The People’s Joker Director Vera Drew on the Trans Awakening of Batman Forever and the Way Superhero Movies Could Survive

April 7, 2024 Hollywood


After a year-and-a-half of copyright drama, The People’s Joker is finally here. The daring mixture of both tones and form will be sure to impress anyone, even those without a lick of investment in the DC subject matter it is both lampooning and serenading. I was lucky enough to have an extensive chat with writer-director-star Vera Drew about the film’s conception, ideas, and the general state of comic-book cinema. 

The Film Stage: The film is dedicated to two people. One is Joel Schumacher. The other is your mother. In terms of dedicating the film to your mother, did you see the film almost like an act of forgiveness towards a parent?

Vera Drew: I don’t know if it’s necessarily an act of forgiveness, as much as it’s kind of an attempt to acknowledge the pain there while also healing. It really came from a place of I’ve seen a lot of queer stories, in movies specifically, where the parents are usually completely villainized. And it’s just like a trans trauma story or a gay trauma story about having shitty parents, or the other end of it, where the lesson is: you need to accept your parents for rejecting you. I wanted to make something that had a realistic but hopeful message––just about mothers and trans daughters, in figuring out what is the actual, happy ending to a pretty sad story, which is a parent kind of rejecting their trans child.

As for Joel Schumacher: did he die during the conception of the film? And obviously Batman Forever is an important movie within this film. It’s sort of a turning point for you as a person. Did seeing Batman & Robin, a film that’s even more flamboyant, have an equal effect on you?

Yeah, I think Joel died about a month into us working on the movie, which I took very hard just because I’m a big fan of his films. And I think Batman Forever specifically was one of the beacons of inspiration for this. I love Batman & Robin. I love both Joel Schumacher Batmans––they’re my favorite Batman movies––but Batman Forever, specifically, was hugely inspirational to me, just as a filmmaker. I wanted to be a filmmaker from the time I was six years old––my earliest memories are wanting to make film––and Batman Forever was the first PG-13 movie I got to see in the theater; my dad took me and we actually autobiographically parody this experience in The People’s Joker.

But when my dad took me to see Batman Forever, it was one of the early moments where I really realized I was trans. I didn’t have the language for it at the time. You know, it was the ’90s. So trans representation was Jerry Springer, and that’s kind of it––which I also love. But there’s a scene where Nicole Kidman’s character, she’s a psychiatrist or whatever who’s obsessed with bats––she’s on a date with Batman––and it really was just like, watching that as a six-year-old quote-unquote “boy” and being like, “Why do I want to look like Nicole Kidman? Why do I? Why do I want somebody to look at me the way Batman is looking at her?” That was just kind of an early queer root for me. And I think his films themselves are just kind of filmmaking roots for me as well. I love his vision of superhero movies because they really just are big, gay, expensive art films. And one of them, I was really able to sort of see my identity in and in this kind of unexpected way. 

I never hear him in the same conversations as other auteurs. And he really should be, because even though a lot of his movies are very different, they all feel like a Schumacher movie. I think my favorite is probably The Incredible Shrinking Woman. And it’s specifically because of just the way he uses color. That was another big influence on The People’s Joker: I wanted to invent new colors with this movie, because I feel like he invents new colors in his films.

It’s not a movie I’m particularly fond of even, but something like Flatliners I feel like every movie made after that just looks exactly like it. It’s such an influential movie in terms of production design and cinematography.

I think all of his films have been very influential on culture. He doesn’t really get any credit for, like, every single music video for 10 years after Batman Forever came out looking like Batman Forever. And still, I mean, hyper-pop musicians. Like, every trans woman I know making art is ripping off Joel Schumacher on some level. [Laughs]

In terms of your Batman fandom, were you on message boards and the Aint It Cool News talkbacks and all these, like, early forums of geek culture? And did you find a community there?

I never really was in the geek-culture world as a kid or anything. Because I think I would love a Batman movie that most of the other geeks would talk shit on or I’d read an era of Batman I love––like the pre-Crisis era. Pre-Crisis Batman comic books are probably some of my favorites. I also love the ’90s––pretty much ’90s through the early 2000s were really my Batman comics that I was reading a lot––but like I also love the “shitty” eras of it. So I never really found that much community in geek spaces. The spaces for me where I really found community was comedy, like sketch comedy. I think pretty much the second I started reading comics, I really got into outsider comics––I was really into Crumb and lesbian books from the ’70s and stuff. The alternative comic space really spoke to me at a young age. I think where I was putting a lot of my deep energy into was doing sketch comedy and improv at a very young age.

Speaking of sketch comedy and improv: there’s a running joke in the film about how there’s a lot of misery in the comedy world. Would you describe the comedy world as something that breeds unhappiness, or rather that unhappy people gravitate towards comedy?

I don’t think comedy breeds unhappiness. I think there are people that make comedy that seem to insist on spreading their unhappiness around––like Dave Chappelle, for instance. But I don’t think Bri and I were really saying anything too groundbreaking by talking about comedians as damaged people. But yeah: I mean, in my experience, it definitely is a space that draws people that have a lot of trauma, whether it’s diagnosed or undiagnosed, and “hurt people hurt people,” as they say. So I think that’s why performing comedy itself can be so traumatic, especially if you’re in a “marginalized group”––especially in this era, when it’s literally just okay to do an entire stand-up special about that makes fun of marginalized groups. And then, when people try to disagree with it, these comedians act like their free speech is being infringed upon. Like, yeah: you can say anything you want in this country, for the most part, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people don’t get to disagree with you. It’s always really rubbed me the wrong way.

I wanted to talk about all that stuff. And also wanted to talk about just this new idea that––and this isn’t a new idea, either––it’s just I think comedians always kind of get lumped into this world where they’re thought of as, like, the free-thinking philosopher kings of our society. And to me that’s always been really funny. Because I’ve done comedy most of my life and I’m, like, a dumbass [Laughs] and I read books––I just finished Dune, which I’m shocked, because it was so long. But you know, I don’t think I should be in charge of policy decisions or anything like that. So I wanted to talk about that a little bit. 

I also wanted to talk about how I think comedy was a space where I really got to discover myself long before coming out as trans. I did a lot of drag and that was before coming out as trans or before coming out as any kind of queer. And it was just kind of the only space for me where I felt like I could kind of explore that. So I’m glad it was there for that reason. But it also I was really where the germ of The People’s Joker came from––I wanted to process that. But I also wanted to process the fact that I feel like doing comedy, and particularly making self-deprecating or ironic comedy might have even held me back to some degree, and kept me in the closet and sort of kept me in a cycle of not really knowing who I was.

I think I reached a point in 2019 where I’d been working in TV for so long as an editor and as a producer. I had just done so many cool things but hadn’t really told my story in any big, creative way that I really had kind of an identity crisis, right before the pandemic hit. And I really needed to make something that was about kind of unpacking all of that. And it’s weird, because when I watch the movie now I’m like, “Wow, Bri and I were so angry when we wrote this, just about where comedy is at right now.” And I don’t know if I’m as mad as I was when I wrote it. But now when I watch it, all I really can see is how lucky I was to have that as a space to sort of figure my shit out because so many queer people just have traumatic family systems that they’re stuck in. Not all of us get the opportunity to meet other disaffected weirdos who want to make funny art. So I feel very lucky that I had it as a tool.

Since the period where the film premiered [at TIFF 2022] the comic-book movie has almost become a lame-duck genre with all these movies like Black Adam and Madame Web just landing with a thud. But do you think, as a fan of comic books and superhero movies, the genre can still be kind of successfully reinvented? Or is it something where you’re just like, “It’s time for it to go”? I know I’m sick of it.

I mean, I don’t think I want to make a superhero movie ever again after making The People’s Joker. [Laughs] But yeah: I’m hesitant to say it should go away as a genre or anything like that. Just because it’s always been one of my favorite genres. Like, Batman Forever was one of the first movies that I really latched onto as a kid. I think it’s just time to start saying different stuff with them. I feel like The People’s Joker, if anything, people should not go out and try to do what I did. I do not advise making a parody movie, like I made, as your first film. It really complicated things for me for the last year or two and kept me from working on a lot of other things while trying to get this out to the world. But I think the thing that I’m really glad about is that this movie is a type of comic-book movie that has never been made before. And to me that’s proof that there are still stories to tell within that genre space.

I think the big thing is just: we need to have different people telling them. I don’t even mean that just in terms of getting more queer filmmakers or more women filmmakers or POC filmmakers to make comic-book stuff like that. Totally, sure, great. But I mean we need unique perspectives. And making something that’s not just, “Here’s this big cinematic universe that we’re kind of just using as a propaganda arm of the US military and a way to sell toys.” I think that’s the thing that should go away; the kind of Marvelization of filmmaking and at least in the kind of bigger corporate space like that. I think indie filmmakers should totally start dipping their toes in the superhero genre just because there are so many stories we can tell with these kinds of themes and motifs.

I wanted to talk about the casting of David Liebe Hart as Ra’s al Ghul. I knew him well from Tim and Eric, but he’s not necessarily someone who I think people would hinge a dramatic scene in a film on, which you did. Can you talk about trusting him with that and the decision to cast him?

It’s so funny because my girlfriend Wolfie and I watched the jazz episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show last night, and that was the episode that had a sketch that was a fake trailer for a James Qualll movie where Bill Hader plays James Quall and David Liebe Hart is the supportive friend character in it––kind of this guru training him. I’m like, “Oh, that must have been subconsciously where that came from, like I wanted to do this sincere version of that.” I’ve known David for as long as I’ve been in LA, so about 12 years. And I always knew him from Adult Swim shows and stuff. I was a big public-access fan growing up and had been aware of his legendary iconic status in the Hollywood public-access scene. But on a personal level, he was just this crazy, beautiful man who would love to show up at the Tim and Eric offices, where I worked for many years. He would just draw pictures of us and draw pictures of the interns and stuff and he would tell these crazy Hollywood stories––you know, his old roommate was Robin Williams. He came to Hollywood in the ’70s during a time where there were like a lot of counterculture artists like him there. So he was surrounded by a lot of really cool and weird, interesting people.

I got the chance to work with him pretty heavily in 2018, 2017 on a show called I Love David, which was a show I made for adultswim.com. And the premise of it was kind of like a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood thing, but really it was just a documentary about David Liebe Hart more than anything. When I got hired by Tim and Eric to make that show, I think they had a vision for it that was a little bit smaller and just kind of like a David Liebe Hart talk show. But I was like, “This is my chance to really figure out who this guy is and also just hang out with him” because he was so fun to hang out with all the time. What I wasn’t prepared for when I started hanging out with him was just how spiritual he is, in this creative space. It’s hard to describe because it’s God stuff, or something like that. We would just have these beautiful hours and hours of conversations about art and the occult.

He’s a Christian Scientist, he was abducted by aliens, he’s got a lot of crazy, beautiful, esoteric experiences that he was always very kind enough to share with people. But I really got an up-close and personal view with him. And all of that coincided with the beginning of my transition. So David Liebe Hart really was kind of this Yoda figure for me, like, in a very pivotal time in my life where I was evolving spiritually and creatively and just growing into my queerness. He was one of the first people I came out to and he, you know, he did not get it, but I think he said something like, “Oh, I knew transsexuals back in the ’70s, it’s cool.”

Sorry. Whenever people ask me about David I end up talking about him forever, but it’s hard not to just because I’m so creatively in love with him. And I really wanted to give him a part in this movie that was like something that nobody would ever give him. You know, the kind of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting-type character who’s there not just to service the main character. I wrote a whole backstory for this version of Ra’s al Ghul––he’s kind of an Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he’s like Obi-Wan Kenobi if Obi-Wan Kenobi was Sacha Baron Cohen, Tim Heidecker, and Marc Maron all rolled into one dude. And I knew David could pull that off just because of the conversations we had, you know, during that sort of pivotal point in my life. And just on this aesthetic level, he’s just one of the most gorgeous people to look at on film––his eyes just break my heart. You know, the scene with him and Joker at the campfire where they’re talking––I can’t watch it without crying, he’s so good. He’s so good in The People’s Joker and I can’t wait for people to see it. 

The People’s Joker opens April 5 and will expand. Learn more.



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