Joker: Cinematographer Sher Deconstructs the Subway Scene

One of the key scenes in Joker is when Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is on the subway, and in a defining moment transforms into Joker.

The sequence is like a “fever dream moment,” as cinematographer Lawrence Sher describes it.  The camera angles, the lighting and colors, the technology used, all added to the tensions of that scene.

Sher breaks down the stair dance that comes towards the end of the movie, once Fleck has fully transformed into Joker and does his “Victory dance,” descending into his own darkness.

Cinematographer Sher deconstructs the key scenes, breaking down the main elements.

Subway Scene

There was definitely an intent on this movie to try to create frames that were tension-filled. I placed certain rules on myself and the camera operator for that scene that was to never shoot him at eye level. We could shoot him high or low. We could shoot him at a fractured level. We’d find a way to dissect the frame. We’d be jammed between people, as you see in the bus scene at the beginning. Or, you’d see him lost in a sea of humanity early in the movie.

In scenes where he was alone, we’d show him in isolation. We wanted as much as possible to find a frame that spoke emotionally to the moment. Todd and I like to mix in a bunch of different stylistic things in our movies. We have scenes that are very specific with slow-moving precise camera dolly moves. There are scenes that are intentionally static. Other scenes are handheld.

The subway scene was all handheld. In part, it’s also one of those transitional scenes in which Joker and Arthur are by himself. There are scenes where he’s with a lot of people. This is one of those scenes similar to his interaction with Thomas Wayne in the bathroom which is seemingly one on one. In this case, it’s one on three.

It’s meant to be in a similar place as it starts in that scene. So, in the bus scene at the beginning; he always feels isolated from society, and in small ways, he’s trying to reach out. Even at his lowest point, when that scene starts and he’s just been fired from the job that he really likes, he’s trying to connect with the woman across from him. He’s trying to be compassionate as he watches the woman being taunted.

Joker’s point of view:

We tried to draw the audience into Arthur’s point of view.

The shots of Arthur are very close but on wider lenses. They’re intimate within very close proximity to him. Even the shot of the boys is from him sitting in his seat. We had the camera in proximity where he would be, so it’s what he would see.

From a compositional standpoint, we tried not to be at his eye-level. The flexibility of the handheld camera work allowed us to be on that train and give it the feel of being live on that train even though we shot it on a stage, but also be able to fluidly move around as the boys taunted him.