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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.”
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.”