“I Think I was Just Hip to Loneliness Before Everyone Else Was”: Writer/Director Jane Schoenbrun and Composer Alex G on the Sundance-Premiering We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
She’s turning into plastic. He feels like his body is being taken over by an indescribable entity. Another discovers grotesque clusters of gray pustules suddenly colonizing the terrain of their body.
These individuals are documenting themselves in the throes of The World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing game that dares those bold enough to participate to draw blood, watch a neon-soaked strobing video and record the ensuing horror that eventually consumes their corporeal vessels. Casey (played by Anna Cobb in her debut role), a nondescript yet quietly rebellious teenager living in a perfectly captured amalgamation of American suburbia, becomes the latest among several despondent Zoomers to turn to The World’s Fair in order to escape the garden-variety malaise currently enveloping the generation.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the debut narrative feature of writer/director/editor Jane Schoenbrun, is a brilliant concoction of unsettling dispatches from YouTube rabbit holes, melancholy home movies and self-conscious video diaries uploaded by Casey. Eventually, a fellow player—known only as JLB—notices Casey’s videos and claims to sense a sinister presence shrouding these uploads, urging her to keep uploading videos so that he knows she is still alive.
The film and the feverish score composed by Alex Giannascoli (who releases similarly hallucinatory music under the stage name Alex G) are always in direct communication with one another, not only due to Schoenbrun’s own fascination with Giannascoli’s existing discography, but through the eerily similar themes the two highlight in their respective work.
In a years-old interview with The Fader, Giannascoli discusses his songwriting process, which he considers akin to Hemingway’s: “…I try and use his method of giving you this thin tip of the iceberg, and hopefully the listener can pick up that there is something under the surface—they don’t know what it is, but they know it’s really scary.”
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair gleefully dredges horrifying images from the murky depths just below, but refuses to languish there. The infinite chasm of the internet—with dark corners housing weird, lonely people thirsting to find genuine connection—is less a subject of critique than it is a deeper, more lugubrious exploration of online life, complete with the mundanities of infinite scrolling and auto-play features. Yet there is no interest in guiding viewers through the intricacies of these interactions. On the contrary, the film wants to interact with the viewer, burrowing itself deep inside the body—perhaps leaving a few remnants of out-of-place carnie refuse in its wake.
Filmmaker: Jane, you’ve mentioned that you were constantly listening to Alex’s music while you were writing We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. I’m curious how the music influenced the film before he was even on board to do the score?
Schoenbrun: I did listen to his music a ton while writing the script. I tend to be someone who takes a lot of inspiration when they’re developing a film, not just from visual influences but from musical influences, too. There’s something about Alex’s music and the intimacy and tone of it—the way that it can feel both lo-fi and incredibly extensive and dense at the same time—that was a huge inspiration for me. I find myself returning to his albums over and over again, to sort of get lost in the haze of them. As I was working on the film and thinking tonally about the kind of movie that I wanted to make, that aesthetic was something that I was trying to translate from a musical medium into a filmic one.
Filmmaker: Alex, what did the film give you as a framework for your score? Your music in the film is really emblematic of your existing catalogue, and I’m wondering how the creative process was different for this project. Were there any film scores that you turned to for inspiration, or did you mostly just feel it out through your own songwriting process?
Giannascoli: At the beginning, I was trying to reference other films. But then I realized that it was most helpful to just bounce stuff off of Jane. Like, I’d send a voice memo or something like that, and she’d send back whether it was the right idea of not. That’s really how I progressed.
Filmmaker: What were some of those initial film scores that you turned to?
Giannascoli: I think I just YouTube’d “film scores,” haha. I guess my takeaway was that film scores typically have less chord changes than what I usually do when I’m making music that just stands on its own. The main thing I learned was that I should make it move around less, so that it’s just supporting the scene, not distracting from it.
Filmmaker: Jane, what was the research process like? I know that you mentioned a similar online friendship you developed as a teenager that closely mirrors Casey, the protagonist’s, in a previous piece for Filmmaker. Aside from your online experiences as a teen, what else served as a touchstone for the film?
Schoenbrun: It was really hearing about the CreepyPasta community, which is totally something that—if I were 10 years younger—I would have been spending all of my time as a teenager on Reddit writing stories. I dug pretty deep into this community, both as a fan and as somebody who likes to see how scared I can make myself before bed, to see how little I would be able to sleep that night. When you read something at 1 am, it’s invariably scarier than if you read it in the light of day. I was also really fascinated by how that form was speaking in a way that could really only happen online, and the way these stories were being developed collaboratively between people. The way that people were very knowingly—like with all urban legends—trying to push at the limits of fiction, really trying to almost exist in this state online, where they could convince each other that these scary, magical, horrifying things were really happening to them. I can’t tell you exactly why I was drawn to that, but it felt like such an interesting and beautiful way to talk about not only life on the internet, but the ambiguities of life as a human being in the 21st century. And I did a ton of research all over the internet for my previous film, a feature-length documentary about the Slenderman [A Self-Induced Hallucination] made entirely of archival footage. That project actually originally started as a moodboard inspiration that I made for myself.
Filmmaker: Speaking of visualizing things, how did you both navigate striking the right tone for the film? The film never quite embraces overt horror, instead opting for something deeper, sadder and more ambiguous. Did the constant on-screen element of the film make this harder, or allow you to fully inhabit this virtual realm?
Schoenbrun: I’m the type of person who listens to sad songs to feel a little bit better, and I definitely wanted the film to have that quality to it—and a quality that might feel alienating for someone who doesn’t have that sort of personality—but for somebody who likes getting lost in loneliness, that was the tone I was trying to strike. And the film does flirt with genre in an interesting way. It was never supposed to be the sort of movie that existed to scare you, it’s the sort of movie that exists to trap you in a dream-like state, and maybe make you cry while it’s scaring you a little bit.
Filmmaker: Were either of you ever in any online communities growing up? Jane, I know you mentioned being on a message board dedicated to Wes Craven’s Scream growing up, but I wonder what other parts of the internet you found solace in.
Giannascoli: This is definitely not niche, but I liked that game RuneScape. You know, like RPGs. I wasn’t that adventurous online, I guess.
Schoenbrun: I would lurk a lot of message boards as a kid. I definitely wasn’t a poster as much as I was a reader. I would post occasionally, but I was pretty introverted. I definitely found a lot of culture through that. I remember the switch from 56k to DSL internet and stealing songs on Napster for the first time. Being able to find culture as a kid who was growing up in suburbia and didn’t really have access to a lot of the culture that would become so important to me, that was really one of the primary ways that I was finding the things that I loved—through these places on the internet.
Filmmaker: I’ve noticed a common theme in both this film and Alex’s work is this suburban landscape with an underlying creepiness, and they meld together so well that the music and the film seem to be influencing each other at once. What is it about suburbia—something that many find comfort in—that lends itself so well to being portrayed in an uncanny light?
Giannascoli: Jane, you should take this one, haha.
Schoenbrun: I can only speak for my own memories and views of growing up in an upper-middle class suburban environment, but especially growing up trans in that monocultural environment and growing up pretty repressed about my true identity, it felt unreal to me in certain ways. I think that is something that the film is trying to get at. The landscapes that you’re surrounded by when you grow up in a suburban environment—the way that they look like anywhere in the country—you drive down a strip of chain stores and it’s just the same strip anywhere you go. There’s a strange comfort and unreality to that; all life surrounded by those sorts of monocultural symbols. It never felt quite real to me, and a lot of my work as an artist is about unpacking that and trying to figure out my relationship to it.
Filmmaker: I’m not sure that you both feel the same, but as a millennial, growing up with the internet at our fingertips always seemed somewhat utopian and conducive for expanding our limited worldviews. Gen-Z, on the other hand, appears a bit more plagued by issues of surveillance, commercialization and the commodification of the self. How do you think Gen Z will be shaped by the omnipresence of the web in their lives? Any strong opinions about our own upbringings with the internet or the current generation’s?
Schoenbrun: I would call it the omnipresence of capitalism more than anything. And it’s not that it wasn’t there in the 1990s, it obviously was. But there’s this memory of the internet as a place before the Gold Rush that hasn’t been cultivated. I could find a forum of other people who just wanted to talk about a movie that they loved without a lot of corporate interference. It feels like our culture and the internet today and these monolithic social media platforms have become such a culture of commodification. So much of standing out and connecting with other human beings online is this process of trying to stand out in a very commodified way. That’s my perception of it, and the perception that the film speaks from. I’m not sure if that’s the perception of a 17-year-old kid on the internet. One of the things that the film is trying to speak to is the feeling of being a young artist and having something to say and wanting to connect with other people, and being thrust into this space with so many people competing for a microphone and trying to turn you into what they want you to be.
Filmmaker: You both have had varying success with the internet in your own personal careers. Alex, I know you came up through posting your music on Bandcamp—which, paired with touring, got tons of people to connect with your music. Jane, I read that initially the Eyeslicer was conceived as a virtual platform, but pivoted to in-person screenings when the potential for physical community was weighed as the best way to get the work out there. How does the vacuum of the internet bolster the work which you both do or affect their reception? Is there a happy medium between online and IRL promotion that you’ve found?
Giannascoli: Actually, the internet was always secondary to me. Growing up, me and my friends were always playing shows—I put my music online so that we could get booked to play more shows. So, the music did take off online, but that wasn’t the primary avenue we wanted to explore.
Schoenbrun: I’m hoping Sundance will be an exception—because they’ve been working hard to make it an exception—but I’ve always found that the most depressing part of releasing a movie is the online part. There’s just nothing like being in a movie theater with people and talking to them afterwards about it. That’s what drives my DIY endeavor of trying to bring films directly to people—this desire for a personal connection in the real world. There’s not a word for it, but the energy that’s in the air when you’re communally experiencing something is impossible to recreate on the internet.
Filmmaker: As this film is so deeply entrenched in internet culture and social media communities, I have to ask—what kinds of weird videos do you both scour the web for? Jane, I know this must be an insanely broad question for you, as your previous film was entirely composed of YouTube clips. Alex, have you ever stumbled upon fans posting covers of your songs, or read through the reddit thread dedicated to your lyrics? Is there ever an uneasiness there?
Giannascoli: There used to be, and I still am uneasy about it, but I’m trying to shape myself to view it in a more capitalist way in order to come to terms with it. I used to see these things and think: “That’s not me, this is disturbing.” But now I’m like, “I guess this means they like it, so it’s good.”
Schoenbrun: It’s interesting that what you’re talking about is similar to what the film is interested in—how your own identity can be transformed by forces online.
Filmmaker: Alex, do you ever get frustrated by people confronting you about your work, trying to extract their own meanings from it, or have you learned to go along with what people say?
Giannascoli: I used to have the urge to correct people, to say “That’s not what I’m talking about.” But I think it’s worth it to let people use the music for themselves in whatever way they want to use it.
Schoenbrun: Honestly, I’ve been trying to avoid the internet lately. I found that there’s this phenomena that’s a product of the Trump era where the internet feels more unified each day around one big thing that the internet is either obsessed with, or angry about, or scared about. It’s not so much a place where you scroll and discover a million different things posted by a million different people who have interesting taste. It’s more a place where when crisis hits, we all panic in real time. I’ve been trying to limit my internet time—especially during the pandemic—because all that we have is a lifeline, and I don’t know that it’s the best place to find your communication or culture.
Giannascoli: That’s smart.
Filmmaker: As the editor, Jane, did the pandemic and the ensuing glut of zoom-call media color the post-production process for you in any way?
Schoenbrun: We wrapped the film on March 1. I think I gave myself four days of rest, then started progressively diving into the edit. I tend to be a manic editor—I sort of have these creative binges where I’m working for 16 hours a day, and when I’m sleeping I’m thinking about waking up and continuing to work in my dreams. So it was weird, because I was in that state right as the early stages of COVID were hitting, and I was so exhausted; I was both on a sugar high and so exhausted from the shoot itself that it took me a couple weeks to realize: “Oh shit, the world just ended and I’ve just been sitting here at my computer.” When people watch the film, sometimes they have a hard time believing that we made it before COVID, because it’s all about living your life isolated through a screen. I think I was just hip to loneliness before everyone else was. But what I will say about the post-production process is that getting to work remotely with Alex on the score was one of the coolest creative experiences I’ve ever had. Just getting demos from him and passing ideas back and forth and seeing this new layer added on top of the film that came together through the mail, essentially.
Giannascoli: Me too!
Filmmaker: How long did the score take to complete?
Schoenbrun: There was a solid month where we were just totally plugged in, just sharing stuff every day.
Giannascoli: Yeah, I’d say two or three months total.
Schoenbrun: Alex wrote a song for the end credits of the movie, which I think was one of the last things we did, and I’m glad we did it last, because at that point you understood the tone of the movie so well, and that was the crescendo to me. He wrote this song—it’s one of my favorite songs—and it just walloped me when I heard it for the first time. To see that get built through the air during COVID-time was such a cool thing for me.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific emotions you felt attached to this scoring process, Alex? From first watch to final product?
Giannascoli: So, to be honest, I have never been good at putting this stuff into words. I can say that I definitely related to the film, and when I first saw it I thought: “I can’t wait to do it.”
Filmmaker: Finally, I must ask: Frederick M. Cuevas, aka FRDRK, wrote the song during that incredible “losing control” dance scene in World’s Fair. He’s maybe most known for producing the album My Teenage Dream Has Ended by former Teen Mom Farrah Abraham, which has weirdly become an outsider music artifact. What about his work compelled you to reach out and ask him to write a song for the film?
Schoenbrun: I love that album, and I think it’s similar to Alex’s music. There’s something about the aesthetic of it and the way it skews pop music in a really interesting and individual way which I’ve always been obsessed with, and it really reminded me of the movie. In the screenplay for the film I wrote the lyrics to this song that the character sings in that scene.
Giannascoli: Amazing lyrics, they’re so good.
Schoenbrun: Thank you! I had this idea that we would reach out to Frederick, and I would just send him a cold email from my own personal account telling him I was a fan of his and asking if he would be down to collaborate. The original idea was that he would send me music, then we would find a vocalist to record the song that the character dances to, because in the script for the film [Casey] doesn’t sing it. He sent me this amazing song, and I just sat with it playing on my cell phone in my living room and started singing along to it. I sent the recording to Anna [Cobb], the actress in the film, and had her learn the lyrics. So, it was this really weird collaboration that went from him to me to her. He’s since remixed it and recorded his own version of the song. I really want to do a remix EP of different artists covering that song, because I think it’s such a strange moment in the movie.