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Exclusive Interview: Director Jane Schoenbrun Talks “I SAW THE TV GLOW”

Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Exclusives, Interviews


To say that writer/director Jane Schoenbrun is an exciting new filmmaker would be an understatement. Their 2021 film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair takes on the interplay between teen isolation and the allure of technology – while using screen life to visually hyper-fixate on both. Their latest film, I SAW THE TV GLOW, thematically continues the look at young adulthood, the impact of screens and obsession. RUE MORGUE spoke with Schoenbrun about their films, the use of genre and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Do you have any use for genre? Or is it a marketing tool for you?

No, I mean, I love horror. I think I usually stop short of describing my own movies as horror films just because I think my relationship to genre is a little more complicated than that, or it’s not what lights my fire when I’m planning a movie. It’s not like I am going to write the perfect horror movie. I get bored easily when I feel too constrained by any specific genre, but I love horror. I’ve always loved horror. The horror section at my local childhood video store, I picked it clean and worked my way through. And the moment that September 1st hits, I’m watching two horror movies a night through the end of October. I think that for a lot of queer and trans people, there’s something about Halloween [and] haunted houses – the festivities of a time of year and a time of night when reality can give way to something weirder and creepier. I think my relationship to horror in my own work is that my love of horror is obviously a big part of the work. If they’re not horror movies, I do feel comfortable calling them movies about people who love horror movies.

And then I think that genre in general is something that is like a language for me. It comes very naturally because I grew up watching not only horror movies but watching Buffy and reading comic books or obsessing over things that were speaking in a genre key so that stuff makes its way into the work, and it’s a language that I think I adopt quite naturally, but I don’t think I just adopted it in order to parrot it. There’s a quote by [Olivier] Assayas when he was on his press tour for Personal Shopper that stuck with me, where he talks about wanting to use genre as one of the colors on his paintbrush rather than have it be the entire picture that he’s painting.

Like the beginning of Crimson Peak… Many said, “It’s not a ghost story; It’s a story with ghosts” And there is definitely a distinction.

Well, I don’t know how I would make a movie without some horror. I think it’s just so in my DNA  – and especially when I’m making a movie that’s coming from a personal or subconscious place or when I’m trying to sort of speak in a language that resembles the inside of my brain. It’s so irrevocably informed by horror or darkness or the shadowy places on the edge of reality. I’m a Twilight Zone kid, and I always will be, and so, I’m always chasing that in the work.

One of my favorite experiences with your films is that they are a Rorschach test. I feel like there’s enough ambiguity that they can be read as exclusively queer-coded or exclusively horror-coded or adolescent or dangers of online or dangers of fandom. How intentional is that ambiguity and openness to interpretation?

I don’t know that I think of it as “let me be as ambiguous as possible” or as wide-reaching as possible, but I think I have an internal checklist. It’s not like I literally go through a checklist, but if I’m putting something on the page and then dedicating years of my life to it, I’ve thought really hard about it from a lot of different angles. It’s like a movie is just a collection of images, and so I’ve thought really deeply [about] just how the movie moves just in a purely aesthetic and visual pattern. I’ve also thought about the movie through a Marxist lens, and I’ve also thought about the movie through a queer lens, and I’ve also thought about each character’s arc in the movie. But then, I’ve also thought about each character forming more of a subconscious perspective when they all combine together and what is that sort of adding up to.

It’s not an infinite number, but there are so many different ways that the language of cinema can work, and I find it to be the craziest way to try to communicate. It’s a lot more complex than this. You just have so many resources, and there are so many ways that you can pack a work filled with yourself and with ideas and with feelings or images – so many different things. And I try to take full advantage of that when I make a movie. I’ve tried to keep this movie generative and generous.

Have there been interpretations of this film that surprised you?

Not so much. A drunk guy came up to me after a screening and said, “I feel like this was a film about how suicide is the answer.”

Oh, no!

I was like, “No. Actually, if you’re trapped in a TV, held in a dimension that a man in the moon put you in, maybe checking to make sure whether or not there’s TV and static inside you is a move.” But that’s very different than suicide messaging. I feel very strongly that it’s an incorrect interpretation of the film, but I try not to say that kind of thing too often. I remember watching a screening of the American remake of Funny Games with Michael Haneke in attendance, and some guy in the audience said, “This is a beautiful film about why gun control is wrong. We should have guns in the house because something like this [would have] never happened if there were guns in the house.” I remember Michael Haneke, in his harsh Austrian patriarchal tone, saying something like, “I don’t think anyone could have misinterpreted my film more than you.” Wow. I try not to take that tone too often, but sometimes it’s necessary.

For how long had you been you thinking about using fandom in your films?

I think in this particular case, when I started working seriously on I SAW THE TV GLOW, I was very much picking up where I left off with World’s Fair in terms of the language of the film. Some of the ideas of the film and the way that the film is using screens within screens and talking about our attachment to fiction as a way of exploring ourselves. All of these were ideas that I had been working through for a while, but I think explicitly turning that gaze towards my obsession with television and specifically, Buffy, was the easiest thing in the world to do because Buffy was one of the biggest parts of my life.
I spent my adolescence living in Sunnydale – or wishing I lived in Sunnydale – and dissociating to that place. And so it just like if I was going to make work about obsession and displaced love, perhaps I would say. Or the coping mechanism when loving in the real world, either yourself or another person or both is not really available to you as a viable option – the way in which a lot of that love can go into television and into fiction. When I started working on something about that, how could it not be about Buffy because that’s what Buffy was for me?

One of the tidier things about television is that even though Angel goes bad, he gets better. You know what you’re working towards. You know who the bad guys are and how to solve things. Often there is a certain allure for that, especially for adolescents.

Yeah. But I think what I loved about Buffy was how it didn’t always feel that way. I mean, it was so beautiful, and it was funny, and it was emotional, and the characters were so charming, and they loved each other. It was such a warm place to be. But I remember feeling so moved by certain moments, probably in Season 2, when that was first aired. I remember that episode “Lie to Me,” where Giles gives that speech at the end about how in real life, the good guys are always stalwart, and the bad guys always have pointy teeth. And I remember Buffy‘s “Loss of Innocence” episode, at the end of it after Angel goes bad, and she’s had this traumatic sexual coming of age – her mom asking her how her birthday was and her saying she got older and wanting the candles on the cake to just burn out. I think all of it really resonated, as I was aware of the distance between the mythological storytelling and its simple binary of happy/sad, good/bad, and the way that that show was talking about a coming of age that was more complicated. I think it was teaching me about the world in a lot of ways.

Are there current fandoms that people can relate to, or do you think that’s a bit of a throwback in I SAW The GLOW?

I think it’s a hard moment for fandom. I think things started going wrong when we started doing blockbuster television. I think things started going wrong around the Game of Thrones time. I feel like that’s when I  noticed the writing on the wall of television as a personal and emotional experience. That’s not to say there aren’t beautiful television shows on the air or outlets for people to have this kind of emotional experience. I do think that something has changed from the so-called “golden era of television” and the way it inspired a passionate week-to-week, creative relationship and emotional relationship with an audience. And our current cinematic universe – hellscape – where it doesn’t seem so much about what you’re seeing every week. It seems more about the next installment and keeping you consuming, basically. I think a lot about, or not a lot, but I think about the structure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it is even talked about obliquely in I SAW THE TV GLOW – the monster-of-the-week versus mythology episode dichotomy.

I feel like X-Files trailblazed that sort of structure, but I feel like Buffy, especially in Season 2 [and] Season 3, really perfected that kind of storytelling, where every week was such a joy to behold on its own. Even a monster-of-the-week episode would be packed with these indelible character moments and humor and even hints at mythology as it was being developed. And then, there would be these big episodes where things changed. It feels like maybe around the time of Lost, it became much less about packing each episode to the brim with something joyful and more about a big moment at the end of each episode that got you to want to watch next week.

Have you gone back to rewatch Buffy? Does it hit the same way?

Yeah. I’ve rewatched Buffy many a time. Most recently, I did a full rewatch of it early in the pandemic when everyone was reverting to childhood. That was my way of doing it, and I think at that time, I watched every episode with my partner. We didn’t skip any of them, even the four to five episodes a season that are kind of grueling.

Did it have the same resonance with you?

I think it’s easy to get lost in it still, though I hate Season 7. I could write a book about the way that the end of that show disappointed me. I actually am fond of Season 6 of Buffy, which is an unpopular opinion perhaps, but I think it’s doing bold and interesting things with the characters. I think in Season 7, they had checked out and were trying halfheartedly to maybe tee up something that could be a spinoff and just lost the plot.

What scares you?

I think I used to be a lot more afraid of a lot more things. I think it’s changed over the last three or four years. I used to be so afraid of time and the passage of time and the unending changing nature of everything, but I think I’m working towards being less afraid of that. So, now the only thing I’m afraid of is not getting a good night’s sleep for a long day of pressing.

Does the previous fear of time have anything to do with aging or is it more that it’s marching on?

I don’t know if it had much to do with aging. I think the fear of time was just very painful to think about the last time you talk to someone that you love … That’s terrifying. I was more preoccupied with the ticking time of doing something with your life in a personal or in a wider way, and I’m now living my life in a way that I adore. And so time passing feels still painful, but not scary.

Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to C-Ville Weekly,, and belongs to the Chicago Film Critics Association. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.