It's been just over a decade since Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight hit theaters and made its case for one of the best comic book films ever made, a case that still stands strong today. One of the most memorable aspects of the film was Heath Ledger's iconic performance as the Joker, which included a number of bone-chilling scenes that made the viewer wholly buy into the character's psychosis.
One of the most glaring examples of the Joker's shock value was the "pencil scene," which drew plenty of gasps from movie theater crowds upon first viewing. Turns out, according to a discussion with some of the talent behind the movie, hosted by Vulture, filming and executing the scene was about as dangerous as living in Gotham during the Joker's reign of terror.
In the scene, the Joker causally walks in on a meeting of the Gotham crime bosses, who unsurprisingly want to kill him after the Joker robbed their banks in the opening scene of the film. When the Joker is asked why they shouldn't kill him on the spot, the Joker responds with, "how about a magic trick?" He sticks a pencil into a table so it stands upright. "I'm going to make this pencil disappear," the Joker says. As a mobster approaches, he grabs the man's head and slams it into the table, forcing the pencil through his eye and killing him.
The poor henchman who met his unforgettable, brutal demise was played by Charles Jarman, who was unnamed in the film but is a staple in The Dark Knight lore thanks to his involvement in the scene. Jarman, who participated in the discussion with Vulture, detailed just how dangerous the execution of the pencil trick was.
In the interview, Jarman describes how he had to quickly remove the pencil from the table just before Ledger shoved his head into the table, in a quick, fluid fashion that would look realistic. Because the film was shot in IMAX, the crew elected to avoid the use of a CGI pencil. So, when the Joker grabs hold of Jarman's head before shoving his eye into the pencil, there really is a pencil still stuck in the table.
"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,'" said 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. I 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."
Jarman recalled doing roughly 22 takes over two days, using two different tables. One table had a rubber layer on top to soften the blow for Jarman when his head came crashing down, but according to Jarman, he preferred a real table.
"I've got to tell you, I think the real table was a lot easier," said Jarman. "It was thinner. It gave more. It did sting a little, but when you strike wood... the whole thing flexes, so there's that give. Whereas the galvanized rubber table, because of its density, there was less give. It kind of felt like putting a towel over a brick wall, and running into it."
Jarman also recalled being "knocked out" at least three times, coming to with Ledger asking if he was okay. The determination to pull off the scene was certainly painstaking, and Jarman's risk was rewarded with one of the most memorable scenes in a superhero film, ever.