Warner Bros. quashed an unauthorized Joker movie. Inside the director's fight to save it

'The People's Joker' filmmaker Vera Drew
Filmmaker Vera Drew's queer coming-of-age film "The People's Joker" played to raves at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere in September before being pulled from the festival. It has not screened publicly since. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

On the eve of the premiere of “The People’s Joker," a parody origin story envisioning the Batman villain as a transgender woman trying to break into comedy, Vera Drew thought she was in the clear.

The filmmaker, who jokingly calls herself "the transgender Forrest Gump of alternative comedy" after working with the likes of Eric Andre, Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim, Scott Aukerman and Sacha Baron Cohen, was certain that viewers would never mistake her absurdist, autobiographical — and unauthorized — queer coming-of-age film, in which the titular heroine battles gender dysphoria and a toxic romance with a fellow comedian, for an official DC Comics movie such as 2019's "Joker."

Then, hours before the film's first scheduled press screening and midnight premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, came the Letter.

In it, Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns the DC Comics intellectual property, objected to the film's public performance, reproduction and distribution as an infringement on their copyright. "While Ms. Drew’s personal experience is moving and compelling, copyright law prohibits appropriating the Batman character and universe as the vehicle for telling that story," it read.

a woman in a purple silk top and green hair puts her hands on her hips and poses
Vera Drew of "The People's Joker" photographed in the Los Angeles Times photo studio at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Though the letter did not indicate what, if any, actions the company would take should the film be screened, the potential costs of a protracted legal battle left Drew, who had obtained legal advice in support of her claim to fair use of the Joker and other characters, "shattered." "They would be able to keep me in litigation forever because they’re a billion-dollar media conglomerate and I’m a broke trans woman," she said. (“Our position as stated in the letter from September has not changed,” a Warner Bros. Pictures spokesperson told The Times.)

The fight over "The People's Joker," and its very public eruption at one of the world's preeminent film festivals, set up a David-and-Goliath story of superheroic proportions. On one side: an indie pastiche budgeted at about $100,000, according to a source close to the project — $19,000 of which was crowdfunded — and made with the help of hundreds of contributing artists all over the world during the pandemic. On the other: the corporation formed from a closely watched, $43-billion merger that brought such blue-chip media properties as HBO, CNN, HGTV and Food Network under one roof.

The kind of story, in fact, you might expect from the maker of "The People's Joker."

'Why is the line drawn, and where is it drawn?'

Two years ago, Drew, an Emmy-nominated editor and comedy creator, put out a call to her online following for help with her initial idea: to remix footage from Todd Phillips' "Joker" and 2016's "Suicide Squad" into an experimental queer narrative in which she'd star as both the Joker and Harley Quinn.

Drew soon opted to omit footage from copyrighted "Batman" films, however, and instead make every scene, background and piece of music original to the production, in hopes of keeping the project within the bounds of fair use under U.S. copyright law. After she opened the film to contributors, more than 150 designers, performers, visual effects artists, animators and musicians responded, many of them queer or trans, Drew says.

Performances were shot on greenscreen with cinematographer Nate Cornett in Los Angeles over five days with actors including Nathan Faustyn as the Penguin and Kane Distler as Mr. J., then edited into a dizzying collage of custom matte backgrounds, miniatures, 2-D and 3-D animation, and stop-motion. (There's even a fantasy musical number featuring an interdimensional puppet.)

The result, billed as "the world's first impressionist superhero/queer art film," depicts a Gotham City policed by a fascistic Caped Crusader in which a young trans woman faces her traumas and longs to break into stand-up comedy. And it draws deeply on Drew's experiences growing up in the Midwest and navigating queer identity, using Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn as mythic literary figures and upturning well-worn blockbuster superhero tropes along the way.

The film was announced as part of TIFF's 2022 lineup in August, but Drew says it wasn't until the week before the festival, where United Talent Agency was selling the film, that Warner Bros. reached out and was given a link to the film. The following Monday, with the premiere a little more than 24 hours away, Drew received the letter from Warner Bros. Discovery. "There's a rumor going around that I was crying in front of a bar that night," Drew said of the deflating moment, flashing a wry smile over video chat from her home in Los Angeles.

After much internal debate — and, Drew said, after TIFF stepped in to negotiate an agreement with the studio — the film proceeded with its world premiere with the caveat that it be withdrawn from remaining screenings. A TIFF representative declined to comment on the festival’s role in negotiating the premiere, but Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky tweeted, "I will be forever appreciative that I was given the support necessary to champion the remarkable vision of @VeraDrew22 at least for one screening."

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Major Hollywood studios have dealt with similar cases of unauthorized use of IP before. In 2013, the independent Disney World horror film "Escape From Tomorrow," shot without permission in Disney parks, was effectively ignored by the Mouse House and made a reported $171,962 box office over 12 weeks in limited release.

“The People’s Joker” has also drawn comparison to Todd Haynes’ 1987 experimental short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which brother Richard Carpenter successfully sued to block from exhibition. In their September letter, Warner Bros. Discovery referenced a 2020 9th Circuit Court ruling which found that the unlicensed book "Oh, the Places You'll Boldly Go!," a mashup of Dr. Seuss and "Star Trek" properties, was not sufficiently transformative to constitute parody. (That five-year legal battle officially ended in 2021 when both parties agreed to settle following artist Ty Templeton's cancer diagnosis.)

“I thought from the earliest stages of this project that Warner was going to take the ‘Escape From Tomorrow’ approach with our movie and just quietly ignore us and rest comfortably knowing that nobody's going to ever confuse our movie with a DC property, or think that we're trying to replace their brand,” Drew said.

But Drew pulled her film from Fantastic Fest, Beyond Fest and six other planned engagements "to mitigate the potential blowback" from Warner Bros. Discovery and strategize an optimal way to release the film. Nearly two months later, Drew says the implied threat of legal action has halted her ability to play the film at other festivals and secure distribution, while a social media hashtag keeps her fight in the public eye: #FreeThePeoplesJoker.

Faustyn, a contributor to the found-footage collective Everything Is Terrible! who worked for many years in indie film acquisitions, argues that the market dominance of superhero IP today has made its lore a common cultural language, akin to Greek and Roman myth. "You can't turn on television without seeing these characters," he said. "So why would it not make sense that somebody would want to see themselves in it, or reappropriate it, to tell a story that needs telling?

"There are 'Justice League' porn movies. 'Saturday Night Live' does this stuff every single weekend. It begs the question: Why is the line drawn, and where is it drawn?" Faustyn said.

'They're Johnny Appleseed. They're Uncle Sam.'

Drew grew up in Mokena, Ill., loving film from an early age. "I knew from the time I was 6 years old that I wanted to direct movies," she said. "I knew I was a filmmaker before I knew I was a girl."

Seeing Joel Schumacher's 1995 camp superhero classic "Batman Forever" left such a mark on Drew that she replicated the moment in her film when a young, pretransition Joker (played by Griffin Kramer) identifies with Nicole Kidman's Dr. Chase Meridian. Drew dedicated "The People's Joker" to Schumacher and to her mother, "two people that effectively raised me.”

“My movie is about complicated relationships with your mom, which I think a lot of trans women have,” she added. “But I also really wanted to make a movie that Joel Schumacher would like.”

In her early teens she gravitated to comedy as both creative outlet and escape, and started taking the 45-minute train ride into Chicago to study at Second City. “It was the only way I was going to ever survive being this trans, this gay and this weird in general," Drew said. In college she discovered the works of Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, as well as the alt-comedy of Tim & Eric, such as “Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” After school, she moved to Los Angeles and cold-called Heidecker and Wareheim's Abso Lutely Productions asking for a job.

She spent the next decade working her way up at the company to writing, editing, producing and directing roles, most recently helming Season 12 of Heidecker and Gregg Turkington's "On Cinema." In 2020, on her own "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"-style web series, "Hot Topics With Vera Drew," she showcased the pointed social commentary, visual style and comic timing and built the audience that would later help her make "The People's Joker."

The film originated as an inside joke early in the pandemic between Drew and screenwriter Bri LeRose, who met working at Abso Lutely and found common bonds in their Midwestern roots, comedy aspirations and later-in-life queer awakenings, LeRose said. One day over lunch, she challenged Drew to remix Phillips' "Joker," sealing the deal with a $12 commission over Venmo.

LeRose, a writer and performer whose credits include "Lady Dynamite," "Arrested Development" and "Chad & JT Go Deep," joined the project as co-writer, helping to shape the narrative while Drew brought an exhaustive fan's love of DC Comics lore. "I knew what she was going for and the feelings that she was trying to express," she said. "It’s about repressed feelings and the freedom to feel those things after a long lifetime of not being able to."

The film is "painfully autobiographical,” said Drew, who saw parallels in the toxic romance between Harley Quinn and the Joker and her own recent breakup, but had never seen the dynamic depicted through the lens of a relationship between trans people. She and LeRose also used their script to exorcise their frustrations with the comedy-industrial complex and its gatekeepers.

"We were both fed up with the conversation around woke culture being some sort of hindrance to comedy," Drew said. "Every couple months we go through a new chapter of, 'Can Dave Chappelle say these things?'"

It's not only Warner Bros.-owned IP that gets subverted in “The People’s Joker”: Drew takes shots at “Saturday Night Live” boss Lorne Michaels, arguably the film's biggest villain, who is voiced by current "SNL" cast member Sarah Sherman. Rendered in a crude "Sims" style, Michaels is presented as a mogul whose "UCB" outfit (short for United Clown Brigade) decides who may legally perform comedy in Gotham.

Drew says she has not been in touch with Michaels but would love to show him the film. “I think I made a point of not being too mean," she said with a smile. "I made him look pretty cute in it. I really went with a Pixar approach.”

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The legal concerns raised by the film's fair-use claims were baked into the creative process, said Drew, who maintains that her film falls under the protection of the 1st Amendment. In some instances only a brief visual, mention or melody is sufficient to refer to the subjects of Drew's critique, like the opening notes of "Kiss From a Rose" or a throwaway one-liner about RuPaul's fracking controversy.

Heidecker, a prominent parodist in his own right who appears in the film playing Daily Planet editor Perry White as a conservative pundit in the Alex Jones mold, suggests that Warner Bros. should acquire and release the film themselves, or at least give Drew the greenlight to go ahead.

“I respect copyright law and think that there are good reasons to have protection in place for art, for intellectual property and protecting artists," he said. "But these places have got to loosen up a little bit and have the capacity to look at some of these things on an individual basis, and have a thoughtful conversation about what this actually is and how it's great and cool and good for them, ultimately, to be less restrictive and open it up.

“Because these superhero characters, these movies, they feel like they're ours," Heidecker added. "They're like Johnny Appleseed. They're Uncle Sam. They're American culture," he said. "There should be more flexibility for artists to play with them as copyrighted material. It just reflects poorly on them, I think, as it further entrenches the perspective of them by the public as big corporate overlords that don't have a sense of humor."

A woman with green hair and a purple shirt poses with her right hand on her chest
"I'm still trying to figure out the best way for people to see it," Drew said of her film earlier this month in Los Angeles. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Drew and her team continue to seek a distribution plan that can bring "The People's Joker" to a wide audience, in theaters, and especially to trans youth and their families. "We made it for trans kids and queer kids who don't get stories like this, who feel alone," LeRose said. "We felt alone, and media was the only thing that we had to offer a different perspective. That's who Vera had in mind making the script. That's who Vera has in mind now."

The recent installation of onetime Troma filmmaker James Gunn as co-chief executive of DC Studios has given Drew some hope that Warner Bros. might soften its stance on her movie. And an exchange she had after its one and only public screening to date keeps her motivated to release it.

"I made this movie to process my childhood as somebody for whom gender-affirming healthcare could have saved my life. It could have saved me decades' worth of mental anguish. It could have saved me from succumbing to addiction at various times in my life," said Drew, who describes "The People's Joker" as "the most expensive therapy that I've ever done." "But having a parent of a trans person come up to me after seeing a movie that is about all that [reminded me] that this is why I did this.

"I'm not making any money off of this. It's a black hole for my money. I am doing this because I love these characters, and I feel like this is a version of the story that hasn't been told yet and is long overdue," she said. "Mr. Gunn, please do anything within your power to help me tell that story."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.