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Jane Schoenbrun tells story of two outcast teens in the 1990s in 'I Saw the TV Glow'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"I Saw The TV Glow" is a coming-of-age horror film following two teens, Owen and Maddy. They're both outcasts in their 1990s suburban town. But what keeps them going is a TV show called "The Pink Opaque."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I SAW THE TV GLOW")

BRIGETTE LUNDY-PAINE: (As Maddy) Do you remember a TV show we used to watch together? It was called...

IAN FOREMAN: (As Young Owen) "The Pink Opaque"?

LUNDY-PAINE: (As Maddy) Yeah.

SHAPIRO: "The Pink Opaque" is a late night sci-fi show about two teen girls with a psychic connection who fight off monsters every week. It's creepy, kind of mystical and just a little too scary, which is exactly why they love it. As Owen and Maddy grow up and the show gets canceled, their lives shift in unexpected ways.

JANE SCHOENBRUN: Their obsession with this TV show almost becomes a fixation or a way of hiding from darker things in their real life until they realize that perhaps the show is more real than the reality that they're existing within.

SHAPIRO: That's the writer and director of "I Saw The TV Glow" Jane Schoenbrun. They sat down with Brittany Luse of NPR's It's Been A Minute to discuss the film.

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: Jane, I have to say, I love the film. I really enjoyed watching it. Something I really appreciate about it is many of the movies today being made about identity feel more like explainers or essays. But you take a more emotional approach by really leaning into metaphor. The film shows how something feels as opposed to telling the viewer what something is. How did you land at that approach?

SCHOENBRUN: I wasn't worrying about good representation when I wrote it. I was worrying about trying to articulate a feeling that, like, quite literally I didn't think there was a word for, which is very different, right? Good representation feels primarily concerned with people who aren't from your background. It feels like - you know, in my case, good representation would be, like, making a film so that cis people could understand the trans experience. Whereas what I was doing as a trans person was just trying to articulate the things that felt oblique about my own experience.

LUSE: It's interesting. Explainers kind of presuppose that you have all the answers, that you understand everything about yourself or understand everything about your own experience. But trying to communicate a feeling, a shared feeling that many of you have, that's very different.

SCHOENBRUN: I think it's also the role of the artist to be interrogating things that feel unknowable or not yet known, right? It's like, if I had all of the answers and I was giving you a lecture on the realities of the human experience, I don't think I would be an artist. I think I would be...

LUSE: (Laughter) A lecturer.

SCHOENBRUN: Yeah, or a dictator. To me, like, so much of the joy of art is about being with mystery.

LUSE: Being with mystery. I like that. You said in another interview that - to quote you - "staring at screens is probably the thing that we do most that we make art about least. The screen becomes such a beautiful and malleable metaphor to talk about how it feels to be alive, and especially to be alive in a world where you don't quite feel like you fit in." Talk to me more about that. Like, how did you want to use the screen to show that in this film?

SCHOENBRUN: In this film, Owen and Maddy see something on a screen that, as Maddy says early in the film, feels more real to her than real life. It's not that this signal that she's caught is necessarily, like, God's holy text. Yet she sees something in that signal that shows them a magic or a thing that they can emotionally invest themselves in that they aren't finding in everything else around them that they're being told is real life. And the film is very much not coy about this. That's gay stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHOENBRUN: The show, like a lot of shows from the early '90s, like, kind of queer-coded. When I was 12 years old, I tuned into "Buffy," and it quite literally was my first love. I put so much of myself into that show through my adolescence, to the point where I cared more about who Buffy was going to prom with than going to my own prom. And this is sort of the parasocial relationship that I was trying to get at through the work and the way that I think a lot of adolescents, whether or not they're queer, who don't fit easily into the real world will find these relationships through fiction.

I think it's about who makes who? Does our fiction make us or do we make our fiction? And the answer to that question, I think, isn't so straightforward.

LUSE: Another thing I really appreciated about the film was the metaphor that you created to show what it feels like to be trans but not transitioning. Like, instead of stuck in the closet or stuck in the wrong body, like, you liken it to being buried alive. Talk to me more about this metaphor.

SCHOENBRUN: It was the first thing that I had when I started working on the film. It's not a perfect metaphor, but I do feel that a lot of the trans people that I know, we're constantly trying to find language. We're trying to find language to talk about this very ephemeral feeling that we call dysphoria, this feeling that I think has been misrepresented in a lot of the media about trans people.

But the actual feeling of dysphoria and the feeling of being trans but not quite accepting it yet or not transitioning and becoming yourself, that moment when you stop hiding from yourself and see the thing that lets you know that the world you're living in has to change and the body you're living in has to change, it's an internal feeling of very deep existential wrongness that we carry with us and that if we don't do something about it is going to rot us out and give us not only a shortened life, but a life that doesn't quite feel like a life. And so this metaphor became my attempt to talk about how that feels.

LUSE: My producer, Liam, he said that this spoke to him as a trans person. But also, that the experience of becoming a new person and living a new life because the old life was slowly killing you is something that a lot of people have experienced. That metaphor could easily apply to people who are going through divorce or recovering from addiction. Like, it's something that has a broad resonance.

SCHOENBRUN: Yeah. I do really like that trans author Torrey Peters talks about the relationship between divorced women and trans women as some kind of spiritual union in the way you're talking about. And, yeah, you know, it's funny because the film is obviously coming from a very specific context that, like, I am very proud of, in that it is a movie made at a level and with, I think, a degree of honesty and candor that you don't often see from trans people talking about their own experiences.

But on the other hand, in the same way that when I watch a film by, like, my favorite Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, I'm not like, I understand every part of the context that he is speaking to from his existence as, like, an Iranian man born in the 1940s or whenever. I know that a lot of the context is going to go over my head, but that doesn't mean that we can't find commonalities between us.

SHAPIRO: That's Jane Schoenbrun, who wrote and directed the movie "I Saw The TV Glow," in conversation with Brittany Luse, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF KALO SONG, "CEREBRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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