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TIFF 2022 Women Directors: Meet Vera Drew – “The People’s Joker”

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Vera Drew (she/her) is an accomplished LGBTQ+ director and editor who has worked in TV and film for nearly a decade. She recently directed Season 12 of Tim Heidecker’s “On Cinema at the Cinema.” Prior to that, she co-wrote, edited, and executive produced Tim and Eric’s “Beef House.” She also launched the duo’s streaming TV network, Channel 5, for which she wrote and directed four series, including a docuseries about public access legend David Liebe Hart. Additionally, Drew was lead editor on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America,” for which she was nominated for an Emmy.

“The People’s Joker” is screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which is running from September 8-18.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

VD: “The People’s Joker” is a queer coming of age comedy and impressionist superhero film about a​​n unfunny transgender clown named Joker who finds herself, falls in love, and squares off against a fascist caped crusader all while founding an illegal blackbox comedy theater in Gotham City.

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W&H: What drew you to this story?

VD: Early in the pandemic, my friend Bri LeRose commissioned “the Vera Drew found footage remix of ‘Joker’ (2019).” As I began combining footage from Todd Phillips’ film with movies like “Batman Forever,” and “Jokerfied” covers of queer pop anthems, all in an effort to create my own experimental Joker origin story, a much more creatively exciting idea erupted like a glitter bomb in my head. Themes within the Batman/Joker mythos began to resonate in a way they never had before: trauma-informed identity in an irony-poisoned society, toxic relationship cycles, ancestral mental illness, and where all of that intersects with show business, clowning, and gender — themes I knew all too well as a trans woman who worked in alternative comedy and had just come out of an abusive relationship.

I began to think of Joker, Harley Quinn, and Batman as modern literary figures and suddenly, an aha moment happened: my “illegal found footage film” actually needed to be an autobiographical queer coming of age story that explores all of these things within the bounds of parody law and fair use. I circled back to Bri and we ended up writing an original screenplay and, with the help of over 200 artists and animators, I decided to lean into a DIY/mixed media approach to tell our story, rather than using footage we’d surely never get the rights to use.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

VD: When I made the movie, I really just wanted to explore my trauma and share my story, in the hopes that other women like me could have a story like this to relate to in a genre space. That said, I have a feeling that this film is going to be many people’s introduction to the trans experience — or at least, their first time hearing about the trans experience from someone who is actually trans. I hope that people can see that the transition goes beyond conservative talking points or online wokescolding. Everyone faces things in their life that forces them to confront their own authenticity — this is literally what myth, storytelling, and the Hero’s Jour​​ney are all about. For myself and many other trans people, that confrontation is externalized in how we express our gender. My film uses traditional storytelling, comedy, and society’s current tentpole genre to demystify this experience.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

VD: This film was shot entirely on green screen, which in-and-of-itself already put us in a very difficult position because every single shot in this film is a visual effects shot. Every single environment that you see in “The People’s Joker,” including our recreations of famous movie set pieces, had to be created from scratch, either with the help of photo-bashed stock footage, original matte paintings, miniatures, and/or 3D modeling. Coming from TV production, I’ve managed teams of creatives before, but never to this degree. I’ve lost count over how many animators, illustrators, and effects artists helped us pull this off, but tailoring my vision and collaborating with this many people felt actually nearly-impossible for me to do at times. But, holy crap, am I so happy and so satisfied with where we ended up.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

VD: We crowdfunded it, both from a GoFundMe and via my Patreon.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

VD: I knew I was a filmmaker long before ever knowing I was a girl. Growing up a closeted transfemme surrounded by anti-abortion billboards and pickup trucks in rural Illinois, my becoming an artist was inevitable. It was only a matter of what discipline I’d fall into. The only things I had to safely explore identity in those days were the family’s camcorder and eventually improvisational comedy and sketch writing. I didn’t understand myself or who I was for most of my life. The only space where I ever felt inner peace was onstage, pretending to be someone else. The only way I could problem solve was writing scripts or shooting experimental, digital video.

I wasn’t inspired to become a filmmaker. I needed to survive growing up queer in a country that hates people like me and filmmaking and comedy were my only salvation.

W&H: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

VD: The best advice I received was, “You wanna direct? Learn to edit.” Editors at the top of their game understand pacing, story structure, and composition better than anyone on the call sheet. The best directors understand every aspect of post-production and how to give their editors options without handing them hours of garbage they have to sift through.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women and nonbinary directors? 

VD: My advice for other trans women and nonbinary directors coming up in this business would be to, more than anything, find your own community of creators that you can lean on, collaborate with, and learn alongside. That’s the only reason I was able to pull off what I did with “The People’s Joker.” I spent the last decade cultivating some beautiful friendships and collaborations with other filmmakers, artists, actors, and animators who are into all the same shit I am.

Also, if you can and if the vibe is right, find someone with a little bit of power and similar sensibilities that you can work for and learn from, and someday later, maybe you can ask them for advice or to be in your movie — like I did with Tim Heidecker, Scott Aukerman, and Bob Odenkirk.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

VD: It’s a tie between Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” and Rachel Talalay’s “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.” Both women a​nd their films have had a profound effect on me, my film, and my aesthetic in general. I agree with Deren’s philosophy on cinema and how it emboldens and can be emboldened by identity, magick, psychology, dance, fine art, and play. Talalay is an aesthetic genius, and in my opinion, the first pop punk filmmaker. Particularly in “Freddy’s Dead,” her ability to balance humor with horror and the absurd is unmatched. I’d kill to see more films from her.

W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?

VD: As a trans woman, I have faced systemic transphobia, medical gatekeeping, and physical and emotional abuse my entire life. As a filmmaker with privilege and a growing fanbase, I see it as my responsibility to paint an accurate picture of what people are currently facing in my country. Trans kids are losing access to safe gender health all over America right now. It’s murder. That’s what it is. Plain and simple.

All of my mental health issues and trauma stem from not getting the proper gender healthcare when I was a kid. My movie covers this — it’s autobiographical. But I am 33 and grew up during a time where we didn’t understand a lot of these issues. In 2022, a child getting denied proper medical treatment for gender dysphoria is barbaric and shameful. The fact that what I went through is still happening, only now on a legislative level, makes me want to scream and shout with my films and my art for the rest of my life.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

VD: The question overwhelms me because I actually think, like most things in America, Hollywood as a system is sort of broken when it comes to racial inclusivity. The argument I have seen is that since streaming killed off physical media, it has cheapened the product so much that studios are less likely to take perceived risks on creators who come from “minority” backgrounds. But in a country as diverse as ours that never made sense to me. There are so many relatable, universal stories we could be telling to wider audiences, even under the streaming model.

So, in short, I think it’s time for Hollywood to shift its focus away from “big” IP and curate/amplify voices from independent cinema. If Hollywood wants to last another decade, it’s time to put “The People” in charge.

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