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Q&A WITH JANE SCHOENBRUN

interview

In I Saw the TV Glow—Jane Schoenbrun’s genre-bending follow-up to their haunting fiction debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)—two teenagers become obsessed with a mysterious late-night television show. With the suburbs, self-expression, and television at the heart of the film, I Saw the TV Glow is the latest example of Schoenbrun’s ongoing investigation into the horror genre and the role media plays in relation to identity-formation. Visually exuberant and emotionally piercing, the writer-director’s latest is a daring and thought-provoking work of contemporary cinema.

 

I Saw the TV Glow is currently playing in theaters across the U.S.

Q. Screens are a source of refuge for the characters in your films. What do you consider to be the relationship between screens and identity?

A.  It’s kind of my whole motif at this point. I guess I stumbled on it in the early stages of working on The World’s Fair. I knew that I wanted to force myself to make a personal movie and was asking myself, “If they say write what you know, what do I know?” At that point in my life, what I knew was staring at a screen. I think we all know a lot about that, obviously. But it felt that media and mediating one’s existence through the fictional transmissions of various screens was the dominant place and emotional space of my life.

I started thinking about why and I also thought a lot about this sort of adage that was maybe more present in 2014, when we could hide from screens just a little bit better than we can now. But there was this idea that filming people watching screens or looking at their phone is an inherently uncinematic thing to try to capture. At first, I just accepted that offhand until I realized how false it was. Whether you’re filming from the POV of the screen and trying to do something that’s a very earnest and specific kind of portraiture, or whether you’re filming the screen in relation to human beings, it was actually an endlessly fascinating cinematic image to me.

And then, as I started my transition, I realized that what I had been talking about was a form of dissociation that is not just relegated to trans folks. I think we all experience a form of it in this world where so much is mediated through the screen and we fictionalize ourselves in collaboration with the various screens around us. As I began my gender transition and felt myself and my life slowly became something that felt a lot less like I was in the audience watching myself on a screen and more like I was in the TV show, I realized that the screen was a way for me to talk about this in my work.

Q. The fictional series in the film, The Pink Opaque, has a clearly defined aesthetic that evokes a very particular moment in ‘90s television. What were some of the TV shows that inspired its look and feel? Does its title have any association with the Cocteau Twins’ album of the same name?

A.  Yeah, it’s named after the Cocteau Twins album. I love the Cocteaus. If there’s a band whose sound is closest to what the inside of my brain sounds like, it’s them. It’d be the Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine, but probably the Cocteau Twins. I love them so much. And honestly, I just borrowed that name because it felt like a perfect stand-in and then I couldn’t come up with something better. It also felt so perfectly evocative of that particular genre of ‘90s “teens fight monsters” TV, so it stayed.

In terms of the references, it shouldn’t be too hard for any scholar of ‘90s television to pick up the Buffy in there, to pick up The Secret World of Alex Mack, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and—to a lesser degree—the shades of Twin Peaks. I think Buffy was definitely the center of it for me because that was the show that I discovered when I was like 10 years old, when it had begun airing. It was such a central part of my life through the end of high school.

Q. Brigette Lundy-Paine does a wonderful job embodying their character’s changing emotional mindset throughout the film. How did you two develop the character’s personality and what was your experience like working with Lundy-Paine?

A.  I met Brigette really early in the process, long before I had been planning to cast the role. I fell in love and knew immediately that there was no one else in the world who I’d be more excited about giving the character of Maddy to. It was because they were maybe in a similar place of, not so much gender questioning, but questioning what transition could look like for them in practice.

The first time we met, we talked a lot about the roles that they had played on TV and in other movies that, to them, felt sort of like an identity that they wanted to be questioning and moving past. But they didn’t really have a way of understanding where or what that evolution would look like—what they could become.

I was quite moved because I had this character who was literally exploring the same thing and who, in the third act, we see as a version that has found a new skin to inhabit. As a filmmaker, I think I’m always looking for an opportunity to not just find the right actor that fits my idea of the role, but to find the person who can evolve and hopefully, in a deeply emotional way, evolve the character into something that’s better than whatever abstract intention I had on the page.

Q. The musicians Sloppy Jane and King Woman perform at an incredible music venue in the film called the Double Lunch. What meaning do these alternative art spaces hold for you?

A.  I was definitely a kid going to DIY shows, basement shows, and punk shows—taking the commuter rail into the city and venturing into Bushwick. On one level, that’s a huge part of my culture and those are the spaces in childhood that I was able to inhabit that felt right to me.

There’s also this idea of a darkness on the edge of town. I was certainly playing on this trope from ‘90s television, where every town somehow has a club where the band comes to play, even though it’s like, “Why is Aimee Mann playing in this suburban town in California?” I was playing with that. But, I do think one of the core, if not the core idea of the movie, is about finding spaces to inhabit inside a space that you’re stuck in that feels foreign to you—finding the parachute to hide under or the planetarium to exist within. It’s about the unseen within, or even the TV show that you can hide within when you’re stuck in a place, and when you’re stuck in an identity that’s been given to you by that place, that feels limiting.

Q. What’s your favorite film soundtrack?

A.  Mallrats. It’s kind of a random one, but I think I just got it at the right time. It had the Archers of Loaf on it and it had a great Weezer song on it, and a bunch of bands from Geffen Records who were cool. I think it’s just a fun alt-rock experience with little interludes of Jay and Bob singing “Snoochie Boochies!” What more could you want?

Q. Who is a new filmmaker whose work you admire?

A.  Kyle Edward Ball. I’m really excited by the fact that Skinamarink was inspired by a lot of what people now are calling “analog horror,” but when I was growing up was just finding ghostly and strange things that felt wrong, but subtly wrong, on the internet. It was almost like this uncanny valley of weird YouTube, or even pre-YouTube era, of searching online for things that could feel haunting.

Q. Who is usually the first person you show your film to?

A.  I have three partners. I’m poly. So, one of them.

Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?

A.  I watched this episode of Beavis and Butthead recently where they go to the mall and do VR, but something gets messed up and they don’t realize that they’re not in VR. So then they’re walking around the mall being like, “Whoa, this looks incredible.” And then, they’re like, “Let’s do some Grand Theft Auto stuff.” Then they start trying to murder people and things go wrong, so they’re just like, “Let’s just kill ourselves so that we reboot,” so they throw themselves in front of cars. I don’t know, I thought that was really funny.