Jane Schoenbrun’s Energy: Hello Fellow Trans Kids

photo: courtesy of Alex Burholt/A24

If you were gay in high school before the onslaught of streaming possibilities, then your route to gay movies may have been an indie-homeric one. The journey to representation required search engines, Yahoo! Answers questions sent out into the ether, and circumventing 72-minute Megavideo streaming limits—all while evading pornography so as not to set off the family internet security. 

Jane Schoenbrun’s latest movie, I Saw the TV Glow (2024), is an egg crack story that does not say gay (or more pertinently, the word transgender) once. Two teens bond through fandom for the mock-Buffy series The Pink Opaque. Schoenbrun uses experimental horror devices that makes their magnetism toward the unspoken so eerie when paired with ‘90s kid nostalgia, until it all breaks apart, campily. It’s bizarre filmmaking we are likely to look back on with the fondness of Jennifer’s Body (2009). Caroline Polachek’s original song “Starburned and Unkissed” goes uncannily Imogen Heap mode before a relenting emo distortion which is best described as the feeling of Paramore blasting in a mall Hollister store in 2007, and manufactures suburban nostalgia no matter where you had your childhood. 

Schoenbrun has the audience crack the egg for themselves, showing us no prospect of a trans future, only the terrifying consequences of a world without one. Like the school loner, the emo kid, or the closet case, this movie secretly wants to be seen and heard. Now, upon its release, filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun is making sure they can use their position to do just that. Bright Wall/Dark Room chatted with Jane about the film’s nostalgia nuggets, the humor in heartbreak, and traversing Hollywood-level trans filmmaking.

Ari Lisner: How’s it going?

Jane Schoenbrun: I’m still on my high from the premiere last night and getting to talk about the movie and people watching it. It’s such an exciting moment.

You came in so hard with “Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl.” I was hoping to hear a bit about the references and how the details of nostalgia were manufactured and engineered into the movie.

TV Glow is a film about nostalgia, as much as it’s a nostalgic film, or perhaps more than it’s an aesthetic film. The film’s interaction with nostalgia as a feeling and a concept is complicated—or my feelings about it are complicated. 

It’s about reflecting back on childhood and adolescence and teenage angst from the moment of the beginning of second puberty, which is a term that I think is quite literal, like the last few years of my life, beginning and seeing through the early stages of gender, transition, or becoming. Almost picking up where I left off at 13 and going through pretty core life experiences that I missed out on because I wasn’t in a body and identity where I was capable of experiencing them. 

So the film is reflecting back on all of the ways in which I clung to media, fiction, music, and television as coping mechanisms for that lack of a real life or a real identity. I could put all of my love into fiction, when it felt unsafe to do so in real life.

I was coming of age in the 90s and early 2000s. As a repressed femme non-binary goth kid, how could I not watch Buffy and Twin Peaks and Are You Afraid Of The Dark? How could I not read Goosebumps and Chuck Palahniuk novels? How could I not, you know, listen to Bright Eyes and Broken Social Scene? “Anthems for a Seventeen Year‐Old Girl” I just loved so much. 

I’m poly and have three partners, but one of my partners I’ve been with for 19 years, since high school. Recently we unearthed mixtapes I made for her when we were both 17. One of them had “Anthems” on it and Joanna Newsom, Cat Power. The saddest dyke music you can imagine. I was always who I was, even if I wasn’t. “Anthems” as a song expressed otherness and an alternative to femininity that is very queer-coded and that felt very right to me. 

The scene on the football field reminded me of Broken Social Scene’s music video for “I’m Still Your Fag”.  

I love that song.

The overall treatment is still pretty generic and dissociative, not littered with brands. Could you talk about the little things like the Fruitopia Machine or the Fudgie The Whale ice cream cake? I am curious where those memories come up for you. 

The Fruitopia machine is all Brandon, our production designer. He sourced it and set it up. That shot of a glowing vending machine was something that I had drawn ahead of time with my friend Albert. I knew exactly how I wanted the shot to feel. We talked a lot about this sweet spot between the very elevated sorts of sets that you would see in a full Marvel genre sort of movie and the way that those sets feel so heightened [versus] more realist or grounded period films recreating past worlds—and really wanting to be right in between those two things. We wanted it to feel a little heightened and magical. 

I was obsessive about getting those voting machines like I remembered. With the little knobs. I remember being in those booths in my high school with my mom and she was voting. It was just as the movie’s character Maddy says: something special about being in the school after dark. Bake sale, festive energy. 

The Fudgie The Whale cake? That one was all me. I said, I want something like Fudgie The Whale and Brandon was like, do you just want Fudgie The Whale? I got Fudgie at my various childhood birthday parties. It’s a very specific New York East Coast tradition, but one that looms large. Fudgie being one of the two iconic Carvel brand cakes. Along with Cookiepuss.

My dad worked at Carvel as a teen so I’m very aware of the characters.

In my hometown there was the Carvel estate, so he definitely loomed. But I loved having that in that birthday scene. That shot of the candles burning down on the Fudgie cake rips my own heart out in terms of the lost youth of it all. 

There are parts of the film that are so heartbreakingly sad. But I am interested in where you find humor in the horrible realization of a non-trans future? 

I think the whole film is filled with humor. I’m a goofball. I have loved hearing laughter at screenings. I think We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a funny film. 

I don’t even know that there’s a single moment in TV Glow that I would say isn’t funny. Maybe the final-final moments of the film. But even the idea that you would sort of confirm for yourself with a glance in the mirror that your body is filled with TV static and be vomiting blue Luna Juice into the bathroom sink, and know for certain that your entire existence is a hallucination, and that actually you’re dying somewhere very far away in the ground. Then, that your first instinct would be to suit back up for your shitty job restocking the ball pit with balls and start apologizing for causing a scene at a birthday. That’s funny to me, and it’s why it’s incredibly sad. 

A lot of the humor comes from the aesthetics and vernacular of the 90’s. The way that kids put a lot of themselves into smoking a black and mild cigarette or treating a television show episode guide as if it’s the Holy Bible. 

From what I know, Gen Z is really resonating with the film. I am curious why you think that is.

I’ve been surprised with how much I relate to Gen Z. Sometimes I feel like that Steve Buscemi meme, the hello fellow kids energy. But whatever I was tapped into in my own youth, at fourteen, clinging to Elliott Smith, Carissa’s Wierd, and Mary Lou Lord albums as some kind of signifier of myself and my identity—when I hang out with Snail Mail she’s rocking all that stuff. The kids love Duster, the kids love slowcore.

I’m non-binary through and through. I always have been. This is a real identity. When I talk about it to people older than me or my own age, I often feel fundamentally not understood; when I share myself and my work with people who are a little bit younger, it’s understood pretty intrinsically.

A really effective point in the film is looking back on something you love and just cringing. How was it to write that? Did it feel like a betrayal? How do you reconcile the things that you loved that are harder to watch or bear now?

The key word in that scene that Owen says in his voiceover is embarrassed. He says, I just felt embarrassed when I watched it. Much more than “you thought this thing was cool but actually it sucked,” the emotional key we’re speaking in there is the key of shame. Which is a little bit different than being like, “I’ve outgrown something.” 

Shortly before that scene he says that it was time to become a man. He essentially feels he has this psychic responsibility to step into the role of man and father. So [Owen] watching the show and being embarrassed by it, seeing it through his father’s eyes in that moment, and being like, that is a dumb show for girls and for kids. That is a full metastasization of internalized shame and transphobia. 

I know I’m not the only one kind of observing what a time it is for three really special trans movies: Stress Positions, The People’s Joker, as well as TV Glow. The through line I see is parodying what it’s like to be alive. Do you see commonality in these films, if you have seen them? Is there something special about the way trans people see the world?

Um yes, definitely. There is something special about how trans people see the world. 

I talk a lot about my love of this very specific genre of “European auteur makes a film about America.” Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) or Antonioni making Zabriskie Point (1970). Or the Baudrillard book America where he’s just on a road trip through the desert shit-talking America for what’s beautiful and grotesque about it. My gaze is certainly informed by my outsider status as a trans person. I can see the cracks and the simulacra in a way that does have to do with the othering distance of queerness and transness. I think that is reflected in the film. There are books to be written about the trans gaze in cinema that is now just getting to be codified. I have seen both Stress Positions (2024) and The People’s Joker (2022) and really dug both films. I especially think Vera [Drew]’s desire to destroy corporate IP, subvert it, transition it, mutate it, and pervert a film very close to my heart is very close to my trans heart. 

But also three films by three white trans girls does not a trend make. I’m very skeptical of any narratives that say the moment has arrived, because we’re all in danger and representation unto itself is not something to overinvest emotionally in. Trans film has existed for a long, long time before this moment and will continue to exist after this moment. Perhaps at this moment, there is some kind of fledgling, bubbling-up into a commercial space rather than a DIY or art space or a T4T space. But I think that it’s quite nascent. 

The commodification of transness into an entertainment industrial complex as emotionally and morally and capitalistically bankrupt as our current space is, is not necessarily something to celebrate unequivocally. I think it’s something to tread very lightly into as we hopefully continue to do the work as a community of understanding transness as not an identitarian-based apolitical group. But in fact, as a political and ideological movement that is inherently oppositional to the binary, conservative stranglehold that cis straight white supremacist patriarchy has over all of our lives.

I felt that you smuggled in experimental filmmaking into the movie. How did you do it and what concessions were made? 

I’m very conscious of the decision to work from inside a corporate and commercial structure to make my work. In this case, I did the heist! It’s still a tightrope. From the very early stages of the filmmaking process, I knew that I needed to be able to present a film that felt it could be an A24 film, or that it could be this genre-tinged coming-of-age cult thing. 

That’s not a sacrifice, that’s literally how I make my art. I kind of get off on it. I enjoy making things that can be seen in the pop-cultural landscape rather than at the Anthology Film Archives for one night only. I think it does come from both my film snob background and my child-of-television background. I wasn’t raised on Godard, I was raised on Snick. 

How I did it? It was a lot of work. That’s not to say that A24 wasn’t a wonderful partner. They were, and they never said no. But it required a level of political acumen and faith and ability to translate to a structure that had very different interests and a very different gaze than I did.  There aren’t trans people in positions of power in Hollywood, so I’m needing to constantly commodify my own transness to hopefully get their money and do real cool shit with it. I’m gonna try to keep doing it as long as they let me. And I’m really proud of it.

 


I Saw the TV Glow was released on May 3 in New York and Los Angeles, and will be released widely in theaters on May 17.

This interview has been edited and condensed for your reading pleasure.