Interview: Jane Schoenbrun Discusses a ’90s-Fueled I Saw the TV Glow, “Painting” with Analog Film, and Seeing the World Through a Trans Lens

Certainly one of the most talked about films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow (their follow-up to the indie hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair) is, at its core, a story of two teenagers (Owen, played by Justice Smith, and Maddy, played by Brigette Lundy-Paine) who bond over their love of a Buffy-like supernatural TV series called Pink Opaque. But if you dig a little under the surface, the film is about a great deal more, including obsessing over something to such a degree that normal human connection doesn’t compare. It’s also deeply about Schoenbrun’s teenage years before coming out as trans, and how an artistic endeavor can hasten the realization that a complete transformation of one’s self is required in order to move forward. 

Set in the 1990s, the hypnotic TV Glow isn’t an autobiography, but it is incredibly personal as Owen deals with the long illness of his mother (Danielle Deadwyler) and the cold presence of his father (Fred Durst). As the show nears its unexpected cancelation, we begin to realize that the events of the show mirror the events in Owen and Maddy’s lives…or is it the other way around? It’s a thoroughly engrossing and moving work, and it served as a centerpiece screening during the recent Chicago Critics Film Festival, which featured an open and honest Q&A with the filmmaker.

The day after the screening, I had the chance to sit down with Schoenbrun to further discuss the film’s meaning and symbolism, along with the trans lens under which the film was made, one that is critical to understanding the work fully. The film is now playing in Chicago and opens nationwide beginning May 17. Please enjoy our conversation…

You mentioned it a few times last night, and it reminded me of a quote of yours I read—something about how if somebody is writing about this film and they ignore the trans lens that it was made through, that they’re doing so deliberately and willingly ignoring it, and missing the point. The word “trans” isn’t used in the movie, but I completely understand where you’re coming from. Can you talk about that belief on your part?

Yeah, the movie is about trans-ness and my trans-ness. It’s not an autobiographical film, per se, but it’s trying to articulate an experience that is completely and utterly tied to the trans experience. In the case of this film, it’s not about transition itself but it’s about the “egg crack,” which is a term in the trans community for that moment when you stop hiding from the glaring signs that you’re trans and see it in a way that you can’t un-see or ignore anymore. Or perhaps you can ignore, but the damage is no longer subliminal. When I gave that quote, I was talking about journalists who hopefully are doing a little bit of research about the film and can clearly see that I’m trans. 

But I do think it’s an interesting question about legibility because as a trans artist, I’m constantly thinking about the question of legibility, and it feels like a lot of damage has been done through depictions of trans-ness through our culture. At worst, we’re talking about Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates . But even at best, we’re talking about, traditionally in the Hollywood and pop culture space, depictions of trans-ness that were not made by trans people. We’re talking about actors who weren’t trans portraying trans-ness and writers and directors who weren’t trans trying to articulate from their own perspective something that they’re putting on my community. In fact, this has gotten a lot of things wrong that people assume are right, like a trans movie about a little boy who likes to wear dresses and looks in the mirror and looks really sad and gets beaten to death at the end of the movie, and we all feel bad for them. This is a narrative that is not necessarily about trans people but it’s about people’s gaze on the trans body and their fetishization or martyrdom of trans-ness. Coming in as somebody who started making my own work while figuring out my own trans-ness, the language that I tended towards was language that felt honest to me when talking about an internal experience that I’ve since come to understand is a trans experience.

On the surface, TV Glow is about people obsessed with this show, which isn’t inherently about the trans experience. But you weave it together and show how the obsession with this particular show was reflective of that part of your experience.

Yeah, because I think trans-ness isn’t necessarily completely distinct from any other feeling of dissociation or feeling a need for fiction. The films can be relatable to people aren’t trans, hopefully, but I think what I’m trying to do, in the lineage of the Wachowskis perhaps, is to own certain internal experiences as ones with deep trans resonances. For example, The Matrix is a film about the world not feeling quite real, which is something I think people other than trans folks can relate to, but there is a deep trans application to those feelings. 

This film, which is about this sense of alienation and desire to exist within fictional realms rather than the real world—in this case, through the gaze of 1990s television—is something people other than trans people can relate to. When you put it through a trans lens, it becomes about a very specific form of coping that a lot of trans people did experience, especially in my generation. I try not to worry too much about the normative gaze, but it’s hard not to because there are no trans people in positions of power in Hollywood or in a lot of critical circles, so I often do find that some things get lost in translation, which is deeply intuitive in a trans audience when they watch my movies. To me, that feels productive, for everyone to be talking about why it’s easy for certain cis audiences to miss the trans lens of the movie, whereas trans audiences are like “I’ve never seen myself like this before.” That feels like something we should all be investigating culturally.

We didn’t talk much about your actors last night. How did you land on Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine, who was a genuine discovery for me?

For Justice, I was just enamored with his past work. I’d seen him in a number of things, and he felt like such a committed young actor, in a way that’s quite unique. I’d seen him like five or six different things, and I knew it was the same actor, but he felt like a complete chameleon. His ability to commit physically to a role is really impressive, and you almost don’t notice it, it’s so impressive. Seeing him in a TV show like Generation, and putting them against some of the movies where he’s played more of a down-the-middle, charming Hollywood lead. I’ve seen him do so many things, but I’d never seen him play a character that wasn’t really charismatic; he’s got a very leading-man quality, and I was interested to see what he could do with that level of commitment in a role that was very much the opposite of charisma, a role where he receding further into himself.

For Brigette, I’d seen their work in Atypical, on Netflix; I’d seen them in the new Bill & Ted movie, where they played Keanu Reeves’ kid, and they are so fun in that role. I’d seen them on their press tour, dressing up like Keanu Reeves and going on talk shows dressed up like Keanu from The Matrix. I met them, and it was creative love in our first conversations; we talked for like three hours about their path as a trans person through Hollywood and their desire at the time to transition from one identity that they had cultivated or been given to them through their early work as a queer teen actor and become something very different. And I had this role of Maddy, who is going through a very similar thing, wanting to remake themself. And it was so exciting to work with another trans creative genius—not to call myself that . With another trans person, let’s say! I’m always looking for some sort of personal application when I’m working with an actor; I don’t want to just have them come in to do five weeks reading my lines; I want to understand what the role could mean emotionally for the actor, and it felt like such a special collaboration that was unique to what Brig was and who I am.

Someone put it out on social media last night after the film that they were stunned at how perfectly you captured their experience growing up in the suburbs, and especially shocked to discover you shot the film in New Jersey, which is where they had grown up as well. How did you settle on Jersey as your home away from home?

Somebody came up to me after the screening and told me about the six or seven birthdays they had at the FunPlex arcade. When I walked into that space, it was pretty expensive actually, I think it strained our locations budget, but I knew we needed to film there. And it’s giant, because it’s a functioning water park, go-carts, they had eight indoor rides, a full bowling alley—its was a palace, a place to hide out during the zombie apocalypse, for sure. They only gave it to us for an overnight, where we were allowed to come in at 6pm and go until 5am—I think I wore pajamas to set. By 5am, in the arcade with no windows, I think everyone was feeling a bit deranged.

But making the movie in New Jersey, which really is the land of these fun centers, I grew up in Westchestrer, New York, which is the suburbs outside of New York City—they’re basically identical to what you see in the movie. The reason we shot in Jersey was tax-credit related. I flirted with the idea of doing it in my hometown, and this was just as good because it was right next door. It’s funny, the more I make movies, the more I find myself returning to the same kinds of spaces—basements, bedrooms, arcades, old movie theaters, enclosed toy stores. I definitely have a world that I naturally gravitate toward, which I think is my way of reflecting on the strangeness or illusory nature of my own childhood growing up in the ball pit of the suburbs.

You have a younger actor playing Owen as a kid , and the two actors in the TV show are reflective of the characters in the real world. Was there any attempt to sync up the performances among the actors?

No, but a lot of the actors asked about that. I resisted it because I thought it would be too on the nose or too literal if you see Owen have some sort of facial tick and someone else has the same facial tick. Each character, whether that’s the young Owen existing in a pre-puberty space, or Justice existing as the character after puberty or Isabel existing as some sort of reflection of the character but in this romanticized or idealized space that Owen is longing for, it felt to me like each of those space were quite distinct, so I didn’t worry about continuity among each of them; it was more about the tonal differences between each of them. I think the ways in which Isabel is able to exist in this fluid and romantic way says a lot about the way Justice’s performance is so stuck inside himself. Similarly, young Ian feels the same kind of interior world, dreamy human being, but I think the movie is talking about something that has dramatically changed from before puberty and after puberty, and you see the ways in which Justice and Ian portray the characters separately.

How much of the Pink Opaque’s story arc across five seasons did you layout ahead of time? And in shooting those scenes, what did you do to make them appear to be products of the 1990s?

I love world building. I grew up watching these shows, so it was second nature to me to go deep in crafting the mythos and tone of the Pink Opaque. It’s always important to me, and I think I learned it in World’s Fair because I was making this movie about internet mythology, and I knew intrinsically that if I were looking down on it or not doing my homework on it and not making it something worthy of love and obsession, the whole movie wouldn’t work. These are movies about people who love these fictional worlds, so I needed to put a lot of love into the fictional worlds. I definitely took that into crafting the Pink Opaque and crafting it in a way that would feel emotionally in line with the themes of the film and in line with the references to the shows its indebted to. Just a lot of nerding out on making my own version of Buffy through my gaze.

In terms of the technical side, the whole film is meant to feel like a memory of 1990s television, so it was never for me a strict dichotomy of the real world and the TV show world, but we definitely dialed up the TV show vibes in moments. We actually shot all of it on 35mm and did post-production work. We scanned the print and output to VHS, so we went from 35mm to VHS and also from 35mm to Beta because Beta is a little higher quality, and then we did some post- work on it, but most of what you’re seeing is actual VHS output. It was so fun, because there are some shots in the movie where we’re layering all three formats on top of each other. There are some shots where part of the frame is VHS transfer, part is the Beta transfer, and part is the 35mm negative—these very complex, painterly images, but it was like getting to paint with analog.

You set the film in the 1990s, which makes it a period film, and I always ask myself, why did they set it in that era? You just mentioned, this idea of passing tapes around would be one reason. But also, it’s before cell phones, where people had access to virtually every show. Do younger people obsess over things they way you and I did in our youth, where if you missed it, you had to wait for the rerun?

I think that an obsession with fictional worlds still very much exists. Influencers on the internet—whatever the early internet equivalent of all of that was has only metastasized since. I was a kid in the 1990s, and I think the movie is about the ways in which my early-life fandom and dissociation has impacted the way I am now and the way the world has continue to change since then. And within that, there’s scarcity that we can look back on the 1990s and really did need to park yourself in front of the TV at a specific time to catch this show. I remember missing an X-Files season finale and being anguished about it all summer long because I missed the boat and couldn’t just watch it on Hulu or whatever.

The movie is also speaking toward something that had started around the time I was born that continues to have a greater and greater presence in our world today, which is the desire to hide inside fictional spaces because there’s something that feels alien or unchangeable about the real world. It started with Disney and theme parks in some ways. We see it with Meow Wolf, the idea that our whole world is the bad version of a theme park, so we’re looking for spaces that are richer and have more magic in them that we can cling to in an almost infantilized way, to stave off whatever void capitalism has us all trapped underneath.

Best of luck with this, Jane. It was so great getting me meet you finally.

I’m really glad we got to talk some more. Thank you.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.