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‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ director on creating a new cinematic language

Jane Schoenbrun's remarkable horror-drama is now on digital platforms after premiering at Sundance in early 2021.
Credit: Utopia / KENS

TEXAS, USA — Taken at face value, the relationship between the internet (a space where anything goes and where anything usually does) and movies about the internet (a medium that convention dictates should be focused, cleanly structured and easily approachable) is a paradoxical one. 

That hasn’t stopped filmmakers from making the most of it up to this point, particularly when it comes to the Hollywood genre enriched by illogic. 

In the last several years alone, horror directors have dug deep into that virtual space, bringing us “Searching,” “Spree,” a pair of “Unfriended” movies, “The Den,” “Cam,” “Come Play” and “Host,” among others. Even certain scenes in Bo Burnham’s sweet-natured “Eighth Grade” found the movie trying its hand at tense psychological thriller (and the less said about the horrors of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the better). What the best of these projects tend to explore is the inherent anonymity of the internet, and the anxiety of being at the mercy of the screen. 

Enter “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” a curtain-raiser on a new era of internet-age cinema that finds innovative ways to pull the audience into the screen in front of us, and perhaps even make us complicit in the tangle of identity and agency. For all the richness of the subgenre, there’s never been an internet movie like Jane Schoenbrun’s seismic feature debut, which follows Anna Cobb’s teenage Casey as she embarks on an online role-playing game which could or could not be affecting her reality. Watch it more than once, and you might find your terror and sympathy coming from different places. 

Unfolding with a dreamlike pacing, miniscule cast and across just a handful of shooting locations, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is not only a testament to the enduring potential of low-budget American filmmaking, but an example of ostensibly small-scale cinema exploring ideas large enough to embrace the viewer through whatever screen you’re watching it on, be it a multiplex or TV or computer. 

KENS 5’s David Lynch spoke to Schoenbrun over Zoom recently as their film continues a theatrical run and is made available to rent on digital platforms. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

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David Lynch: Jane, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I've been thinking about your movie a little bit every day since seeing it over a year ago at Sundance, and I'm excited that more people are finally getting the chance to see it.

Jane Schoenbrun: Thank you. One of your quotes from your initial review has been with me, too. It was like my favorite one from Sundance; you said it was like a transmission from the future or something or other and I was like, "Hell yeah, that's what you go for when you make a movie."

I had to share an experience I had when watching the movie a second time this week: In one particular moment, the screener briefly stalled for a few seconds on my computer and the spinning buffering icon came up. 

Oh, that's perfect. 

Given what your movie delves into, it's been ages since I felt that unsettled in a movie experience.

That's funny, I didn't think so much about that meta experience while making it, which is obviously my oversight because it's so obvious. But I think it's funny how, you know, in these stories about silent film in 1890 the gun is pointed at the screen and people in the audience are freaking out. It's funny to be sort of playing with the same tricks 130 years later, and how simple something like a mouse moving on a screen can f**k with our perceptions of reality. It's nice that our brains can still be tricked like that after such an immersion into the language of watching screens.

You're totally right. And, you know, it was similar to when I watched your film during virtual Sundance last year. I remember thinking at that time how strangely appropriate it was to be watching "We're All Going to the World's Fair" at home, in the dark, in an isolation that mimics the dynamic we see in your movie. Do you recall what went through your mind when you realized that's how some of your film's first audiences would be watching it? 

It was a little sad, I have to admit, because it was definitely a film made with theatrical environments in mind. And I just feel that the way we give ourselves to the experience of sitting in a dark room is closer to the experience of dreaming than watching something at home. For a film that's trying to do things in such a sensory way, you know, so much of what I was interested in with the film wasn't narrative or character or plot beats, but the feelings that are evoked by movement or images or rhythm or sound or light—glow within darkness. There was a moment of sadness when I realized that the way that people, at least initially, would be experiencing this movie was at home on various smaller screens, where I was sort of like, "Is it going to translate?" I think I was then pleasantly surprised when it did, because I still I think there are ways to kind of trap people within that ephemeral state by using tools of narrative. 

What I realized watching the film through other people's eyes when it was premiering at Sundance virtually was this realization that the film is a really tense watch the first time through. There are all of these sort of promises that the movie is making, and perhaps some of them are false promises, kind of like Chekhov's-gun-style promises that carry you through the experience, that keep you inside the work. 

In retrospect it did kind of make sense because I would always tell people on set the idea, the feeling I was trying to conjure above all in the language of the film was the feeling of being the only one left awake in your house at 2 a.m. and just looking at crazy sh*t on the internet, and feeling disquieted and feeling not alone. And then closing the computer, closing that glowing box that was the only thing that was accompanying you, and realizing that you are very much alone; the sort of freezer-burn of that feeling is what the film is trying to evoke. So the idea that that kind of liminal, 2 a.m. creepypasta-binge feeling is coming across when people watch the film at home is nice.

For me, the movie derives a lot of power in things that are felt but not explicitly seen. I found that incredibly immersive and relatable both times I've watched it. It made me think about how so many movies today fail themselves by showing too much, telling too much. I get the sense you might think the same thing.

My instincts on this first go-round of trying to make a feature-length narrative work were to withhold a little too much. There was actually a lot of work in the edit to explain a little bit more, because I do think there is such a thing as too much ambiguity, in terms of this style of narrative filmmaking, where I just found, testing it on smart people whose opinions I respected, that there was this line between like, "Oh, my God, I don't understand what's going on and that's trapping me in a really invigorating way" and "I'm frustrated, because I don't get what the f**k anything in this movie is." And I'm enough of a pleaser, I think, when it comes to narrative form that I want people to be really engaging with my work. Maybe not everyone, you know, like the 14-year-old boys on Letterboxd who are like, "This movie was boring, it should've been a short," it's like, "Cool, go watch 'Paranormal Activity,' have fun." 

But I do want to make work that isn't impenetrable, so that kind of testing was really important to the process of making the version of the film that I could be happiest (with). That video that Casey watches at the beginning of the film on her cell phone at the kitchen table, (for example), she's scrolling and she watches this video and we cut into what the World's Fair Challenge is, and it's telling us that this is a horror game—that was an invention of post-production. The film was trying to be much more oblique in early cuts about what even Casey was participating in. And I just found that saying "horror game, this is fake, people are trying to scare each other and develop a story together" in the first 12 minutes of the film was exposition that was necessary to get people lost in all of the other things in the film.

My friend and casting director, Abby (Harri), said something to me, she said, "I always want to feel something more than I want to understand something." And I actually do think that in certain cases in filmmaking, you can't do both. To understand exactly what's in front of you means you as the filmmaker, explaining or establishing so much that the feeling that you're trying to represent gets sort of watered down, to put it in David Byrne terms, like, stop making sense. Because making sense, there's something about that that's inherently bled of poetry. It's this push-and-pull between those two things. 

As an artist, you're wanting to build a structure with which people can go with you on a journey and a certain amount of explanation is necessary for that. But that's not the goal. The goal is setting that up so that you can trap people within feelings. 

I think you did just that. One of the reasons I find "We're all Going to the World's Fair" deeply effective is because of how deeply empathetic it is. Is that the kind of movie you consciously set out to make or did you discover that side of "We're all Going to the World's Fair"  the more you worked on it?

I'm an emo kid. You know? I was like 14 listening to Bright Eyes nonstop in my bedroom, and Elliott Smith. I chase that feeling of something hitting you that feels not sentimental, but like well-earned emotion. Sort of a non-cynical portrayal of feeling. I think a lot of people have this idea of restraint – and I love restraint, don't get me wrong – or academic sort of remove, toughness, that is part of what we think of as quote-unquote mature artmaking. But in fact, I think, a lot of the time it's like a defense mechanism. 

Agreed. 

So I think I'm always chasing hard-won emotion. Not emotion that's easy or sentimental or placating with platitudes, but something that feels like really true to lived experience. Small things can mean a lot. Small things can really hurt. I think I have this idea that a film that can break your heart with like the littlest possible interaction, that's a form of storytelling that really resonates with me and that I view as very impressive. If you go back and read the great writers, that seems to be at the center of it—these small, imperceptible moments that are so imbued with unspoken truths about how we interact with each other in this world. And I think when I'm working on a project, I'm always chasing that; I'm always sort of dissatisfied until I find that moment. 

The last draft of this movie was the one where – and there were many drafts of this movie written – but the last draft was the one where JLB takes Casey out of the game. And we see Casey's heartbreak at being taken out of the game. I had been chasing that moment through so many drafts and pushing further and further until I could get to a place that felt so emotionally raw, and hopefully restrained and subtle in its rawness, but that captured the ambivalent, deeply emotional center of what I had been chasing. 

And we don't always have to fully, explicitly understand ultimate emotion, right? Because in my second time watching the movie, it ended with me finding myself in a deeply, deeply cathartic state. I could not explain why. I was, like, trying to question myself, like, "What is it about this movie that's getting me this way?" But like you said, sometimes it's more about the feeling than picking apart the why.

I think it's also this understanding that deep feelings are complicated. That it's not this sort of well-drawn Hollywood ideas of emotion, like true love being expressed or heroes beating villains; these are very uncomplicated, binary ideas of what should move us. Whereas for me, I think the things that move me most when I'm listening to an Elliott Smith song or watching a piece of slow cinema that taps into some kind of emotional core that hits me are moments that feel like I could think about them for weeks and not fully grasp all of the complexity of the smallest interaction. I think of the sort of emotional crescendo of a movie like "Old Joy,"  which is literally just a movement, you know, somebody moving their body in a way. I could think about it for weeks and not fully express or unpack why it moves me. 

I talk about with this film, sometimes, "Twin Peaks: The Return," which was a transcendent piece of art for me as an adult. I think I had these cathartic moments with art as a teenager, and I still do all that all the time as an adult, but that felt so transporting to me in its ambition and scope and escalation of form. It felt ultimately deeply moving because I was left so walloped by it. It was a work that was so rich that it got its hooks in me and it deeply troubled me. The ending of the film –  or of the show, you know, you choose –  is something that took me weeks to sort of figure out my relationship with. I think that's just about creating a language in your film where you're talking about things that aren't cliche. You know, you're talking about raw real things that you haven't fully unpacked for yourself. And so those same complex questions and ambivalences, you can maybe express in a truthful way for others to deal with. 

Jane, one of the things I wanted to ask you, frankly, is a bit of a galaxy-brain question. But I think one of the things I liked about your movie is that it encourages us to dissect and pull apart, and that does make it a little bit more approachable. Do you think it's possible to find solace in things we can't explain? Or rather, in accepting that we can't explain them?

(pauses) No. Hannah Arendt talks about the idea that thought for the sake of thought is about finding language for things that we don't yet have language for. And this is really different than logic, this is really different than solving a math equation, or, you know, making a law—thought as the space for us to try to find form and words for things that we have previously not had form and words for. 

I think the reason I answer no there is because for many years in my life, I felt like someone who had no hope of ever understanding what was wrong with myself. Then I figured it out; it was that I was transgender, and that I was non-binary. And the idea of being transgender in 1998, first of all, would have been too terrifying to realize, but more so this idea of being non-binary didn't really exist then. And certainly a language for dysphoria, for the ways in which I was not living inside myself in a real way, didn't exist then, or at least wasn't available to me at the time. As a result, I spent decades sort of feeling like, "Oh, I guess maybe in the next life I can sort of actually exist." And then it cracked, and I searched and it took years, you know? 

The making of this film was a search for language that didn't exist. Then I found it. And I tried to express it in a truthful way without overintellectualizing it, or making the language so regimented that it died in the movie, and through the form of cinema. Other people resonated with it, and especially other trans people resonated with it and pointed to it and said, "That captured something that I've always experienced." 

The film feels fundamentally successful to me, because it was definitely an understood goal that I was trying to make visible or find language for a thing that previously had felt ephemeral to me. And then seeing that the film was able to give others that experience was very affirming, and this proof of concept of, oh, that's what film can do if you sort of grow it from this really vulnerable and truthful emotional space. 

I think there are infinite parts of the human experience, or just the experience of there being existence or whatever you want to say – and this is now getting galaxy-brain in my answer (laughs) – that we don't have language for yet. But I don't think that means that it's not possible to develop language for those things.

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