Hiding in the cosmos

Jane Schoenbrun on American melancholy 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

In the first half of my interview with Jane Schoenbrun about We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, we discussed issues around establishing one’s identity as a teenager, how people relate to each other online. and the ways in which filmmakers can challenge viewers’ tendency to package what they see in comfortable categories. In this half we discuss the film’s shifting power dynamics, the art of revealing a character through what they watch, and heroine Casey’s use of ASMR. We begin by looking at most viewers’ assumption that, young and naive as she is, Casey (Anna Cobb) is in danger from JLB (Michael J Rogers), and the gradual process through which the film complicates that and establishes that she understands the online territory in which they’re communicating better than he does.

“I think that like, he's older than her, but perhaps he's more decrepit or rotted, you know? He's not wiser,” says Jane. “Perhaps he’s more powerful in the sense of the way that that power is inherent in age and gender dynamics, but he's certainly not in control. To me, one of the biggest pleasures of the film is watching the power shift in that relationship, and watching Casey just completely devastate this grown man is really fun. My favourite Letterboxd review is something along the lines of ‘Yes, how can I go back in time and do a tarot card reading as a way to say fuck you to the creepy older man who would talk to me online?’”

We talk about the montages which Jane put together to show us what Casey watches online, and I tell them that I’m intrigued by the idea of us getting to know a character through their choice of viewing material, partly because it seems to put the viewer in the position of an A.I. which is trying to understand someone's behaviour by watching them in that way.

“I thought a lot about algorithms,” they say. “There's certainly a political application, right? And algorithms as a political force has become a major worldwide talking point for good reason over the last half decade, because I think we do see the way that it can mediate and control reality. But on a personal level, I just started seeing more trans people in my Twitter feed about six months before I realised I was trans, and this idea that the algorithm knew it before I did, I think is real. And the way that YouTube autoplay can lead you down these rabbit holes that aren’t purely logical, that aren't, like, one to one. It's not like oh, I watched a video about this TV show so here's another video about that same TV show. It knows what you desire in a very subconscious way.

“That was really fascinating to me. I would describe that middle section of the film as descending into the dream of the internet. It felt like a great way to push the bounds of narrative form, and perhaps do something that's more akin to experimental montage than most narrative or genre films can delve into, and yet have it remind us of the logic of our lives when we're scrolling through a feed, because that logic, I think, is quite subconscious and dreamlike. And so the process of constructing that section of the film, and a lot of the film, is like a lot of meditation, what David Lynch talks about, fishing for ideas from the subconscious and allowing that to find its way to the screen without over-intellectualising it. But in a way that still felt right and raw and organic, which I think is how algorithms operate.”

That seemed also to provide a context for the videos which Casey is making as part of the role playing game she’s involved in.

“I think so. I think there's a lot of premeditation, with Casey, that happens off camera. It's an ambiguity in the film. But I think she's a smart enough person and smart enough artist to have thought really deeply about her videos and the impact that they're making. When she does that tarot card reading and says, ‘Hey, I just thought I'd make a tarot card reading for my viewers,’ I don't believe her there. I am pretty sure that she knows that there's one guy watching this video, and she is making it to make him feel something. And she's thought about how to do that, before she turned that camera on. We don't have access to that in the film but I think it's explicit subtext that everything we see her do in the film is to a certain degree premeditated, and if it isn't, that becomes its own powerful context to dig through. And yeah, I think that she is pushing herself in a way that she doesn't fully understand, but she's doing it with a lot of artistic intent.”

I tell them that I'm also interested in the use of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos in the film, because it demolishes the notion of the internet and the ‘real world as separate, in that it’s a signal which can have a physical effect on the body. It’s also an incredibly intimate technology which requires trusting somebody else with a lot of power, and it’s interesting that somebody as cautious as Casey would do that.

“I'm just fascinated by ASMR and the intimacy of it,” says Jane. “I don't get tingles when I watch it, I also don't have the visceral negative reaction that I know that some people have when they watch it. I think the first experience that I had watching ASMR was just digging deep through parts of YouTube, and if you're digging through the parts of YouTube that I was digging through, of course you're going to come across ASMR pretty quickly. with like, a video of somebody role playing a best friend at a sleepover, lying on a pillow with the laptop positioned on the other side of the pillow. So the POV is like you lying in bed with this person, and she was doing ASMR and just gently talking to us about how we were safe and warm, and best friends.

“I was struck by that video as a trans person. I can now roleplay this thing through this video that I never could experience in my real youth. But there was also something overtly sexual about it, too, you know? And you could feel that energy in the comment section. And it's like being encouraged a little bit. It just felt like fertile ground to talk about the ways in which we can create and experience intimacy as mediated through the screen. And it just made complete sense that it would be a way that Casey was experiencing intimacy in the film. I think it's safe to say that she doesn't have anyone in her life to fill the role of gentle comfort that that ASMR presents, and so the screen is filling that for her. And it's perhaps even safer for her to get it in that way, which is both vulnerable and personal but but also not because that person is a recording.”

I mention that I recently interviewed Jennifer Reeder about her film Night’s End, in which viewers spend a lot of time looking at someone through a screen, and we were talking about what can be shown in the background in that setting.

“Jennifer is a friend and one of my heroes,” Jane says. “Her work and her project, both in the short form and in her features, has been a huge inspiration for me. And the the way in which she sort of like, creates this warm, intimate teenage dream in her work has been, well, it was really special and validating for me to see a contemporary filmmaker doing that, and getting to know her and her intention was a huge influence on me. So shout out to Jenny. And I'm so excited to see that film. I haven't seen it yet.

“We didn't have a big budget on this film and so like production design was something that had be found in certain places. Casey’s bedroom is a real kid's bedroom, of a kid who had since grown up and left the house. But we did minimal production design on JLB’s bedroom, and it's beautiful. And I later found out that that kid's initials are JLB, by total coincidence.

“Casey's bedroom I felt was extremely important to the film because it's a winter film, and it's a film about the sound of wind hitting your attic bedroom wall from the outside. And that bedroom, even though it's foreign territory in a way for Casey and there isn’t a door in that room – if you look in the background, you can perceive it as sort of like a flex space filled with boxes and storage and shit – Casey has turned it into this sort of warm space, a space that she can call her own. One thing that from the very beginning felt like it needed to be there were those glowing green stars on her bedroom wall. I remember those being like so comforting to me as a kid.

“There's something comforting about nocturnal space. My new film has a lot of scenes set in a planetarium. It was just like a nice place to hide as a kid, the cosmos. But really I just wanted that space to be imbued with a deep sort of nostalgia and warmth, because the rest of the film is a lot colder. I also think that in Casey showing us her world, which happens in the middle of the film, there's a lot of palpable sadness that I relate to as someone who grew up here in America where every town has a Burger King and a gas station. There is this cold, corporate, anonymous thing that I don't think you fully comprehend as a kid because you're still a kid whose world is small. And there was this idea that I was trying to capture of Casey, how much this space has had meaning and beauty to Casey and this sort of dual tenderness and sadness of that feels very American to me.”

We have time for one more question, so I ask about the film they’re working on now.

“Besides the planetarium thriller?” They laugh. “It's called I Saw The TV Glow. It’s being produced by Fruit Tree, which is Emma Stone and Dave McCary's company, and so it's bigger and that's incredibly exciting. It's an evolution from World's Fair with a lot of similar but different concerns. It's about two kids growing up in the Nineties obsessed with the kinds of TV shows that I was obsessed with as a kid growing up in the Nineties. Like Are You Afraid Of The Dark, Buffy and stuff. And unlike World's Fair, which is a film about being a angry, insecure kid filled with a feeling of shame and unreality that I would call dysphoria, the new one is about figuring out a language for what you're feeling. And so in that sense, it's a little bit like your egg cracking, in trans terms.” The phrase might be translated for the general viewer as ‘figuring out who you are.’

“It's part of what I've started referring to as my screen trilogy,” they say. “I'm also working on a three season TV show. I've tried to write the entire TV show before we film a minute of it, and it feels to me like the final step in this work that I've been doing, exploring the process of awakening to myself, and my identity through transition, and representing that through genre and screens, and all of all of these emotions and ideas that have been building from one project to the next.”

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair is in cinemas across the US now and will reach the UK on 29 April.

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