Mediterrane 2024 Interview: I SAW THE TV GLOW Director Jane Schoenbrun Talks Horror Evolution, David Lynch Influence, Nostalgic World Crafting

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Mediterrane 2024 Interview: I SAW THE TV GLOW Director Jane Schoenbrun Talks Horror Evolution, David Lynch Influence, Nostalgic World Crafting

Jane Schoenbrun stands out as a director who blends genres to create deeply personal and emotionally resonant films.

Schoenbrun made a trippy documentary about Slenderman, A Self-Induced Hallucination, followed by an indie hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a haunting exploration of adolescence and online culture. Their latest film, I Saw the TV Glow, takes a nostalgic journey back to the 1990s, weaving a tale that combines the eerie allure of analog horror with a dreamy coming-of-age story.

Screen Anarchy sat down with the director in Valletta, the capital of Malta, where Schoenbrun introduced their film at the Mediterrane Film Festival. They delve into their unique approach to filmmaking, their influences, and the creative process behind their most ambitious project yet. The lead actor Justice Smith joined the interview to share his perspective on the main character.

What's your stance towards the horror genre, since your films tend to get associated with the genre, and given how much it has evolved over the years?

Jane Schoenbrun: I mean, I’m a fan of horror films first and foremost. I grew up watching horror films, and from a very young age, I was drawn to morbid, darker, nocturnal, Halloweeny things. I think that was a way for me to express a different kind of desire or gaze, something different from the very sunny suburban world I was growing up in.

But I don’t know if I consider my films as horror films per se. I think of them as movies about horror, where horror is certainly an element, but not the entirety.

I read a quote by Olivier Assayas about his film Personal Shopper, where he mentioned using genre as one color on his paintbrush rather than the entire picture. I think this holds true for me as well. My movies aren’t necessarily about trying to scare viewers or delivering the thrill of horror.

When I think about what draws me to horror movies, it’s very different from what I hope people get out of my movies. My films come from a more tender place, perhaps more interested in making you cry than making you scared. So, while they are tinged with horror and play with genre elements—because that language comes so naturally to me and I have such a great love for it—I wouldn’t necessarily classify them strictly as horror films.

Genre classification isn’t really my business. It’s ultimately up to the audience to decide what they want to call or classify the film as. My role as an artist is to avoid putting it into a box. I’m not saying that nobody can watch my movies as horror films or enjoy them around Halloween—that’s absolutely lovely. But for me, it’s about more than that.

As a fan, I love horror. I think the genre is always in a peculiar place. In 2024, almost ten years on from Get Out, which redefined the contemporary mainstream horror film from an era of remakes to more of a social horror film, we’re now in a phase where the monster is often a metaphor for some kind of social ailment. That genre is getting a bit tired, and I’m interested in what might come next.

I’ve been a fan of a lot of movies tagged as analog horror, like Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink, which plays on Internet iconography and experimental film techniques to create an uncanny tone throughout the entire film, rather than just a narrative story with some scary parts. I find that really exciting.

And yeah, I'm interested in how that genre will continue to be warped by the strange, dark spaces we're occupying on the Internet.

But you are also now part of it, so you are also molding the genre and pushing it forward.

Yeah, which is fun. It’s fun to think about the work that way. It’s one of maybe 20 or 30 questions I ask myself when I’m starting a film: how will this film be received as a piece of genre filmmaking?

I'm also asking myself, how will this film be received as a commercial American product? How will it be received as a political statement? How will it be received as a personal statement? How will it be received in the context of cinema history in a wider sense?

But I do love thinking about my place in a lineage that is certainly tied to genre.

I SAW THE TV GLOW moved ON from the micro-budget world of WE'RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD'S FAIR. Was it a really big change?

I worked in film in New York for a long time before I started making my own movies. From the beginning of my filmmaking process, I had an understanding of what might be possible within different structures.

As an artist, I think about that from the start. It’s not like I write my fantasy version of a movie and then figure out how to get it made. It’s always a question of, what can I get away with right now?

For my first film, before I received any real acclaim or accolades, I knew the best way to make something truly personal that I could be proud of in the American film landscape—where even the independent space tends to be quite conservative—was to do it for very little money. Films like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which play with slow cinema techniques and focus more on tone than narrative, are rare and hard to get funded with a real budget. So, from the start, I aimed to make it on a shoestring budget, ensuring no one could tell me no, and allowing me to create something I could be completely proud of.

When We’re All Going to the World’s Fair did well, which was quite a success for a film of its size, I hoped to work with A24. So, when I sat down to write I Saw the TV Glow, it was a deeply personal movie about things I needed to talk about at that moment.

But I also knew it would be a different kind of movie than my first. I envisioned it as much more anthemic, a teen angst movie, akin to films like Donnie Darko, Wes Anderson’s works, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—films that felt made for a cult audience but were also poppy, loud, and exciting.

When I got the budget, which was far bigger than I ever thought I’d work with, I knew I wanted to take full advantage of it. Rather than making another quiet, subtle movie on a bigger budget, I wrote a script with worlds to build, monsters, creatures, special effects, animation, and music. This was about taking full advantage of the resources I hoped to have.

However, there was a trade-off. Making a small film for no money gives you immense freedom, not just in what you can do with money, but also in the nimbleness of your crew. On We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, we did a lot of improvisation, being inspired in the moment, capturing things off the cuff.

This is very difficult to do on a larger film like I Saw the TV Glow, with hundreds of people on set, a rigorous schedule, and multiple departments to coordinate. The film had to be more formal; I couldn’t just decide to head into the woods on a whim.

I don’t view this as a sacrifice but rather as a different type of filmmaking. Neither is better than the other; they each offer different gifts and different limitations.

How did you pitch the project to A24?

Well, I had written the script, so they had read it. After We’re All Going to the World’s Fair premiered at Sundance, I asked around in Hollywood for guidance. I found an agent and a manager who really believed in the movie, the script, and my vision. Together, we made a plan.

The first step was to find an “adult in the room”—someone with experience making movies on a larger budget than what I had for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. I spoke with many producers and production companies, but I really connected with Emma Stone’s company, Fruit Tree, which she had just started with her husband, Dave. I loved working with them because they’re artists with a similar goal to mine: using their influence to get personal projects made that might struggle in a commercial landscape.

With their help, we brought the script to the market and pitched it to seven or eight places. We received seven or eight offers. A24 stood out, not just because I was a big fan and knew it would be exciting to work with them, but because they had the most genuine emotional response to the film. I felt most understood by them in the room.

A24 is such a cool and unique company, especially in America. They have a reputation for doing things that are different and cool, which sets them apart from other studios. As a young filmmaker wanting to continue making personal and exciting films, working with A24 was a dream come true.

Did you just show them the script, or did you shoot several scenes?

No, no, we just sent them the script. Then we had a pitch meeting where Emma Stone came on the Zoom call and said some nice things about me as a filmmaker. I talked about where the movie came from, and they asked me questions about who I wanted to cast and what I was envisioning aesthetically. A24 came on board and helped us develop it from there, but this was all before we had shot anything.

I SAW THE TV GLOW has a nostalgic tinge of the nineties. Why did you approach it from this perspective?

I mean, I grew up in the nineties, you know. The film, even more than We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, is very much reflecting on my own childhood experiences in many ways. It’s not autobiographical at all, but it deeply reflects the settings and atmospheres I grew up in.

We have these nostalgic spaces in the film, like the inflatable planetarium in an elementary school gymnasium, election night in the high school after hours, suburban backyards, arcades, old movie theaters—all places I spent a lot of time in during my youth.

A huge part of the film for me was conjuring that ghost. I was trying to authentically recreate not so much the reality of growing up in those spaces, but the childhood memory of how those places felt.

It’s also about how those places were reflected back to me on television. A lot of the TV I grew up watching depicted the suburbs of the 1990s. So, as much as I’m playing on my own youth and trying to conjure that, it’s also influenced by the 1990s gaze on itself that I was getting from TV shows I watched.

I think it’s about trying to conjure a feeling of perhaps deceptive nostalgia. The nostalgia in the film gives way to something darker. It’s part of the emotion and narrative I’m building: we follow this character from a glimmering, warm, lush, safe suburban milieu of childhood, and then the film slowly turns into grotesque.

The fragmentary narrative and dream logic also play into this back-and-forth into the past and shattering of those perceptions.

It’s a memory film—a film about memory. We have this device in the movie where Justice’s character, Owen, is sitting by a fire, which is an oblique reference to the American TV show Are You Afraid of the Dark? where kids sat around a fire and told each other scary stories.

In a certain sense, what we’re watching and what Owen is narrating in the film is a campfire story—a ghost story, but it’s his story. From the very beginning, we’re not necessarily watching a film with established realism in its narrative flow. It’s memory, so the ways in which we move through time and space in the movie are quite dreamlike. It’s a reflection on something that the character is looking back towards.

Justice, your character often breaks the fourth wall and gives the impression of an unreliable narrator. How did you perceive the character of Owen when preparing for the role?

Justice Smith: I saw him as Odysseus. It felt like this grand character epic. Although it was more of an internal journey than traveling to different islands to meet gods. It wasn’t something I understood logically until I sat down with Jane and heard their vision for it. But it was something I felt from the first time I read the script.

I think that’s the power of Jane´s films—they get under your skin and create something visceral within you. I knew that the role of Owen would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I wanted it really badly.

Your style has often been compared to that of David Lynch. How do you feel about these comparisons, and how has Lynch's work influenced your own filmmaking approach?

Jane Schoenbrun: For sure, yeah, I love Lynch. I never want to be seen as just influenced by David Lynch, obviously. There are so many artists and filmmakers who have influenced me—surrealist filmmakers and more realist filmmakers alike. For example, the films of Kelly Reichardt are as close to me as Lynch's films, or even the works of Abbas Kiarostami.

But Lynch, I've learned so much from, and I just love those movies and return to them constantly. Especially as a totem of someone who has managed to have a career as an artist—making work that's very oblique and not adhering to traditional commercial structures, yet doing so within a commercial landscape—I really look up to the way he's been able to thread that needle or walk that tightrope.

I also take from Lynch, and I think not all surrealists, but within the surrealist tradition, there's this idea that surrealism is random. People often think it means everything is strange and nonsensical. But to me, having watched those films—like Buñuel's films—over and over again, I find the structure in them much more rigorous than in traditional commercial films.

They're less dependent on a Joseph Campbell-style, three-act structure where specific events must happen at certain points. Instead, they're meticulously structured but write their own narrative rules.

With Lynch, especially, his films are structured around the understanding that nothing you see on screen is realism. Everything is some gradient of a dream. That doesn't mean you just make everything crazy; it means you're liberated from a certain construct of reality when you make a movie.

You get to paint on a canvas that allows you to fully take advantage of that freedom. I find those films much more liberating and exciting to watch than something grounded in a traditional three-act structure.


Justice Smith (c) Mediterrane Film Festival

There are several moments in your films where your monologues really strike a chord. I'm curious—was there a particular moment in the script or during filming that felt like a breakthrough for the character in terms of their monologues or emotional development? There is this moment where you character gets asked “Do you like girls? Boys?”, which is now oft quoted.

Justice Smith: Yeah, that moment, I think, is really telling of what I feel is emblematic of Owen's journey at large. When he talks about feeling afraid to look at what's inside or the absence of what's inside, it's very profound.

For me, the scene I was most scared to shoot was what I call the awakening scene at the birthday party, where Owen can no longer fight this revelation. It comes out of him like vomit, and he starts to scream.

I remember trying to decide my process before that day—whether I should hide away in a corner and listen to music, scream all morning, or something else. But when I came to set, I trusted the presence and the framework that Jane had set up. I felt liberated and decided to see what would happen. What came out was a raw, unfiltered performance. I've received a lot of feedback that what emerged was powerful and genuine.

Jane Schoenbrun: You really let loose.

Justice Smith: I did let loose, and it served the story exactly the way it needed to.

Jane Schoenbrun: I remember we talked about the moments in the film where Owen is at his peak intensity. The character is holding something in for most of the time, and there are these few moments where he truly lets it out. I felt a lot of gratitude and also concern for Justice because, in those moments, it was like a full-body experience of purging something deeply internal.

Justice Smith: We were also very decisive about how often Owen smiled. I mean, I have a very... not to toot my own horn, but I have a very electric smile. It doesn’t always serve every character. For Owen, someone who isn’t in touch with that part of himself, it was important to be selective. There are a few moments when we see him smile, and it's such warmth.

Jane Schoenbrun: People keep asking me about the scene where Owen is in a dress, which is like cosplay—the character in the show wears the same dress. I was always cautious because it felt a bit too on the nose, almost cliché for a trans narrative. But I love that moment because it’s one of the few times we see Owen truly smile. It’s genuine happiness. That moment is saved by Justice’s golden smile, bringing warmth and authenticity to it.

Justice Smith: Thanks, Jane.

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A24 FilmsJane SchoenbrunJustice SmithMediterrane Film Festival 2024Brigette Lundy-PaineIan ForemanDramaHorror

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