An interview with writer-director Jane Schoenbrun: Talking gender, cross-generational experiences, and We're All Going to the World's Fair

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Jane Schoenbrun — Photo by Mila Matveeva
Jane Schoenbrun — Photo by Mila Matveeva

Jane Schoenbrun's sensationally unnerving We're All Going to the World's Fair made its debut at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It has met with almost instantaneous universal acclaim and became one of the most talked about indie dramas to play the festival circuit — including the Pacific Northwest's own North Bend Film Festival, where it won an award for being Unclassifiably Awesome — before being picked up by Utopia for theatrical distribution in early 2022 and HBO Max for a streaming release later in the year.

Schoenbrun's film is a deliriously low-fi creepypasta stunner about teenage loner Casey (Anna Cobb) going into the wilds of the internet to participate in a mysterious, transformational horror game in the hopes of meeting new friends and making human connections she's been unable to find offline. It is a surreal examination of identity and self-perception that grows in unnerving eloquence as it moves along, building to a powerfully ethereal climax that's so intimately personal, there were moments I wondered if the director had made this film for me and me alone.

I had the pleasure to sit down over Zoom with the talented Nonbinary filmmaker to discuss their revelatory debut in greater detail. Here are the edited transcripts of everything we talking about during our 20-minute conversation:

Photo courtesy of Utopia  

Sara Michelle Fetters: I know you've been talking about your film for quite some time now, but you have no idea how excited I am to be speaking with you after over a year of waiting to be able to really talk about We're All Going to the World's Fair in greater detail.

Jane Schoenbrun: That's so flattering. Thank you. I still really [like] talking about it. I know it's over a year of me talking about the film now, but there's still so much to talk about. It's so personal.

SMF: This movie debuted at Sundance in 2021 and it was pretty much universally praised, but it never got out there into the public consciousness until now, 16 months later. What has this journey been for you?

JS: It's been really strange. I so rarely got to experience the film with human beings or talk to people about their experiences, or to audiences about their experiences as they watched it. It all happened in the background, and it's been surreal to understand that it has been this slow crawl towards this moment — and I don't think is the end or the crescendo. I think there's going to be something really special that happens when the film hits HBO Max, and then Halloween happens and people stumble across Casey's painted face on that app and being, "What is this?" Then they click play and hopefully getting their mind blown.

But the film finds its people naturally. I think that when you make a film like this, without a lot of money and without famous people, this is all you could hope for, that it'll be this cult sleeper thing that slowly by word of mouth reaches outside of your circles and reaches strangers.

SMF: When I first saw the film during Sundance, it was unnerving. But watching it at home on my laptop and not in the theater felt appropriate, almost as if you had made this just for me. I don't think I'm alone in having that feeling while watching the film.

JS: What made you feel like that?

SMF: It was like you had a camera set up in my dorm room at the UW when I was exploring this strange new thing called the internet and trying at the same time to figure out who I was, fearful that the rest of the world would find out secrets I wasn't ready to reveal, while I was in those chat rooms and learning who I was, making connections, and realizing I wasn't alone.

JS: Maybe we had similar college experiences. [laughs] I think what you just described is the feeling that I've had sharing the film with people. Feeling alone [but] realizing I'm not alone. I think it resonates in that way.

Photo courtesy of Utopia  

I wouldn't say the film is an autobiography but a personal reflection on feelings and things that I hadn't fully processed and unpacked, but that I had maybe always had the sense of — that's all there. I think I always kept my online life and my real life very, very separate, because there's a lot of shame associated with being creative in ways outside of what are considered normal. I wasn't going to high school and bragging about the X-Files fan fiction websites I was hanging out on or whatever.

But there is still that weird process that you're talking about, of maybe exploring your identity in these spaces and within the safety of fiction. I don't think I realized how weird that can be. How both beautiful and also scary and strange and potentially damaging that can be, to be doing that in these spaces that are unmoderated.

I don't think it was until the movie came out and I started reading other Queer people and Trans people and just people from any non-normative identity... people with disabilities, just hearing how common these sorts of feelings and experiences were for people of my generation and the generations that followed. I think if it felt unusual to you to feel seen through the film, it's because there aren't a lot of us making movies about our experiences yet, and these experiences themselves are invisible to Hollywood.

SMF: That this film would play so well generationally, was this something that you were thinking about when you made it? Or was it maybe something you lucked into?

JS: I don't think I lucked into it, because I don't think that experience is luck by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think it's this feeling of not overintellectualizing what I was trying to do. I was really just pulling from lived experience and lived feelings that I still hadn't processed and that I'm definitely still in the process of processing. I'll be processing dysphoria and I'll be processing the feeling of unreality that comes with a life that isn't yours until you claim it forever. That's just reality.

I think the film resonates because I wasn't trying to explain it in a "Dysphoria for Dummies" handbook. I was trying to capture the way it felt, and still felt at the time, and thankfully now feels like less. So there was some intentionality. It was important to me that I be releasing this film as a Trans person and saying this is a Trans film.

While there is a humongous difference in experience growing up as a Gen Z Trans, versus... growing up as a millennial Trans, or a Gen X Trans, I think the language of transness and how it feels to us from within the experience is something that (a) you can find commonalities within and (b) those commonalities haven't been adequately explored. We haven't talked enough about them.

Instead, we've let cis people talk about them and tell us what these experiences are when they've been totally wrong. It makes perfect sense, then, when you think about it, this idea of going into spaces detached from physical form and IRL identity to explore parts of yourself. These spaces are beautiful, but they're also horrific.

I think that's because you see yourself a certain way. [Your attraction] to beauty has been pegged as monstrous by the people in your daily life. You're working all of these things out.

I don't want to say that's a universal Trans experience, but it did surprise me, and it no longer surprises me, that this is something that a lot of people coming from a different background than I do have found commonalities with. The film crosses generations.

SMF: I imagine it was difficult to manage and balance that pain and that euphoria of discovery, of identity, of self-actualization, when making the film. This isn't just a black-and-white dichotomy. There are so many variations. Was it sometimes painful to get that up there on the screen?

JS: Definitely meaningful, because it required a level of self-interrogation that I was only able to do because I was ready to do it. I really do believe that it's impossible for me to detangle my transition from having the urge to be an artist.

But it was also fun. I think I'm the type of person who is meant to do stuff like this. Art comes naturally to me. I'm sure you can see [that] in the film, and once I get to make some more films, you'll see it in those films. Too, this deep love, this complicated relationship with art, right?

Growing up, it was important to me to have these spaces that I could hide, whether that was in a Belle and Sebastian song or an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a coping mechanism. I needed those spaces a lot more than somebody who was able to find something in their real life, because they were allowed to have them in their real life, and I felt I wasn't afforded that opportunity.

So [I] have a lot of shit that I'm unpacking about art and identity and coming out [and am] starting the process of emerging from the fugue state of dysphoria and putting it all into the work. The work is helping me deal with it.

Photo courtesy of Utopia  

SMF: You have to talk to me really briefly about Anna Cobb. She's just freaking phenomenal.

JS: She is! And, so crazy, she convinced her family to move to New York City so she could pursue acting. I spent months looking for the lead and was prepared to delay production, because I was like, I don't know where I'm going to find this person, but I need to find someone extraordinarily special or I'm not making the film. Then along Came Anna.

It was a street casting process in its way. We talked to acting school teachers and we got recommendations from agencies. I had this instinct that all of those people were going to be a little too grape-juice-commercial for me, a little too cute or "CW teen drama," not a human being you stumble across at random and wonder what's going on in their interior life.

Then I saw Anna's photo in a casting submission. We got a tape from her, and it was just so immediately clear that this was the one-in-a-million person who both is so serious about her craft and so talented, but also such a hard, disciplined performer.

The amount of work and prep that she put into this — it was months and months of time. Really high-level prep for a 17-year-old. I'm intimately thankful to have found her, and she's also such a magnetic human being. In a different way than Casey is, but still so full of personality that fit the character, and that was a joy to pull that thread and not let this talented actor disappear into this role that I had written on the page, but to instead evolve from the thing I had written on the page into this amazing person.

SMF: What was more satisfying to you, all of the awards and nominations for the film that you were receiving, or all of the awards and nominations for the film that she was receiving?

JS: I think a lot of Trans people don't enjoy the spotlight. Even though I think I'm good in the spotlight, I don't necessarily enjoy being in it. That spotlight is a function of the work. If I can speak and be the center of something that people want to engage with, if it helps enable the work that I want to make or if it can be an extension of the work I want to make, then I need to do it.

But I'm a proud mom. When I see people seeing in Anna what I saw in Anna, it fills me with joy. I gave so much of the film over to them because I think they're incredibly special and incredibly talented, and getting to see them see other people react so strongly [to their performance] and having their life change, that's incredible.

Obviously, my own life changing is cool, but this feels less complicated. I can be really happy for this amazing person and know that I had some small role in helping enable this really well-deserved thing to happen to them.

SMF: While I know it's been a long road for this film, but with everything that you're seeing happening in Texas and Alabama and Idaho, the fact that it is now hitting theaters, and then later hitting HBO Max, it almost feels like the timing couldn't be better. What do you hope the response your film is, especially in juxtaposition to this senseless hate that we're also seeing?

JS: It's a great question. There's me as a human and an artist thinking about what I want my life to feel like and be. That person is aghast at the time and world I live in for many reasons.

But there's the me that found myself through reading a lot of theory and watching a lot of movies. There's the me that understands that, in a lot of ways, I'm a function of privilege and I'm a function of a time and space that enabled me to make this movie.

Look: The Matrix needed to be made the way it was made in 1999. I needed to be in the closet and repressed in that year. I wasn't in a safe place to be me. I don't make this film without those experiences.

I'm hyperaware of the role that I'm maybe playing in this moment. It's a lot like the role that the New Queer Cinema filmmakers felt when they didn't have infrastructure or people on the other sides of the tables that understood them in the way where they could be understood and have the power to make the art that they wanted to make. I have an understanding that, no matter what, I'm just a small part of this wave that is coming, artists who have a different understanding of gender and have a different understanding of sexuality and have a different gaze on how f'd-up this country and world [are] than the one my generation has.

If I can be one little example of this change in terms of getting to make work that feels truthful to your lived experience as a Trans person, that feels healing to me. I don't think it solves any problems, ultimately, because power in this country is going to take a lot more than that to shift and change specifically and structurally. But it feels worth doing, and that makes me feel good.