s a romantic.”

To propel the audience into this montage, Groth made the editorial decision to excise the crowd’s hostile reaction to Arthur’s routine at the comedy club. “We didn’t want to have that dip. He’s on a trajectory, and we wanted to keep him on that trajectory, so we didn’t want him to have to feel that negative response at that point,” Groth says. “We’ll just let his defense mechanisms kick in, and it becomes this great night with Sophie. “

Joker’s vaunted gritty realism is not objectively real; instead, it’s reality as Arthur perceives it. Groth’s keen editorial sense mirrors Arthur’s shifting mental state in the cutting, music placement, and sound design. As Arthur Fleck goes mad, the film goes mad with him.

A graduate of Columbia University's MFA film program, Avram Dodson has won awards at The Hamptons International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, and SXSW for his films. His screenwriting has been acknowledged by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Columbia University’s Blue List. Avram was editor of a feature film by DGA award-winning director Miguel Silveira as part of the IFP Film Lab 2017. Currently a resident of Miami, Avram is editing a feature documentary on Tom Wolfe.
Read more by Avram Dodson