Vera Drew: The People's Joker Is Ridiculously Autobiographical
Credit: Altered Innocence

Vera Drew, the co-writer, director, editor and star of The People’s Joker, says the trans, transgressive Batman parody tells her true life story — except for the whole thing where she becomes a scary clown.

“The movie is ridiculously autobiographical,” she says. “I’ve done so many interviews now where it always gets printed that it’s a ‘semi-autobiographical’ Joker movie or whatever. And I’m like, no — I can’t watch it because it’s kind of traumatic for me to watch. It is pretty much just my life. But the only difference is I’m not, you know, the actual Joker.”

The film — whose layers of metaphor involve coming out as trans, trying to break into comedy, and living in a Batman’s world — has drawn wide attention since a single Toronto International Film Festival showing last fall. Plans for future screenings were complicated by a letter from Warner Bros, which owns the film rights to the Joker, Batman, and countless other Gothamites the film portrays.

But the film is finally in theaters, under the cover of parody law, and expands today to Los Angeles and other select cities nationwide after debuting last week in New York. You can listen to our interview with Vera Drew in the latest MovieMaker podcast, available on Apple or Spotify or here you go:

Vera Drew on Making The People’s Joker

The film has opened to very positive reviews —The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody notably praises it as “the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen—because, unlike studio-produced films in the genre, it responds to the filmmaker’s deep personal concerns.”

The film is like a dream you might have after watching the Joel Schumacher Batman movies — if you’re subconscious is trying to use Batman to tell you something.

Drew stars as a struggling comedian who takes on the new identity of Joker the Harlequin, a self-doubting trickster who has elements of both The Joker and Harley Quinn. She aspires to save Gotham from the comic tyranny of Lorne Michaels — who is kind of like the real-life Lorne Michaels who leads Saturday Night Live, but kind of different — and the UCB, which is kind of like the real-life Upright Citizens Brigade theater and improv school, but kind of different.

Drew’s Joker the Harlequin is also haunted by the specter of Batman — who, as in the comics, vacillates between father figure and controlling patriarch. It delves deep into Batman mythology with references to the Schumacher and Tim Burton Batman films, Todd Phillips’ Joker, and Frank Miller’s comics, especially The Dark Knight Returns. Its take on the long-forgotten Robin of those books,  Carrie Kelley, is perceptive and haunting.

It critiques the original works with a madcap, passionate energy that reveals both a love of the source material and a deep questioning of her place in it.

The film owes its existence, in part, to Phillips’ Joker — or at least internet debate over Phillips’ 2019 insistence that it’s hard “to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.”

The People’s Joker trailer with Vera Drew

Drew was known at that time for her editing for Tim & Eric, Eric André, Sacha Baron Cohen and other comedy icons, and her friend Bri LeRose, a writer whose credits include Magic for Humans, sent Drew $12 over Venmo to commission a comedic re-edit of Phillips film.

But soon Drew found herself wanting to make a “real movie,” as she puts it, and she reached back to LeRose to see if she would co-write.

“I went back to Brie LeRose and I was like, ‘Will you helped me write this this Joker parody that is kind of just about my life? I want you to help help me not only write this autobiographical coming of age story, but also whatever you want to bring to it to from like your experience.’ Because Bri’s also queer and has been working in comedy about as long as I have, and we came out around the same time.

“It was really this kind of like creative match made in heaven. And from there we wrote a script and, as far as microbudget film scripts go, this was like the most ambitious script ever written. We did not know how we were going to pull off anything we were writing.”

They did it with the help of a $25,000 GoFundMe campaign, Drew taking out a $100,000 loan, and the help of many friends. An army of artists helped to create the garishly beautiful — and sometimes just plain beautiful — Gotham of The People’s Joker. And some of Drew’s comedy heroes, including Tim Heidecker and Bob Odenkirk, agreed to pop up in the movie.

But everything almost hit a wall in Toronto. Drew had high hopes for distribution, but believes the letter from Warner Bros. scared off some potential buyers. The film is being distributed by Altered Innocence, which specializes in LGBTQ+ and coming-of-age films and has secured an impressive national rollout.

Representatives for Warner Bros. Discovery have not responded to request for comment Tuesday, but Drew’s lawyers — some of whom have asked to remain anonymous — have cleared the film a path.

There was a point last year, after Toronto, when she wondered if the film would have make it into theaters, at least under its name. For a time, it was only shown in secret screenings with if-you-know-you-know titles like Clown Coming of Age Parody.

Vera Drew in The People’s Joker. Altered Innocence. Credit: Altered Innocence

“And then like, the description of it would be like, ‘an unfunny trans clown moves to a city and is hunted by a caped crusader,'” Drew laughs.

“If you knew what the movie was, you would show up,” she says. “That saved my life — film festivals, and the film and genre community and the microbudget community — just f—ing rallied around me.

“I was just a mess last year, emotionally and anxiety-wise. I was in a ton of debt from this film, and just had no idea what was going to come come of it. Thankfully, the queer cinema community really accepted me, and honestly the genre film community f—ing really showed up for me.”

Main image: Vera Drew in The People’s Joker. Altered Innocence.