Web Analytics Made Easy - Statcounter

Unleashing The People's Joker: Vera Drew on crafting a satirical Trans love letter to all things Batman

Share this Post:
Vera Drew — Photo by Sophie Prettyman-Beauchamp
Vera Drew — Photo by Sophie Prettyman-Beauchamp

I've watched The People's Joker three times now. The first was during the 2023 Seattle Queer Film Festival. I laughed, sure, but was also knocked so far sideways, I could barely process what I'd just watched, let alone talk about the experience with anyone. If anyone that asked me what I thought, all I could do was urge them to give it a look themselves, with no further explanation — the film affected me that much.

Now that the jubilantly politically incorrect satire is finally going into general release, I was able to sit down and take a fresh look (two, in fact). I laughed. I cried. I laughed some more. Mostly, I sat in silence smiling. Not only did writer-director Vera Drew deliver a beautiful love letter to all things Caped Crusader, she also playfully eviscerated modern, cookie-cutter, corporate-studio comic-book filmmaking in a way that left me speechless.

Most of all, though, she brought to life an autobiographical Trans story unlike anything I'd ever seen. Drew put so much of herself into the picture that the low-budget, do-it-yourself filmmaking style made it all feel like some surreal fever dream I didn't want to come to an end. Combining live action, a bevy of animation styles, and all sorts of creative zaniness that frequently blew my mind, this was a one-of-a-kind achievement that I now couldn't wait to tell everyone, everywhere to go see, so they could experience all of the flame-throwing creative exuberance for themselves.

And to think, The People's Joker came perilously close to never seeing the light of day. Hours before the film's midnight premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Warner Bros. Discovery sent a cease-and-desist letter to the festival, demanding that all screenings be canceled. While the premiere went ahead, Drew made the difficult to decision to put a hold on all future showings.

But then a funny thing happened. The cult of The People's Joker began to grow, little by little, moment by moment. Drew knew she was on solid "fair use" grounds, and all it would take was an adventurous distributor to buck the giant Hollywood behemoths and take a chance on her spunky labor of Trans-friendly Batman love (Warner Bros. did not really have a strong case). Drew took the film on the festival circuit to build buzz. She'd put too much of herself into the finished product for it to vanish into the ether as if it never existed.

So here we are today. Upstart distributor Altered Innocence snatched up the title for domestic release and has been slowly opening it in theaters across the United States throughout April. It has been met with almost universal acclaim by critics (with a current Certified Fresh score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes) and has had its Los Angeles and New York theatrical runs extended due to audience demand.

I'm not going to lie: The People's Joker spoke to me. I saw a lot of my teenage and young adult self in Drew's story, and had I watched this at a younger age, I think it would have inspired me in ways I can barely fathom (let alone put into words). For a Trans viewer, as difficult, honest, and eerily triggering as certain elements may be, watching it is borderline transformative.

All of which is to say that sitting down to speak with Drew, even for only a few minutes, has been one of the highlights of my professional career. But I also think some of my objectivity was lost a little along the way, so it's probably best to keep that in mind.

Anyhow, here are the edited transcripts from our wide-ranging conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters: I'm sure it's been a surreal year and a half.

Vera Drew: Yeah. It's weird to be me right now, but I'm mostly enjoying it.

SMF: What has this whole process been like — not just the journey of making the film but just from Toronto to now? What have you been doing, feeling, and thinking as this journey has progressed?

VD: 2023 was one of the most just challenging, exhausting years of my life, because the movie was in limbo for a while. But ... it wasn't in too much of a limbo. I just didn't know what I was going to do with it, because there wasn't anybody that was really looking to distribute it. You get a lot of press at TIFF, and then you see "rights issue" slammed over every headline. Nobody's really looking to buy that movie. I have way too many agents now, and they were all just using this movie as a business card for me. I was like, "I need to release this, though. I can't put it on the shelf."

It just feels like now's the time for it to come out. It'd be interesting if I had to shelve [The People's Joker] and then people revisited it in 10 years. But it would just be a window into how things are now. I feel it needed to be out there now for Trans people.

During the fog of that limbo, I was using it as an opportunity to finish the movie, just because the TIFF cut was such a fresh paint job. I needed to recast an actor, and that took a while, [as did] finishing some of the VFX [visual effects] and getting our music clearances together.

I also took it out to festivals, and we did secret screenings, which was a lot of fun. I had never heard of a secret screening before. When I heard about them, I was like, "Why would you go see a movie you don't know what it is?" [laughs] For us, this made sense. We could do these secret screenings but also spread some rumors, like, "Hey, maybe The People's Joker is screening." That was fun.

I did a little tour with the movie in Australia last April that was entirely secret screenings, but in the film festival programs, we would call the movie "a perfectly legal untitled queer coming-of-age comic-book parody," and then the premise was "an unfunny clown moves to a city and is chased down by a caped crusader" — it was so obviously our movie. If you knew what The People's Joker was, you'd be like, "I think that's The People's Joker." If you didn't know what it was, it would just sound like the craziest, most misguided thing you could go see on a Saturday night.

Last year was so weird and very much not what I had ever pictured my 2023 looking like. But it was a beautiful experience. This movie has always just been a snake eating its own tail, because it is so personal and based on my life. But the release of the movie has really kept that continuum of like, where does the movie start and stop, and where does my life end and begin?

It's trippy how blurry that is sometimes. I'm having fun with it.

SMF: I admit, when I saw this film back at the Seattle Queer Film Festival last year, everybody and their sister kept wanting to ask me my opinion. But I couldn't talk about the film. The first time I watched it, I just couldn't talk about it. I was like, "You just need to go see it. Do whatever you can to see it. Just see it. But I can't talk about it."

It wasn't until I watched it again recently before this theatrical release that I feel I'm now capable of processing how much the film means to me. I think I would've been devastated had this ended up being a Todd Haynes situation, where you make a personal film that nobody can actually watch. I can't imagine how that would've been for you had this been like Superstar, where it's something that everybody talks about but nobody is actually allowed to see.

Just speaking for me, The People's Joker means the world to me, and I'm so glad audiences are going to be able to experience it for themselves in a theatrical setting.

VD: Watching that start to happen in real time was devastating. I don't say this to throw anybody under the bus, because I understand why people on my team started to jump ship — their bosses got scared — but I was surrounded by people at the time that were really telling me, "Let's just hit pause. Let's put you on a general meeting tour. Let's get you in a writers' room. Let's get you some scripts." I was like, "What about watching this movie made you think that I was looking for jobs right now? That this was a big business card for me?"

Look, [The People's Joker] was initially a fucking joke that I made with my friend that I ultimately took way too far. It then became this really expensive form of therapy for me. I don't know that The People's Joker is the most personal movie ever made, but it's certainly up there. I have the veil of superheroes to hide behind at times, but the character's dead name in the movie is my dead name. It's that personal. Because even last year, when we were screening it at festivals and stuff, if I'd ever do press or go on a podcast or whatever, people would always describe it as a "banned film," or me as a "banned filmmaker." I was like, "I made one movie. What's going on?"

It also was like a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the banning. If I had been crazy, if I had been a real freak, I would've just not pulled it after TIFF. I would've kept going with all of our festivals we had planned. But I needed to return to a place of self-care and feel good about the project again, because of what you said. I had to touch my heart ... just to stay grounded, because, for me, so much of this was knowing how much this movie was going to mean to anybody on any gender journey. This movie, even if you don't like it, it'll pull at something that most movies don't pull at, because nobody ever gets the chance to talk about transness in this way.

I'm so glad you got to see it again and process it. I recognize that the movie has been traumatic for some ... There were people that were anticipating this movie from its announcement. When I announced on Twitter in 2020 that I was making it, I put out this call to all these people to help us. There were people that started following the process then that were devastated when the movie got pulled from all those festivals.

But now I'm so glad it's now out there, and I'm so glad too that it is with a Queer distributor. Altered Innocence is so amazing. Their catalog is just — I don't know — it's perfect. We're right at home with them. And I mean, the fact that [Altered Innocence founder] Frank Jaffe has a porn label too, that was the first Bat Signal for me they'd be perfect. [laughs] And his porn label is called Anus Films, and it's just the Janus Films logo but with butts! It's a match made in heaven. This is obviously where I'm supposed to be.

SMF: In the film, your cinematic moment was with Nicole Kidman, that moment of knowing something was up. Mine was Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, but I wasn't entirely sure what that meant. But it was followed up a few years later by Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, and when she shows up as Catwoman, that's when I truly knew something was going on. That moment when that transformation happens in that movie — I could not stop giggling. When you show Kidman in the film, and then your bio, I couldn't help but think, we're on the same wavelength. We both learned something about ourselves by watching a Batman movie. [laughs]

VD: That's so interesting! You're definitely not the first person I've talked to that's like, "I figured out some shit from these characters." It's the part of this that has been emotionally validating for me, because I did think on some level ... that I was making a movie that people would enjoy just because of the [number] of people that wanted to help me make it. But I was also making it for 13-year-old me, ... but also the 5-year-old me that saw Batman Forever and probably would've appreciated, instead of subtext, some like, "Hey, here is some actual text" instead. [laughs]

I think it's just cool to hear stuff like that, because it makes me feel less alone. It's validating. The movie is so specific and very, very autobiographical, and the fact that people can connect with a story that I really just put all out there like that, it means the world and has healed me in a lot of ways.

SMF: Here's the thing, and I'll be honest about this, but as a Trans film critic, one of the things that I tend to complain about in modern LGBTQ filmmaking is that so much of it is always the same stuff that we've been watching since the 1980s and 1990s. It's all of these coming out stories. It's all of this trauma stuff. I find that I want to move away from that. I want to have movies like Bit, Bottoms, Drive-Away Dolls, and Love Lies Bleeding. Heck, even The Craft: Legacy. I want to see these stories where being LGBTQ is a part of the character, but it also isn't what defines them.

But then when you make something like The People's Joker, I'm reminded that when stories like this one come from a place of truth and authenticity, they matter and they work in ways that are almost indescribable. They can be difficult to watch, but they can also be very, very funny. Because they are honest. Because they come from a place of truth. Because they treat the audience with intelligence and respect.

How hard was that to juggle, to know that, in some ways, you are presenting the foundation of a story that we have maybe seen before, but doing so in a way that is also different and new, telling this deeply personal "coming out" story in a way that remains so intimately personal but that can also play to a broader audience?

VD: Literally, that was the part of the movie that was maybe the easiest in a lot of ways. I had rules that I followed for parody and fair use, but as far as creative choices, it was like, "I'm going to break every single rule Sacha Baron Cohen ever gave me in the edit bay. I'm going to break every single rule I was taught in film school. Take out a huge loan! Tell a personal story! Talk about your mom very honestly!" I was going to do it all.

The movie needed to embody anarchy. I think that is the thing that is missing from Joker portrayals a lot of the time: his genuine anarchy that is a rejection of form, a rejection of every social structure, not just some of them. Every single moment of this had possibility within it to be funny, but also to be sad, be dumb, be colorful. I wanted to talk about Trans things that I was afraid of too, because I knew people like us needed to see it. But I also just knew that you really only make good art when you're scaring yourself a little bit.

But the thing about telling a really personal story, especially a Trans story, is you can give visibility to things that nobody's ever talked about before in a cinematic space. I'm a dumb genre person. My movie taste is very college dorm room, and I think the thing that's just new and exciting about me is, yeah, I want to bring honest Trans stories to that space and do it in a funny way too. I think we can talk about coming out in a way that is serious and heartfelt but also has levity to it and a realism. Realism means the dark stuff sometimes, but also an optimism and hopefully a brighter future that's ahead, because otherwise, why am I making this and why are you watching it?

Vera Drew as Joker the Harlequin and Ember Knight as Mx Mxyzptlk in The People's Joker — Courtesy of Altered Innocence  

SMF: You had the festival buzz. You had the underground buzz. But because the film couldn't really be out there yet, I imagine none of that felt definite. People weren't truly able to put into writing what they were feeling about this film. They couldn't really talk about it.

Now, with this release, with reviews piling in and word of mouth being what it is, with you seeing these reactions that are almost across the board euphoric, what has this been like for you?

VD: I don't even know if I have been able to really process it emotionally. I think there's a massive amount of relief, first of all, just because, like you said, we had the festival buzz, we had underground buzz, but I was also getting told every step of the way by a lot of people that I was surrounded by that ...the momentum wasn't going to keep going. Because of that, I think getting to this point, I was always like, "I don't know for sure how the movie's going to be received."

I don't know. I'm not somebody who ...[can] get any real fulfillment or validation just from other people's opinions on things. I need to feel good about it for myself, because otherwise it's just empty. There's no joy there. It's just fucking ego shit.

But there was so much relief when those reviews started coming in. Just seeing everybody fucking gets this and everybody just totally stoked that we did this. The Richard Brody piece [in the New Yorker]: "Best superhero movie I've ever seen." I keep reading it, because I keep thinking it was something I dreamt. I don't know. It's really cathartic, and it's healed me in a way.

Last year was just so scary and bad. There was a lot of good and a lot of really cool shit that happened last year, and we came out on the other side perfect. It was always supposed to be like this. It was always supposed to be this weird, drawn-out, strange release, so that we could end up at a place like Altered Innocence.

But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't scary. Financially, emotionally, my life fell apart multiple times in this process. And then just this past week, I don't know, I don't particularly love doing press, but it's been fun on some level, because I have been able to process it with you all. I can only really talk about this movie in a way that does feel like therapy. It's so cool.

SMF: This is going to sound weird (it's probably oversharing) — and I have my issues with Rotten Tomatoes — but after I uploaded my review and I saw the "Certified Fresh" score trigger, I couldn't stop giggling. I don't know if it was my review that did it or if it was someone else's, but it felt like it was my top-critic review that put The People's Joker over the top. I actually started giggling and crying at the same time, because it meant so much to me to put up a review for a film that I know that I'm going to treasure for the rest of my life. It felt meaningful.

VD: Thank you. I don't know what to say. Thank you. That's wonderful to hear. You earned the right to say that you made this movie "Certified Fresh," and you have my consent to put that in writing. It was you.