Jane Schoenbrun Doesn’t Really Watch TV Anymore (2024)

culture

Cat Zhang

Jane Schoenbrun Doesn’t Really Watch TV Anymore (1)

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Kristina Bumphrey, Getty Images, Shutterstock, Hipinion, Retailers

Before our current iteration of screenagers, those pip-squeak zombies with a forkful of spaghetti in one hand and an iPad in the other, kids were raised by the boob tube. Jane Schoenbrun’s new A24 movie, I Saw the TV Glow, is a hallucinatory vision of what happens when the television is Mom and Dad, and flesh-and-blood parents are minimized to background characters in the drama of one’s own life. Set primarily in 1996, it follows two lonely teens, Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who bond over a schlocky supernatural television show called The Pink Opaque. They fashion themselves after the series’ psychic protagonists (played by Helena Howard and Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan), who team up to defeat monsters dispatched by a big boss named Mr. Melancholy — a nostalgic premise for anyone who has devoted sleepovers to binging Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Owen and Maddy are isolated and impressionable with few stabilizing figures to guide them, and they are quickly swept into The Pink Opaque’s unsettling universe. Even after Maddy skips town and the show gets canceled, its aftereffects stalk them well into adulthood.

I Saw the TV Glow is discombobulating by design, with narrative jumps, fourth-wall breaking, and cacophonous sound effects. It’s all threaded together with a current of low-grade terror: “The movie is really interested in trans time — this ephemeral, almost ambient dread of knowing that life is passing in a way that feels wrong,” Schoenbrun says. As the film sensationalizes the mind-altering force of late-night TV, it also pulls from all sorts of old-school media — zines, VHS tapes, high-school coming-of-age dramas, arcade games — for its engrossing visual world. It’s a 2024 film that transports back to ’90s occult soaps, but it has neon-saturated visuals that evoke the ’80s. Scored by indie-rock hero Alex G, the soundtrack revisits the nostalgic comforts of Gen-X alternative rock, and to spotlight it, Schoenbrun occasionally seems to put the film on a music-video break, pausing the story as a song runs its full duration. I Saw the TV Glow conveys how our identities are unstable, a blitz of what we consume and some more fluorescent, indefinable force.

Below, Schoenbrun digs into the media that has shaped their own upbringing as well as I Saw the TV Glow’s formation.

I Saw the TV Glow is set in the ’90s, when you were a child — what was that time period like for you? What were your cultural touchstones at the time?

Coming into myself in the Clinton era, I didn’t have information about why I was where I was or what my role was in it. My parents were part of this post-Reagan, new–Jewish money white flight out of the city into more affluent suburbs. This was reflected in the town I grew up — Ardsley, New York — which had been a lot more blue-collar but was rapidly gentrifying. It was a period when the world was still small to me, and I was being told that everything around me was normal and copacetic while also feeling these subtle weirdnesses both within myself and in the margins of this small world I occupied. I felt like I was being raised in a Burger King playpen.

I was a nerd and loved television. I graduated from Disney to Nickelodeon to Buffy and The X-Files. In the rare moments when I was outside my bedroom and the basem*nt where the other TV was, I was indoors at various fun centers and arcades. The best places for me were like the carnival, comic-book shops. Halloween, as a concept, held such importance for me. I was drawn to spaces where magic could be real and the front-lawn energy of the suburbs could give way to something more nocturnal and creepy.

Relatedly, I was struck by how artificial and uncanny the movie’s “real-life” spaces look: the dimly lit school, the Chuck E. Cheese–style arcade. What kind of direction did you give the production designers?

The most uncanny spaces were too uncanny for me to even invent. Like that supermarket that Maddy and Owen go to with those giant pictures of vegetables. The only things I asked to change were to move the meat section so we could get tons of raw meat on-camera and take down the Italian American flags and put just three American flags. That hallway in the high school that Owen walks down — it essentially existed as that same kind of place with these big, long signs, almost like messages in a prison hallway. The Fun Center is a real place in New Jersey called the Funplex. One of the core goals for me was letting the suburbs hang their own noose.

I was amused to see a slogan that’s also in Love Lies Bleeding — “pain is weakness leaving the body” — on the school bulletin board.

That phrase, I believe, was really up in that school. And oddly enough, I had a phone call with a trans artist who I really admire. They were telling me about a photo project they did reflecting on their youth, and it was also called “pain is weakness leaving the body.” It’s one of those emblems of a certain kind of masculinity; it feels very John Wayne. Perhaps we’re all reflecting on the sinister physical-fitness-test energy that we came of age with.

The film hints that Owen is questioning his gender identity. His sexuality seems conflicted as well — there’s this funny, sad moment when Maddy asks Owen whether he likes girls or boys, and he responds, “I think … I like TV shows.” What were you thinking about when you wrote that line?

Quite literally, I was in love with Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a kid, or the Goosebumps books I was reading, because they were safe. It’s not like I didn’t have crushes growing up, but I would have never let them get real because there was a dissociative need to hide — it was like avoiding a really stressful email. So when Owen says that, I was trying to conjure this feeling of not being ready to engage in the part of sexuality and gender expression that involves sharing a part of yourself. He doesn’t know the answer to that question because the real answer would require giving up repression he’s not ready to.

What television series are you currently glued to?

I’m always watching Adventure Time reruns. But I tend to avoid TV. I watch, like, a show a year at this point. I like movies. I did recently ask on Twitter what is worth watching post-Succession. People told me to watch Shōgun and Interview With the Vampire.

Where do you get your best culture recommendations from?

My childhood message board, which I still absolutely read, called Hipinion. It’s a niche message board that started as Pitchfork’s message board, but then they got in a fight with Pitchfork, maybe, and became their own message board. They hacked Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber’s account and leaked Joanna Newsom’s Ys in 2008. It became this place where everyone who was a little too leftist or sensitive or queer to be full 4chan gravitated toward. I still get great media recommendations from it.

Is that where you discovered some of the artists featured on the I Saw the TV Glow soundtrack?

I definitely found some of them through Pitchfork. I found some through local-music scene stuff and friends of friends of friends and just being a nerd for a certain kind of dyke-adjacent, sad girl but cool, pop-y, danceable music. Making the soundtrack was such a cool opportunity to work with these artists who I was a massive fangirl of.

I’m curious to know more about what unites your favorite music. You told A24 you wanted to create the “best soundtrack of all time” and enlisted artists across a wide genre range —L’Rain sounds very different from Caroline Polachek, who sounds different from Florist, and so on.

Some bands on the soundtrack are some of my favorite artists of the last five years who I really want more people to listen to. Some artists are icons to me and have been for a long time. It was putting that all together under the overarching rubric of making the last great ’90s teen-angst movie soundtrack that never actually existed. You know? And doing it from within this space of artists who are queer-coded in their tone and vibe and who are pushing at the vanguard of a sound rather than being, you know, like Pearl Jams of grunge.

Who’s an artist you’ve been listening to a lot who’s not on the soundtrack?

For me, always, Prefab Sprout.

Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst plays Owen’s dad. You’ve mentioned that he was your “white whale.” Are there other celebrities you’re dreaming to work with on future projects?

I’d love to make something with Adrianne Lenker. I think that she is just like one of the most magnetic performers, and I would love to see her act. She’s so fascinating and enthralling and talented and alien. I also want to work with Tom Cruise.

You’re set to adapt Imogen Binnie’s seminal trans novel Nevada. What are your favorite book-to-movie adaptations?

I quit Nevada due to creative differences with cis people. And I’m bummed, but I love that novel and love Imogen. I was so excited to make a restrained Kelly Reichardt–style walk-and-talk movie. I do have other dream adaptations. I’m doing one that I’m not allowed to talk about yet.

I always joke and say that I would love to adapt Infinite Jest because it would be the best troll. I actually quite like Infinite Jest. Its cultural position right now is “warning sign on men’s bookshelf energy,” and it would be fun and edgelord-y to figure out my lens into adapting that.

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Jane Schoenbrun Doesn’t Really Watch TV Anymore
Jane Schoenbrun Doesn’t Really Watch TV Anymore (2024)

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