"I like a movie that you have to wrestle with," says the filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun. "That's my favorite kind of compliment."

Schoenbrun's films are made to challenge you. Their micro-budget film debut, We're All Going to the World's Fair, explored queerness and connection through an internet creepypasta challenge. The film was a minor hit out of Sundance, allowing Schoenbrun to level up with their sophomore feature, I Saw the TV Glow, a major work that captures the experience of gender dysphoria through '90s pop culture. I Saw the TV Glow is as strange as it is radical. On Facebook, Paul Schrader hailed Schoenbrun as "hands down the most original voice in film in the last decade. But also confounding... Either way, they are a wonder to behold."

Schoenbrun made We're All Going to the World's Fair in 2021, before coming out as trans; they wrote I Saw the TV Glow after their egg crack — the moment "when you finally see yourself clearly in a way that makes it hard to unsee" — and during their early months on hormones. The film centers on angsty teens Owen (played by Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who bond over their obsession with a Y.A. TV show, The Pink Opaque. (The series evokes Schoenbrun's own teenage obsession, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) When The Pink Opaque is abruptly canceled, the boundaries between television and the so-called real world begin to blur.

"[Getting] the chance to make something that was this personal, this visceral, this much speaking from inside trans experience that hasn't really been done, at least on this level — Every part of the process was completely surreal," Schoenbrun tells A.frame. "I felt like I was pulling off some kind of existential bank heist."

A.frame: You've talked about how this movie was inspired by your love for Buffy and how obsession and fandom can dovetail with ideas of loneliness and dysphoria. How did you discover these characters, Owen and Maddy, as avatars to explore the themes you wanted to explore?

I think that Owen and Maddy are two sides of my own experience with the process of gender transition. By that, I don't mean the actual transition, necessarily, but the process which starts at the beginning of one's life, when one is born and socialized into the wrong identity. The two characters and the two characters in the TV show [The Pink Opaque] have two different responses to this "destiny." Owen and Isabel are scaredy-cats, afraid of their own shadow and hesitant to journey into the unknown; and Tara and Maddy are badasses. They are somebody who's willing to trust their inner voice and this understanding that they have that something is wrong, and they are willing to journey into the unknown.

I don't want to speak for any other person, but for me, in my own un-repression and the early stages of the transition that this movie was written to capture, both of these perspectives were very present for me: The desire to stay home — and I use that word in the most extensive sense — and the desire to not leave behind everything that you've known of yourself and your community and your family and life, which I think is a very understandable desire. So understandable in fact, that it might just be a survival mechanism. And then the resilience and faith that's required to risk all of it to become.


So many of the reactions to this film have been, "I've never seen that committed to the screen. I've never seen that feeling or that experience or that moment put on camera like that." On set, did you have your own moments of, "I can't believe I'm getting to film and in the way that I want to film it"?

Constantly. I worked in the film industry before my own egg crack, as it's called in the trans world, and before I had committed to becoming a filmmaker, which I really only could do once I had started to heal from the shame and repression of pre-transition. I loved film, I loved art, and I studied a lot of young artists' careers who were trying to make personal work in the commercial landscape of Hollywood, and the 2010s and early 2020s, I saw people making so many mistakes that I couldn't blame them for making. Because the industry was not set up to support personal visions. But I knew that if I was going to try to make my own films, I would need to be an auteur. I would need to have a lot of freedom to say something truthful. So, from the very beginning of thinking about my own film career, I was armed with an understanding of how the industry worked and how to be an artist within it. I made World's Fair for basically no money, exactly because I knew that if I tried to make it for even a little bit of money, I don't think that I would've been allowed to make it in the way that I did. It's a movie that plays with duration and experiments with narrative in ways that are, I think, pretty bold.

I think the only reason that I was able to bring that to the screen is because I worked outside of the commercial industry, but I knew that if that film's release went well — and it went about as well as it could have — then I would potentially have this totally surreal opportunity to make something for not no money, that could be just as bold — if not more bold. And from the very beginning of putting words on the page for I Saw the TV Glow, this was so core to my hope and intention with the film. I knew that if I got to work with A24, I'd be working with a company where the expectation is that you're going to see something a little bit different. Getting that opportunity and then getting from within that opportunity the chance to make something that was this personal, this visceral, this much speaking from inside trans experience that hasn't really been done, at least on this level— Every part of the process was completely surreal. I felt like I was pulling off some kind of existential bank heist.

When we talk about the gaze of the camera, the language is still so binary — male gaze, female gaze. What, to you, is the trans or non-binary gaze?

I think that there are languages that have been built and that are being built that I'm hopeful are going to continue to be articulated as uniquely trans. A lot of those languages are not the classical languages of trans cinema — or "trans cinema," which again was made mostly by cis people. The classic idea of being sad and longingly gazing into a mirror and being like, "I've known from birth that I was supposed to be a girl, even though I have a penis," these are narratives that were created by Hollywood, and created by men in Hollywood. And a lot of trans people adopt these narratives when they're trying to get their meds, but it's such an oversimplification for most of us. What transness and especially a pre-transition dysphoria actually feels like, to me at least, is much more internal and intangible. The language that I use to try to talk about it is language that I'm borrowing from the surrealism of David Lynch — the dreamlike nature of his films — or the body horror of David Cronenberg.

After I had made my first film, I read a book of trans film theory called Shimmering Images, by the author Eliza Steinbock, and it was an entire book of theory about how trans people are drawn to the liminality of the shimmer, because it expresses something of our liminal experience of identity and existence in the world. I was really struck by this, because my first film, which I had made before I had even found this book, is so deeply obsessed with the haze of low-resolution online shimmer. So, I think that the short answer to the question would be that we're still building this language and this gaze, but it won't come out in an external way. Because transness is so deeply an internal wrongness and then slow correction.

Jane Schoenbrun with Ian Foreman on the set of 'I Saw the TV Glow.'

Earlier, you said that Owen and Maddy are both parts are you. In hearing you describe it, it seems like Owen could be a cautionary tale and Maddy is more aspirational. When you watch the film back now, do you still see those parts in yourself? Or to be very simplistic, is there an evolution from Owen to Maddy?

I think especially when people talk about the ending of the film, I've pushed back a little on the narrative of it being a cautionary tale. I do so because I wrote this film after two months on hormones. Culturally, that's the part of a "gender transition" that we tend to think of as the beginning. To me, it was very much not a beginning. In many ways, it was the catharsis of half of my life, but that moment of un-repression, that moment of the egg cracking — when you finally see yourself clearly in a way that makes it hard to unsee — was very hard one for me, because I really do think that repression is a survival mechanism. If I had transitioned in my own youth in the '90s — Well, first of all, I just didn't have the language to understand what that was, because the language of transness that was being fed to me was created by cis people who were making movies about trans people being monsters or being disgusting, and I didn't want to be either of those things. But to have come out to myself and started the process of transitioning would've been deeply unsafe. You always give up privilege when it happens, but doing that at 14 as opposed to 31, in the '90s as opposed to 2019 would have been a lot. I don't think I would be here if I had done that.

So, the process of un-repressing and getting to the beginning of what we classically think of as transition, to me, it's like, that's a hero's journey! Even if it doesn't look like the classic idea of the hero's journey. It was really important to me to not sugarcoat that, and to not pretend that after that catharsis and awakening, which is both the end of something and the beginning of something, that everything is okay, and things are happy now, and all of the trauma from a life in which you've been told from the youngest age that your true self is an imposter and you need to apologize for it, that that doesn't go away the next day.

I think of Owen at the end of the film as both an ending and at a beginning of something, and it was really important to me from within my own beginning to not sugarcoat how it felt, and all of the terror inherent with it. But to answer the question, I still have aspects of both characters inside me. The deeper one gets into transition, I don't want to say they are insulated or immune from dysphoria, shame, and the hegemonic fist of society — because those things are obviously very present for all people who are trans in America in 2024 — but I do think you get a little bit of a thicker skin about it, because you have to. I don't think that thicker skin is formed by inner resolve, unfortunately; I think it's formed by just sheer exhaustion. You learn to care a little less about the dude at reception misgendering you, because you can't let it ruin your day every day.

I've seen a lot of people refer to the movie as a horror movie, and then I've seen just as many people debating, is it a horror movie? In terms of what you set out to make, how do you classify it, genre wise?

I think that genre feels like none of my business. The type of films that I'm making right now aren't genre pieces in the traditional sense. They're deeply indebted to genre, and they're interested in genre — both in terms of the expectations and structures of genre — and also, both films so far have been about people who love horror. Does that make them horror films? I don't think I'm the person to say. I do know that my goal in making each of them wasn't simply to scare people. In fact, I think this was a tertiary goal, if it was there at all.

I think that the films play with tone and some of those tones are horrific tones, because the internal experiences that they're trying to articulate have darkness in them. And searching for beauty in something that others feel is grotesque is such a core part of what I'm unpacking through the work, but I think I'm doing it in a way that's too personal for me to be like, "And here's my new noir!" There's a quote by Olivier Assayas that I like about his film Personal Shopper, where he talks about genre as one color on his paintbrush rather than the picture itself, and I think I've tried to subscribe to that so far in making my own work.

When you make a film like I Saw the TV Glow that is so personal and that is so singular, what has the experience been like of bringing it around to festivals and seeing how people react to it? What has that meant to you?

I mean, I'm an anxious person, so a lot of it is just trying to be like, "Okay, people didn't hate it." A lot of it is just bracing for public humiliation, and I don't know that there's a way to ever get over that. Before I premiere a thing, I'm not like, "I made a masterpiece!" I'm like, "Oh my God, I hope people like it," and so the overriding feeling is relief, and some pride can creep in for sure. There's excitement that I was able to achieve what I achieved, and that it might let me continue to do that kind of work. I don't think I allow myself victory laps so much, but it's more like I allow the doors to continue opening that I could potentially walk through to do more things that I am both terrified of and really excited about.

By John Boone


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