The past two years Sundance has been entirely virtual out of necessity. But in 2021, one film stood out as being oddly appropriate for the format. Sitting on my bed in the glow of my computer screen, I witnessed a nightmare. I witnessed Jane Schoenbrun’s singular We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Over a year later, the film is finally getting released, ready to light up more screens, big and small. It opens tomorrow in New York City and in theaters nationwide and digitally on April 22.
I talked to Jane about the film, her life on the internet, and making art amid transition.
Jane: Nice to meet you, Drew!
Drew: Nice to meet you too!
Jane: I feel like I’ve known you for a long time but I don’t think we’ve ever actually talked before.
Drew: No, just Twitter. Which is fitting because I want to start by talking about the internet. The movie shows it to be a place of horror but also one of connection. As a teenager — or as an adult — how has the internet played a role in your life? In general and in regards to transness.
Jane: When I was really little, it was very enticing. There was a single computer in my family’s basement and I would use it whenever I was allowed to — and when no one was paying attention to what I was doing. One year when I was 9 or 10, we went on a family vacation. It must’ve been 1996 because the internet was still a new thing but not so new that it wasn’t a part of my life. I had the websites that I read every day, the things I was a little nerd about. And I remember going on this vacation for two weeks and feeling like, oh my god there must be so much that I missed in that box I can’t wait to check all my sites and catch up.
There were two things I looked for when I was growing up on the internet. One was culture. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of pop culture but there wasn’t much culture culture. And the pop culture that I was drawn to wasn’t the same pop culture as my family and friends. I was just a queer little nerd who loved Buffy and The X Files, who needed Neutral Milk Hotel and Rilo Kiley in their life in a desperate way. And I found all of that online. The algorithm wasn’t what it is now but you could still sort of chase one interest toward your next and your next and your next. You could find other people who were passionate about the things you were passionate about and have a feeling there were other people who shared your gaze.
And then the other thing that I found on the internet was an outlet for creativity. Unfortunately because I was trans and closeted and super fucking repressed in a way that was going to take decades, it’s hard for me to untangle that from dissociation. The sort of creative expression through the lens of fantasy and role play that Casey does in the film — a creative expression that’s clearly very personal but that she’s not ready to own in her real life — reminds me of who I was back then. It wasn’t as dramatic but I also wasn’t telling anyone in my life about my creativity and I also had a lot of shame about it. In the 90s, everyone was telling kids they could be anything they wanted to be. But when people saw who I wanted to be they were like, maybe not that though, maybe that’s a little much.
Drew: I definitely resonate with the way you’re talking about creativity. As a teenager, I didn’t have any grasp of my transness, but being an artist was a different kind of othering. It sounds sort of obnoxious now but depending on where you grow up and what your family is like there’s real difference there. Queerness is being read into artsiness. It’s another word that’s being used so people don’t have to actually talk about it even though they still want to critique it.
Jane: 100%. 100%. And so many other things that I was using as coping mechanisms — punk or goth aesthetics, horror aesthetics, the type of music I liked — were a humongous expression of my gender. I was trying to cling to life rafts that felt right because this one core essential thing felt so wrong. When we’re not able to express our identity fully, the things we surround ourselves with are expressions of who we want to be.
Drew: Yeah. I’m also interested in this idea that like creepy internet strangers can understand us more than the people in our lives. Especially older people. I can look back and acknowledge it was a little weird that adults were talking to me but there was a care there and an understanding there that I wasn’t getting anywhere else.
Jane: Yeah I think it happens unconsciously for everyone involved. You’re not getting that understanding from the people in your life unless you’re living in very specific structures and places and communities. So when this box lands in your house or your apartment or wherever and gives you access to spaces where geography, location, and physicality are no longer necessary to build relationships, you can just gravitate naturally toward your kind.
And yeah there is something that’s nefarious about it that’s purposefully left ambiguous in the film. It can at times feel like tutelage or mentorship — perhaps even queer mentorship — but at other times it can feel like a very imperfect — if not wrong — way of getting that exposure to people like you. Because of the wider cultural image of stranger danger on the internet but also because of the power dynamics that are inherently toxic of older men and younger people online.
Drew: I also want to talk about the internet in relation to horror and this human impulse to seek out things that harm us. Through the internet we find connection, we find comfort, we find familiarity, but there’s also a sort of self-harm in seeking out some of what we find online.
Jane: I mean, it’s masochism, right? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I’ve been trying to put into words why I find body horror comforting and specifically trans. Here’s my working theory.
Drew: Yes, tell me.
Jane: I think it’s different from the obvious working theory that our bodies don’t feel right so we’re attached to the horror of things. I think it’s more that when you grow up trans and repressed you learn a relationship to sexuality, to gender, to your body, and to physicality that has a complicated gaze. It isn’t as simple as it is for cis people because you aren’t comfortable in your assigned role. There becomes a little bit of horror imbued in that act when you’re looking at it as an alien, looking in at human beings and what they do and not quite understanding why you don’t feel the same way. And then you see a David Cronenberg film and there’s a vagina on an arm and all kinds of weird goop is coming out of it and there are teeth or something. It hits a little harder but it’s the same solar system as the way you just plain feel about all this stuff. So there’s something comforting about the grotesqueness of it. It’s not like you wish that you had a vagina on your arm — though if you do that’s fine too.
Drew: (laugh) Judgment free zone.
Jane: Judgment free zone. But it’s more that there’s something comforting in seeing an extreme representation of a feeling that you’ve always had, a feeling where desire and horror get caught together in a mouse trap. It’s a comfort and you seek it out. Other people might question why you would spend your hard earned dollars getting your kick watching Videodrome over and over again, but it becomes a balm. The darkness is like a hug and I think that’s a lot of what I look for in nocturnal, scary work. Because my gaze of daylight, normative romcom American dream shit is very skeptical, I would go looking for beauty elsewhere.
Drew: I love that. Do you mind me asking where you were at with your transness when you first came up with the idea for this film?
Jane: Totally. I did not know I was trans when I started working on the film. The way I generally work is I get obsessed with something that’s complicated and personal. And, in this case, it was a feeling of dysphoria that I wasn’t even close to having words for yet. Over the five years I was refining the film down to what it became, I did find that language. In retrospect, I can look back and see a million signs but then there was that moment of being like, I can’t unsee that I’m trans. I just saw it vividly. That came shortly before writing the final draft of the movie so I was still very much working on it at the time.
I think there were sort of two transitions if you will. There was this transition from producing and curating and doing industry work to being an artist — that in itself was a very scary transition. And then there was the transition of looking for a gender and a physical form and an identity that felt whole for me. Those transitions are very much tied together. I’m working on this new film that we’re going to shoot this summer that’s about a different part of transition. It’s written in the sort of early months of physical transition but about the egg crack. And then I’m working on the next thing — I really want to make a trilogy of the first two films and then this three season TV show. Like a psycho, I procrastinate by writing the next next thing. I’m trying to write all thirty episodes of this show before we go out to pitch it.
Jane: I’m a lunatic. And the show is very much about after the early dark months of transition when the world starts to open up in a scary, vulnerable, ephemeral way. It asks, how do you build a life for yourself that’s full and real after so much unreality and trauma? I can’t really watch World’s Fair because the person who made it was so different and it’s in such a darker place than I am now. I’m proud of that person for being honest and digging their way out of that space through the film. I think there’s something beautiful about making work from within the transition rather than waiting for some fabled moment where I’m fully transitioned and fully myself and can look back with perfect clarity at all of it.
Drew: Yeah there’s stuff throughout the film that — whether it was on purpose or not — just feels so trans. Like the videos Casey watches: I’m turning into plastic, I can’t feel my body. These things feel so trans.
Jane: Drew. Drew. It’s all on purpose! Come on!
Drew: (laughs) I don’t know! I guess, like, obviously it’s on purpose but was it conscious? When you were writing the drafts before coming out to yourself was it all in there?
Jane: Oh yeah it was all in there because I was trans.
Jane: It’s not like I became trans. I just put language to what I was trying to unpack.
Drew: I love that.
Jane: Once I realized I was trans, it was vulnerable to not just spell it out or underline it in this simple liberal back-patty kind of way. But I tried to stay true to every frame of the film being something that came from the subconscious. Especially those videos. I had this theory that the algorithm operates from a similar logic to dreams. If I sat down and thought really hard about what video we should see after say the video of the guy slapping himself on the treadmill, I would not have arrived at the right video. But just like how in a dream my high school English teacher can stand in for my boss or my dad or whatever, a similar associative logic is at work when the algorithm is serving you the videos that it thinks you need to see. So I tried to not overthink it. I tried to find those ideas and images from inside myself and when it felt right that was the next video that we saw. But once the film was done I was like let me use some Freud shit to see what I was doing at the time.
Drew: Do you write down your dreams?
Jane: I don’t write them down but I go through periods of time where I’m having really intense dreams. Any time I’m waking up remembering a dream, especially when it’s happening over a period of time, I tend to listen. That’s my subconscious serving me something I need to figure out. And those have traditionally been periods of big growth in my life. I don’t believe in the oversoul or the collective unconscious or God sending me messages but I do believe in listening to your subconscious. Conscious thought is a very limited way to walk through life and developing tools through which you can listen to your subconscious will lead toward a much more fulfilling existence.
Drew: I want to talk about Anna Cobb because she’s so remarkable in the film. How was the casting process? And when writing the character of Casey, how wide of a net were you casting as far as age and gender?
Jane: A super wide net. I mean, it had to be someone who looked like they’d still conceivably be living under their parents’ roof. And I sort of knew I didn’t want to cast someone who was like 12. I don’t think I would’ve been able to collaborate in such a deep way with someone who was that young. Anna was 17 when we shot the film and wise beyond her years. Anna is an old, old soul and truly brilliant. But we looked at all genders. It was originally written as a boy but that didn’t matter so much to me. Gender in that sense wasn’t important to the film because anyone could’ve been able to tap into what the film was talking about.
I was obsessive in the casting search. We looked at more traditional avenues of finding young actors like acting schools and going through agencies and looking at films that already existed but I think I knew pretty early on that it would have to be a major discovery to be worth the film existing. So much of the film is on Anna’s shoulders and I was like I need to do for some young actress out there what Winter’s Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence. I needed to find my J Law. Even if my J Law is very different than J Law…
Drew: (laughs) Sure.
Jane: I was searching everywhere. I literally spent days on the YouTube wiki which is just a list of every YouTuber that makes videos regularly. I thought maybe there would be some kid posting who had it — but there wasn’t. And then Anna’s headshot came through. It was incredibly striking and strange and different. Her eyes were haunting. It was worth a tape and then the tape was filled with so much personality and specificity — and also chops and skill. Those two things to me are one in a million. It’s not easy to find someone who is so themself and so natural but who can also land the dramatic moments of an audition. When we found her, it felt like all this work was worth it because it led us to Anna.
When I write a character, I try to write them somewhere between 60 to 80% fully formed and then the other 20 to 40% comes from the human being I’m collaborating with. This was very core to my idea of how I wanted to make World’s Fair. I wanted to find somebody, get to know them, and collaborate to integrate something personal from their own existence. And Anna was just beyond generous with this even though Anna is completely different from Casey. Anna is one of the most boisterous, goofy people ever. She doesn’t really use the internet, she doesn’t like horror movies. But Anna does have a lot in common with Casey in other ways and we were able to find a lot of really deep commonalities through which she could understand what this character was looking for. Once we had that common language, it was a creative collaboration that led to what I think is really great work.
Drew: You see that boisterousness in the scene where Casey is dancing and singing. It makes the character feel so well-rounded and you’re rooting for her even more than you would if she was always dour and struggling.
Jane: I tried not to let my preconceived ideas I had during the years I spent preparing get in the way of the reality of being on set. And that’s not just about acting. If I’m looking at a brown chair and in my head I had a white chair and there’s nowhere to get that white chair, it’s like okay what changes about the movie when I’m looking at a brown chair? It’s semiotics. You have to very simply see what is in front of you and discover what it means for this thing that you’ve been planning for so long. Instead of trying to control reality, flirt with reality. The life that Anna brings is the whole movie and I needed to try not to control it based on the ideas I had before I found her. Instead we worked together to pull something richer and more alive into the frame.
Drew: I mean that questioning of reality is intrinsic to the film itself — and intrinsic to trans experience. That’s a through line throughout that I found so interesting. Casey is untethered from reality in a way that I think for a lot of queer and trans people happens naturally — especially when you’re young.
Jane: I had that same distance from real life that the character has. I wouldn’t realize it was a queer thing for decades because at the time it just sort of made me feel cynical. Cynical and dissociative. Just sort of looking around and feeling like why is everyone so interested in stuff that’s clearly so fucking boring? But they were out there having their first kiss and sleeping with each other and going to parties and I was inside on the internet writing fan fiction or something. There wasn’t an opportunity for me to engage in that world in a way that was going to feel real because it wasn’t the world that I was looking for. And there wasn’t much opportunity to understand myself in a context wider than this monocultural heteronormative white constricting town that I grew up in. This sort of suburban vacuum.
I found it eventually but to grow up in that space is challenging. During those vulnerable years, to have your gaze counteracted by everyone else will mess you up a little bit. When you grow up, you’ll need to quit your day job, make a really personal movie, and hide inside for five years to figure out what that was all about.