In the midst of writer-director Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair it becomes easy to forget we’re watching a film, not a swirl of the next recommended YouTube clips. An arrow fills up the blank screen, indicating that another video is on the way, as the audience waits to sit through the ASMR lull, or a visceral reaction to something, or just a vlogger walking through a local cemetery, most of which are played without interruption. The narrative gets lost and reshuffled, the commentary resting on the projector that loops constant videos until a character can fall asleep. I sat and waited for the next video, not anxious in anticipation, but transported to times in which the platform can wash over you, a sinkhole that can be difficult to escape. 

An uneasy, quiet horror film focused on an isolated teen named Casey (Anna Cobb), Schoenbrun’s Sundance hit clocks in at an intentional 86 minutes, a slow dissolve of a girl without the family or friends to take her away from her computer screen. The majority of Casey’s interactions belong with the camera, with any audience member that will watch her take this online challenge and enter into this role-playing horror game, reminiscent of the Creepypasta movement and its many offshoots, one of Schoenbrun’s texts in the making of the film. She meets a man named JLB (Michael J. Rogers), another, older player in the game, who takes an interest in the young girl. His intentions cannot be seen as harmless, as they exert a level of power and control over one another, with Casey’s videos keeping them tethered to a certain degree. 

In an extremely digital age, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair has more than a tinge of warning, providing both comfort and caution to our collective online habits. Schoenbrun’s interest in this feedback loop heightens as the film crawls forward, never in a rush to find some greater conclusion, unwilling to give the audience more than what Casey will give the camera, what she’s willing to share with anonymous viewers online. They direct a feature that alternates between terrifying and oddly comforting, especially for those that grew up surrounded by screens that acted as both mirrors and voids. 

I talked with the director about their own online habits, their passion for selective cinema, and how they feel about the film over a year removed from its initial premiere. 

The Film Stage: How attached do you still feel to this film, since there’s been so much distance since it first premiered?

Jane Schoenbrun: I think I feel deeply attached to it. Like, with distance. And I think it’s really compounded by transition. I hadn’t started physically transitioning when I made the film. And I didn’t even process the writing the film was tied to—the process of coming to terms of being trans—and I’m in such a different place with my transition, but by proxy of being in a different place with my transition, in such a different place emotionally. The one time I watched it with an audience, which was New Directors/New Films, which was the first time I saw it played in a theater for people. Yeah, I remember sitting through it. And even then—even though that was a year ago now—I remember sitting in the theater and just feeling like, “Who made this?” And I knew the answer to that, but the answer was someone who was not me.

Have you seen it recently?

No. I don’t enjoy watching it. That tends to be the worst thing, sitting in a crowd and watching your own work. Unless you have a really specific intention or unless you’re watching it with people who you’re really excited to see it and you could feel them liking it, I think that there’s nothing worse than not knowing what people think about this thing that you put your heart into, in a dark room, in silence.

I watched the film on a laptop, as I’m sure many people will be doing once it arrives on HBO Max. How do you feel about people watching your film on this specific medium, which has such an eerie, heavy presence in the film?

It’s funny, I didn’t think so much about it while making it. I mean, obviously when people started telling me how scary it was to watch on a laptop or how their mind got sort of fucked by the mouse moving on their screen, I enjoyed that. I think I was always obsessively thinking about theaters, especially because of how slow that film is. I had this notion that I wanted to make a film that was aggressively slow. I said to myself, “That’s the boldest thing you can do with your first feature in America,” because I feel like we have such a monocultural language of what is proper narrative pacing in American film, and a lot of it is inspired by television. I really wanted to set a tempo that would let me create a film that felt like my favorite films, which are films that favor atmosphere and rhythm and pacing and are just immersive in a sort of dreamy way. And it felt impossible to adhere to the tempo of American contemporary cinema.

And so theatrical was always the benchmark. Because it felt like just knowing myself, the space where I give myself most to films, when the lights go down, you can’t take out your phone. It feels dark and immersive and dreamlike. And so much of the work on the film, the edit, the sound design, just like Casey walking through the snow for three minutes, was designed for theatrical. Although I do think there is something to this reality of 1 a.m. alone in your apartment, because that’s a thing that I’ve experienced with Creepypasta. That’s when that stuff takes on its own power. And I do like the idea of people coming across the film. Especially just imagining people discovering it on HBO Max, and just seeing that key image of Casey with the makeup and clicking it and not really knowing what they’re in for and turning out the lights, and everyone else in the house is in bed. That feels really fun to me.

You mention the intentionally slow pacing of the film, and the YouTube videos stand out in that way. Why’d you decide to let those play out for so long, which sometimes feel like we’re seeing them in entirety? 

I think the projector ASMR video is originally, like, a 23-minute video—so still not in entirety. I remember being in our little production office in the kitchen of that house we shot in, arguing about how long to let that play for and being like, “Well, if we cut it in here, we can cut out there.” It was definitely not a fight but a stance I took that I wanted a little bit more of it. I think it’s this idea of film as trance and especially slow cinema can put you in that state in a way that nothing else can. I saw it in a lot of Internet videos, if you fall into the corners of YouTube that this film is obliquely speaking to. So much of it is about lulling you I think into a trance-like state, which is an adjacent influence on this film.

There’s this YouTuber, Teal Swan, who sort of is thought of as a bit of a sinister figure online, almost like a little bit cult-like. And so many of her videos have an old Windows 95 screensaver, kind of greenscreen background of just sort shifting or blank shapes. And she was talking to you for 20 minutes, and she’s talking very calmly and peacefully. And it really does lull you into a different state, especially if you’re giving yourself to it in a way that is like, “I want this to take me somewhere else.” And I see that phenomenon in a lot of ASMR, questing for a similar feeling.

And a lot of my favorite films are questing for that feeling, right? It’s so transporting, and it’s so about entering a dream space outside of the context of the couch or whatever that you’re on. And those are my favorite films. And those are some of my favorite things that you can do with the medium. And so I think letting those videos play and giving the film over to those videos—in the same way that Casey I think is trying to give herself over to those videos—just made a lot of sense.

Do you ever find yourself kind of falling into those cycles? Or have you become almost hyper-aware, after making this film? 

I don’t think so much online. I feel like my online life, especially over the last couple years, has become just scrolling on Twitter. And I don’t think that’s necessarily trying to put you in that calming state. Or I think it’s more about the dopamine hit of likes, and whatever the next tweet that you’re excited to see is. I think I really like to carve a space out in my life, though, for exactly this feeling. And I think I primarily find it through art films. I have little rituals for how I watch films, primarily at home. I mean, obviously, in theaters when I can, but I like mornings, especially weekend morning. There’s nothing I love more than putting on a slow film on the Criterion Channel. And putting my phone away and being awake in the morning.

I think, through the making of this film, and thinking really seriously about my art, part of that process was defining what I love in film, and this is what I love in film. And so finding opportunities for that church-like experience in my daily life slows my metronome down in a way that is really healing. Even though this is a film, like you said, that at some point maybe you’re looking away, I think it’s meant to be a comfort to a certain type of person.

There’s a stretch where we watch Casey’s YouTube videos back-to-back over the course of a few months. What were some of the other videos you filmed, or Casey filmed, that didn’t make the cut?

There’s a lot of that on the Blu-ray. That was a really interesting sequence to edit because it did feel like the narrative inherently slows down a little bit because it’s really trying to capture this space and this boredom. But also this emotional escalation and also this escalation of the relationship between the two of them. I think the thing that I realized editing that sequence was that we lost in a really physical way, the thread of her making these videos for him, or at least having this strange power dynamic with him through the making of the videos. You can kind of lose the thread of what the film is trying to say. And so it was really a tightrope. Also, on the Blu-ray there’s like 10 minutes we cut out of the third act of the film, right at the last minute—like, the night before we submitted it to Sundance. I just highlighted 10 minutes in the timeline and pressed Delete.

But that middle section, one of the things that shows—and the strongest thing about the film—is Casey’s humanity, and a lot of that is like Anna’s humanity. We went to this baseball field and she talked about the job that she works in the summertime, selling candy at the baseball field. And then we just spent an hour on a lonely baseball diamond having Anna play for the camera. Anna is a huge Scarface fan and there’s some good stuff in there of her as Tony Montana, just sort of fighting the wind. And it all works, because it’s all about this teenage play, an internal person. A teenager playing that she wouldn’t ever show her parents, or anyone else in the town, but that she’s happy to show the camera because she can show herself in a way.

Jane Schoenbrun on set. Photo by Mila Matveeva.

How do you prep Anna Cobb for that escalation of events? How do you attempt to get her into that mindset?

I think a lot of it was me keeping tabs where Casey is in her progression. Certainly there’s a lot of conversation between Anna and I about how to create that emotional arc in performance. Seeing Casey change and Casey reveal different layers or shards of what maybe feels like her “true personality.” I’m really fascinated by the question or idea, when you watch the film, because of genre cliches, of how we assume on our first watch that the Casey we’re seeing at the beginning of the film is the real Casey. But who’s to say that’s not as much or more performance than what we see later on in the film.

It was a lot of really early work with Anna when she was putting herself on tape on character as “possessed Casey” was her trying to act possessed. I remember her trying to act like some amalgamation of The Exorcist or whatever. I think we very quickly realized, both of us—because she’s so fucking talented—that it was the opposite, right? It was like “possessed Casey” needed to almost feel more real. It’s angry in a real way. Because that’s the danger of the movie, right? It’s not like, “Oh, my God, what demon is inside this person?” It’s, “Oh, my God, what is this person capable of?”

Talking about the relationship between Casey and JLB: why did you decide to shift perspectives to see his home life?

The thing that cracked the thing for me, structurally, was an idea that we would like to start in one bedroom and end in another. And then the question becomes how does that arc work? How do we leave one space and move to another space? And I think for me that’s all about this sort of slow, almost invisible disappearance that happens in the film—of Casey. And the first thing that disappears is our privileged perspective on Casey. To put it another way, our perspective on Casey when she’s not recording herself for us. We lose it after that first Skype call. And that’s essentially the last time we see Casey in the film, outside of her videos. Everything else that we see after that is the Casey that JLB would have access to. So that’s actually like a half-hour into the film. Casey’s gone in a sense and JLB has as much perspective on this person as we do.

And I think that loss for me arcs in the film and the way that we fall into the most experimental section of the film, right when the algorithm takes over. And these spinning loading icons that we’ve seen in the safety of the screen have now become our screen. And it’s like she’s already gone because we’ve lost our privileged perspective on her. And then it’s just a matter of her slipping away further until the end when she’s slipped away completely. And I think that if you feel a sense of frustration, or a sense of loss, or a sense of dissatisfaction with that slippage narratively, that’s certainly intentional. Because I think that’s the loneliness of the Internet.

How did you choose JLB’s profile picture for those calls? 

It’s actually a super famous Creepypasta. Google “unwanted houseguest.” It’s one that, in this sort of heyday of Creepypasta, took off. The author is anonymous, but the author is someone in my life. And it was a complete coincidence. This person found out I was making a movie about Creepypasta and was like, “Did you know that I used to do that?” It’s got just one of those eerie feelings.

I think the original intention was just to say JLB, like a non-profile picture or Skype icon, but that face is so disquieting. And it especially is for Casey. We’re living through Casey’s eyes when that first appears. And Anna had never met Michael before we shot those scenes and she had never heard Michael’s voice and she didn’t know who Michael was. We didn’t tell her on purpose because I wanted it to feel as authentically disquieting as a kid logging online and seeing that icon just staring back at them with its eyes actually felt.

Did she feel shaken at all or even a little creeped out?

I think we were having a lot of fun. And that was her last day on set. It’s on video somewhere, someday maybe we’ll release it, we did like a little face reveal at the end. And she was really cute. She’s really funny. She said she was expecting an old Italian man based on [his] voice.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is now playing at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, BAM in Brooklyn, and the Music Box in Chicago. It expands April 22nd to theaters nationwide, including Los Angeles, and arrives digitally.

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