News

21 Most Memorable Movie Moments: The Joker from The Dark Knight (2008)

Makeup artist John Caglione Jr. and Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment break down how the look of the Joker came together and the jaw-dropping moment the world first saw the character.

by | July 18, 2019 | Comments

Watch: Makeup artist John Caglione Jr. and 42 Entertainment CEO Susan Bonds on creating the look of the Joker, and revealing it to the world.

In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, makeup artist John Caglione Jr. and Susan Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, break down how the iconic look of Heath Ledger’s Joker came to be, and how it was first shown to the world.

VOTE FOR THIS MOMENT IN OUR 21 MOST MEMORABLE MOVIE MOMENTS POLL


The Movie: The Dark Knight (2008) 94%

It may not have kicked off a cinematic universe, but there’s no denying that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is among the most important superhero movies ever made – and some would say one of the most important movies, period. Released in the summer of 2008, just a few months after Iron Man, it would go on to earn rave reviews (Certified Fresh at 94% on the Tomatometer), make $1 billion at the global box office, and be nominated for eight Oscars, ultimately winning for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger. It would also change the Oscars forever: the outcry over the film’s Best Picture nomination snub led to the Academy changing its rules to allow 10 nominees. We found it impossible to isolate a single moment from the film to celebrate for this series, and instead landed on Ledger’s Joker as a whole – a performance, a visual, and a legacy that feels like one mammoth moment in and of itself. And yet, not everyone was convinced the young Australian actor had what it would take to inhabit the character. Here, Susan Bonds, CEO of experiential marketing company 42 Entertainment, reveals how she worked with the filmmakers on the viral campaign that first revealed the Joker to fans, more than a year out from the film’s release – a bravura instance of viral marketing that turned the conversation around and gave fans their first taste of what was going to be one of the most incredible characters and performances to ever hit the big screen. John Caglione Jr., the makeup artist who collaborated with Ledger on the Joker, then reveals how they discovered the character’s iconic look.

The Dark Knight

42 Entertainment was charged with engaging fans with the new film. (Photo by ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)

“Remember the Joker card at the end? It was kind of like, well, who is this guy?”

Susan Bonds: “One of the first things that our chief creative Alex Lieu suggested to me is go to read The Killing Joke, and go read The Long Halloween, and just go read some of these seminal stories that the Joker was featured in to understand his character. He was very unpredictable. He was an agent of chaos, I believe, is what the Nolans referred to him as, but he was someone who was a very compelling character as well. He had a tragic past; he had a tragic story. We started [the story of the marketing experience] from the last frame of Batman Begins: The head of the mob had been killed, Jim Gordon and Batman were kind of forging their relationship, Harvey Dent wasn’t even a conversation at that point. But the Joker… remember the Joker card at the end? It was kind of like, well, who is this guy? The Joker had just barely been introduced. [We wanted to] use the Joker and lead up to TheDark Knight.To give people in Gotham City exposure to who this character might be.”

“Quite frankly, the community was very split about how Heath Ledger was going to come in and play one of the most iconic villains of all time.”

Bonds: “It’s hard for us to remember now, because, the film has been out and it’s so beloved, but at the time there was a huge amount of curiosity, from fans, about this character. Another thing that we always do [when preparing a campaign], is we go on the message boards and read, and obviously there are very strong fan communities around superhero properties. There was a lot of discussion, and quite frankly, the community was very split about how Heath Ledger was going to come in and play one of the most iconic villains of all time. Jack Nicholson had put an amazing stamp on the character in the first film. And also Heath hadn’t really done anything similar to this. In fact, he’d done some things that were quite the opposite of this, and I think that there were a lot of questions about whether or not he could play this villain. Now we [at the company], had the benefit of seeing Heath in makeup and even the first reports off the set were just that he was absolutely just transformational. But how do you close that gap, of that uncertainty in the public vein? Of course, it’s going to be a year-and-a-half before they see the film. So, one of the things that we did is we put a spotlight on that character from the beginning, and the filmmakers wanted to get out to the community the very first picture of Heath in the Joker make-up.”

The Joker Heath Ledger

The first photo the world saw of Ledger’s Joker. (Photo by © Warner Bros. Pictures, 42 Entertainment)

“I think it took over 20 hours and 97,000 e-mails for people to reveal this image.”

Bonds: “We devised a scenario where, in comic-book stores all across the country, [fans] found Joker cards that said, ‘I believe in Harvey Dent, too.’ We had put up a little teaser on the Warner Bros. site where you could find ‘I believe in Harvey Dent’ and see the campaign poster featuring Aaron Eckhart for the first time. And so they followed the cards to a URL where, essentially, they got to cast their vote and put in their e-mail address to get x and y co-ordinates, and that allowed them to take a pixel away from the campaign poster revealing the first image of the Joker. This was over year, about fifteen months, before it was coming out. It caught on fire, and I think it took over 20 hours and 97,000 e-mails for people to reveal this image. And, of course, in the process, they’re putting up their own pictures of what they think it’s going to be like. It really was a very, very effective and dramatic way to change the conversation. I remember having a very visceral reaction to [that first image]. I probably had the same emotional reaction most people had when they saw it. It’s very intriguing. I couldn’t even really tell it was Heath, you know. It definitely made me want to get more involved in the world.”


The Moment: A Different Kind of Joker

From the moment the world saw that first image of the Joker, the conversation did change. Fans were no longer skeptical: this was the unique, dark take on the character that many had been waiting for. Here was a Joker that wore clown makeup, of a kind, but was no clown. It set the tone not just for the character, but the whole film, and the marketing campaign that led up to it (including landmark activations from 42 Entertainment). Eventually, “Why So Serious?” would become a catch cry for the film – a line smeared in red across posters, repeated in trailers – and one that captured the Joker’s taunting of Batman but also the character and the movie’s taunting of the audience. But more than anything, it was that scarred, smudged, terrifying grin, with Ledger lurking somewhere beneath it, that would stick with us for years: the face of a maniac who was capable of anything. Here, Caglione explains how he and Ledger created it.

“Chris brought in books of Francis Bacon paintings, these very blurry images. That really set the tone and set us in a direction of really just muting down and degrading the makeup.”

John Caglione Jr.: “I think Heath was in a preliminary wardrobe fitting when I met him. And he was with Chris. And then from there, I did some sketches based on reading the script and meeting with those guys. I think that universe that Chris wanted to create was a very real universe. I went away and started doing little sketches… But it didn’t really start to happen until I got to London and we started playing with makeup on Heath and experimenting with a very decaying, kind of broken-down makeup. I’m a trained makeup artist, and at first, the lines were very clean and very clownlike. And I had to go against the grain and break down this character. I remember when Chris brought in books of Francis Bacon paintings, these very blurry images. That really set the tone and set us in a direction of really just muting down and degrading the makeup. And that, that was really our Bible, those Francis Bacon paintings.”

The Dark Knight

Caglione was inspired by Francis Bacon. (Photo by )

“It had to be a very organic-looking makeup, like this guy is putting on makeup and maybe sleeping in his clothes for a week.”

Caglione: “When you look at those images – Cesar Romero, you look at [Jack] Nicholson – they have the big white red lips, you know, they have kind of dark eyes. And the white face. So it’s basically a blueprint. It’s just riffing on it is the thing. And our riff on it was that it had to be a very organic-looking makeup, like this guy is putting on makeup and maybe sleeping in his clothes for a week. His hair is kind of oily and greasy, and he doesn’t take off his makeup for like, three to five days. It’s not clean, pristine,  this is an organic world we’re taking a peek into. This is real life stuff. In my early sketches, I sketched different scars. And maybe that influenced the final prosthetics, but those prosthetics were built by Conor O’Sullivan. I was just the guy responsible for all the paint work that went over the pieces. But I seem to remember, in some of the meetings, the Cheshire Cat smile.”

“I always got the feeling that Heath had already worked it out in his head. He knew where he was going.” 

Caglione: “Heath was great in the chair. Special actors like Heath – and my experience with Al Pacino over the years – these actors help you relax so that you can bring your game… I always got the feeling that [Heath] had already worked it out in his head, from what I remember. He knew where he was going. Early on, in first meeting Heath and playing around with the makeup, he already kind of had it all figured out. It was my job to just basically gild the lily and try to catch up with him, really. That’s what I felt.”

The Dark Knight

Ledger was instrumental in creating the iconic look. (Photo by ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)


The Impact: A Different Kind of Superhero Movie

The box office receipts, the changes to the Academy, the landmark performance: The Dark Knight’s impact was huge at the time. But one of its most lasting impacts has been on the superhero genre as a whole. Nolan’s film showed not only that a superhero film could have, at its center, a performance for the ages, but that it could be dark and messy and play with themes and ideas usually reserved for prestige dramas and arthouse fare. It was mature and complex and everything the late-’90s Batman movies were not. And it inspired other filmmakers to try their hand at creating something just as deep within the genre; it’s hard to imagine, for example, James Mangold’s Logan would exist without The Dark Knight, or Todd Phillips Joker, for which Joaquin Phoenix will put his own spin on the character this October. Ledger and Nolan and everyone involved told the movie industry what comic-book fans knew for decades: this was a genre that could be taken so seriously.

The Dark Knight

Ledger would go on to win an Oscar for the role. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“We compared it to movies like Heat or Chinatown.”

Susan Bonds: “From the moment we read the script we realized this was a very special film, and that Christopher Nolan’s take on the world was a realistic take that we could relate to. It had struggles, and black-and-whites, and grays that we could relate to, but it was also very dramatic in the sense of, not just fantastical, but also very dramatic. We compared it to movies like Heat or Chinatown, movies that really had a lot of drama and small stories that were kind of intersected. Relationships that grew over time, that intersected, that were just very dramatic. I think that it definitely opened up the art form, but it also validated for people who had read the comic books for generations and dreamed about these worlds. It gave them a validation that these worlds did have a lot of depth. There was a lot of complexity to them. We felt like it was the best film of the year. It was amazing to see Heath Ledger and his family accept the Academy Award for him, to see that performance get recognized. But we would have loved to see the film nominated best film of the year.”

The Dark Knight

The movie opened up the possibilities of what a superhero film could be. (Photo by © Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)

“He’d just ride his skateboard to set and show up. He made it look effortless.”

Caglione: “I think we all knew we were on something pretty special. You get Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger, Christian Bale. It was a big, epic movie. I was thrilled to be on it. But reading it from Heath… he’d just ride his skateboard to set and show up. He made it look effortless. He knew exactly what was gonna happen, what was going on. It was amazing to watch… Like I’ve said in other interviews, I think in my obituary, they’ll say the guy that did the Joker makeup in The Dark Knight died today. And thank God for Heath Ledger, who did a beautiful job. And for Chris Nolan for hiring me. Incredible.”


The Dark Knight was released on July 18, 2008. Buy or rent it at FandangoNOW.

#1

The Dark Knight (2008)
94%

#1
Adjusted Score: 108303%
Critics Consensus: Dark, complex, and unforgettable, The Dark Knight succeeds not just as an entertaining comic book film, but as a richly thrilling crime saga.
Synopsis: With the help of allies Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman (Christian Bale) has... [More]
Directed By: Christopher Nolan

Tag Cloud

satire YA Extras TNT E! Nat Geo police drama Trophy Talk Discovery Channel Marvel Studios action-comedy scary movies Marvel Television BET spy thriller Netflix Christmas movies Horror TCA Awards doctor who 2016 toronto Character Guide TIFF TBS italian Acorn TV rt labs Trailer name the review comic books Writers Guild of America Video Games Black History Month live event cops miniseries Pacific Islander 93rd Oscars TCA 2017 series composers scary Valentine's Day First Reviews animated IMDb TV CNN GIFs nature Elton John Anna Paquin 2015 Baby Yoda Awards halloween tv Countdown Thanksgiving Infographic FXX Brie Larson anthology Paramount Plus summer preview worst Disney+ Disney Plus Lucasfilm The Walt Disney Company Showtime Rocky Pop VH1 Fall TV Exclusive Video nfl Western Mary Poppins Returns social media Legendary Stephen King Paramount TV Land Pet Sematary crossover HBO Go twilight genre Sundance TV dark Women's History Month mutant fresh PaleyFest First Look venice Amazon Prime Video festival natural history talk show Reality Competition Quiz Nominations Ellie Kemper Grammys kong cinemax HBO TCA cartoon australia worst movies Columbia Pictures hollywood RT History Tarantino dexter Box Office Netflix 2017 Best Director Disney Tumblr Emmys nbcuniversal summer TV suspense book APB theme song stoner 2019 romantic comedy renewed TV shows Hollywood Foreign Press Association 90s Pop TV TruTV cats GoT Mary poppins docuseries Sci-Fi Action canceled TV shows toy story screenings young adult sequels AMC Plus joker LGBT Election Ovation Toys Universal Pictures Sony Pictures Certified Fresh black Cannes Food Network Arrowverse critic resources Television Critics Association serial killer mcc DirecTV indiana jones Comedy E3 HFPA Sneak Peek TV One Instagram Live Television Academy Avengers robots Best Picture Syfy TCA Winter 2020 Winter TV Britbox NBC Cosplay festivals Watching Series slasher Funimation cars halloween ghosts Sundance Now marvel cinematic universe Spring TV Crackle 71st Emmy Awards all-time Shudder rt archives Lionsgate king arthur Best Actor NBA superhero Martial Arts crime drama TLC documentary Best and Worst Polls and Games Best Actress reviews Song of Ice and Fire discovery Hallmark Year in Review latino comics versus witnail cancelled TV series feel good San Diego Comic-Con Paramount Pictures binge Classic Film award winner kids james bond kaiju best women Fox Searchlight boxoffice Creative Arts Emmys golden globe awards Amazon Studios reboot 45 A&E Amazon Prime prank adenture vs. ratings Interview boxing international streamig Chilling Adventures of Sabrina DC streaming service obituary adventure basketball Tubi IFC classics critics asian-american spanish telelvision Star Wars Red Carpet ID Calendar Hallmark Christmas movies The Witch biopic comiccon popular SXSW Apple Musicals Disney streaming service Hulu TV renewals football CMT singing competition teaser YouTube Premium Ghostbusters Comic Book gangster lord of the rings olympics ABC Family french Prime Video Musical X-Men Turner Classic Movies Peacock The Purge Super Bowl Wes Anderson japan zombies Rom-Com transformers wonder woman Epix NYCC Chernobyl 21st Century Fox based on movie jamie lee curtis deadpool disaster Kids & Family dragons Alien Drama dceu south america green book Heroines Starz news rotten movies we love Schedule breaking bad History leaderboard streaming movies godzilla cancelled TCM 007 WarnerMedia christmas movies 2020 American Society of Cinematographers Bravo thriller concert trophy hispanic 1990s Comics on TV science fiction docudrama broadcast Image Comics BBC One obi wan ESPN sag awards facebook BBC America BET Awards know your critic foreign IFC Films Disney Channel cancelled TV shows Marathons video pirates of the caribbean blockbusters Opinion Pixar new zealand sports romance SXSW 2022 Walt Disney Pictures political drama Masterpiece psychological thriller royal family marvel comics MSNBC Mudbound target Endgame Apple TV Plus Pirates directors screen actors guild finale archives films dogs YouTube cancelled television new york video on demand Photos 73rd Emmy Awards TV movies Mindy Kaling ABC Signature A24 Summer HBO Max Rocketman Reality The CW hist stand-up comedy FX Spike rt labs critics edition japanese Pride Month dc Hear Us Out sequel Film Festival Binge Guide USA Network spider-verse live action Apple TV+ Crunchyroll revenge Dark Horse Comics Christmas Academy Awards aapi Freeform high school 24 frames MGM Superheroe VOD Universal OneApp USA comic Animation spanish language anime Travel Channel Podcast OWN interviews indie Premiere Dates Vudu Esquire hispanic heritage month spain razzies Black Mirror black comedy Comic-Con@Home 2021 technology Rock DGA Comedy Central documentaries Oscar Teen Music legend vampires Awards Tour 4/20 laika South by Southwest Film Festival historical drama DC Comics new star wars movies unscripted justice league fast and furious rom-coms adaptation CBS Superheroes YouTube Red Focus Features strong female leads stop motion PBS medical drama Lifetime movies Mystery Shondaland Mary Tyler Moore El Rey war spinoff Holiday television saw Fargo golden globes Nickelodeon CBS All Access travel PlayStation 79th Golden Globes Awards quibi what to watch tv talk Family TV ITV crime thriller mob free movies Holidays The Walking Dead CW Seed universal monsters scene in color ABC richard e. Grant crime hidden camera jurassic park New York Comic Con blaxploitation cults politics chucky monster movies 2021 AMC franchise Biopics FOX Set visit 2018 true crime RT21 sopranos WGN Paramount Network mission: impossible period drama Tomatazos remakes heist movie comic book movies Country Film Oscars zombie Logo SundanceTV trailers 94th Oscars MCU Cartoon Network game of thrones Emmy Nominations LGBTQ Amazon biography Captain marvel die hard Tags: Comedy Fox News 72 Emmy Awards 20th Century Fox Star Trek children's TV Disney Plus rotten Turner Broadway See It Skip It cooking diversity BBC Warner Bros. casting MTV VICE blockbuster a nightmare on elm street Adult Swim elevated horror emmy awards ViacomCBS Marvel king kong National Geographic Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Lifetime Christmas movies summer TV preview supernatural 99% Winners 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards space The Arrangement FX on Hulu debate child's play zero dark thirty harry potter Spectrum Originals President mockumentary sitcom spider-man game show werewolf Trivia dreamworks psycho DC Universe streaming Tokyo Olympics comic book movie slashers aliens canceled book adaptation comedies batman criterion parents superman SDCC movie posters GLAAD dramedy Fantasy Sundance Neflix scorecard independent BAFTA art house The Academy