‘I Saw the TV Glow’: Jane Schoenbrun on Why Trans Stories Don’t Need to Explain Themselves and How Directing Is Just ‘Angry Sex Between Art and Commerce’

I Saw the TV Glow

“I’d direct an Agent Smith origin story,” Jane Schoenbrun tossed out on X, formerly known as Twitter, on the morning of April 3. The shout-out to the AI antagonist of “The Matrix” was posted in the hours after Warner Bros. announced a fifth film in the science-fiction franchise, with writer-director Drew Goddard taking the reins from series creators Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who both came out as trans after the release of the original trilogy.

“I was always kind of like, ‘Oh, they would probably let me do a “Matrix” movie, if I asked.’ Because trans,” jokes Schoenbrun, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The director keeps a casual tone, but their interest in Agent Smith is enthusiastic and thoughtful.

“‘The Matrix’ is very in conversation with trans themes that my work is also interested in: this feeling of unreality that can be a potent metaphor for being trans in the world or figuring out that you’re trans,” they continue. “Agent Smith is a boring dude in a suit who realizes that he is the system, and that every other person in it is somebody that he can subsume and become. And he’s frustrated by this. Gaining that kind of sentience could be an interesting story to explore.”

How one chooses to act within the established hierarchy of power has been on Schoenbrun’s mind lately. The director has spent the year on the promotional circuit for their new horror feature “I Saw the TV Glow,” beginning with a debut at Sundance. Now in theaters in Los Angeles and New York with an expansion in the coming weeks, the A24 release follows a teenager named Owen (Justice Smith) reconciling a burgeoning trans identity, further stirred by a fascination with a girl a few grades up (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and her television addiction: “The Pink Opaque,” a very “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-like fantasy series about telepathic teenage girls battling monsters-of-the-week.

Jane Schoenbrun.
Kristina Bumphrey

“I worked really hard to make this film weird, like a provocation,” Schoenbrun says. “I’m structuring my life in a way where I can keep my values and my gaze outside of a system. I describe it sometimes as angry sex between art and commerce.”

“Hate-fucking,” their lead actor Smith adds, laughing. “I love it. You and capitalism are hate-fucking.”

“To be trans is not just a thing I was born with, but a political ideology and a decision to exist in a certain way that’s non-normative and challenging the hegemonic structures of power,” Schoenbrun continues. “I want to stay a person who I like. Too much power and too much collaboration with a system of power, I start to get hives.”

Taking their first steps into studio filmmaking, “TV Glow” represents a major elevation in budget and scope from Schoenbrun’s first narrative feature, the webcam-centric internet horror film “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” But “TV Glow” is hardly any less personal; both of Schoenbrun’s features focus on adolescents afflicted with dysphoria who find an apparatus to organize their feelings via a newfound media obsession — a release that’s liberating but only carries them so far.

In “TV Glow,” Owen becomes completely hypnotized by the at first campy, then increasingly eerie world of “The Pink Opaque.” Owen idealizes one of its super-powered heroines, Isabel (Helena Howard). As the show’s sequences become more visceral and frightening to the teenager, Owen further disassociates from the material world, with Smith’s lead performance growing number and tragically detached.

“Usually when I play a character over some sort of time span, they become more of themselves. They become more mature, more secure. Owen is the exact opposite; he is becoming less of himself. He is becoming hollower,” Smith says.

Owen finds an anchor to reality in Maddy, an older girl who’s already plain-spoken about her queerness. Played by Lundy-Paine, Maddy is much more resolute than Owen, determined to leave their gloomy podunk suburb behind: a mission that begins to take course through paranormal, reality-bending means.

“What we experience through Maddy is this ultimate self-liberation: you have to destroy yourself totally in order to be reborn as who you really are. … Maddy knows that there’s somewhere where she can be full and it’s not worth staying in this place,” says Lundy-Paine, who uses they/them pronouns. “Everyone has a Maddy. Most queer people have someone who’s shepherded them through the discovery of their own queerness.”

Justice Smith, Jane Schoenbrun and Brigette Lundy-Paine at the Los Angeles Festival of Movies premiere of “I Saw the TV Glow.”
Kristina Bumphrey

The actor goes on to say they shared several conversations with Schoenbrun about the filmmaker’s own “Maddy.” From production to press, the director has been open about how their own individual experience shaped “TV Glow,” but the film itself is purposefully shackled to its protagonist’s perspective. The horror film accomplishes its genre intentions by playing as an uncomfortable, claustrophobic episode, firmly bolted to Owen’s sense of unbelonging. The teen is not equipped with the language to understand their queerness and the film accepts those terms. It does not explicitly identify Owen as trans, though one brief shot of the character in a dress does suggest the idea.

“Even when writing that moment, I thought, ‘This is right on the line for me.’ … I’m very suspicious of any externalized representation of transness,” Schoenbrun confesses. “Trans experience is something that’s classically represented by Hollywood as this very external force, when actually it is so internal. … Back to “The Matrix” and feeling not quite right in the world: that is a much more potent, relatable way of talking about how it feels to be trans but not quite understand it yet. As opposed to, ‘I looked in the mirror and wanted beautiful lashes and locks.’”

“It’s just visible enough and — to put it bluntly — I am just visible enough that anyone who is writing about this movie and ignoring the trans lens has willfully missed the point,” they continue. “If you’re interested in being the type of person who understands experiences that aren’t yours, plenty of other people have related to it and can help you understand why.”

Brigette Lundy-Paine and Justice Smith in “I Saw the TV Glow.”

Schoenbrun felt validated in the decision to not clarify Owen’s gender identity following a screening of “TV Glow” at the University of Southern California. The director shares that their Q&A gradually divulged into a conversation with students about the “trans predilection for apologizing for your own experience.” It’s a defining tendency of Smith’s uneasy performance; when pressed by Maddy about a romantic interest, Owen is lost for words and can only sheepishly summon, “I like… TV shows.”

“You make it your life’s intention to get out of that space of apologizing for being who you are,” Schoenbrun says. “That emotional key that the movie is speaking in, I do think — and I think I’ve been proven right in the way that the film has been received by trans audiences — that no one needs me to say ‘trans’ in the film.”

See more of the conversation with Schoenbrun below.

For “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” you looked at actors across race and gender before casting Anna Cobb in the lead. With “TV Glow,” was Owen a similarly loose concept in development?

With this one, it wasn’t quite the same level. I don’t think I would’ve cast a cis woman to play Owen. But race was definitely something that I left very open in my mind on purpose. I was so aware early that there’s an expected pasty, white, nerdy loner character that we’ve received so many times. One early idea I had was Daniel Radcliffe. Even though he could play a pasty nerd, there’s something that I could play with there. But Justice is a name that came up really early and I was in love with the idea.

Also with “World’s Fair,” you shared that you wrote a lengthy fictional Wikipedia page for the internet challenge that the protagonist becomes obsessed with. Did you build a similarly elaborate mythos for “The Pink Opaque” here?

I stopped short of it. I tried at one point and I was just like, “What’s the Season 3 finale like? This is a level of nerd shit that I’m not even going to require myself to do.” There is a lot that was created outside of the scope of the film that exists on the margins: pages of the episode guide, episode titles. There was definitely work done to make sure the mythology held and was holistic and wasn’t just like, “Alright, I need a stupid idea. What should it be?”

Justice’s performance is just one side of Owen. We also learn about the character through child actor Ian Foreman’s performance of the character in middle school, as well as Helena Howard’s performance in the “The Pink Opaque” sequences, which Owen is projecting onto. Did the actors collaborate to create a unified idea of Owen?

I tried to resist it. There are a lot of doubles in the movie and everyone wants to get on the same page physically, but it just felt like not the way to talk about identity. It felt almost besides the point, or a shallow version of it.

I want to ask about the casting of comedian Conner O’Malley as Owen’s work manager. O’Malley has honed an abrasive, hysterical on-screen persona through his online videos. The film doesn’t sand off those edges at all. How did his involvement come about?

We saw Conner’s tape and it was as big as what ended up on screen. I was just like, “Yes, at this moment, the film needs nothing more than Conner O’Malley screaming and laughing while getting a blow job.” I maybe have trouble with writing nuanced male characters. Let’s keep an eye on that as the work continues. I don’t think of Owen as a man, necessarily. The men in this movie are almost parodies of masculinity … I just think Conner’s a genius. And then also doing it for God — the fact that he’ll work for a year on the most fucked-up, complex YouTube video you’ve ever seen and it’s immediately taken down for copyright infringement. You’re not doing that for Hollywood. That is between you and your maker.

Am I correct to think there is a little more forethought to your Agent Smith origin story post than just a quick joke?

These are just games I play in my head. But I’m constantly like, “Is there IP that they would let me do and that I would be interested to do?” And the answer is probably not. Although, I did just tell Justice earlier today my idea for a “They Live” remake, which is to do it but the glasses do the opposite thing. Everyone’s like, “Yep, the aliens are controlling us. They’re telling us to obey.” And then you get these glasses and you put them on and you’re just like, “Whoa, those ads look awesome!” Because that’s the world we all live in. … I’m so viscerally disgusted by 95% of the things that I have to do to promote this movie. To operate in these hallowed halls of capitalism and not feel absolutely insane, it requires some kind of taking the red pill. Or privilege-tinted sunglasses.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

From Variety US