Through the screen

Jane Schoenbrun on intentional ambiguities and We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

by Jennie Kermode

Anna Cobb in We’re All Going To The World’s Fair
Anna Cobb in We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

One of the most interesting and unusual selections at last year’s Sundance and Fantasia International Film Festival, and now opening in cinemas in the US, We're All Going To The World's Fair explores complex issues around identity and connection through the story of a teenage girl, who introduces herself as Casey, engaging in an online horror roleplaying game and attracting the attention of an older man. It’s a film which doesn’t go where you might expect, and which is also challenging in its approach to the narrative form. When, after some months of trying, i finally got the chance to chat to director Jane Schoenbrun, I began by asking them about the opening shot, in which we spend a full eight minutes looking directly at Casey’s face as she stares into the camera. It’s a bold choice designed to make viewers uncomfortable and determine who will or won’t want to stick with the rest of the film.

“Yeah. I like the idea of starting something a little bit confrontationally, and establishing, off the bat, a tempo that the film was going to be moving at,” Jane says. “It felt like a nice line in the sand to draw, especially for a film that it's been amazing to see find lots of audiences. That's incredible, but it was a film made with not much money with real personal, creative artistic intention. I think I had an instinct that if I made a film that was unafraid to speak in its own language, I was going to make the most impactful film.

“There were lots of creative reasons as well, for that shot. I did the idea of the film opening with somebody staring at us, and specifically at the camera that doesn't exist – the camera that that she's ‘not aware of’, then turning on the computer, which we realise is the POV of the camera, and filming herself, then turning it off again, and turning it back on. This idea of oscillating between performance and reality, right? Like, who is this person when the camera is off versus who is this person when the camera’s on? That then is mirrored in the last shot in the film, when we see JLB, this other character, in his bedroom with the camera both on and off. It felt like a really nice way to draw the eye to what the film is speaking to, which is performance and how we create ourselves through the gaze of the camera.”

I tell them that I found it really refreshing because the the last couple of decades of films about the internet have been so simplistic and frankly idiotic for anyone who has actually spent time there, it has been a frustrating experience. And they so often position young women like that simply as victims and not as people who have identities and understanding of their own. Was it Jane’s intention to illustrate that Casey is creating an identity, she's not just there being observed purely for who she is.

“One hundred percent,” they say. “I think that that was one of the core intentions of the film. I really think of the character as a young artist – and a young artist, who, like me when I was that age, didn't have a lot of opportunities to express what they felt they needed to express creatively in the ‘real world’. I think that Casey is letting something out, perhaps in a way that's not the healthiest way to let it out. But it's also a lot about what opportunities are available for her to express herself authentically. And I think that the power dynamics, obviously, of this young girl, putting herself out there on the internet, and then especially in the one on one relationship with this person who's trying to control her play for his own titillation are something, the ways in which she is challenging that. And the ways in which she is trying to have power as an artist in this cacophony of voices on the internet is, I think, very core to the heart of the film. It’s very personal to me, it feels like like a thing that I relate to and respect in the character.”

And it's interesting that she's doing so in the context of a role playing game because that's such an important place for people to explore their identity online, in particularly with gender but also with other things.

“That's exactly right, yeah. The idea that that can be a safe space to explore real things that you're working through before, maybe, you're ready to explore them in daylight is, again, at the core of the film for me. And certainly a mirror to what I was going through making the film, coming out as trans. That's what fiction had been for me as a kid. And still was, and still is, you know. Fiction as identity play. But through the process of writing and then making and then releasing the film, it's been a transition process, right? And they go hand in hand, this coming out, and coming into my own authentic identity, or using fiction as a way to let myself explore things that are scary to explore. That's been my journey as well.”

In terms of the internet in general, something that I think comes through quite strongly in the film is the way that when you don't know somebody's identity, and maybe they don't know yours, you can still have a relationship, and there can still be interactions that have meaning.

“Yeah, and that's fascinating to me on an existential level, to the point where the internet in the film becomes a bit of a metaphor for the limits of human connection. It's that we can never truly know another person as they know themselves. We can never have access to their internal reality. And so we have to make do with connection mediated by physical form, and all of the limitations and beauty of that, and the screen to me, and the film, is kind of a metaphor for this, in the same way that two bodies can never really know each other in the way that they know themselves.

“I always say that like the biggest influence on this film, which is not an obvious one, is Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian filmmaker, he's one of my absolute favourites. He made Taste Of Cherry that I think is about exactly this in the film medium. It's exactly about how we can look at somebody on a screen, a character or a real person, and we can know their political motivation. We can know the context, we can know their goal, but we can't ever really know what it's like to be them. And this is one of the limits of film as an artistic medium that I'm fascinated by, that we can stare at Casey for the majority of this film, especially in that eight minute opening shot, we could just be looking at this person, and listening to this person, and still not ever truly know this person.”

And then there's a challenge for them as a filmmaker, because they have to give us the illusion that we know that person to keep us interested, to keep us connected like that. Did that have a big impact on their casting choices? Anna Cobb is a marvellous lead.

“Yeah, I mean, of course, finding Anna was the thing. I said I wouldn't make the movie until we found an actor who could hold it, really. She's so fascinating, and such a mystery and so talented, and such a strong personality in real life, in a very different way, but in a similar way to the film. It became clear that this was a person who could take us on that journey. And then I think narratively, like, I was just fascinated by these questions as well. And yes, it is a limitation but I think it's a strength to be aware of the limitations.

“The film is very concerned with the margins of what we do and don't have access to, and I think that the commercial shitty Hollywood version of this movie would have Casey getting bullied at school or something, right? And see her in her home life, and and what would we be trying to do there narratively, we'd be trying to sort of explain something, right? It's like, ‘Oh, Casey is doing this because of bullying, or something. It felt more exciting to keep those margins really tight, like the experience of engaging with someone through a role playing game or happening across a YouTube channel and worrying about the person on the other side of it. You could feel this visceral ambiguity of identity that I think is very truthful to life on the internet and life in contemporary society. We all perform ourselves.”

I found it fascinating how a lot of critics seem to have latched on to the one moment where Casey’s father shouts at her from downstairs and said, ‘Oh, she has a terrible relationship with her dad.’ It’s as if they're looking for this really quite old fashioned set of explanations that say someone goes on the internet because all these things are wrong in their real life, and not understanding that it's part of her real life.

“I think the film is very interested in that, right? And there's a literal Chekhov's gun in there, though it never gets paid off in the way that you might be expecting. I think it's a bit of meta work in how it's not showing you that yell from the dad just to give you the comfortable context that you're looking for, in the same way that it's not interested in taking JLB as an easy stereotype of internet stranger danger. You know, that moment when we first see JLB was such an important one to me and shot listing it, this sort of idea of the reveal of the man's face, it's so important to the film, right? Because the language of cinema has a long history of like, ‘Oh my God, look at that creepy, disgusting man on the other side of screen,’ and it just felt like, why make a movie, if you're just going to do that? It's letting people off the hook of having to unpack the ambiguities of of life. And perhaps, I would even say, the binaries of life. And one of the chief concerns of the structure and intent, narratively and emotionally, of the film is to challenge those sorts of binaries and leave people disquieted, and thus needing to figure out their own relationship to it rather than walk away having their worldview substantiated.”

Coming up: Jane Schoenbrun on power dynamics, revealing characters through what they watch, and the intimacy of ASMR.

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair is in cinemas in New York and Chicago now, expanding across the US on 21 April and reaching the UK on 29 April.

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