How Jane Schoenbrun’s ‘emo horror movie’ helped them find themself

The director’s Sundance hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is about identity and the dark corners of the internet.

Movie director Jane Schoenbrun
Lia Clay Miller

Growing up in suburban Ardsley, New York, Jane Schoenbrun was drawn to director Wes Craven’s Scream franchise. They found comfort in the meta horror films: The murdery movies’ world felt like a warm place to hide.

A nerd for story structure and narrative from a young age, Schoenbrun started posting screenplays and fanfiction on a Scream message board when they were 13. That’s where Schoenbrun met someone with the AOL screen name WAJ. The two began commenting back and forth about stories via AOL Instant Messenger.

Soon the relationship turned. WAJ — a gay man in his twenties — began unloading his struggles with depression on the newly bar mitzvahed Schoenbrun. “I’d sign online to chat with friends from middle school or with girls I hadn’t seen since sleepaway camp, and WAJ would IM me something along the lines of, “Had a horrible day today. Not sure I can keep going,” Schoenbrun wrote in a 2018 essay for Filmmaker Magazine.

Jane SchoenbrunLia Clay Miller

Things escalated when WAJ revealed that he had an unsettling secret: Vampires were real. WAJ had drunk their boyfriend’s blood and vice versa. He told Schoenbrun something along the lines of “I’m really scared to go down this path because I don’t know what I’m becoming.” Schoenbrun didn’t believe the story, but was drawn to the possibility of it: If vampires were real, then so was the potential of “escape from the deadening reality” of their high school existence.

Schoenbrun grew up to be a film director, and this childhood anecdote informs the basis of their first full-length feature, the low-budget We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which comes out in New York tomorrow and via video on demand April 22.

World’s Fair will eventually air on HBO Max, which picked up the streaming rights after the movie debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival to wide acclaim. (The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as a “portrait of a period in life when the mind is a fever of rage, sadness, and confusing desires.”) The Sundance buzz landed Schoenbrun an agent and paved the way for their next feature, I Saw the TV Glow, which is being backed by indie film powerhouse A24 and Emma Stone’s production company, Fruit Tree.

In World’s Fair — which Schoenbrun describes as an “emo horror movie” — an adolescent girl named Casey (Anna Cobb), becomes absorbed in an online role-playing game in which participants are initiated through a Bloody Mary–style oath. After pricking her finger, smearing blood on her laptop screen, and chanting “I want to go to the world’s fair” three times, Casey starts making videos tracking changes she’s experiencing — or thinks she’s experiencing — and watches videos by others doing the same. One claims their body is turning into plastic. Another pulls a ticket stub out of their arm in a scene shot in Schoenbrun’s own bathroom.

“I was attacking the memory of this feeling growing up,” Schoenbrun says of the film. That feeling was dysphoria, though they didn’t know it until they were writing the final draft of the movie in April 2019 and they had their “trans egg crack moment.” (“Egg crack” is the term for the point at which a person realizes that they are trans.) Schoenbrun, who is non-binary, likens the writing process to “finding this feeling on the other side of my ribcage and figuring out how I could express it in a way that resonates.”

Transgender representation in the movies, which tend to be directed by cisgendered people, have not always been kind and are usually limited to tragic experiences. (Take, for instance, Boys Don’t Cry or The Silence of the Lambs.) “When you’re growing up, it can be much more impactful to see a David Cronenberg movie — where the body horror says more about how I see the world — than the very important trans Oscar-winner,” Schoenbrun says.

Schoenbrun has high hopes for the way their movie will be received beyond the film festival crowd. “I want the work to be a balm, the way my favorite sad songs were a balm growing up,” they say. “I want the work to be there for people who really need it in, in the way that I did, especially when I was growing up closeted and trans and queer.”

Spooky and soothing

The radiators are hissing ambiently in Schoenbrun’s spacious Brooklyn apartment. It’s a freakishly cold March morning — so cold that we’ve scuttled plans for the director to show me around the leafy Ditmas Park neighborhood where they dreamed up most of the new film. Instead, they curl up on the big, Clifford-red couch, the focal point of the living room.

“I wanted to include that quintessential New York City radiator noise in the movie,” says Schoenbrun, who is wearing a neat black cardigan with pink trim that complements their sapphire hair. They found a sample from a free online database that, in a moment of happy coincidence, turned out to have been recorded and uploaded by a friend. I ask if they ended up using the clip. “Gosh, yeah,” Schoenbrun says. “It’s buried somewhere in there.”

The sound of the radiator is an appropriate encapsulation of the tone of Schoenbrun’s film: spooky, sometimes soothing — perhaps even soothing because it is spooky. Schoenbrun says they’re inspired by shoegaze — bands like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins — and films that evoke the musical genre. “The melody — or in this case, narrative — is buried within something hazier,” says Schoenbrun, pointing to the work of directors like David Lynch and Gregg Araki.

World’s Fair primarily takes place in Casey’s attic bedroom, which is festooned with posters and glow-in-the-dark stars. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic though; the space is filled with warmth, in contrast to the desaturated, wintry outdoors of her nondescript town.

“I think it’s queer,” Schoenbrun says, “this idea of building smaller worlds that you do feel comfortable in within colder ones.” Details about Casey’s family life are kept off-screen: Her father (though even his identity is unclear) yells just once, abruptly interrupting the doings of her private world.

Similarly, Schoenbrun prefers to keep their own biological family off-screen, so to speak. (They call the relationships a work in progress.) The most directly they address their family situation comes as they discuss what happened with WAJ, whom they ultimately distanced themselves from.

Schoenbrun, who isn’t attracted to men, says that there “wasn’t a deep desire to steal my parents’ car to be with this creepy man hitting on me.” It was more like Schoenbrun was trying to be polite: “I think I’m a pleaser.” In the film, Casey begins Skyping with JLB (Michael J. Rogers), an older, creepy-sounding man who never shows his face on the webcam.

Schoebrun says that walking away from their “friendship” with WAJ had to do with self-protection: “I think it’s a trans thing, where you deny yourself being out of control, because to be out of control would mean seeing things about yourself that you couldn’t take back.”

They say at the time they weren’t ready to pass through the “subconscious toll,” which would mean facing questions about their identity. “If I had ‘unrepressed’ while still living under my parents’ roof, I don’t know if I would be alive today,” they say, “or at the very least have built a life that is so sustainable.”

Refinding joy

Schoenbrun, now 35, is a 2009 graduate of Boston University’s film program, which they describe as “soul-crushing” in its by-the-bookness and adherence to traditional Hollywood frameworks. “Whatever ‘Let’s make a movie in the woods’ kind of joy I had was taken away from me,” they say. “I had to refind it in adulthood.”

In school, they worked as a production assistant on short films by fellow students Benny and Josh Safdie, who went on to find fame with Uncut Gems. Schoenbrun recalls being impressed at the brothers’ savvy. “They were already thinking about Cannes and having a sustainable career as an artist, and I didn’t grow up with anyone who could teach me that,” they say. “And school definitely didn’t teach me that.”

Schoenbrun’s real education happened once they moved to New York, where they worked for the Independent Filmmaker Project (now known as the Gotham), a nonprofit that offers resources for emerging creatives, and later at Kickstarter, where they worked with directors interested in using the platform to launch a campaign.

Their first major project was collective:unconscious, a 2016 omnibus film in which they assigned five filmmakers to adapt each other’s dreams. Next came 2017’s The Eyeslicer, a roving “secret” TV show that encompassed work from hundreds of emerging directors and new voices. Essentially, they spent most of their twenties enabling other artists or living vicariously through them. “I thought of myself as more of a professional fan,” says Schoenbrun.

​Meanwhile, Schoenbrun became immersed in the world of creepypasta — a genre of horror stories that get passed around the internet, reaching urban legend status — which they became aware of after infamous Slender Man stabbing incident in 2014. Schoenbrun was struck by the blurring of fiction and reality in the case, spurring them to create a found-footage documentary composed entirely of YouTube clips. That movie, A Self-Induced Hallucination, was released for free on Vimeo in 2018, though it is no longer available today.

Schoenbrun turned again to creepypasta for World’s Fair, which was filmed right before the pandemic in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley and cost $175,000 to make. (The Green Knight director David Lowery, whom Schoenburn met while working at the Independent Filmmaker Project a decade ago, is one of the executive producers.)

The film originally was going to consist solely of YouTube-style videos streaming on autoplay. “There was a structure that was insane and wouldn’t have made a lot of sense except to me,” Schoenbrun says. It involved Bart Simpson and a character named Cumface who wore a mask in his videos because his face was covered in cum, or so he claimed.

Instead, in a move that harkens back to collectivist spirit of their early career, Schoenbrun incorporated videos made by or in collaboration with internet personalities, including the ASMR YouTuber Slight Sounds, no-budget horror movie creator Evan Santiago, and trans electronic artist and video essayist May Leitz. Leitz says that World’s Fair captures “the way that the internet has given everyone a voice and has also obfuscated everyone’s voice, so we’re all a big soup.”

Lead actor Cobb, now 19, speaks fondly of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process. “It was clear that they wanted everyone to have their own personal take,” Cobb says of Schoenbrun. “There was no ‘hammering down on a nail,’ so we didn’t feel scared to make another choice.”

Anna Cobb in a still from We’re All Going to the World’s FairCourtesy of Utopia

World’s Fair was filmed before Schoenbrun began physically transitioning, and most of the people involved did not know they were trans. However, during filming, Cobb did a tarot card reading for Schoenbrun disclosing that they needed to embrace their feminine side. When Schoenbrun ultimately came out to Cobb and her family, she was nervous. “But they were so, so accepting,” they say.

World’s Fair is Cobb’s first major film. Her family moved from Texas to New York so she could pursue her career. “It was just so beautiful seeing parents truly trying to lift up their kid, who wants to make this movie where they rip up a stuffed animal and scream at the top of their lungs,” Schoenbrun says. “I feel like I was gifted that, as well, through them.” The actor’s parents appear in the credits as “The Amazing Cobb Family.”

Sacred spaces

Schoenbrun lives with Melissa Ader, their partner of 18 years. The pair hit it off in gym class sophomore year of high school, where they wound up strolling on side-by-side treadmills having long conversations. Though they’re technically high school sweethearts, that expression is “a small chip on our shoulder,” says Schoenbrun. They married in 2014.

Ader, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, has just returned to the apartment from re-parking the car after street cleaning, and Schoenbrun turns tender when speaking about her. The two consider themselves serious homebodies. “My dream is to lie on this couch with you and read my book,” Schoenbrun tells Ader.

The living room is indeed littered with books — there’s a copy of Sissy Insurgencies: A Racial Anatomy of Unfit Manliness on the coffee table — in addition to records, Criterion DVDs, and VHS tapes. Schoenbrun likens their place to a library or a video store, which felt like sacred spaces growing up. “I think that because other kinds of love were vulnerable and difficult to experience as a kid,” Schoenbrun says, “I put so much love into surrounding myself with these nuggets of art that meant something to me or that I saw myself in.”

The cello standing in the entryway belongs to Ader, and the stray guitar on the living room floor to Schoenbrun, who plays almost every night. Sometimes they even play or sing together — “but in a casual way,” Ader says. Music is mostly a way for Schoenbrun to expend nervous energy. (One of Schoenbrun’s songs, set to a backing track by Fredrick M. Cuevas, a sound-mixing engineer who records electronic music as FRDRK, appears in World’s Fair.) To cope with the stress of Sundance, Schoenbrun played “Angeles” by Elliott Smith on guitar every night.

Now that preproduction for I Saw the TV Glow is underway, they’re in a better place. (The making of things is inherently calming — and fun — for Schoenbrun.) Centered on two friends growing up in the ’90s who are obsessed with a TV show called The Pink Opaque, it’s a reflection on coming out and the forces that can stand in the way. I Saw the TV Glow is set to film this summer, although Schoenbrun says they can’t yet reveal who’s been cast.

Meanwhile, they’ve completed 600 pages of a three-season TV show they’re working on called Public Access Afterworld; it’s being produced by A24, but it isn’t yet tied to a network. Public Access Afterworld is meant to form a screen trilogy with World’s Fair and I Saw the TV Glow.

Schoenbrun say the TV series isn’t exactly about trans euphoria, but it does capture the joy and surreal nature of starting the life you never expected to have, of enjoying sex for the first time, of just looking in the mirror and seeing someone you like staring back at you.

“It’s what the work, my films, are becoming about,” Schoenbrun says, “and it’s everything to do with how I’m changing.”