Here’s how they did the infamous Joker pencil trick in The Dark Knight
It took a couple of knockouts, but they got there.
The Dark Knight is 15 years old today, which is kind of terrifying when you stop and think about it. A strong argument can be made - and JOE has indeed made it - that Christopher Nolan's second chapter of his Batman saga changed our expectations of the modern blockbuster.
For many, the film represents the tragically late Heath Ledger's legacy, so compelling was he in the role of The Joker. It says a lot about Aaron Eckhart's doomed Harvey Dent that both that actor and character managed to share breathing space with Ledger's iconic menace, so good was the quality on display.
Still, if you conjure up any image of The Dark Knight at random, it is likely tinted green. The Joker had many scene-stealing moments in the film, and one of the most viscerally memorable came early on when he displayed his mischievously murderous side.
Challenged by the mafia, The Joker resorts to showing off in blink-and-you'll miss it fashion, spelling a quick end for one unfortunate sharp-suited henchman. Ta-dah! It's gone, remember?
The pencil trick is exceedingly gruesome, and you might well wonder just how the filmmakers pulled it off.
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A new oral history by Vulture gathers key actors and various production and special effects heads to delve into that very subject.
"There was talk of it being a CGI pencil," recalls stunt coordinator Richard Ryan. "Would the whole thing be a visual-effects gag?"
Trusted Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister, meanwhile, notes that there was little to no bargain basement magician trickery at work.
"There was no trick pencil," says Pfister. "There was no pencil when his head hit the table so there is no place it’s disappearing into. There was nothing there when his head hits the table."
In the end, they shot one take with the pencil and one without, trusting the final edit to do the work. For the actor in question - Charles Jarman - this meant being extremely precise or, well, dying.
"I remember Christopher Nolan saying to me, 'Look, we’re going to do a couple of shots where you need to be able to take that pencil away'," remembers Jarman.
"We did a couple of half-speed rehearsals just to get the hand action of my right hand sweeping across, taking the pencil as my body was going down, and my head striking the blank surface. It was a little hairy, because the pencil’s stuck in the table.
"If, for some reason, I didn’t get my hand in time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Well, possibly through a Ouija board."
All in all, it took 22 takes over two days with two different types of tables to get it right. Jarman bashed his head a few times, even knocking himself out once or twice, all in the name of art.
"Heath actually asked me when I was coming to, saying, 'Are you okay? Are you okay?' I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I’m good.' Then he slipped back into The Joker again."
Richie Coster, who played The Chechen, says that he didn't see Ledger in his make-up until the first time he walked onto the set for the scene, nor did he know what stunt was coming.
Pfister also admits his shock that The Dark Knight didn't receive a more adult rating, but that Nolan knew it would all along.
"With this pencil trick, I thought, 'If it has the right amount of levity, we’ll sell this and it won’t come off as being violent but it’ll come off as being a magic trick and it’ll come off as being a punchline'. And it was!"
You can read the whole breakdown of the pencil trick scene right here.
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