The Inverse Interview

Jane Schoenbrun Wants to Get Under Your Skin

The director of I Saw the TV Glow opens up about their ascent through the indie scene and navigating Hollywood as a trans filmmaker.

Inverse; Getty Images, Utopia, A24
The Indie Issue

For most of their life, one thing haunted Jane Schoenbrun.

“Between when I was a kid and watched Twin Peaks for the first time and when the show got rebooted in 2017, I just had recurring nightmares about it,” Schoenbrun tells Inverse. The original David Lynch series featured such a “dark and disturbing ending that it almost felt like an assault of some kind or unresolved trauma.”

Twin Peaks eventually finally found a resolution with its revival miniseries, The Return, but fans like Schoenbrun had to wait a good 20 years for any of that, and it clearly took its toll on the filmmaker.

Television has a way of getting under our skin — especially with its endings. A good series finale can provide the type of closure that real life almost never does, while an unsatisfying one leaves emotional scars when things don’t wrap up as neatly as we’d hoped. That’s the underlying theme of Schoenbrun’s upcoming horror movie, I Saw the TV Glow, a sophomore effort that was the talk of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

“I wanted to make the kind of movie that I would have been obsessed with at 16.”

I Saw the TV Glow stars Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine as a pair of teenagers who bond over their love of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque TV show. When it’s canceled, their own reality begins to break down in terrifying ways. Like in Schoenbrun’s first film, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, I Saw the TV Glow uses psychological horror to explore the parasocial bonds we build with fictional characters and worlds. In their sophomore outing, the director pulls that thread and then uses it to weave a metaphor for the trans experience, conflating the persistent sensation of dysmorphia with the very thing that once haunted them as a child: an unsatisfying TV finale.

“Jane had a really clear vision of what they wanted, and it is such a mindfuck of a piece,” Smith tells Inverse. “Even when you don't get it, you feel it. And I think that's the power of film and specifically the power of Jane's vision.”

Schoenbrun at the Sundance premiere of I Saw the TV Glow.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Born in 1987, Schoenbrun came of age in an era when emotional entanglement with pop culture was just beginning to take hold. Spurred on by the advent of Internet fandom, it was suddenly much cooler to care and to allow the lines to blur between our favorite fictional worlds and a less-eventful reality.

That gave birth to a filmmaker with a keen understanding of the virtual world. Schoenbrun’s debut feature, 2021’s World’s Fair, pulled back the curtain on the darker corners of online communities, telling the story of a teenage girl (Anna Cobb) who joins a viral roleplaying game and begins to record a disquieting transformation. The micro-budget thriller shimmers with a sort of unspoken truth, coaxing a tender coming-of-age story out of a found-footage horror while identifying what it meant to be young, queer, and online in the 2000s. It also launched Schoenbrun into the spotlight and cemented them overnight as one of their generation’s future auteurs.

Anna Cobb in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.


Schoenbrun penned the World’s Fair script in one of their darker moments, before they came out as trans and nonbinary. The story, however metaphorical, is deeply personal for the filmmaker. The same could be said for their latest feature, which doubles down on the queer allegory of World’s Fair. It also marks a departure from the sparse, discordant feel of Schoenbrun’s first feature. With TV Glow, Schoenbrun “wanted to make the kind of movie that I would have been obsessed with at 16,” the kind of film that would have meant “everything” to a lonely, budding filmmaker trapped in suburbia.

For Smith, Schoenbrun has more than succeeded at making that kind of film with I Saw the TV Glow.

“Jane just understands the power of image and sound and character as a weapon to infect your body,” Smiths says. “In a beautiful, twisted way, they want it to get under your skin and crawl there and live there.”

Even after making the jump to elite indie studio A24 and conquering Sundance for the second time, Schoenbrun is still just getting started. And after spending some time with the filmmaker on the heels of yet another career-defining moment, one thing is clear: Hollywood has never met anyone quite like Jane Schoebrun.

The “egg crack” moment

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in I Saw the TV Glow.


When we first meet for lunch in a café at the edge of Park City, I Saw the TV Glow is already one of the biggest hits of the festival. It’s only been a few days since it premiered to positive word-of-mouth buzz, kicking off an exciting new chapter in Schoenbrun’s career.

Seated across from me, with a massive plate of french fries filling the void between us, Schoenbrun chooses their words carefully, weighing the full scope of each idea before letting it free. Their casually sardonic humor (apparent in both of their movies) only manifests itself once they’ve taken a few bites. The Park City altitude has taken my appetite, so I watch with envy as Schoenbrun digs in, explaining the catalyst of TV Glow between bites.

If World’s Fair was a tentative survey of the queer community, TV Glow wades into the deep end. With the help of nostalgia-tinged metaphor, it revolves around an experience that the trans community describes as “the egg-crack moment.” It’s the moment where one is forced to reckon with one’s true identity — think Neo’s red-pill revelation in The Matrix.

“My egg-crack moment was in April 2019,” Schoenbrun says. They started writing TV Glow shortly after, right at the beginning of their physical transition. “Early on in gender transition, there’s not a lot of physical change, but you’re dealing with the emotional fallout of coming out.”

“There was an idea from the very beginning that the whole movie feels like the memory of television.”

The story began as a way to process the “primal wound” of an inconclusive cliffhanger. “I realized this idea of that unresolved thing in the back of your mind, clawing away at you while you're just existing in reality, could be a really interesting metaphor to explore what I was going through with my transition,” Schoenbrun says.

Twin Peaks’ baffling cliffhanger was a huge inspiration for the film, but Schoenbrun drew equal influence from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, two shows the filmmaker was “totally obsessed with” in their youth. Schoenbrun was just 10 years old when Buffy first premiered. They followed the series dutifully across its seven seasons, forging a connection just as strong as any in real life.

“When you’re 10 or 11, seven years is more than half of your life,” Schoenbrun says. “To be with a thing for that long and with these characters that are, if not family, people you have emotional connections with — yeah, that can become a really latched relationship.”

For I Saw the TV Glow, Schoenbrun got to create a TV series worthy of its own parasocial fandom. The result is The Pink Opaque, a fictional show-within-a-movie about two girls who form a connection at sleepaway camp. They later use that bond to defeat monsters in the psychic realm, a concept written off as teen girl schlock. But for the film’s two antisocial high schoolers, Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), The Pink Opaque is so much more. It sees them like no one ever could, and the teens, in turn, remember it a little better than it actually was.

“There was an idea from the very beginning that the whole movie feels like the memory of television,” says Schoenbrun, “meaning that even the show doesn’t look and feel exactly like those shows actually looked and felt. It all kind of feels the way I remember it feeling when I was a kid, and it meant a lot to me. I wanted the movie itself to feel that way.”

While The Pink Opaque feels ripped from the VHS tapes you’d find in the attic, TV Glow is more subdued in its approach. Its most nostalgic nods manifest in visual cues, while an original soundtrack cribs from early 2000s angst.

With The Pink Opaque, Schoenbrun pays tribute to the look, feel, and sound of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Back in high school, music was Schoenbrun’s Pink Opaque. The “queer mentor relationship” between Owen and Maddy in TV Glow was inspired by the filmmaker’s bond with an older classmate who’d invite a young Schoenbrun to her house. Together they’d listen to Belle and Sebastian or Death Cab for Cutie.

“There was something implicitly very queer about that,” Schoenbrun says. “I clung to those albums that she introduced me to as some kind of identity marker.”

Music and film went hand-in-hand as Schoenbrun came of age. It all culminated with the release of Garden State in the summer of 2004. Schoenbrun, then working at “an arthouse theater for old people,” was utterly taken by the soundtrack.

“If this movie goes about as well as it can, the dream is to direct an A24 movie.”

“I feel like this was a bigger thing back when I was a teenager,” they say. “The experience of being obsessed with a movie because of its soundtrack and being obsessed with the soundtrack of the movie.” The 2000s were chock full of such films. There was Donnie Darko in 2001, Marie Antoinette in 2006, Juno in 2007; the list goes on. TV Glow is keen to follow in their footsteps — Schoenbrun spent a fair amount of time courting artists for the film’s soundtrack.

“There was a bit of a creative prompt: ‘Write the song that you would have played if you played on Buffy or Party of Five or Twin Peaks in the ’90s.’” That prompt attracted artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Caroline Polacheck, while members of Snail Mail and Limp Bizkit landed roles in front of the camera.

Just as Buffy invited real-life musicians to its fictional bar, the Bronze, TV Glow features performances from Sloppy Jane’s Haley Dahl and Phoebe Bridgers.


There’s a sense that Schoenbrun got to pull out all the stops — or at least spread their wings a bit more — with TV Glow. It helps that the director found the ideal collaborator in A24, the champion of such indie darlings as Talk to Me and Saint Maud, but their partnership wasn’t a happy accident.

“I went after them,” Schoenbrun declares, a conspiratorial look in their eye. World’s Fair was an audition, of sorts, for the kind of collaborators the filmmaker has been dreaming of working with. “I definitely thought, ‘If this movie goes about as well as it can, the dream is to direct an A24 movie.’” With their support, Schoenbrun could “jump up from whispering to those who are listening about what I can do to saying it in this bold and vibrant way for a larger audience.”

Schoenbrun already has a clear vision of their future as a filmmaker. They’ve spent years studying the landscape and their peers to cultivate a proper path. “I want to be the kind of filmmaker who gets to make movies that are personal and are unmistakably theirs,” Schoenbrun says. “There aren’t that many of them, at least under the age of 50, and certainly not many trans ones.” With the film industry relying more on franchises and intellectual property, it’s getting harder for that type of voice to emerge.

“The way that those companies right now are operating, the artist is middle management. The artist is completely disempowered, and the artist has to fit into a larger mission that has nothing to do with individual vision.”

A Trojan horse

With Hollywood prioritizing IP more and more, Schoenbrun is understandably shrewd about future career moves.

Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Schoenbrun seems more averse to compromise than most of their contemporaries, but a pivot to intellectual property (or IP) almost feels inevitable at this point in their career. With two indie films, both critically acclaimed, under their belt, they’ve unwittingly made themself the perfect candidate for a franchise like Marvel. The studio scooped up Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler shortly after his Sundance debut; ditto for The Marvels’ Nia DaCosta. Would Schoenbrun ever leave the comfort of the indie scene and try their hand at a blockbuster?

“Mattel reached out for a meeting,” they volunteer. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ I’d rather just go back and make $100,000 movies in the woods than find myself middle-aged and rich and sad as fuck.”

It’s been half a year since Barbie enveloped the world in a sea of pink and Mattel unveiled its ambitious plans for a cinematic universe. Polly Pocket, Hungry Hungry Hippos… Nothing is off-limits, apparently. That particular world isn’t really up Schoenbrun’s alley, but compromise might be coming sooner or later.

“I didn’t like Barbie, but I recognize the idea of taking IP and fucking with it,” Schoenbrun says. “Capitalism is so late in its game that we are fully at the mercy of ‘Oh, you've got something to say? Do it through Barbie. Do it through some forgotten property from your youth.’”

“I’d rather just go back and make $100,000 movies in the woods than find myself middle-aged and rich and sad as fuck.”

Using IP as a Trojan horse has become a form of self-preservation for some and an act of artistic rebellion for others. “I always think about Starship Troopers, and [director] Paul Verhoeven being like, ‘I’m going to take your money and do something fucking crazy with it, and no one’s going to quite notice that I made a film about fascism’s creep through Hollywood.’”

To that end, Schoenbrun might have to consider the possibilities. “I’d love IP with final cut,” they concede. They’ve also got a list of properties they’d feel comfortable rebooting, including “a Lynch-ian reboot” of Hitchcock’s Psycho and a live-action adaptation of Beavis and Butthead starring TV Glow’s own Lundy-Paine.

“I really look up to filmmakers who built their stable of collaborators,” Schoenbrun says, citing directors like Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman. Though TV Glow is only Schoebrun’s second film, they’re already building a “stable” of their own. The director is keen to reunite with World’s Fair star Cobb — “she loves Al Pacino, so I specifically want to remake Dog Day Afternoon with her” — but especially passionate about cementing another project with Lundy-Paine.

Schoenbrun now counts Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine among a list of forever collaborators.

Variety/Getty Images

“Making this movie with Brigette while we were both going through a really specific point in our understanding of our own genders and gender transition, that just feels like such rich territory to revisit and return to over time,” Schoenbrun adds. “I just feel such a kindred soul relationship with them. I think we're artistic soulmates in a lot of ways.”

The feeling is mutual. “I love Jane deeply. They are so silly,” Brigette Lundy-Paine tells Inverse. “Jane is wildly smart and able to exist in many realities at once. They are a brave and ecstatic thinker, constantly creating new dimensions to explore.”

As for the immediate future, Schoenbrun is already working on their third feature, a slasher that aims to examine the relationship between “horror movies and gender deviance.”

There are plenty of other ideas in their head, too. Schoenbrun is working on their first novel, the start of a trilogy that could serve as another homage to the worldbuilding of Buffy. They also want to work with movie stars, to deconstruct their relationship to Hollywood in the same way that Nicolas Cage has already sort of done on his own. I ask which movie stars are at the top of the list, and Schoenbrun delivers their best punchline without missing a beat.

“I would love to work with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise,” they say coolly. “I think the world deserves the ‘Eyes Wide Shut: 30 Years Later’ moment that that would give us, and I think I deserve it, too.”

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