Portal to Portal: Jane Schoenbrun on We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
The central promotional image for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is of a young girl, covered in glow-in-the-dark paint, holding up a googly eye to her face as she barrels toward a laptop camera. This is Casey: She is a kid, and she is on the internet and she is in her bedroom, alone.
The film takes its name from its own invented World’s Fair Challenge, an internet myth that causes something dark to alter within its participants. Sources vary on what exactly happens: Some people appear to be sucked into their computers, some turn to plastic, some begin to peel their own skin. Casey, played by the preternaturally astute Anna Cobb in her feature debut, develops an intense online friendship with JLB (Michael J. Rogers), an older man living in a huge suburban home who vows to help guide her through the challenge.
Director Jane Schoenbrun’s deeply felt and formally audacious narrative feature debut plays like a collection of ransom notes—or eulogies, or old-school malware death screens—from a long-forgotten corner of the internet. (Her 2018 archival documentary, A Self-Induced Hallucination, explored the internet-based, community-generated Slenderman phenomenon, and from 2016 to 2018 the director also penned an online column at Filmmaker, “Continue Watching.”)
We spoke to Jane via Zoom. She has a warm, soft voice, so soft that the computer would sometimes mistake it for ambient noise. Her bright blue hair seemed to pulsate with the variations in streaming compression. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair releases in theaters from Utopia on April 14th, and on the internet on April 22nd.
Filmmaker: Before we start, where did you grow up? I’m so sorry. That doesn’t have to be a real question.
Schoenbrun: That can be a question.
Filmmaker: Maybe because of Alex G’s score—I grew up outside Philadelphia, where his music is almost omnipresent—but your film was the first time I saw in a movie an outside that looked like what the outside of my childhood home looked like—those kind of rural/suburban parts of the Northeast.
Schoenbrun: I grew up in upstate New York. My family moved to this white-flight, upwardly mobile suburb in 1989, when I was one-and-a-half years old. I think my parents were part of a generation of kids who were very enticed by this dream of an enclave that could be its own world to raise a family in. By the time I graduated high school, the town had transformed into this pretty affluent place.
The film is obliquely reflecting on where I grew up. One of the main ideas is definitely this “parking lot” thing. When you grow up in a place like that, you’re looking for culture. Casey has constructed this special world for herself in parking lots that are pretty anonymous, but for her, they’re the landmarks of her life. My upbringing is right between Casey’s upbringing and JLB’s, and I was definitely reflecting on these two extremes: a more humble, rural existence, [Casey’s] attic bedroom vibe, and then the sickening affluence of JLB’s life.
Filmmaker: Where I grew up, the kind of stores that you see in the opening credits weren’t busy. They were like abandoned spaces, which I think serves as a nice parallel with the McMansion JLB occupies and the forgotten corners of the internet Casey is so enamored with.
Schoenbrun: Yeah, when we came across an abandoned Toys “R” Us in that town, my crew was a little confused at how I excited I got. I was like, “Can’t do better than that for what I’m looking for.” Except for two spaces where we would see more than one human being, we had a rule that in the stuff we shot out on location we would never see a human being. We shot the commercial strip in Middletown, New York, a really bleak commercial district full of Best Buys and Walmart. [We were after] this winter idea of doing your Christmas shopping without ever having to exist in nature—“car to the store to the car to the home” kind of vibe.
Filmmaker: One of those two scenes where we see more people is the New Year’s Eve countdown in the town square. Was that moment preconceived or something you stumbled upon?
Schoenbrun: Very preplanned. I filmed that on a camcorder. I made my partner drive with me upstate, and we spent New Year’s bumming around Saugerties quietly, mapping out the path and figuring out exactly how to time it so that I could start filming at 11:57 and hit the center of town right as the countdown actually began. It really was this “You get one shot” sort of deal.
I had gone to an Airbnb up in Saugerties over New Year’s a couple years earlier. I was sick as a dog, spent that entire weekend lying around feeling terrible and didn’t leave this Airbnb for three days except at midnight. I staggered out, went to the town and saw this very charming, small-town version of the Times Square ball drop. After I saw that, I was like, “I need to work that into a movie someday.” The idea that Casey would be there filming was one of the early ideas for this film. The loneliness of being in a crowd of people and feeling like you can say whatever you want because no one is listening, or is even aware you’re there, is a big part of that scene. Also, so many of the kids hanging around half a block away from the center of that party we were filming were Casey. It was like, “Oh yeah, there are Caseys everywhere in towns like this.”
Filmmaker: Are there things you feel that stories generally—books, movies, TV—get wrong about the internet, or things that go relatively unexamined?
Schoenbrun: We have formed this idea of the internet as a threat, even though it’s something we’re all partaking in all day long. The internet, in this post-QAnon, post-Trump, hypercapitalist social media era, has become this thing we all know is damaging or in some way a threat. That seems like a way for us to write off what it is about the internet that fascinates us or draws us in. When I was this young queer kid stuck in this place looking for somewhere else, the internet was a balm—this dangerous, sexy portal. And that’s a specific application of the internet as a place that tries to fulfill desire that we have for something else, perhaps something untethered from physical limitations.
Filmmaker: I was reading previous interviews you’ve done, and you mentioned the film being inspired by a man on a Wes Craven forum telling you that he was secretly a vampire.
Schoenbrun: This is the truth. This happened.
Filmmaker: I’ve talked to a lot of people who, because of the nature of JLB and Casey’s relationship, are expecting an act of sexual violence by the end of the film. But when you reach JLB’s monologue at the end of the movie, what you find instead is two people still fully committed to a kind of role-playing. Could you discuss depicting the world of chatrooms and forums while navigating a story of an older man engaging with—and, essentially grooming, right?—this young child?
Schoenbrun: I think your use of that word is correct. Even for me as, at the time, a 13-year-old [who was] subtly groomed or encouraged toward some sort of intimate relationship, even if it never became overtly sexual, with an older man—these are hot-button power relations in American society right now. Obviously, pedophilia is a deeply predatory form of sexuality when it’s acted on. But in a lot of depictions, culturally, of pedophilia, you can’t disentangle it from queerness, from homosexuality in general, and when straight society talks about “saving our children from these people out there,” the lines can get pretty blurry. Trying to unpack it decades later when it’s all just hazy memories, [there’s] this feeling of, “What was that?” This was an older gay man who, for whatever reason, was wanting me in his life. It’s hard for me to imagine that not being somewhat nefarious, right? Obviously, the power structure there was totally out of whack, but I don’t know what he was looking for. If I had to guess, honestly, I would say that he was probably really scared and lonely and confused and had trouble interacting with people in real life. So, in a way, it’s sort of this generational queer—I don’t want to say tutelage but queer… alliance? I can’t quite come up with a decent word there.
As far as it goes in the film, I was really interested in the sadness of a space where people like JLB have progressed in their lives in ways that I hope that Casey doesn’t progress in her own life. I hope that when Casey is 40, she’s not sitting in her childhood bedroom talking to kids on the internet. I hope she’s a great artist somewhere in her truest form. But I’ve tried to look at that character of JLB with as much complexity and sympathy as I could muster, both for the character but also for the specter of that person I knew when I was young. I also wanted to be hypersensitive to the inherent power structures of that relationship from the moment they meet. The absolute center of the narrative and emotional arc is this power struggle between the two of them—the ways in which they’re both trying to have control of this relationship but also of this narrative, of this game, of Casey. Casey is trying to carve out a space of autonomy, where she can express herself in a way that she wants to, and JLB is trying to tell her how to do that.
Filmmaker: That expressive autonomy, more than any moment of body horror in the film, is the thing that strikes me as distinctly trans. There’s very little textually in the film that specifically genders Casey. There are contextually gendered situations, but there’s nothing where, like, Casey gets her period or those traditional puberty moments. But there is a deep sense that Casey is trying to piece together a performance of herself, something deeply liberatory. At what point did you begin to conceptualize this film as being about transness?
Schoenbrun: Over half a decade, the film was born out of a desire to express something about how I felt growing up, and to a large degree how I still felt at the time, that I would later come to label as dysphoria. I did not have that word at the time, nor did I know that I was trans. There’s this ridiculous thing that I think is a big part of a lot of pre-egg-crack trans journeys and certainly was for me: “Just because I hate being a man and wish I could be a woman, or a totally different person, doesn’t make me trans, because I’m not already transitioned.” Which is absurd, but you invent ways to protect yourself from what will be a trauma. You’ve learned through subliminal and not-so-subliminal codes that your family or your friends or your culture are telling you, “Don’t blow up your life like that.” Repression, in this really sad way, is a survival mechanism. I don’t know that I would be alive if I had my egg crack in 1998 in my childhood bedroom. That would have been too dangerous a thing to realize about myself then.
[Making] the film was a very raw and scary journey toward becoming comfortable with myself as an artist. I always thought of myself as a “professional fan”: someone who could get really excited about other people’s art, but, for whatever reason, the idea of making my own art always felt shameful. The process of working on the film and saying to myself, “Yes, I’m trans, and I need to transition to have the life I need to live,” are all one thing. It happened while I was writing the script, and that is the shame I’m unpacking in this movie. When Casey first talks to JLB, she says, “For a lot of people, I know the change that you go through when you take the World’s Fair Challenge is a really big change, like you turn into a clown or an evil vampire”—these simple genre metaphors that we see in body horror movies. But Casey says about herself, “It’s not like that for me. It’s making me different. It’s making me bad.” And the word “bad” is a really important key to the film, because it’s not as simple as Casey role-playing the person she wishes she could be. She is expressing a part of herself that has a level of catharsis and autonomy denied to her in her IRL life, but she’s not at a stage yet where she can explore that outside of fiction and detangle that from feelings of disgust at herself.
Filmmaker: What did you look for in casting JLB?
Schoenbrun: That first moment when we see Michael [J. Rogers] in the film is such an important and crucial narrative moment. If it felt like you were looking at a stereotype of a pedophile, the film would just become this “stranger danger” thing. So, [in casting] I was looking for someone who had some sort of sensitivity or vulnerability to them because I think that [kind of person] is realistically who would have been on the other end of that other computer in this relationship that I had as a kid. Michael’s performance in the Matt Porterfield film Sollers Point really won me over. He plays an unusually insecure neo-Nazi who is concerned about whether or not people like him. Talking to Michael, it became clear very quickly that that’s what he chases in his work: the opportunity to get into the headspace of traditionally villainous, grotesque or monstrous characters and find some form of humanity in them.
Filmmaker: A lot of us were told as kids that the internet was forever—anything we put on the internet was going to be there permanently. But now we know that if you put something on the internet, it can go away, even unintentionally. Do you archive your own internet presence in any way? Do you have any versions of yourself out there that you feel sad to not have a record of?
Schoenbrun: No. I think they would be too painful for me to look back at. I don’t want to read the stories I was writing when I was 13 on various Web 1.0 fan-fiction sites, and I certainly don’t want to read the deleted AOL Instant Messenger transcripts with this older guy who I met on that Scream fan forum. The way I carry it with me—especially as a trans person who is enjoying life in a more present way and is comfortable with and loving myself in a way I never did for the first 32 years of my life—is the way that we carry any trauma within us. I think the things that I was putting onto the internet as a kid were mainly out of desperation and loneliness and longing, and I’m glad for them to be swallowed up by whatever server doesn’t have room for them anymore.
Filmmaker: One of the most moving moments in the film is when Casey is watching the ASMR video on the projector, and then the next video plays. It’s going to be a video chosen for Casey because that’s how the algorithm works, and it says, “Keep posting videos so I know you’re OK.” That’s not a video people could find if they searched for it. It’s a video that found Casey, but one Casey won’t be able to find in five years.
Schoenbrun: Working on the archival doc, I definitely had an appreciation for how hard it is to find those strange nuggets lost in the depths of YouTube. You have to get really creative with your search terms to find videos that have 12 views, but those can tell you a lot about what people are using the internet for, which is very different than what the more mass market [videos can tell you].
Filmmaker: There are a lot of odes to amateur video content in World’s Fair, vertical videos clearly recorded from Instagram or Snapchat and then posted to YouTube. To what extent do you feel that has influenced your work? I’m not talking about Vimeo selects; I’m talking about shitty little creepypasta horror movies.
Schoenbrun: I mean, not all shitty creepypasta horror movies are created equal, and a lot of no-budget creepypasta horror movies are actually quite good, especially early on—let’s say 2008, 2009. Which, by the way, I wasn’t involved in; this was all archival digging after the fact. I had to trace it back and build my own understanding of the progression of it. A lot of that early stuff, which emerged organically out of creative communities on the internet, is really beautiful and haunting and strange. It very quickly took on a larger cultural resonance, clichés started to form around it and then you started to realize that [the videos were all] impersonating this one video that was impersonating The Blair Witch Project, and it got bled of its poetry a little bit. But creepypasta as a genre is fascinating, and you can learn a lot about folk fears of that generation through looking at it. I find especially beautiful and interesting the “cursed image” thing—the idea of grain haziness, things bleeding through low resolution that feel not quite right. It felt like kids were pushing in experimental new directions for a minute there in a way that could only be utilized on the internet. We shot a lot of the film on Photobooth on our production designer’s old Mac laptop, and I could hide in that grain forever. I think it’s so beautiful.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene where Casey gets into bed and angles the camera, then gets out of bed and moves the camera. As someone who spent so much time making amateur iMovie projects as a kid, that was so accurate to me. How do you direct actors to act opposite a video playing on a screen?
Schoenbrun: Anna and I spent so long working on gaze and stare because that’s a large part of the film. Sometimes she’s staring at us while also presumably staring at herself on screen, sometimes she’s just staring at herself on a screen, and sometimes she’s watching. Anna doesn’t spend much time on computers and doesn’t like horror movies at all, and her first question to me was, “Why would anyone want to do this?” And my answer was, “Let’s talk about it for several months.” We eventually got there, and she had a really deep understanding of Casey, her contradictions, and the
Casey that we never see in the film. When it came time to sit down and be like, “OK, you’re watching a video of a shirtless man slapping himself on a treadmill,” or, “You’re watching a video of an almost nude woman talking about turning to plastic,” it became very easy to zero in on the glimmer in Casey’s eye for each specific video, and that’s a result of Anna understanding the gaze of the character in a more holistic sense.
Filmmaker: Your new feature with Jordan Wippell, Girl Internet Show: A Kati Kelli Mixtape, is screening at BAM in April as part of a series you’ve programmed around depicting the internet on film. The “mixtape,” as you call it, pieces together the work of the late outsider artist Kati Kelli. What drew you to her work initially?
Schoenbrun: I met Kati through a project called The Eyeslicer that I was working on for a bunch of years with my producing partner at the time, Vanessa McDonnell. Kati was the embodiment of that [project]. She was one of the only people we worked with who applied very cold to the program, a complete stranger. I clicked [her work samples] and immediately felt like I had entered some alternate universe, a space so much bigger than the space I was in. I think it says something about YouTube that work as special as Kati’s could be hidden there, and that I needed to do years of work, to have my antenna up, for that person to find me. Kati’s work is incredibly complex. It’s viscerally exploring all these things—the commodification of physical form, the ways in which we’re trying to find ourselves in an identity through other people’s gaze online, but also through our own gaze—in a way I have never seen before. It says something about that era that she lived through online, 2009 to 2019, that is very, very core to a certain generation’s coming of age.
I also think it’s the body of a work of a really important artist [who] was in danger of not being discovered. Jordan, her widower, who I had met once, emailed me. I had been working with Kati for six months, and Jordan sent me an email from her email address literally hours after she passed away that said, “We need to find a way to get her work out.” That’s haunted me ever since. I’ve felt this deep, deep need to have that work be a part of the cultural conversation. It deserves to be, and it expresses something that’s really personal and provocative.
Filmmaker: There’s a focus in your practice on making cinema deeply collaborative and with a mode of production and distribution that’s radically different than what’s found in traditional independent spaces. What’s your vision for what’s possible right now in terms of collaborative or non-normative methods of cinema production?
Schoenbrun: The major limiting factor is capitalism, right? I don’t want to get too utopian with my answer because I’m very aware of the way that capitalist realities will intrude on any answer. But having seen in my 20s different DIY spaces crop up and fall apart, I feel strongly that accountability needs to be a big part of the conversation. An art scene that isn’t also engaged in a conversation about structures of accountability, that isn’t creating what [some] pejoratively call a “safe space,” is going to breed not only inequality but abuse. I think any collaborative cooperative filmmaking movement that’s ever existed, from the French New Wave on down, has probably been largely defined by those inequalities and abuses. A lot of big-ticket independent spaces have become a filter to the agencies who are a filter to the franchise IP [producers] of the world. Any space that wants to exist outside of that—to be a place that’s trying to create an alternative to that monoculture, to create structures that young artists can push form within—needs to be engaged with questions of accountability and how to protect vulnerable people, whether those be queer people, people of color or just young women.
I think I have a very specific vision for it, and I’m looking for a bunch of money, so please put that in print in Filmmaker. I would love somebody to give me a few million dollars so I can be Roger Corman. Look at how so many of those filmmakers who we now think of as the greatest filmmakers of all time got their start [from] someone who said to them, “Here’s a little bit of money. I wish I could give you more. Make something uncompromising.” You need a structure through which somebody can say, “I want you to experiment and make something that’s not just a promise that you can direct a great Marvel movie.” And then add in, again, with structures of accountability, a public component—a dope retreat or festival or just party where that work can be seen and celebrated among like-minded people. I don’t think you need much more than that for a scene to start forming. I would very much like a scene to start forming because—and I don’t want to get into specifics of it—if you look in New York right now at the “alternative scenes” forming around more corporate independent film spaces, they’re super reactionary, male-dominated, toxic and conservative. It’s bullshit to think that being subversive and being reactionary is the same thing.