Words & interview

Esmé Holden


Giulia Sagramola

Jane Schoenbrun: ‘I think of film as a medium that is going to disappear eventually’

The filmmaker reflects on her sophomore feature film, I Saw the TV Glow, in which two teenage outsiders find comfort in a mysterious television series.

Most trans people grow up without the language to understand their own experiences, and so could only see themselves obscurely through strange resonances and echoes in childhood media. Jane Schoenbrun’s breakout film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair fully embodied this process of creating a language from spare parts, but their new film, I Saw the TV Glow, about two friends who see flickers of their queerness in a TV show called The Pink Opaque, goes further. It might well become the most widely seen movie about growing up with gender dysphoria. Aptly, and somewhat painfully, I spoke to Jane on Zoom from my family home in the suburbs where I grew up, in the place where I most needed a movie like this.

LWLies: I think most trans people have some version of The Pink Opaque, something that spoke to our queerness before we had the words to describe it, but do you think there’s anything latently queer in them? Or did we just have nothing else to speak through?

Schoenbrun: I think it’s in there because queerness is just a part of the human experience. Eve Sedgwick talks about the distinction between homosexuality as an identity and homosexuality as an act or experience; something more discreet than the wholesale othering that happens when you say “I am heterosexual” and “That person is homosexual”. To try to sequester queerness into a box somewhere else, whether that’s a minority group or even in the entertainment landscape, as a subgenre on Netflix, I think that’s impossible and probably born of a neurotic straight impulse that others and sequesters deviance of all kinds… All of this is just a heady way to say that there are flickers of gay shit in so much of what we read and watch.

As a trans filmmaker making pop-cultural, somewhat commercial work in a landscape where trans people haven’t been able to articulate transness in their own language, I feel really passionate about recontextualising and evolving our language away from this othering gaze. I’m interested in having conversations about things that feel trans. And when I go back to Buffy [the Vampire Slayer, the inspiration for The Pink Opaque], there are these themes of chosen family and feeling othered, but even the tone and aesthetic feel deeply queer to me. In I Saw the TV Glow Maddy and Owen are catching something in the screen, it’s not just them putting themselves into it. Before we had the idea of “queer baiting” there were just signals of otherness and a gaze of feeling queer that were subliminally being projected and picked up by people who needed them, like me.

It feels like the idea of transness is becoming more explicit in each subsequent film. Are you interested in continuing that trajectory?

I tend to think of it less in those terms than in terms of the mystery that I’m exploring in my life at each point. My next film is very much about my experience coming into my body as a trans person post-transition and exploring sexuality for the first time in an unrepressed way. Whereas A Self-Induced Hallucination is a classic repression movie, it’s a bit of a cry for help, with a flicker of hope that the tulpa, the self-induced hallucination, can be something liberatory, something as real as any other fiction we’ve crafted our lives around. I think that was me reaching for the emotional and intellectual courage to come out to myself. And We’re All Going World’s Fair was a movie I wrote very much still in that process, but by the end of writing it and while making it I had found the language, and then TV Glow was written in the volatile early period of transition. So it makes sense, based on what I was exploring, that the depictions of transness are getting more overt, but I’d hesitate to call it more oblique, it was more about having the work mirror my own evolving inquiry.

You mentioned first exploring sexuality, and whenever Owen’s sexuality comes up in TV Glow, he doesn’t seem ready to look at it. Do you think that comes from his struggles with his body or is he, in a deeper sense, asexual?

I don’t consider myself asexual, but I flirted with the identity for a bit. My post-transition journey has been about healing from a lot of trauma that made sex something I wanted to avoid. I had kissed one person and had sex with one person in my 34 years before transition, and I never had an experience with sex that wasn’t dissociative because when we have sex we’re bringing our own identity into it. I think about the dick pic as the preeminent symbol of the fact that sex is about gender too: men aren’t just enjoying the other person, there’s something participatory, there’s something of themselves they’re bringing to it. And to me that was just horrifying. So for Owen, he knows that to answer those questions – do you like boys or do you like girls – would mean un-repressing something in himself that he’s absolutely not ready to un-repress. And so that latent energy goes into something he can be himself with, a screen that doesn’t have to see him back.

Do you think there are differences between recognising those feelings in a distant TV screen as opposed to the more participatory internet?

I think there are differences, but in both cases you get a form of role-play. In World’s Fair, we understand there is an element of performance that Casey is bringing to these internet videos, perhaps even a lot; we learn at the end of the movie that Casey isn’t even her real name. And Owen and Maddy’s relationship to the show involves a similar form of roleplaying, even the process of sitting down to watch it. When Owen is watching his first episode he isn’t thinking “Well, that was a good episode of television”, he’s entering a different space; he’s able to feel part of a more expansive reality than the one he’s able to access otherwise. When the two share intimacy, it’s usually in the form of roleplay, like the tattoo scene, where there is an explicit desire to transform.

In your movies characters suddenly vanish, whether it’s Casey at the end of World’s Fair or Maddy in TV Glow, in a way that feels really evocative and specific to me.

I think of film as a medium that is going to disappear eventually; after 90 minutes those characters you’re communing with are going to vanish from reality. I want to make work that’s actively engaged with the ephemeral space between unreality and the feeling that something is real because when we watch a movie we’re entering a space where reality begins to untether, in some way.

On another level, I’m making a film where all the characters are part of a shared subconscious, not to say that’s the only way to think of the work, but when Casey disappears in World’s Fair and the viewer is left with JLB, I was trying to get at a feeling of dysphoria I was feeling at the time, this trip from a childhood bedroom to a lonely man’s. And similarly in TV Glow, when you take Maddy and the TV Show away from Owen he has to try and reclaim that space for himself. And perhaps at the end of the movie, when the lights go up and you’re back in your body, you wonder how you wrestle with those warring parts of yourself.

I read that you made Justice Smith in this movie and Ana Cobb in World’s Fair wear your high-school backpack. Why was that object something you clung to, that you found potent?

My inside joke with myself is that it’s like Sam Raimi’s old car that he would put in every single movie. I really need to get it out of the storage unit where it’s being held, somewhere in New Jersey, so I can put it in the next thing I make. I’m the type of person who will only replace an object when it’s absolutely broken and the straps on my high school backpack never quite snapped. At one point a pen exploded in one of the compartments and every time it rained the backpack would leak through its pores and I would look down and my hands and realize that they were covered in ink. But perhaps more than just saying that Casey and Owen are me, it’s that the little person walking through high school with this backpack on is still the me that’s making these movies.

During Maddy’s long monologue, there are constellations projected over the scene and I noticed Aquarius cross her face, does astrology have any meaning to you?

I’m not super into astrology, and it often makes me feel guilty. It’s very much a queer obsession, so sometimes I feel a little alienated from my community. But I do remember my producer Sam Intili, who was one of my first post-transition trans friends, very early on asking me my sign and when I told them I was an Aquarius they were like, “Of course you are, you are a born Aquarius”. And that was one of the first times in my life where I felt like the label I had been assigned actually matched who I was.

I Saw the TV Glow is showing as part of Sundance London 7 – 9 June 2024. A UK release will follow later this year.

Published 6 Jun 2024

Tags: I Saw The TV Glow Jane Schoenbrun

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