Before the film’s Sundance premiere, we spoke to writer-director Jane Schoenbrun about We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, their horror film about loneliness and the internet.
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Jane Schoenbrun’s original, sometimes baffling directorial debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, traps us in the claustrophobic, lonely mind of a teenage girl. Casey (intriguing breakout Anna Cobb) spends most of the film in her darkened bedroom, glued to the unnatural glow of her phone or computer screen. We never meet her friends, see her at school, or see her interacting with anyone except online acquaintances; we hear her dad’s voice a few times, but never see his face. Casey is a mystery to us beyond the strange online world she occupies.
The entrancing eight-minute opening shot — the camera takes the position of Casey’s computer screen as she prepares to record a YouTube video — sets the odd, eerie tone of the film. “Hey guys, it’s Casey. Today I’m going to be taking the World’s Fair Challenge,” she says, staring into her webcam, after cleaning up her bedroom background. It’s unclear what this viral internet challenge challenge is supposed to do: you say, “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, smear your blood on your computer screen, watch a freaky YouTube video, and then wait for “the changes to happen.” We follow Casey in the days, weeks, and possibly months that follow (time is intangible in the hazy dream world the film is set in). She starts to feel different, but is she really changing, or does she just want so badly to change that she’s convinced herself the challenge is real?
Schoenbrun’s debut is one of the only American films that really excited me, in both ideas and film form, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Even when it perplexed me, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair kept me hooked — and had me thoroughly creeped out. It’s an intimate yet ambitious hodgepodge of styles, from slow cinema to creepy YouTube videos to ASMR. All the while, Schoenbrun sensitively evokes Casey’s loneliness through how she’s framed as a lone spot of brightness in a dark frame, her face illuminated by fluorescent screen light. I like how Schoenbrun describes it: “Maybe the goal isn’t to only scare you. Maybe the goal is to scare you and make you cry at the same time.”
Before the film’s world premiere at Sundance, I interviewed Schoenbrun about their film’s daring divergence from narrative form, the rigorous search that led to casting Anna Cobb, and shooting phone and computer screens.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair?
Jane Schoenbrun: The origin of the project is an anecdote from when I was a young kid on the internet, at twelve or thirteen. I was obsessed with the Wes Craven movie Scream. It got in my little brain. I posted on this Scream message board. A big part of the message board was people making up their own stories based on the movie Scream, and people posting their own movie ideas and writing amateur screenplays and short stories, sort of like a proto version of what you see in the film.
I posted a lot on this site, and I eventually developed a weird relationship with this older man who would comment on a lot of my stories. He kind of browbeated me into a relationship over IM [instant message]. He was really emotionally needy, and I was this thirteen-year-old kid who knew I shouldn’t be talking to this guy, but he would IM me whenever I signed on. He’d tell me about how depressed he was and tell me about his drug addict boyfriend. It was this relationship that I was really trying to extricate myself from.
One night, he told me he had just found out this secret, and the secret was that vampires were real: he had recently drunk his boyfriend’s blood, and he was becoming a vampire himself. He was implying that he wanted to share this secret world with me. I knew that it wasn’t real, but I was sort of intrigued and fascinated by it. I didn’t know if he believed it, if it was something that he was telling me to lure me deeper into a relationship, or if it was just his version of harmless fantasy play. It was an incident that stuck with me as a young person who was also trying to figure out their own relationship with their body, intimacy, fiction, and reality, and using [the internet] as a way to do that.
That was the initial emotional inspiration for the film. The film is not an adaptation of that story, but it uses that as a jumping-off point.
7R: Was there ever a point where the film was going to be a more literal adaptation of that story? When did it become what it is?
Jane Schoenbrun: It had an interesting and circuitous path. I heard about the Creepypasta community. I wasn’t a part of it, but I totally would have been if I’d been at the appropriate age at the time. I heard about the Slenderman case of these two young girls with schizophrenia who stabbed their friend in tribute to the Slenderman. It was this grizzly true crime thing that the Creepypasta community was sort of being blamed for in a very Satanic Panic kind of way.
There were all these questions being asked about the relationship between fiction and reality, and what kids are allowed to look at online, which really drew me in. I didn’t relate it to this thing that had happened to me as a kid for maybe a year. I was just fascinated by this community and trying to think about how to explore it in a project.
I’d say that the origin story of sorts that I shared provided more of an emotional context for a lot of the themes I wanted to explore, rather than a narrative basis for the film. I think the film is really sensitive to and concerned with power dynamics in storytelling and power dynamics in a space where anyone can control the narrative of a story. That’s what I was pulling from.
7R: I’m curious what your script looked like, since a lot of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is made up of dialogue-free scenes and YouTube videos.
Jane Schoenbrun: It’s pretty close to what you see on the screen, actually, with some notable exceptions. There’s a good deal of improv in the movie. Anna Cobb and I worked closely to prepare her to be the character, so she wasn’t just reciting lines, but actively emotionally engaging in almost a method way. A lot of what you see in the film is in the script, but some of it developed organically on set.
The structure of the movie and the visual path [was pre-planned]. I’m a formalist in how obsessively I prepare and previsualise and think about where the movie will take you. Not a lot of it was found when we got there.
7R: In the press notes, you said the film “takes as much inspiration from traditional narrative form as it does the scroll of a newsfeed.” Could you elaborate on that?
Jane Schoenbrun: I think there’s this really destabilizing thing that we’ve gotten incredibly used to as consumers of culture. When we sit down to watch a feature film or linear TV show, maybe we’re staring at the screen, but maybe we’re also glancing down at a phone, Wikipedia-ing facts, Googling something separate, or just idly checking Twitter. This barrage of media that’s assaulting us at all times from all sorts of sources is so different from traditional narrative filmmaking.
One of my goals in making the film was to sort of merge the two; to make something that existed on the canvas of a feature-length film, but was trying to bring in influences from this everyday experience that we have of scrolling through this cacophony of media.
I was also just being really honest and true to what is ambiguous about using the internet, which is that sometimes people just disappear without a trace, or sometimes you see a video and you have no idea what the intentions of the person who made it are. That was one of the guiding principles of the film: we, as viewers, would be in a similar place emotionally to if you had just stumbled upon these characters as videos online.
7R: Are all the YouTube videos we see made specifically for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, or were they found?
Jane Schoenbrun: One of the videos is by an ASMR artist called Slight Sounds, which was found beforehand. Everything else in the film was made for the film.
Some of the videos are made by us. There’s a scene with a cameo by one of my favourite filmmakers, a documentary filmmaker called Theo Anthony [whose film All Light, Everywhere also played Sundance this year]. He came over and ran on a treadmill for us. We shot that and many of the other videos before the actual shoot, so we could shoot with live YouTube footage during production.
Some of the other scenes in the film were made almost in a crowdsourced fashion. Most notably, there’s an excerpt in the film from a fake web series. That was made by a really talented filmmaker who makes no-budget genre films on YouTube, who our casting director Abby [Harri] found for us, a guy named Evan Santiago. It was actually the last thing shot for the film, during COVID.
7R: Could you tell me a bit about casting Anna Cobb in the lead role?
Jane Schoenbrun: I knew that so much of the film rested on the shoulders of that lead actress, or actor; we looked at both genders for the role. I made an agreement with myself that I wasn’t going to make the movie until we found someone that we knew was going to be an astounding discovery. We really took the time and did a full casting search with Abby Harri, who does street casting. We looked at so many headshots. For me, the key was finding somebody who didn’t feel like a super refined child actor. We wanted someone who felt incredibly natural, like someone you could stumble across on YouTube randomly.
Anna’s picture came in from a casting call. Something about the picture stood out to me. We got a tape from her, and I was just blown away by both her talent and her individuality as a performer. It really was just a feeling of seeing her act and knowing there was something in her that not only embodied the character as I had imagined it, but also elevated it in such a phenomenal way.
7R: How did you approach auditions, since the character doesn’t speak that much during the film?
Jane Schoenbrun: She did a traditional dialogue scene for the audition. There are a few scenes in the film where she does interact with someone else. We had her read perhaps the most intense scene in the entire film, acting with a capital A. We also had her answer some questions, as if it was a documentary casting call, about if she uses the internet a lot, if she has any strange stories about the internet, and what she does for fun. We really wanted to get a sense of who the people were who were applying.
She really was such a rare and incredible find, because she was so natural and real and fully herself in the interview portion, and then you could also see her navigate a very dramatic scene. In the film, she is both very natural and vulnerable, but also able to navigate and hold on to a very dramatic scene in a way that a lot of non-actors would have a hard time with.
7R: You said you had quite an intense prep process with her. Could you tell me a bit about that?
Jane Schoenbrun: She’s just an incredible, hard-working person. It’s been her dream to act in a feature film for a long time. She convinced her family to move across the country so she could pursue a career in acting in New York. In a way that I think few teenagers are, she was incredibly motivated and hard working.
By the time we shot, her copy of the screenplay was annotated like a PhD. She had thought about every gesture, every movement, and every line. We had talked through each scene in a really deep way, not just about what happens in the scene, but where the character is coming from. It is a complex and ambiguous character in a lot of ways.
A lot of the prep process was really just getting her into the right emotional and creative state, so when we arrived on set, she was so well prepared that there could be a looseness to it.
7R: How did you think about how to portray screens on camera? There are a lot of scenes in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair where the whole frame is dark except for the light of a screen.
Jane Schoenbrun: It’s an image I’m obsessed with: this electric glow of a screen, and the hypnotic quality of it. The film has this very dark, shadowy texture. A lot of it is purposefully lit very dark so that it feels like one am when you’re watching it. I hope people watch it with the lights off to experience it in that way. The glow of the screen in the movie has this magical quality to it that I hope draws us in.
One of the visual arcs of the movie is we drift closer and closer to the screen until, in the middle of the movie, you aren’t seeing the screen at a remove anymore. You’re fully within it.
7R: We get strikingly little context for Casey’s life outside of her online world: we don’t see her in school, and we only ever hear her dad. How did you think about how much you wanted to show us of this character’s life offline?
Jane Schoenbrun: It was something that I thought really carefully about. One of the main inspirations creatively for the film was to have the margins of the film be quite precise, and what I mean by that is, How much access do we, as viewers, have to motivation and context for each of these people?
The filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and particularly, his film Taste of Cherry, were a major influence for me as I was working on this. It’s a film about how you can never really know what’s going on behind a person’s eyes, and in the medium of film, so many films are about trying to create the illusion that you can know. That just seemed so counter to my experiences in the world but also my experiences on the internet with strangers. This ambiguity was the thing I was interested in. The way [the film is] structured is quite carefully introducing you to a person, maybe convincing you that you know this person, and then calling out a lot of those assumptions.
7R: You said in the press notes that you wanted to find a way to show the abstract, internal feeling of gender dysphoria. How did you think about how to evoke that in visuals and sound?
Jane Schoenbrun: First of all, I think it’s something that every filmmaker does. Not for dysphoria specifically, but the idea of expressing an abstract feeling visually through picture and sound is sort of what drives a lot of my favourite films.
I was transitioning while making the movie. I’m still fairly early in my transition — I’m six months on HRT. But I was existing, and had existed when I was thirteen years old, on the internet, in a state of dysphoria. I think, emotionally, our context for what dysophoria is, as a culture, and certainly mine before I had put a name to the feelings I was having, was very limited, and certainly limited by a media that had been created primarily by cis filmmakers.
It’s sad people looking in the mirror and telling their therapist that they have the soul of a woman, even though they’re a man. I don’t want to deny that those are real experiences, but for me, dysphoria was just this sort of desire to disappear from myself. To hide in fiction and to just not look inside. I often describe it as very similar to the phenomenon of having an email in your inbox that you really don’t want to read, and just avoiding it, except that’s your entire life.
I also didn’t want to limit the film, because for me, it’s not a film that, in its text, is talking about a specific character with dysphoria. It’s more the emotional context and state and spiritual realm within which the film exists.
A lot of the body horror adjacent stuff in the film — images of bodies in disarray — are me emotionally trying to exorcise something within myself. Regarding my fascination with the ambiguities of the internet, of screens, and of these states of disorientation and ambiguity… I think there’s a mirror emotionally for me in terms of my younger self’s struggles with dysphoria that I’m still unpacking.
7R: What was your approach to sound design in the film?
Jane Schoenbrun: I take a lot of inspiration from my favourite music. I love ambient music and shoegaze music, music that often feels like a warm bath washing over you.
A lot of my favourite films are so textural in that way. I just rewatched Morvern Callar by Lynne Ramsay. That film uses sound and music to encircle you. I was trying to do that in this film, specifically with the different sounds from screens.
[I was playing with] the difference between the white noise of a very low quality YouTube video versus the sound of a rich environment. We were oscillating in a very dreamy way between the two.
7R: What are you working on next?
Jane Schoenbrun: I’m putting the finishing touches on the first draft to a new film that I would like to be the followup to this one. It’s a bigger film, but exists in a similar emotional realm. Instead of being about the internet, it’s about the memories of watching a lot of early ‘90s television as a kid. It’s called I Saw the TV Glow.
7R: Is it in a genre-y space, as well?
Jane Schoenbrun: Yeah. My happy place is this dreamy space between horror and an ambient zone. Maybe the goal isn’t to only scare you. Maybe the goal is to scare you and make you cry at the same time.
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