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No Joke: Vera Drew Pairs Autobiography with Parody in the Controversial 'The People’s Joker'

By Gracie Law | Film | April 3, 2024 |

By Gracie Law | Film | April 3, 2024 |


It’s been a turbulent trip to the big screen for Vera Drew. An Emmy-nominated editor and creator steeped in L.A.’s alt-comedy scene, Drew directed, edited, co-wrote, and stars in The People’s Joker — a film that began as a community DIY project during the early connection-starved days of the Covid-19 pandemic; continued as the epicenter of a film festival controversy; went around the world with a hush-hush series of screenings; and this April kicks off its theatrical run.

An autobiographical coming-of-age comedy/drama starring Drew as an aspiring stand-up comedian who moves to the big city with dreams of being on Saturday Night Live, The People’s Joker is a heartfelt, deeply personal exploration of its director’s journey toward self-acceptance as a trans woman. It’s also a DC Comics parody, which brought the film to the attention of DC Comics owner Warner Bros. Discovery.

“It’s constantly fed to us that [superhero stories] are our modern myths,” Drew told Pajiba. “But myths belong to the people. Myths are about coming of age. People like me — you know, poor, mentally ill, punk rock trans women — should be allowed to play with these toys.” Warner Bros. Discovery disagreed. Hours before the film’s planned debut at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Drew received a letter from the company asking that The People’s Joker not be shown publicly and alleging copyright infringement. Entertainment media picked up the story, and soon Drew, TIFF, and Warner Bros. Discovery were in the middle of a small flurry of press which, Drew points out, very likely brought the film to the attention of more people than if Warner Bros. Discovery had done nothing at all. The festival went ahead with the planned premiere of The People’s Joker but canceled the remaining screenings.

Picked up by specialty distributor Altered Innocence, The People’s Joker kicks off its planned week-long engagement at New York City’s IFC Center on April 5. Pajiba spoke to Drew about the film’s journey to the big screen and her hopes that many more people will experience her truly unprecedented film in the communal cinema setting.

I want to ask you about the legal situation with Warner Bros. Discovery-have they brought legal action forward in connection with this film?

No. The only thing we’ve ever really received from them are what I would describe as strongly worded letters from their in-house legal department. It’s confusing, whenever I revisit [the original letter], because the cases they cite I would agree don’t fall under fair use or parody. They cite this Star Trek fan film and, I think, a Dr. Seuss-[inspired] book somebody wrote that was really about the O.J. Simpson trial. I think anybody should be able to make any kind of art they want, but those are two instances where I’m like, “Yeah, I could see how that is somebody taking an IP and just trying to make some money.”

After TIFF, for the most part, the press has been on our side and agrees that the movie is protected by parody and fair use. The thing that [separates it] from those two examples that I cited — and from fan films in general — is that it’s very autobiographical. I essentially wrote my life story and my experience of coming out as a trans woman and just changed my name to Joker and changed my abusive ex-fiancé to Jared Leto’s Joker [in Suicide Squad]. I grew up in Smallville [in the film] instead of Mokena, Illinois.

The TIFF premiere gave the film a ton of publicity; were you approached by any distributors who maybe wanted to put it onto a streaming platform right away, to capitalize on the attention you were getting?

We did get a couple of bigger distributors show interest right after TIFF, I think specifically because of the viral attention it got. But everybody got really scared off. I was intimidated by Warner Bros, and so were a lot of people. That’s why we screened the way we did [over] this last year. We didn’t really do any public-facing screenings. We had to be very secretive about how we were screening it. I was very confident that I could screen this movie legally; the movie’s, again, protected by U.S. copyright law. Room 237, [the IFC Films-released documentary about various ways viewers have parsed the ambiguity of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining]—they show most of The Shining in that. They can do that because of fair use. And we can do this because of fair use. We can also do this because of parody law. It’s kind of using the same exact rules that Scary Movie does. The difference with us is, it’s a very tender movie. It’s very dramatic. It’s also a parody. It definitely is parodying some deep-cut DC canon things because I’ve been reading comic books my whole life, and I’m obsessed with this shit.

I don’t know that any of the streamers would have been willing to get in bed with us this time last year, just because of the baggage that’s associated with the movie. But I have had a lot of people go, “Why don’t you just put it online and throw up a donation link? Why don’t you post it to your Patreon?” I mean, I’d love to do that. I’m in debt because of this movie. [Laughs] I spent the equivalent of a small house in the Midwest on this film. But, for me, it was always meant to be a theatrical experience first and foremost. It really did start as a DIY community project, but even in that template, it was always meant to be viewed in an audience full of queer people and people who love comedy and love superheroes and want to watch something made by a bunch of weird anarchists.

You’re starting with a week-long engagement in New York; are there plans to take it elsewhere?

I don’t want our theatrical run to ever end. I want it to be a midnight movie. IFC Center in April is just the beginning. There’s a hunger for [screenings]. Part of that is because, after [co-writer Bri LeRose] and I wrote the script, we crowdsourced a lot of the actual artistic work that went into it. I used to have a web series called “Hot Topics with Vera Drew,” which is the only web series with the express purpose of getting Vera Drew sponsored by [mall goth retailer] Hot Topic. I never got sponsored by Hot Topic, but it was on that web series that I announced what I was doing and opened up the collaborative process to anybody that wanted to partake. I woke up the next day to hundreds of emails. I was expecting 10 people to respond. I’ve worked on a lot of cool stuff in my life. My first job in Hollywood was [as a crew member on 2012’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III,] the first A24 movie. From then there was The Eric Andre Show season one and then Nathan For You season one. I worked on all this really cool, iconic shit. But anytime I would try to strike out on my own, I wouldn’t really get a ton of attention.

When we announced that we were doing this, we hadn’t shot a frame of it, and we had this huge team of people that was suddenly there willing to help us do it. It was like, “Ok, this is a no-brainer. Let’s really do this. Let’s build out the departments. Here are the animators, all the actors we have working remotely, the musicians.” It’s my story, but it was this big, beautiful, artistic community putting it together all around the world. So there are people all over the world that are ready to see this movie, just because they’ve been talking to their friends for two years and going, “Yeah, I’m working on some weird trans Joker movie.” So the plan is to take it everywhere. But [we’re] starting in New York and going from there.

I saw it a few months back at [theater name redacted]. It was such a good crowd movie. It’s a collaborative audience experience-you’re laughing, but it also kind of feels like you’re in therapy. It’s very cathartic.

Taking it out to festivals last year was nerve-racking, because every step of the way it was like: “Am I going to hear from Warner Brothers again? Will they actually send us a real cease and desist this time?” That fear quickly went away when I saw how much audiences were responding to it. I watched the movie so much with people [that] I’m kind of sick of watching it now. But I enjoyed watching it with people because it was crazy watching how much it resonated, particularly because of how specific a lot of it is. The mother/daughter relationship is very much my mom and I. When Bri and I were writing this together, we were like, “I don’t know if people are going to relate to this, because it’s just so us.” But it’s hitting. It hits everybody. I’ve had parents of trans people come up to me and say, “Thank you so much for making this, because I finally know how to talk to my kids.” It’s really fucking cool. That’s the kind of thing that I never really fathomed we could get out of this. On a personal level, it’s made me feel a lot more connected to my own identity and to trans people and the trans community as a whole.

‘The People’s Joker’ will have a week-long engagement at New York City’s IFC Center beginning on April 5.