The Inverse Interview

Why So Serious?

Vera Drew's The People's Joker takes on the superhero movie industrial complex.

The People's Joker
Haunted Gay Ride Productions
The Indie Issue

It started as a Joker fan edit.

Vera Drew, then working as a television editor for edgy comedy shows like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? and Tim and Eric’s Beef House, wanted to transform Todd Phillips’ anti-hero blockbuster into a queer video-art collage. But somewhere along the way, that project morphed into her feature directorial debut, The People’s Joker, a collaborative, multimedia, transgender, coming-of-age story projecting her own journey onto that of the Clown Prince of Crime.

But even as her fan edit evolved into something new and original, Drew never thought The People’s Joker would reach the incredible heights it eventually did.

“I always assumed I would screen the movie, and maybe 20 or 30 of my friends would see it and would be like, ‘That was amazing, but you’re $100,000 in debt now,’” she tells Inverse, “And then maybe I’d post it online, and it would discover an audience over time.”

Instead, The People’s Joker was accepted to the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, immediately garnering interest for its transgressive move of taking the most famous comic book story on Earth and transforming it into a deeply personal saga. Set in a bizarro version of Gotham City where unsanctioned comedy is illegal, The People’s Joker is told from the perspective of an unnamed protagonist who’s prescribed “Smylex” by his mother at a young age to counteract gender dysphoria and joins a satirical revolution against a not-so-subtle parody of Saturday Night Live.

But the evening before the film’s premiere, that excitement was undercut by an “angry letter” from Warner Bros. Drew clarified in a statement that the letter was not a cease-and-desist, but it was still enough for her and the festival to pull all screenings after the initial premiere from the schedule, throwing the film’s future into limbo. Suddenly, The People’s Joker wasn’t just an absurdist send-up of the superhero genre — it was a symbol of The Man cracking down on independent artists.

“It’s been quite intense,” Drew admits. “There have been many points in the last year where I’ve wondered, ‘Do I want this many people knowing about my relationship with my mom?’ I don’t know. Probably not, but wow. I guess I did it.”

Finally, in December 2023, The People’s Joker found a home with distributor Altered Innocence. It will premiere in theaters on April 5, the end of a two-year journey that catapulted this experimental lark to a fierce statement in the face of recent ruthless decisions made by Warner Bros. Discovery and its CEO, David Zaslav.

But The People’s Joker is more than just the circumstances that surround it. It’s an incredibly watchable yet absurdist take on finding yourself in comedy, in relationships, and in media.

Drew spoke to Inverse about the unique journey her movie has taken, making the jump from editor to director, and how deepfakes to greenscreens brought The People’s Joker together.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Yes, the iconic Joker stair dance is featured in The People’s Joker.

Haunted Gay Ride Productions

At what point did you decide “Actually, this fun experimental video art piece should be a narrative autobiographical film”?

It was very gradual. I had a rough shell of the movie pieced together with scenes from Todd Phillips’ Joker, scenes from Batman Forever, the Jim Carrey [and] Andy Kaufman movie Man on the Moon, Goodfellas, Return to Oz. I built this big, found-footage version of the movie.

The next step was deep-faking my face on these characters. I actually consulted with Dr. Fakenstein, who is one of the foremost deepfake artists out there right now. I had a meeting with him, and because this was 2020, he told me the technology for what I was trying to do didn’t exist. It probably does now.

“One of the early moments I realized I was trans was seeing the way Batman looks at Nicole Kidman.”

After that, I realized I had a lot more to say from a very personal place. I had this memory resurface of going to see Batman Forever with my dad. One of the early moments I realized I was trans was seeing the way Batman looks at Nicole Kidman. I was like, “I want Batman to look at me that way. I want to look like that too. Why do I want to look like that? I’m a 6-year-old boy.”

I realized this is less a Batman and Joker movie [than] it is a movie just about my relationship with these characters. So what is my version of these characters? And how can we take all these themes and ideas we’re playing with and make something that qualifies as a parody?

We filmed all the live-action stuff in five days, which was stupid. I walked away from that shoot with a version of the movie that was a hybrid of what we have now and what the video art version of it was. I just thought, “Well, we’re halfway there. Let’s just fill in the rest of it with original stuff.”

I just didn’t see any other way. I was getting sick of being a gun for hire in Hollywood and working on a lot of cool things but feeling like my voice was getting lost, and it was like here’s the chance. I may never have this chance again. So let’s do it and let's cash in every single favor that I can to do it.

All of The People’s Joker’s live action green screen elements were shot in five days.

Haunted Gay Ride Productions

How did your start as an editor affect how you approached the filmmaking process?

I wouldn’t have been able to make this movie if I hadn’t spent 15 years in the edit bay because every single shot in the film is a VFX shot. There are 1,600 or something VFX shots in the movie. It’s fucking crazy. I had to go to set knowing exactly what we needed to film. We had a rough animatic of the movie cut together before we ever even filmed it so that I would know exactly what we needed. I would cut lines and rewrite them on the day.

Most people who direct superhero movies or movies that are entirely on a green screen don’t even really know how to light a green screen. And I could say that from the experience of working with a lot of these directors, a lot of them are not coming to this with any understanding of visual effects or what you need to shoot on the day, and I have that. That was the reason we were able to make something so ambitious for a first-time filmmaker.

But I knew I wanted to be a director before I knew what my gender was. My earliest memory is watching Back to the Future and Showgirls. It was like, “I know this isn’t real, but there’s this whole world that somebody just created.”

“Just the idea of the movie existing means a lot to a lot of trans people.”

In the movie, you thank Warner Bros. for the free publicity. How did that ordeal affect and assist this movie’s journey?

I assumed Warner Bros. was going to ignore us. It was the night of our press day when we got the letter from them, and it became clear to me that they’re not going to ignore us. They’re not going to give us the Disney Escape from Tomorrow treatment, which is what I was hoping they would do.

I had taken so many meetings at Warner Bros. over the years. Every time I would go into a general with their animation department or anybody in their creative team, I would always say, “Hey, I’m making a Joker movie.” And they’d always be like, “Cool. We can’t wait to see it. We know it looks really cool.”

So when we got that letter, I was fucking devastated. I was crying on the streets of Toronto with a broken zipper in my leather pants. I was the most vulnerable I had ever been in my life. And it took a lot of people around me to say “We’re going to figure this out. This movie is a parody. We have so many lawyers telling you it’s a parody. We’re going to get it out there.”

Toronto International Film Festival advocated for us and negotiated with Warner Bros. Canada to get us to screen, and we were able to have this premiere. The premiere was amazing. It was a total dream. Every single joke landed. The anticipation was crazy, too, because everybody in that room spent that entire day wondering if they were going to be able to see this movie.

I woke up that next morning terrified that I had wasted a lot of time and money making something that people were never going to get to see. I got a text message from Tim Heidecker that just said “Hey, look at all this free publicity.” And it immediately re-grounded me, to have one of my Hollywood father figures give me some very sage advice.

The amplification that Warner Bros. gave us was very good at getting word of mouth out there and building a lot more anticipation for this movie. A lot of people were worried for the past year that this movie wasn’t going to come out. And I think some people are still scared about that just because it means a lot to people. Just the idea of the movie existing means a lot to a lot of trans people.

The People’s Joker often jumps from live-action to animation and back.

Haunted Gay Ride Productions

So much of The People’s Joker is about seeing yourself and finding yourself, whether that’s through the movies, through comedy, or through performance. What did you want to represent in this movie?

I just wanted to tell my story more than anything. It was really important for me to make a film with a queer villain just because I am annoyed by phrases like “queer joy.” I see queer people a lot of the time talking about how a queer artist’s responsibility is to make things that aren’t just about our trauma or to make things that show “the best of us.” But when trans people show the best of themselves, they’re villainized. We literally live in a society where I just get shit constantly just for dressing the way I dress.

“Queer people should be making art where we are the villains.”

Queer people should be making art where we are the villains, where we’re showing why we’re the villains and how society makes us that way. I’ve always loved queer-coded villains, like Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I wanted to do that problematic queer-coded villain thing, but do it very directly and do it in a way that was accurate to the experience of what it feels like to be trans in America, and hopefully other parts of the world too.

Did you get any catharsis out of making such a personal movie?

It was just therapy in the beginning. I was just processing what it was like coming out as trans in the comedy scene that I was in, which was pretty male-dominated. I was just journaling more than anything. But when it became an actual movie, I was really nervous. I was like, “Who the fuck is going to play this character? I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know if I want to reenact actual conversations I’ve had with my ex or my mom.”

I was surrounded by people when I started making it, and a lot of them were encouraging me just to do it, just act in the part, that it could be very therapeutic. And I think the most therapeutic part of the process was reenacting this stuff.

I never sat down to memorize the script. I had lived a lot of this stuff, and I didn’t want to relive the past. So we would just do one or two takes each for each thing, and it always felt so good. Acting and performing mythologized all this stuff. It made it a lot less scary in my head.

Going into it, I still had a lot of shame over the fact that the journey of finding myself was as clunky as it had appeared, but reenacting it made me realize that’s what this is all about. It helped me understand myself.

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