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Thursday, April 28, 2022

Jane Schoenbrun Talks Identity and the Internet in ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ [Interview]

The remarkable and haunting horror film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair had its World Premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2021 and the internet has been buzzing with anticipation of the release date ever since. Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, the film stars Anna Cobb, who gives a mesmerizing performance as Casey, an isolated teenager who gets heavily involved with a creepypasta, role-playing game online. Emotional and riveting, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair deals with themes of loneliness, identity, and sadness, and Cobb’s incredible portrayal of Casey is guaranteed to stay with you long after seeing the film.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is currently in theaters and on VOD in the U.S. and will arrive in UK cinemas on April 29th from Lightbulb Film Distribution. The film will be available for digital download in the UK on May 9th and on Blu-ray May 23rd. You can book tickets and pre-order the Blu-ray in the UK here.

Bloody Disgusting had the immense pleasure of talking with Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun about We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the personal inspiration for the story, casting Anna Cobb as Casey, the many layers of the film, and a lot more.

Bloody Disgusting: You wrote, directed, and edited We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. The last time we talked, you told me the concept of the World’s Fair challenge came to you in a dream. How did you use the dream to write the story and to create the sequences we see in the film?

Jane Schoenbrun: I think that I always try to listen to my dreams when I remember my dreams, which isn’t always. I sort of go through periods of having very vivid dreams that I remember. Every morning I wake up with like, “Oh my God, I was dealing with some stuff when I was asleep.” [laughs] I think that the early period of working on this film was very much one of those times. Even though I think dreams often come from a place of anxiety, it’s your subconscious telling you there is something you need to work on, or there is something you need to figure out and see that your conscious brain is rejecting, I kind of enjoy the process. It feels like detective work, but you’re doing detective work inside yourself. You’re digging for answers about things that your conscious brain just doesn’t want to understand yet.

So, I always take dreams as signs or portents that there is something that I need to be unpacking. A lot of that unpacking I think I do through my creative work; it’s all one thing for me because my work is so personal that it’s how I process my world through the art. On this film, I think it was just a matter of trusting my subconscious and getting myself into a state and a routine where I could really be listening to my subconscious. Whether that be through dreams, through clearing my head in meditative states and just letting my ideas come, or through not intellectualizing or overthinking, like what on paper or academically I should be saying with the film, but letting it sort of come directly, as much as possible, from the subconscious. I sort of made a commitment to do that and for that to be the process. So, I think the film’s flow and atmosphere and logic is very much a dream logic as a result.

BD: This story is very personal for you. You’ve said that the fact the film premiered virtually last year, and thousands of people were able to watch the movie who might not have otherwise been able to see it, was really meaningful to you, especially as a Queer, Trans filmmaker. Can you share how your own transitioning process inspired Casey’s search for identity in the movie?

JS: I think I didn’t really think so intellectually about it. I didn’t even think about it in terms of any specific character, like I definitely didn’t set out to make a film about a Trans person, or people. I set out to make a film that was an investigation of a feeling that I didn’t have language to express and that I hadn’t really seen expressed in a way that felt truthful to me in other media, except in really oblique ways and unexpected places. Like in the unreality and simulation of The Matrix or body horror of David Cronenberg. This was a really intuitive process for me of just trying to reach inside my subconscious and pull out ideas that felt like they expressed what I would eventually come to call dysphoria, as a single word rubric umbrella that we can say the film is trying to speak about.

It was much less about how Casey’s journey is a Trans journey, and it was much more about the language of the film, the way we move through the film, the ideas that are being expressed in the various dynamics and tensions in the film. Yes, sometimes in specific moments in the film Casey’s behavior, I think I was pulling a lot from, not necessarily a Trans awakening that I had, but an emotional state that felt really truthful to who I was when I was Casey’s age. It’s a bit of a vague answer but I think of it very much as a Trans film and very much as a film about dysphoria, but I that that’s different than saying it’s a film about a Trans person and exploring dysphoria.

BD: Anna Cobb is phenomenal in this movie, and this is her first feature film. How did you know Anna was the right person to play Casey?

JS: I think when I saw her headshot, which was taken in her bathroom mirror with a cellphone, and her big eyes sort of staring intensely into the camera, it was a very different headshot. You don’t get a lot of selfies taken in a bathroom mirror when you’re posting casting notices. When you’re reaching out to agencies you get a lot of super polished, good haircut, Hollywood smiles. When I saw Anna’s headshot, it immediately felt like something Casey would do. At this point, I didn’t have an idea physically of Casey. We were looking at all genders for the role, a wider age range, it was a pretty broad search, in terms of trying to find a personality that felt right, rather than a type that felt right. When we got Anna’s picture, it really did feel like the emotions there were Casey.

Then when we got a tape from Anna, it immediately became clear that she was just a phenomenal actor with incredible skills and this ability to, with a lot of strength and integrity, and no real melodrama, land big moments, which for a film that is both subtle and deeply emotional, felt essential to the role. It’s a really hard thing to find in a young actor, I think it’s a really rare gift that Anna has in that regard. The other thing that was so apparent from that tape was her overflowing personality and individuality. There was always this idea that because the movie was going to be so close to this person, that the majority of the movie was really just perceiving this person perceive themselves, and be perceived, that we needed somebody who warranted that kind of gaze and that level of fascination, and Anna is a fascinating person. Anna is so compelling, such a big personality, so specific in ways that, I think, come through in the film, even though Anna in real-life is very different than the character that she is disappearing into in this film. But it was so immediately apparent when we found her that this was a person that had the charisma and just deep humanity that we needed from Casey.

BD: We’re All Going to the World’s Fair deals with themes of loneliness, isolation, identity, and suicide. Can you talk about the really dark climax of the movie when Casey violently destroys her favorite stuffed animal and ends up sobbing, the themes of mental illness, and what you hope audiences ultimately take away from the film?

JS: The film is not trying to diagnose Casey. I think one important thing is that we can only glean what she’s going through from the remove of the screen, and I think that’s really important because it’s an experience that I’ve had a lot on the internet, even just in researching the film, finding various people on YouTube who felt like Casey. I was just falling into these corners of the internet where people are exploring dark ideas and sometimes exploring dark ideas through performance and fiction, and Casey is very much performing for us throughout the film. She is aware of the gaze of the screen and the camera throughout the film, and that’s a really important distinction because it creates another layer of remove from us really understanding what is going on internally, which of course, we can never really understand what’s going on internally when we perceive someone in this kind of parasocial way.

I think it’s really important because the character is clearly expressing something and the character is trying to work through something, or perform something, that’s probably drawn from something very personal and something very dark. But I hesitate to diagnose her as mentally ill or say that this is supposed to be a portrait of a specific malady, because I think there is a lens through which that kind of exploration of darker feelings through performance can be empowering. Even when you’re speaking in really dark tones, and even when you’re speaking as many kids do online, about topics like suicide or self-harm or violence, which if you spend enough time in these online spaces the film is drawn from, these are constant conversation topics. I think I believe that it can be a form of self-expression and identity work; I think it can also very much be a cry for help and I didn’t want to leave that layer of it out of the movie. I think it also comes from this idea that these sorts of spaces online, which are not really regulated or moderated in any traditional way, this is somebody who’s probably not getting a lot of emotional resources and help from her daily life.

We get the sense in the film, vaguely, that it’s a pretty isolating real world that she’s grown up within, so maybe she is looking for a little bit of care or resources or commiseration or something from the internet about these darker spaces that’s she’s exploring, and what she gets there is also obviously insufficient. This guy who reaches out is not somebody who we would think of as a counselor, or at least as a trained professional counselor. But I think one of the specters that haunts the film is the specter of Queer teen suicide. There’s an Eve-centric quote about how any Queer artist is haunted by the specter of Queer teen suicide. I think the film is interested in the spaces and resources that don’t exist in the real world for the kinds of expressions that Casey is trying to work through and the insufficiency, but perhaps, more emancipatory potential of an online space for that kind of exploration.

BD: I heard you have some very cool projects in the works. Can you tell me about what you’re working on?

JS: Yes, for sure. Thank you for asking. It’s been an exciting couple of years since we finished the film and since it premiered at Sundance. A lot of doors have opened and making a film in the way we made We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and having it resonate with audiences, but having it resonate as a very uncompromised, auteurist work, has really helped me stake out a path, knock on wood, towards getting to make bigger films in a similar style and continue to do what I think every filmmaker dreams about, which is expand your voice as an artist with autonomy.

So, the next project which we’re shooting this summer is a movie called I Saw the TV Glow that I’m doing with A24, and it’s being produced by Emma Stone and Dave McCary’s Fruit Tree Productions. It’s a much bigger film in many ways but very much a continuation of a lot of the emotional landscapes that I’m exploring in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. It’s a movie about two kids who are obsessed with a scary TV show and the ways in which that scary TV show intrudes on their lives as they grow up and try to figure themselves out.

BD: Wow, that sounds exciting! Congratulations!

JS: Thank you very much! I have a lot of other projects that I’m really excited about. I’m adapting a book that I love dearly that I’m hoping to shoot. Next year I have a TV project with A24 that’s kind of my magnum opus, if you will, at least my early career opus. It’s called Public Access Afterworld and I’m trying to write the entire series of television before we shoot it. And I have a few other things percolating that I’m really excited about. I think I held myself in as a creative soul for so long before transition that it’s kind of all coming pouring out of me now and the idea of having the resources and opportunities to build a big body of work that I can use as a way to keep growing as an artist is certainly the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. [laughs] It’s so cool to be getting to do this. It’s surreal.

The post Jane Schoenbrun Talks Identity and the Internet in ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ [Interview] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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