Someday You Will Ache Like I Ache:
An Interview with Jane Schoenbrun
By Juan Barquin

It’s been nearly a decade since I met Jane Schoenbrun. They’d just released the free experimental omnibus film collective:unconscious, and I was fumbling around trying my hand at programming. We had a casual Q&A over Skype at a screening of the film I hosted in South Florida, and I could instantly tell that this was a person who got me.

Intensely following their work over the years, including their directorial feature debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, I was like the protagonist of their latest film, I Saw the TV Glow, fixated on someone else who seemed to know everything about the things I loved. In my case, it was cinema, but for Owen (Justice Smith), it is The Pink Opaque. Owen finds his source of comfort and joy in this television series—about a duo of teen girls who try to stop an omnipresent villain named Mr. Melancholy and his henchmen—but also in the person that provides him access to tapes of the episodes: Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine). She’s as much a mentor as she is someone Owen doesn’t completely know, but they bond over art and otherness. The two find their relationship deepen over the years as one becomes more convinced that reality and the television series aren’t quite so different, and the other is forced to confront whether the life he’s leading is even his own.

Though the path that these characters go down may seem too strange to make sense of for some, it’s one that rings true to any trans person who has had to face the horror of existing in denial. For Owen, and for myself, the idea of living a life of stasis rather than one of transition is enough to make one scream and weep. As any trans person might tell you, the “egg crack”—when the shell of denial, about your gender, breaks open—is a pivotal moment, one that can’t be put back together again.

I Saw the TV Glow is a film all about that moment; one that obliquely dramatizes what comes from both ignoring, like Owen, and embracing, like Maddy. Those of us who do embrace the break might find our worlds turned right side up. Schoenbrun and I sat down to talk about their film, the personal, and the performative, just as it hits the big screen for all to experience.

Reverse Shot: So, what’s it like getting A24 to produce and distribute a multi-million-dollar movie about the “egg crack”?

Jane Schoenbrun: Years ago, I tweeted and deleted something like: “Big News: My movie is being distributed by A24—a 24-year-old graduate student who runs a screening series in Wisconsin.” And, yeah, you know, sometimes the arc of history does bend towards justice, despite every indication that that’s not correct. But the sincere answer to that question is that I feel like I did achieve something pretty wild, and it’s cool that it doesn’t feel like an accident. I knew exactly how wild that attempt would be, probably even before I wrote the film; knowing that I wanted to make a personal, deeply trans movie that might not be legible to cis people. And to do it for a bunch of money—with a bunch of cis people’s money. To embark on the process of doing that, the multi-year, physical process of doing that, and the emotional, mental, and political process of putting myself through that, and learning how to do it and coming out the other end with a movie that I think is hard won and totally my movie. It feels a bit like a heist by the little mischief-making teenager in me. And there’s some pride in all of it too—I don’t want to toot my own horn much, but the movie is doing well, and I think it’ll be good for other trans folks.

RS: It seems fair to toot your horn here, especially when so many critics have been saying this. Take the recent Polygon piece by Willow [Catelyn Maclay] that’s all about our growth as a community. These films matter.

JS: I think it’s cool to see the tangible emotional proof that there are people out there—outside of the four that I know of on Film Twitter—that are into what I’m trying to talk about. It’s cool to see that in younger Gen Z audiences who have a radically different general understanding of gender than my subset does, and it’s also cool to see the movie being embraced by sad millennials, because I’m maybe at the intersection of those two ideologies.

RS: You straddle that line formally to some level too: We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is so digital and fixated on YouTube culture, which is very Gen Z, versus TV Glow, which is about ’90s television and employs a more traditional 35mm film aesthetic that feels millennial coded. I’d love to know about going from one to the other and your formal playfulness and experimentation, whether here or in something like A Self-Induced Hallucination, which was purely composed of YouTube clips.

JS: I think that aesthetically the films are not as far apart as the internet-television dichotomy might suggest. I would have actually loved to shoot the third-person camera stuff in World’s Fair on 35mm or 16mm, probably the latter. We shot it on digital in Super 16 mode, which is supposed to mimic the look of film, but it kind of just doesn’t. It gave the film a kind of softness that I appreciate, but it really was explicitly the intention with World’s Fair that the camera is speaking in a “cinematic language” and lo-fi stuff is all about the haze of “found-media.”

TV Glow is ultimately doing a similar thing, even though it’s VHS and an analog haze instead of early-internet lo-fi, or Photobooth on the Mac, haze. The interest is similar, but in terms of formal experimentation, I think it just comes quite naturally. I don’t know that I’m even necessarily experimenting, because I’m not ready to do all the things that aren’t experimentation—including coming up with the story, and characters, and a production plan—until I’ve found a structure. And that’s not just a narrative structure but a formal structure, like the language on this film is incredibly important to me. The guiding ideas, aesthetically and thematically, of the movie have to inform all the other things, or else I’m just making it up as I go along and that doesn’t feel good.

With A Self-Induced Hallucination, there was a lot of anguish about whether or not it should use a pretentious Chris Marker style, and I think eventually the purest way to talk about what I wanted to talk about in terms of form was just like an archive film. With TV Glow I thought a ton about whether it was going to be all “found media,” like there was an early idea that the movie would be all taking place within a broadcast of a Saturday night SNICK thing, where you’re watching TV shows and seeing the commercials that turn into this trans nightmare. And while I liked that, it didn’t feel like it was going to be big enough to hold the emotions that I wanted to get across in the film. So eventually I got to Owen and Maddy and this particular story and arc, but the structure and formal experimentation hopefully are so deeply embedded in the thing itself that they don’t feel like a last-minute shift.

RS: You always seem to try to nail this weird balance of the real and the unreal in your work, and the way you incorporate suburbia fits right in to me. I’ve worked at that theater, I’ve been to that school, I’ve walked by those houses of people I do and don’t know—I’ve never been to Void High School, but it’s my life because of how universal it all kind of is. What’s it like having to strike that balance and make a “reality” that’s like a TV show and vice versa?

JS: This was explicitly the goal: the whole movie sort of feels like a meditation on our memories of suburbia, our memories of TV shows about suburbia, and the way that lives on in a dream space. It’s more fun that way for me. I get that it’s not a dominant language in commercial cinema and that it puts narrative second sometimes when you focus so much on capturing a mood or an ambience or a strangeness that’s very particular. My favorite movies are the ones that create a space for me to hang out in. There’s a song called “When They Built the Schools,” by this artist I really like named Fred Thomas, that was inspirational to the film. The lyrics go: “When they built the schools, did they realize they placed them directly adjacent from the parks and the woods? And the structures enclosed? The places kids could go and feel safe to be unknown? A shelter for the stoners, the fumbling first-timers, the jelly legs and anxious elbows of the awkward lovers.” I thought a lot about those lyrics because it’s true. In the suburbs, you’re literally next to these secluded places. There’s a little homage to it in the movie when you see the stoners smoking out in the end zone of the football field, which is eventually the area that Maddy chooses to try and get Owen to follow her through at the end of the film.

RS: It’s the perfect point for transition, so to speak.

JS: Yeah, it’s like the song says: to be unknown. I guess I want my movies to be that, like I want my movies to be the woods behind the school where you go to smoke weed and experiment and be awkward. I want the movie to feel inviting in that way for the people who need it. And to capture that you need to make something that ticks at a tempo that’s not the same as what we’re used to in commercial media. Instead of being about precision, it becomes all about space in a lot of ways and the things that you fill that space with that aren’t just a rollercoaster ride, that feel more ephemeral or have a longing to them. The movie is fourth-wall-breaky about this in that that’s what The Pink Opaque is for, for Owen and Maddy and so many of us. The spaces that they’re seeking out throughout the film—whether that’s the planetarium or the parachute or the club—are these places to hide and feel unknown; these areas of suburbia that are not as closely monitored by the gaze of Mr. Melancholy.

RS: And these kids are so out of place. While rewatching, a friend noted that Justice Smith felt too old to be a teenager, but it never came across that way to me because that’s not him.

JS: I want you to keep telling everyone that everything people don’t like about my movie was on purpose.

RS: That’s what I’m here for—but it’s really playing into the trans trope of “not in the right body” to some extent.

JS: I was actually worried about it because, when we were casting the film, Dear Evan Hansen was coming out and everyone was like, “It’s a 45-year-old playing a teen.” But I think, thematically, it felt on point to me outside of the trans stuff, like if you watch Buffy, Charisma Carpenter was like 30 playing a teen. It felt like there was leeway there, and it certainly was about this transition point from prepubescent body to adult body. For Owen, that transition is the beginning of a deterioration and making that feel kind of jarring and pretty pronounced in that first jump felt right. He also still reads like a teenager to me! He’s got a baby face and a sweetness to him. There’s a scene in the car where he’s asking his mom if he can stay up late and, whenever it plays I’m like, “This dude’s got a bedtime?”

RS: There’s so many ticks in him that feel distinctly trans-coded, from the voice work to the way he interacts with people. How was it to mold someone into the world’s most horrifying transition?

JS: Or lack of transition really. A lot of it was Justice! I can’t take credit for a lot of the physicality of the performance because he wanted—and I gave him—a lot of space to explore that on his own terms. We certainly talked about it in broad strokes, but when I watched the film, there are these moments of physicality that he’s bringing to the role that are so subtle that I didn’t even notice them on set. There’s one moment that I love when he’s in high school—he has my actual backpack from high school, which I also made Anna [Cobb] wear in World’s Fair—and he’s walking onto the bleachers, and he does this thing where he half-drops the backpack but then almost pulls it back up before it has fully fallen last second. And it’s such a perfect physical manifestation of this teen awkwardness that I can’t take any credit for. There are so many things in the film from Justice that I can’t take any credit for. And I think that comes from when you work with a lot of talented people with actual resources for them to realize that talent—it’s why I like watching this film. The subtle expressions on Ian Foreman’s face and on Justice’s face; they’re so refined, they’re so dialed in. I know Justice would have a better answer than I would about finding the physicality of Owen, like I know he talks about taking the asthma trope to an almost absurd place: of literally having something caught in your throat, and that something is who you are.

Something I was seeing on set and that he talked about was letting go. He’s very trained, and I think when he’s done studio films there’s a precision to it—you are running against the clock and you have four seconds to get across this very specific emotion—whereas here he would ask me about what Owen was feeling in the moment. I would go on a long story about how it felt when I came out to my parents or something and he would just be like, “Dude, just give me a word.” But I think throughout the process he let go of this perfectionism that he’s talked about and so when we get to something like the bathroom scene or the party center scene, he’s letting loose in a way that I think is restrained and committed to not consciously understanding completely.

RS: And, by contrast, something I loved about Brigette was that they managed to do both “pre-egg crack” and “post-egg crack” as these two clearly different phases of the same person. Was it more natural for them and you to discuss that juxtaposition considering you’re both non-binary people who came of age around the same generation?

JS: Yeah, it was kind of love at first conversation with Brigette about Maddy and the movie and transness. What made me obsessed with the idea of working with them was them being in a similar place when we first met that I was in, in terms of trying to explore or figure out transition and transness. And, for them, it was finding an identity, a self-identity, that they could evolve into out of this “queer sort-of-boyish character”—as they described it to me at the time—that they’d been playing.

They were very interested in masculinity and what that looked like for them, and the character starts in that Atypical [a TV series in which Lundy-Paine played a queer character] place, but transcends into a deeper way of existing in their body. One of the chief joys for me was giving them that to play with and them getting to play in that sandbox, and I’m sure they would have a lot to say about tracking Maddy from childhood Maddy in the ninth grade—who I think is not actualized, even in her own otherness—and then pissed-off high school Maddy, who has actually kind of found something of themselves. They did a lot of meticulous work crafting that triple threat of character arc.

RS: I’m interested in the duality of personas and how that extends to Helena Howard and Lindsey Jordan, as these alternate versions of Owen and Maddy. What were you aiming for in their presentation?

JS: In terms of performance, it was sort of like turning the dial a little bit more towards the stylized campy ’90s television vernacular, but, again, everyone is existing in that world, so it’s a little amplified. In terms of doubles, I wasn’t interested in matching the two performances, which I think was something that every actor asked about. I wasn’t interested in “Isabel has this tick, so Owen has this tick” or “Tara says this phrase in this way, so Maddy says this phrase in this way,” because that felt too literalized or cheesy to me. I do think there’s this identification happening through the TV show where Maddy, as she tells us early in the movie, likes how much of a tough, resilient, take-no-shit badass Tara is, and there is a gentleness to Owen and Isabel, who’s scared of her own shadow. Something that was important to me was the queer coding of it and not being quiet about it.

RS: The connection between what’s on television and what’s in reality extends to the ’90s TV performers you included too, right? Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Michael C. Maronna and Danny Tamberelli (The Adventures of Pete and Pete), and even [Limp Bizkit frontman] Fred Durst are all here, and especially for him, it’s like you stripped them of all identity. Durst’s character, Owen’s dad, is just this monster or an extension of Mr. Melancholy.

JS: I tried to do a similar thing with Pete and Pete in that I painted them both white like ghosts and had them stare off from a distance, which was the whole plan for Fred as well. I was interested in those three as performers, but I was also interested in them as images that have a place in our memory, or at least mine, and the way that seeing them here, in this context, sort of bled of personality, feels almost like the specter of iconography. That was very explicitly the goal. With Fred in particular, it was a memory. Who in my dream would get subbed out for an angry dad? And Fred glaring at you is specifically that.

RS: Some of the most terrifying images are just when he comes into frame, like him pulling Owen out of the television is so harsh. To jump off what you said about him as a stand-in for your father, I’m so curious about the way you feature fathers and mothers in your films. World’s Fair and TV Glow had this looming presence of a father, but Danielle Deadwyler [as Owen’s mother, Brenda] is just such a beautiful sincere contrast.

JS: It was such a deep honor to work with Danielle because I think she’s maybe the most talented actor and watching what she could do with a role that, on the page, is very subtle, was incredible. But we talked a lot about the insufficiency of the character’s maternal presence; like when she disappears from the movie, it happens within the same 30 seconds that we find out Maddy has disappeared and that the show has been canceled.

Let’s see these as three mother figures for Owen, who are trying to be there for him in some way that can give him care, and hold him in his otherness, or his gentleness, or his individuality. And, ultimately, all three of them aren’t there for him, and this is what sort of takes the film into a darker space. Danielle and I just talked a lot about the implications of a Black woman who lives in the suburbs with this angry white man, and how that must have felt for Brenda, as she provides some form of safety or nurturing for her child. But ultimately the power dynamic in the home is one in which she isn’t able to actually be there for Owen in a tangible way, even though she tries.

RS: Kind of like television itself, which can only provide so much comfort.

JS: And, you know, I don’t want to get too deep into autobiography, but, of course, I think growing up in a home with similar dynamics, it was coming from a very personal place. When Owen screams “mommy” at the end, he’s screaming for all these things: he’s screaming for Brenda, he’s screaming for Maddy, he’s screaming for the television show, and he’s even screaming for Tara, or Amber Benson [who plays a former friend’s mother]. I don’t think I realized until recently how much the film is about mother figures for me. I recently started talking to my mother again after a few years of estrangement. She’s the only person in my immediate family that I talk to, and I think this movie did come from complicated feelings about family, but specifically about this mother relationship.