Director of ‘I Saw The TV Glow’ Wants to Make Things With a ‘Lingering Power’

Jane Schoenbrun's second film is a deeply personal, hypnotic tapestry of contemplations about transformation, personal coping mechanisms, and the horrors of real life.

Director of ‘I Saw The TV Glow’ Wants to Make Things With a ‘Lingering Power’

If you grew up during the era when appointment television was still a thing, and your life revolved around passionately watching a new episode of “your show” every week, then writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s made a movie just for you. 

 I Saw the TV Glow is Schoenbrun’s follow-up to their haunting 2021 Sundance release We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Glow follows the friendship of social misfits Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Owen (Justice Smith). Maddy’s the slightly older, intriguing loner that Owen gravitates towards because she’s obsessed with the show, The Pink Opaque. As a sheltered kid, he’s fascinated by the supernatural Saturday night drama but isn’t allowed to watch it. Then he bonds with Maddy at school where she slips him VHS tapes of the show, which inevitably changes both of their lives.

Glow is a frighteningly accurate representation of teenage loneliness as told through an existential fever dream. Throughout, Schoenbrun gently nudges us to consider when our human proclivity to escape into fictional worlds becomes less of a balm and more of an enabler of arrested development. At the same time, and more importantly, it’s a rumination on the struggles of self-acceptance. As a trans filmmaker, Glow is Schoenbrun’s deeply personal, hypnotic tapestry of contemplations about transformation, personal coping mechanisms, and the horrors of real life. 

As a millennial who grew up in the pop culture heyday of ‘90s television made for teens, Schoenbrun got to soak up in real time some of the best examples of the era, from The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Nickelodeon’s Saturday night programming (or SNICK) which included shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and The Adventures of Pete and Pete. It’s partially through these shows that Schoenbrun found their own voice, eventually leading to their gender transition a few years ago. Through Owen and Maddy, Glow delivers a metaphorical reconciling of the paths taken in life. 

On a recent Zoom, Schoenbrun went down the inspirational media rabbit hole with me to discuss David Lynch, the compassionate message that runs through Glow, and the transformational power of Buffy the Vampire SlayerThis interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

JEZEBEL: As a child of the ‘90s, how did you watch your favorite shows? Did you have a little tribe? Or did you watch by yourself?

JANE SCHOENBRUN:  I had a friend when I was really young who lived next door. Our backyards touched so I could walk through my backyard to his backyard and then into his basement. We watched a lot of The Simpsons. But I think for the most part, it was a pretty solitary pursuit for me. SNICK on Saturday nights was a very holy experience. I’m sure I had sleepovers where I was watching it with friends. But that didn’t even matter. I wasn’t in it for the friends. Saturday night was something I looked forward to all week. And then from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m., it was just like, I’m in my happy place. 

I think with Buffy, especially, that was very much a solitary pursuit. I was ashamed of my love of Buffy in my real life, like the thing in my film where the dad says, “Isn’t that a show for girls?” I didn’t want to be ripped on for my love of Buffy. It’s not like I thought Buffy was lame, you know. I was like, “This show is great. You guys don’t get it.” But I definitely knew enough to not be showing up to school as a, quote-unquote, “12-year-old boy” in a Buffy t-shirt. But I did show up to school as a 12-year-old, quote-unquote, “boy” in a Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me t-shirt that I got from Generation Records in Lower Manhattan and I was bullied ferociously. And now the history books are on my side.

I read that you wrote this screenplay during the first six months of your gender transition. Were the feelings you felt from your favorite shows a very apparent parallel or was that found during the process?

I think of it less as the thing that emancipated me and more like a really intense and long-running coping mechanism of which there were many. But specifically Buffy, and specifically the way that I found that show pretty young. I was watching it while it aired and so for seven years of my life, that was my life. Certainly emotionally, I cared more about Buffy than I cared about my own high school experience. I cared about those characters like family, in the same way that we see written in the movie in Maddy’s scribblings that Tara and Isabel feel like family. I’m glad I had that as a repressed trans youth in the 1990s. Also, I wish that I didn’t grow up a repressed trans youth in the 1990s. 

It’s like those shows and that level of disassociated emotional attachment to fictional worlds was definitely a coping mechanism for not being able to emotionally invest in my own life and in my own identity and my own experience. Not who’s Buffy going to prom with but who am I going to prom with? In many ways, I think this is really a misspent youth and one that I don’t blame myself for because that was the only outlet I had available to me at the time. I was repressed for a reason. And I was repressed because being out—even to myself, at 14 in the suburbs in 2000—was not going to be a good experience. I think this movie is me looking back on the first three decades of my life that felt essentially dissociative and identifying this clinging to fiction to construct an identity as a coping mechanism. But also a way to explore my own identity through fiction that in some way was speaking to experiences and identities that I was burying in my real life. It felt like that became such a core part of how I expressed love before I was able to do that IRL.

There is such a strong delineation made in the film about the path taken and not taken. How cathartic was that for you to be able to literally play out those two life paths in this context?

Yeah, both represent different parts of myself and what I was wrestling with, at the time, when I wrote this very early in my physical transition. After coming out to myself, there is this extended period of coming out individually to all of the straight people in my life who I felt would be pissed at me if I didn’t come out to them before coming out on social media. I think a lot of trans people go through this, where you sit there and have these terrible conversations. It’s miserable. I think by and large, the people in my world didn’t quite know what I was saying to them when I said, “I’m binary, they/them.” So this was an unpleasant process and one that I don’t think people quite took seriously until I was like, “Hey, guys, I’m changing my name and starting hormones.” And then I did that. 

I wrote this movie about two months after starting hormones and changing my name while dealing with family estrangement. And dealing with a complete explosion of anything I’d ever thought of as my stable, quote-unquote, “real life.” The movie was written and sort of felt, initially, from within this period of extreme emotional volatility. I knew what I was doing and I knew that it was my goal as an artist to capture that in a way that felt authentic to that experience as I was living through it. One that didn’t simplify it, dumb it down, or tell you a nice story about it. 

I think of it in some ways as like a prison break movie, or that genre of, “We need to get out of this place!” That’s something that I think both characters know and only one character is willing to act on. In a way, Owen and Maddy do become these two competing ways of dealing with this really hard thing that for both of them is incredibly painful and slow-moving for them to recognize. One is like militant, “I am getting out of here!” And one is like, “What do you mean, leave my home?” Those competing emotional directions were something that I was, if not directly figuring out at that time, then certainly living through the immediate aftermath of as I conceived the movie.

I say this as the greatest compliment, the film made me think of David Lynch in the way that he dives into these visual ideas and metaphors, and the expression of them is so surreal. You’re captivated even though you’re not 100%  exactly sure what you’re processing. From Maddy’s monologue to Owen’s life at the Fun Center, all of it felt like next-generation Lynchian. Does his work live large as an inspiration for you?

I mean, I take it as a compliment. And I also am wary of it, right, because I’ve seen a lot of bad David Lynch [impressions]. But he’s a really important filmmaker to me. I did rediscover him. I loved him growing up, and I saw Mulholland Drive in theaters as a 12-year-old, which warped my mind. And Twin Peaks, especially, was this really important part of my pop culture heritage. But, I didn’t engage with his films deeply, or as deep as I would, for maybe 10 to 15 years. 

Then I think I had this weekend where I watched Mulholland Drive like three or four times. Studying the way that he makes his surrealism work, rather than being like, “Oh, I like David Lynch, so let me rip off all his visuals.” There’s this thing that people who don’t like his movies say, like “It’s so random. What’s happening? I don’t understand it at all.” When actually, when I watch David Lynch’s movies — I’ve seen them enough times that I try to engage with them on a structural level — and the structures of those films are incredibly complex and dialed in and intentional.

I wanted to ask about the Buffy of it all. It was so wonderful to see actress Amber Benson in Glow as she played Tara in Buffy. The relationship between Tara and Willow was so important to queer viewers and then they were so heartbroken with how the show treated her character. Aside from that, there have been fairly recent revelations by the cast and crew of Joss Whedon being an abusive showrunner. Buffy meant something specific to you back then, and now I’m sure that’s clouded. Did you wrestle with that?

I think all of it is in the work because the reframing of it as you grow up, it becomes this thing that’s reflected on culturally. And it becomes part of the emotional experience. I think all of that was very much text to me as I was conceiving of the film. I think especially, in a very simple way, it was incredibly important to me to see Amber Benson on camera in this movie, because I think Tara deserved better. I want the grace note in a movie where maternal figures — whether that be Maddy or a TV show, or an actual mother — are so hard to find. And especially the moment that Amber shows up in the movie is the moment where all of those things are disappearing from Owen’s life. It just felt like an incredibly important grace note to my own experience growing up, that we see that person on screen and see her alive and aged. At one point, I really wanted to dress her in the outfit she was in like her last episode. But I don’t think it came together.

I love the intention of that.

[This is] a movie that’s talking about queer coding in art, but also this TV show [The Pink Opaque] is still this corporate product that we see is made by a dude somewhere. The intentions of the show ultimately are insufficient. All of that was part of what I was trying to talk about in making the movie. 

You’ve talked about how you want your films to be caring and empathetic lifelines for your viewers, and especially those who need them to see themselves in the world. I’m sure there’s no distilled message for Glow, but would you say that Owen’s chalk message of “there’s still time” certainly feels like a takeaway?

It’s probably the lover of literature, and more like arthouse cinema, in me that is always skeptical of the binary of happy endings and sad endings. If I find myself gravitating too much in either direction, I start to break out in hives a little bit. It doesn’t feel true. For the kind of art that I want to make, it doesn’t feel right. And beyond that, I think it is a very Western narrative technique that lets people off the hook a little bit. It gives you a reason to never think again about what you just watched so you can go watch more things. I want to make things that have a lingering power. And even if that lingering power is a song that you want to listen to again, or a mood that you want to return to, or questions that the movie has left you with that aren’t immediately answered by the movie itself in a way that placates your curiosity. A lot of the intention of the ending is to give you a lot of tools with which to continue engaging with what the movie is hopefully being generative in giving you.

And then I also think it was about trying to be really true to that moment of early transition that I was in when I made it. It was not one with the typical Hollywood catharsis of the types of movies that are written by cis people about trans experience that are either: you’re a tragic martyr and now we’re all gonna mourn your death; or, now I can look in the mirror and smile. Actually, what this movie is about is that moment of first seeing yourself and it’s not so simple. As cathartic and liberatory as that moment is, it’s also cut with terror in a future-facing way. And in terms of the past, it recontextualizes and reveals so much trauma that you’re only going to start working through once you get to that place. 

I also really wanted to celebrate Owen forgetting, even to the moment, where he could see himself. It was really important to me with this film that when I finally did start hormones, the “beginning,” quote-unquote, of what we think of as classical transition, it felt like even to arrive at that moment when I’m in the endocrinologist’s office having that prescription written for me, it felt like there was so much that got me there. And so much emotional reckoning and growth that brought me to that moment. There were so many versions of my life where I never would have made it to that moment. And yeah, that’s plenty for one character in one movie.

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