Credit: Altered Innocence
by Esmé Holden Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Real Magic in That Kind of Art: An Interview with Vera Drew

April 18, 2024

With our own culture marginalized, when it isn’t being stripped for its most clean and convenient parts, queer people have often taken back from the mainstream, twisting our culture into something new, or, perhaps more subversively, revealing the latent queerness that was always there. Superhero movies, Hollywood’s primary export for the last decade, are a perfect example: all of their lead characters are wounded outsiders with adopted identities. But while the heroes remain in the closest — Batman never comes out as Bruce Wayne, or, more honestly, vice versa — the villains get to truly become. Whoever the Joker was before he became the clown prince of crime doesn’t matter; they’re all but dead now. So is it any surprise that trans people in particular are drawn to them? 

However, taking these characters for our own, more than passively identifying with them, has proved difficult. When The People’s Joker, Vera Drew’s autobiographical semi-parody of Todd Phillips’ Joker, about her coming out and coming of age (amongst other things: an alt-comedy club co-run with the penguin, Lorne Michaels tripping on a banana peel, etc.) premiered at TIFF in 2022, she received an often misreported letter — it was “strongly worded” rather than a cease and desist — from Warner Brothers. These stories which are supposed to be our modern myths are held tightly by corporations that are, at their very best, ambivalent toward queer people.  But Vera Drew took them back for herself, and for us, as her film is now releasing to a wider audience than she could ever have imagined. 

But these punk credentials, as impressive as they are, to a certain extent bely how vulnerable The People’s Joker is. It’s not just brave in a copyright sense, but in how unflinchingly personal it is. As a trans woman, I almost can’t bear to imagine playing a pre-transition version of myself, but Drew does it with such clear eyes, before she realizes the moniker, the self, of Joker the Harlequin to fight back against the hegemonic forces of Batman and SNLSome of the scenes, especially between Joker and her Mother, felt so painfully familiar to me, it was almost like something from my own life was being put on screen for myself, and everyone else, to see. It made me uncomfortable and it made me cry, but I think that’s what art is supposed to do. 

I tried not to let my emotions slip through while I spoke to Vera Drew on Zoom, while “weird helicopters and spaceships and shit” flew over her head, which she said “explains a lot about me as a human.”

Esmé Holden: It must be pretty cool for your movie to be getting out there in a big way, but were you ever scared for people to see something so personal?

Vera Drew: I was just naive. I made the movie for me and my friends, so I was pretty comfortable being as vulnerable and honest as I was in it. But then once it got into TIFF and we started screening it, it started to settle in that this is a naked thing. I didn’t really realize how long it would take to make a movie that was this ambitious, narratively and visual effects wise, or how vulnerable I’d have to make myself. Sharing it with people is great, that part isn’t weird; it’s honestly conversations like this or doing Q&A’s. But at the same time, there’s a lot of catharsis there too. 

I feel a lot more connected to not only my community, but the trans community now. And the fact that the movie’s really hitting with audiences, both cis and trans, and everybody in between, erases some of that weird feeling. It validates that cis people have to go through similar things: everybody comes of age and has to transition, on some level, when they need to lean into authenticity and return to that pure state of being. The only difference with trans people is that a lot of us have to do it externally and visibly. So the fact that it’s resonating with both is really cool and makes me feel a lot less alone. 

EH: I see this movie in a broader trend of trans movies that talk about feelings of gender through the language of media. Obviously, in this case it’s comic books and superheroes, and in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021, Jane Schoenbrun) the lead character is trying to understand themselves through horror stuff. Was that something you were thinking about, about having to express these feelings first through another language before they became tangible? 

VD: I wasn’t really aware of any of the trans filmmaking that was happening in the last couple of years while we were making this movie. I love queer cinema, but my queer cinema was always John Waters. I spent so much of my life feeling like I was a gay guy — I tried pretending to be one for a few years, which was even harder than pretending to be a straight guy — so I’ve always been drawn to that kind of queer art. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch [2001, John Cameron Mitchell] was a very influential movie for me when I was figuring my shit out. I remember when I saw it the first time I was sad at the end because Hedwig takes off all of her clothes and her dress and is back into this boy mode. And then I realized, oh, it’s not a story about a trans woman, I’m just trans and I’m projecting onto it. But I still took a lot away from it because it was a beautiful movie about identity and what you lose when you get into these kinds of toxic queer romances, and also what you can gain from them. And that’s a mixed media film and a one-woman show, and when we were writing The People’s Joker, we were really approaching it like a one-woman show with a lot of mixed media stuff in it. 

Credit: Altered Innocence

I was also really inspired by Natural Born Killers [1994, Oliver Stone] and Pink Floyd’s The Wall [1982, Alan Parker], those were my other two; not queer influences, but aesthetic touchstones. Though, I mean, Pink Floyd is really queer. It’s basically trans lesbian rock, as far as I’m concerned. They all look like their eggs are about to crack, and the way Roger Waters sings about his mom and writes about his ex-wife and his new wife is very trans-woman. 

But, you know, Andy Warhol made his own Batman movies. I think it only screened once or twice… I hope I get to see it someday. Can somebody get in touch with the Andy Warhol Foundation?

EH: I think there’s a VHS out there. [Note: I was actually thinking of this bootleg DVD:]

VD: There’s gotta be. I just think queer people have always had to look to pop culture and had to transform it to represent their own image. For me, that was always with genre movies and Batman and comic books. 

EH: In a lot of places, you’ve said that one of your goals for The People’s Joker was to mythologize your life, which I think is interesting because the movie is glamorous, but it’s also really raw. It’s finding these personal things in a messier context.

VD: I really love queer fairy tales for that reason. The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions is one of my favorite books because it’s just like what you described. It’s very much this fantastical, mythological epic, and it’s written like a series of fairy tales, but it’s talking about poppers and anal sex, and about what the queer experience was like in the era it was made. There’s some real magic in that kind of art. 

[Wanting to make something like that] was a new discovery for me. I’d always wanted to make films, my earliest memories are of wanting to make films, but I think it wasn’t until I was a few years into my transition, and after watching a lot of the stuff I just mentioned, I realized. Revisiting John Waters, Desperate Living [1977] is a weird fairy tale while also being about scumbags and suburbia and patriarchy in this really confrontational way. 

I really did it to understand myself. Myth, I think, exists so that people can come of age. It’s kind of a tragic time to be alive, in a lot of ways.

EH: [Laughs] Yeah.

VD: And major religions really hold onto myth in this literalized way that’s very black or white, and I think what The People’s Joker does, or at least what I was trying to do with it, was to exist within that spectrum of black or white. The harsh binaries that you see in Joseph Campbell-structured stories, from the problematic white saviors to the patriarchy that exists underneath most myth in quite an obvious way, and I wanted to use all of that to explore the nuance. Obviously, queer representation is important, but is it actually a good thing when it’s being used as an arm of the government? Most queer representation is so sanitized that it’s pretty much state propaganda, it’s really there to reinforce toxic patriarchal ideas about how gender is supposed to exist, and that isn’t what queer art is supposed to be. 

Credit: Altered Innocence

EH: At first, The People’s Joker was more of a re-edit of Todd Phillips’ Joker with stuff added on, so at what point did it become something else, something more original than collage? Although, it is still a collage of a different sort. 

VD: It was so gradual. It was one of the reasons that making this movie was so hard, it just kept evolving and growing. When I announced what I was doing, that I was making this mixed-media collage movie, and I opened up the collaborative process to anybody that wanted to participate, so many talented artists wanted to work on it. That was the moment when it started to shift into a new thing. I just followed my intuition every step of the way. 

I think it was inevitable that it would end up in this other space, and that was kind of a scary prospect. There’s 1600 or so VFX shots in the movie, every single shot is a VFX shot, but it was when I had shot all the live action stuff, once we had our five-day shoot and I had all this footage, that the reality settled in that I had made that creative choice.  And I thought, oh my god, I have at least another year and a half of working on this. And sure enough, I did.  

That was one of the many scary parts of making this, but it was so fun. Making this movie really was the best time of my life. I was getting no notes from anybody, and I was breaking every single rule that I was taught about comedy and art, while also nerdily following every rule, in an honor student kind of way. I was thankfully surrounded by a wonderful creative team and a very loving partner who really took care of me while I was making a film that was impossible to make. 

I really learned a lot about how I want to make art: I always want to leave room for that intuitive space, the space to play and grow. But that’s not how people think, it’s not how people make TV, and it’s definitely not how a lot of mainstream films are made. So the next challenge of my career is trying to figure out ways to carve out spaces like that for myself. After our premiere in New York somebody said to me, “yeah, this may be the last time you’ll have final cut on something for a while,” and it’s not even that. I would love to have final cut on my next film; I mean, I’d better be the editor because I’m the best fucking editor I know, but I really do think collaborations is where it’s at. This film would not have been nearly as successful, it would not have functioned, if I wasn’t surrounded by this really incredible group of talented people that I didn’t micromanage. I just allowed them to do what they were best at.