Jane Schoenbrun’s first narrative feature film, We all go to the Universal Exposition, is an enchanting horror film that eschews the traditional three-act structure in favor of bold and unprecedented cinematic language and a deep fascination with its central character, Casey, who lives most of his teenage life in his room, posting vlogs as part of a sinister and mysterious online trend called the “World’s Fair Challenge”. The writer-director’s curiosity about internet subcultures stems from their non-binary and trans identities, growing up and looking to the computer as an outlet for authentic expression.
“People were collaborating in this very decentralized way to create new narratives that really could only have been created on the internet,” Schoenbrun explains, referring to several obscure online horror characters and stories shared widely online that helped inspire their film. “It really resonated and reminded me of something I searched online in my youth, which was an effort to step away from my body and identity and exist in a space where I could creatively express myself and maybe even explore myself personally, outside of the “real world”.”
Schoenbrun says coming out as trans allowed them to finally tell the stories they had locked away in their subconscious. “I don’t think I had a creative outburst after coming out,” they reflect. “I think I found the courage to share my inner world with the outside world, which was very difficult for me before transitioning.”
Shame, both internal and external since childhood, functioned as a barrier to creativity for Schoenbrun prior to this prolific new phase in their careers: “I was not encouraged to express myself. And so you learn to put that away, and you learn to get online and write stories on the internet, disconnected from your real life, and you learn, basically, to be ashamed. The process of starting to give language to who I was, and of becoming who I was meant to be, was a process of unraveling my relationship to that shame and moving beyond it. I think that’s what allowed me to make a film like this, make a film like my next one, and do all the things that I’m going to do. These were the stories I always wanted and needed to tell. And they were always there. They were just housed behind internalized transphobia.
World’s Fair is the first in a planned body of work Schoenbrun calls “The Screen Trilogy,” to be followed by their upcoming thriller A24 I’ve seen TV shinewith an ensemble cast including Phoebe Bridgers and Danielle Deadwyler, and a television project titled Afterlife in public access.
“This transition from living my life as a spectator of the world, in the wrong body and identity, and slowly becoming myself and an artist, to someone who, like Casey in World’s Fairspends all of his time staring at a screen, at someone who is, somehow, stepping into the screen – that is, to me, a really powerful metaphor for transition and what it feels like,” explains Schoenbrun. “At the same time way, I find the glow of a screen appealing. It’s something I gravitate towards very naturally, the way David Cronenberg gravitates towards body horror or Christopher Nolan gravitates towards super confused time [plots].”
This story first appeared in an independent December issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, Click here to register now.