Hiding in DreamsJane Schoenbrun Is Redefining Trans Cinema

A person covered in a glowing liquid crawls toward the camera. They hold a bright green eye over their eye.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Photo credit: Sundance)

The world premiere of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair at Sundance Film Festival felt like a communal experience for those of us who have existed online since the 2000s. Amid a number of features—including A Glitch in the Matrix, The Pink Cloud, Knocking, and more—that explored isolated spaces and how we navigate loneliness, Jane Schoenbrun’s directorial feature debut was a highlight: a nuanced exploration of how the web can both comfort and manipulate, with all of the videos we perceive and all of the conversations we have slowly changing us over time.

As protagonist Casey (Anna Cobb) plays World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, she allows the autoplay button to bring her to the next video, and the next one, and the one after that; the algorithm taking her deeper and deeper into the world of the game. In each video, she’s showing each change, real or imagined, in herself. The videos she films as part of the challenge and its aftermath are barely viewed, but as she documents the changes that may be happening to her, a mysterious stranger named JLB (Michael J. Rogers) reaches out online to warn her of what dangers lie within the game. There is uncertainty to be found everywhere, but most especially in how Casey seems to be processing the overwhelming unease that both mentally and physically surrounds her.

Trans viewers especially have responded to the film en masse, identifying with the film’s exploration of dysphoria. Schoenbrun, a nonbinary creator themself, has been overjoyed at the reception by viewers and critics alike at the festival, and is aware that the film is opening up a conversation around what it means to create a “trans film” that isn’t what many might expect from the label. Bitch spoke with Schoenbrun about the film, dysphoria, and how the internet shapes our identities.

What was the inception of the film?

The film is not autobiographical, but it’s inspired loosely by a real experience I had online when I was a young and nerdy creative kid living in suburbia—trans, but still in the closet. I loved the horror movie Scream and the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spent a lot of time writing scary stories on a Web 1.0 horror message board for people who loved Scream. It was my natural habitat.

Most people [in the group] were a lot older than me, but I would post these stories and a few people would comment on them. This one older guy took an interest; he started commenting on all my stories, and eventually reached out to me and very aggressively pursued an IM relationship with me. Within 10 seconds of logging onto AOL, I would get an IM saying “hi.” I wanted to block him but felt bad. He was depressed, dealing with drug issues, gay, and still living with his parents in his 30s, and would really confide in me about all this stuff when we’d talk about horror and Buffy. One night, probably a year into our relationship, he told me he had a secret he wanted to tell me: He’d been talking about a new boyfriend he had and how [the boyfriend had] revealed to him that he was an actual vampire. He told me that his boyfriend had fed on his blood and that he’d fed on his boyfriend’s blood and he could feel all these changes happening, that he was turning into a vampire and was scared and unsure of what was going on, but it was exciting too.

I never entertained that this was real—I always [sensed] it was fantasy or some kind of grooming mechanism, even at that age—but I remember just feeling a little excited and wondering, “What if that was true?” That was an inspiration for the film. It took me years to return to it; I was already working on the film before I connected the two incidents in my mind, but something clicked when I did. This study of dysphoria and the comforts and dangers of online identity play were tangled up in the power dynamics of that relationship. I have no idea where that person lives, if they’re still alive, if I remember his full name or screen name, or if he thought it was real or was trying to play harmlessly with me or lure me into something. Those ambiguities are the same ambiguities of the film.

The film keeps viewers constantly on their toes and questioning whether a character is “playing the game” or going through something real. This dynamic implicates the viewer by pushing them to make assumptions about the enigmatic protagonist.

There’s this consciousness throughout the film of being watched that all of the characters have, in every video they make, which is essentially the entire text of the film. When Casey announces that she had these nightmares like Paranormal Activity, you could take her at her word—or you could think she’s telling us a story because she knows that other people on the internet love [the film] and will engage with her videos. When JLB compliments her, you could take that as harmless or as though this guy knew she’d like to hear it. That’s one small example, but the same thing goes for every single thing you see in the film; everything you’re watching, the characters are performing.

There’s a quote that I really like, and I forgot who said it, but [it’s something to the effect of] “the best films are the ones when the most important relationship is between the film itself and the viewer.” [That concept] is baked into the DNA of the film; you [will] have a deeper experience with the film, perhaps even on rewatches, if you can watch it knowing that. As somebody who both watches, and as a trans person is watched increasingly, the film is definitely reflecting that experience. The subtle power dynamics on display in the film between viewer and viewee and how those things change [are] at the heart of it for me and what I was trying to explore.

Speaking of being trans, was navigating transness and diving into dysphoria one of the primary intents of the film?

Yeah, but at first, [it was a] subconscious [decision]. I really did come out to myself in the years I was working on this movie. When I started writing this script, if you’d asked me if I was trans, I would have said no. By the time it was done, I would’ve said yes, but I would’ve been really scared to tell you that. Now that’s it’s being released, I’m really proud of the fact that the film is speaking from a trans voice in the middle of that process because the film is trying really hard to represent something—not in the characters because I’m not so interested in thinking about which characters are or aren’t trans—[but] in a feeling I was trying to get across and work out within myself that I couldn’t put a name to while I was starting to make [the film]. That was the thing that drove me to make art in the first place: to explore this thing I couldn’t quite put a name to and that I thought maybe I was the only one who’d experienced it.

It was through the movie that I found a name for it. Honestly, the most moving thing about premiering the film is the validation and not feeling that what I was trying to express was mine alone. It’s something that, once I figured out a name for it—and a name is a symbol of something that’s unspeakable—other people have been moved [by].

It always feels like people try to limit representation as “this character is this” when it’s a lot more fluid than that. In the rare realm of trans film criticism, Willow Maclay and Caden Gardner’s Body Talk series seems to explore a similar type of trans discourse, and I’m wondering if that ties into the work you’re drawn to, stuff that isn’t necessarily “visibly” about trans people.

Yeah, the truth is that when I was 16—because of this flurry of feelings I had that I totally didn’t understand—I was a pretty repressed and angry person. If a film came out and it was billed as a “trans movie,” I don’t think I would have [watched] it at 16. That’s unavoidable to a certain degree; we hide from the things we don’t want to find us and there’s nothing we can really do about that. But I also think the media I was consuming and drawn to at the time all has real trans themes, even if they weren’t made by trans filmmakers or out trans filmmakers. From body horror to liminal spaces, there’s a reason why trans people have reclaimed these themes. A big part of it for me has been wondering…if there had been a cultural understanding of what trans voices are drawn to in an artistic sense and the link between those things, I would’ve probably figured it out about myself earlier.

It would be such a shame if I’d made this film trying to put a name to something, didn’t put a name to it, and then in 20 years I said, “This is a trans film.” I hope there’s something helpful to the culture to say from the onset that I made a really trans film. The media perceptions of transness that I’d seen at that age were completely created by not only cis people, but [by] incredibly transphobic cis people. This idea of being Buffalo Bill or being a tragic figure beaten to death in a bathroom somewhere didn’t appeal to me or resonate with me. What I was seeing wasn’t transness, it was this fetishization and commodification of transness.

“The cis gatekeepers of the industry are unsure if we can be trusted to tell our [own] stories responsibly.”

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You bring up these liminal spaces, which is something you seem to have been interested in since creating collective:unconscious, and that also extends to the way the film is so aware of how the internet was when we were young as well as how young people experience it today. Was it hard to create a sort of “timeless” internet?

I don’t mean this as a condemnation of myself, but there was a long time in my life where I hid in dreams because that was where I felt there was magic in the world. As I’m coming out—being able to, for the first time ever, have a life that feels like my own—liminal space is moving from the territory of dreams—with collective:unconscious, which was a film I concocted but didn’t feel that I had the authority to be a part of in terms of creative filmmaking—to reality, coming into my own as a filmmaker and as a human. The imposter syndrome fades and it becomes about creating that liminal space for others to feel safe within.

I didn’t worry about creating that space so much from a logic perspective. I liked setting the rule for myself that the worlds of my films aren’t going to be completely docurealist, at least to the reality of the present moment. The goal was to create an experience that felt like someone’s, or my, dream of the internet, so my [version] of it [spans] from South Park message boards that I read in third grade to present-day doomscrolling on Twitter. One of my goals with creating the dreamspace of the internet was to do for early internet aesthetics [what] other movies have recently done for VHS. I’m a Mark Fisher fan and love the concept of hauntology, sort of the opposite of nostalgia, which seems like an inherently conservative perspective. I can’t say that I’m not haunted by my childhood, which is mostly me looking into screens. So the film is trying to feel that haunting, represent that haunting, and not worry too much about what the internet was like in 2008 or 2018. It’s my internet, not the internet.

You create a haunting internet within the film, but that same internet also provides a lot of comfort. That’s important to note for young adults because a lot of the time we’re so isolated in person that we can’t find any connection unless it’s online. I don’t think I would’ve come out had I not known the abundance of trans and nonbinary people I’ve met online.

Ditto. When I think about my journey to actually coming out and realizing my gender identity, it has so much to do with the internet and algorithms. I just started to notice two or three years ago that all of a sudden on my message boards and Twitter feed of film, people [were showing] more and more trans perspectives. And it was in this really weird way exactly what Sam said in her piece, which was such a beautiful way to talk about the algorithm: “The pain you feel will find you and the people who feel it will too.” A lot of people who haven’t had that experience on the internet aren’t necessarily sensitive to this, and because the film is playing with a lot of dark imagery and tones that I’m personally drawn to, those people might assume that they’re watching a cautionary tale about how dangerous the internet is, like they had shoved down their throat a hundred times. I wish people would understand [that] people of any age who are drawn to this place [are] drawn to it for a reason. There’s something they’re getting there that they’re looking for and can’t get somewhere else.

Do you feel like people have this misconception of these “dark spaces” of the internet being inherently predatory?

Yes! And it’s quite the opposite! It’s like any DIY community of people who don’t fit into a normative culture; from the Satanic panic [onward], these people have been misunderstood, ostracized, and blamed in the media. It’s impossible, especially as a culture with all our views of gender and sexuality, to disentangle our view of “the other” as a goth kid from our view of “the other” as a trans kid.

When I watch this genre of horror film that’s spost-post-[Steven] Spielberg, like those movies that aren’t even nostalgic for Spielberg movies, they’re nostalgic for the movies that ripped off Spielberg movies—these endless shots of the lonely kid on a bicycle and the outcast kind of androgynous girl and the one Black kid in the friend group. When I watch these movies I think about how these main characters are always the so-called “nerds” and “loners” and there’s always the letter-jacketed jock, but these movies won’t touch concepts like transness, homosexuality, race, or class, except in the most cursory way. It started to feel like the outcast loner straight kid in these movies, who’s our hero, is sort of a strange stand-in for kids who are actually loners and outcasts, like the kind of kid who’s featured in my movie.

It feels like cis writers are desperate to declare something bland as “universal” when it’s actually the hyperspecification of this film that enables it to reach so many people. The way it is resonating with trans viewers is indicative of how it is reflecting people’s individual stories, not just some broad tale.

On one hand it makes me happy to think of the film as universal. When it comes to questions of finding yourself and your identity as a young person, there are a lot of complications to that besides transness and a lot of different lenses that people can bring to the film. I was doing an interview yesterday with a really smart deaf critic who was explaining his experiences on MSN message boards as a kid with older people and [then], once those boards went away, having to deal with the complex feeling of growing up and everything from your past disappearing. The film is talking about a lot more than transness and it’s why a lot of people are responding to it. But at the same time, I’ve also been fascinated by the response from the cis critical community to the film.

It felt like it took a little while for people to start talking about dysphoria, but once one person did, now everyone is mentioning it in their reviews. I get this sense of people thinking the most PC thing to do is pretending it’s not there and treating me like they would treat any other filmmaker. It’s this very “I don’t see color” kind of response, and it comes from a place of being afraid to say the wrong thing primarily, but the fact that they’re afraid to misinterpret something so much that they’re not going to try is a problem. The reviews that have resonated with me most have had trans voices, but I’ve read lots of wonderful reviews, and it feels like a great opportunity, as we evolve with new voices telling stories, for cis critics to wrestle with me, a filmmaker explicitly telling them my movie is about transness and dysphoria, on a mainstream platform. Once that does happen, and once these themes—liminal spaces, body horror, dream imagery, and filmmaking—are recontextualized and owned by the trans community in a bigger way, that’s where the evolution will happen. It’s not just in the representation of me at Sundance; it’s in evolving our language of transness in the critical field.

It’s been especially interesting seeing what the film is being compared to, particularly Japanese horror (like 1998’s Ringu and 2001’s Pulse) and David Cronenberg, who I’d argue makes some of the most trans cinema ever. Do you feel like this is expanding what people see as “trans stories” beyond just depictions of figures going through a series of microaggressions?

The process of writing this while coming out, trying to make something that was completely honest, and making something where every single feeling and image in the movie is something I’ve felt in my gut was so hard. It’s not the usual signifiers of transness that were created by cis people of looking sadly into the mirror, or a long speech about how you have the soul of a woman. The idea of trying to make a movie about really dark feelings without creating the emotional distance of me patting the characters on the head—saying that everything is going to be okay and being trans is great—to do something that felt truthful to my coming-out process was terrifying. There was one review from a dude talking about whether or not my film’s portrayal of dysphoria was going to hurt people, and that’s an extreme example of a cis critic patriarchally gatekeeping the way this narrative is going to go, but I will be psychically battling this culture as I try to get the film out into the world. The cis gatekeepers of the industry are unsure if we can be trusted to tell our [own] stories responsibly. Like what fucking world do you live in? This country, this world, is not healthy, and your solution to that is to just keep smiling and making hopeful art about how everything works out in the end. Has that been working so far for us?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.