Joker, the box office hit film from Warner Bros. starring Joaquin Phoenix showcases the backstory of the misanthropic comic book character. Gotham from the DC Comics universe is a fictional place, but highly inspired by gritty New York City. We interviewed the film’s production designer Mark Friedberg about how the comic book world was created in the real city of New York and surrounding cities, like Newark and Jersey City, building on our popular article on the movie’s filming locations. Friedberg has used his hometown of New York as a template for his last three films — Wonderstruck (filmed right next to our office!), If Beale Street Could Talk, and Joker.
It has been getting harder and harder to represent an older New York City in film, particularly in Manhattan with its transformation into a glitzy, millionaires paradise over the last decade and a half. A recent extreme case was The Alienist, which built an entire set to represent 1896 Manhattan in Budapest after failing to find or gain access to the right types of locations in New York City. For Wonderstruck, Crown Heights in Brooklyn stood in for the Upper West Side of the 1970s, and Harlem recently stood in for the former Lincoln Center area in the 1960s for the upcoming West Side Story.
Copyright: © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise
For Joker, Newark was transformed into Gotham Square, where some of the central action takes place early in the film. Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker, is working as a clown holding an advertising sign on the sidewalk in front of the Newark Paramount theater on Market Street when he is chased and beat in an alley. “Newark is actually a city on the rise,” Friedberg told us, “Market and Broad streets where we shot is the last of the old downtown world.” We are pleased that one of our writer/photographers Rachel Fawn Alban, who lives in Newark, was able document that set while the movie was in production.
The two streets were fully transformed, each storefront altered with shops clearly inspired by New York businesses, like Papaya King and the XXX Times Square theaters of old. Freidberg, says, “Dressing Gotham Square was a huge set with a lot of sets within that all had to get built into a living city,” citing it as one of the more challenging sets but that it was “fun and why we do it.” Asked what his main inspirations were, he cites the Times Square he grew up in around the time the story of Joker takes place. “The porn theaters and the other business were all there back then in the pre ’80s boom New York as well. We weren’t trying to make specific history but we were going for the historical texture of the decaying city of that era,” he says. As such, in addition to faux storefronts, graffiti had to be added, old phone booths and meters, and a lot of garbage on the sidewalks. No detail was left unturned, down to the license plates on cars.
The set was made complete with vintage cars and buses, even burned out vehicles. Friedberg says, “Bobby Griffon was our picture car wrangler. He is a New York legend. He found our vehicles as well as the buses. We were very careful about our car choices. In fact much of the color palette of the film was based on car colors from the ’70s.” There is a teal vintage bus from 1968 that the Joker rides on across the Triborough Bridge. In Joker, the logo on the outside of the bus has been changed to “Gotham Transit Authority” (GTA). Also present: 1970s NYPD squad cars, and a yellow cab (with the acronym GTLC).
A few other scenes were shot in nearby Jersey City. One scene takes place in front of the Loews Jersey Theater, showing the Waynes exiting a show. Two masked clown men running towards a police officer under a bright theater marquee. Although no filming took place inside the theater, the film was responsible for restoring the old facade. The Loews Jersey theater is still undergoing renovation, a labor of love from a team of volunteers who not only saved the theater from demolition but also have been restoring the theater themselves. Also shown in Jersey City, the Hudson County Courthouse as Wayne Hall.
Check out more photos from the set of Joker in Newark!
Next, check out the other filming locations in Joker!