'I Saw the TV Glow' is one of 2024's buzziest films. It took Jane Schoenbrun a lifetime to make it

Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festive, Jane Schoenbrun's “I Saw the TV Glow" has been hailed as an acutely intense psychodrama of self discovery
Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun poses for a portrait on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in New York to promote her film "I Saw the TV Glow." (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Credit: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

Credit: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun poses for a portrait on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in New York to promote her film "I Saw the TV Glow." (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — The filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun is walking down a path in Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, looking for the pond they sat beside while working on the script to the film"I Saw the TV Glow."

Cemeteries aren't often the chosen location for interviews but the place holds particular meaning to Schoenbrun. Built in the 1830s on a hillside overlooking New York Harbor, Green-wood is where Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed and Jean-Michel Basquiat are buried. But it was also a rural sanctuary to New Yorkers before any parks were built. People used to picnic here.

“It’s amazing that it’s here,” Schoenbrun says, smiling beneath a cloudy spring sky. “The level of seclusion compared to everything surrounding it is so crazy.”

For Schoenbrun, the draw isn’t the famous graves. Green-wood has for them been a safe haven for reflection and transformation. In their first year taking hormones, Schoenbrun met friends here who, while lounging on a hill, took regular photographs to capture their physical evolution. Schoenbrun’s first in-person meeting with Brigette Lundy-Paine, one of the stars of “I Saw the TV Glow,” was here.

Schoenbrun wrote the film in late 2020, just a few months into their transition. In that fraught moment of becoming, the script poured out in a manic rush.

“I remember staggering out of my bedroom after I finished it and walking up to my partner and saying, ‘I can only do that so many times’ — that level of spilling my guts on the page,” Schoenbrun says.

By the time “I Saw the TV Glow” was nearing production, Schoenbrun was no longer in the same head space. They came to Green-wood to make outlines and rekindle the “early transition terror” that had since passed.

“I was falling in love. I was having a more consistent feeling of comfortableness in my body in a way that I had never had,” Schoenbrun says. “And I was like, ‘(Expletive), I’m about to make this trauma movie.’”

"I Saw the TV Glow," which A24 opens in theaters Friday, has since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival been hailed as an acutely intense psychodrama of self discovery. In 1990s suburbia, an awkward loner named Owen (Justice Smith) encounters Maddy (Lundy-Paine), a cool, prickly older high school student who opens his eyes to a "Buffy the Vampire"-esque TV series called "The Pink Opaque." It stars a pair of young women in battle with a supernatural villain named Mr. Melancholy.

Their obsession with the show — particularly Maddy’s — takes on a feverish quality. “The Pink Opaque” becomes something like a portal to another, more authentic self. “I Saw the TV Glow,” radiating adolescent angst and shaking with the tremors of body dysphoria, is to Schoenbrun a parable of pre-transition.

“What I think ‘TV Glow’ is about is the very unpleasant process of committing to throw yourself off a cliff,” says Schoenbrun. “I think repression exists because you kind of know that if you unrepress, there are going to be consequences and your life as you know it is going to no longer be your life as you know it.”

“I Saw the TV Glow,” poised on that cliff of becoming, is at the forefront of a new vanguard for trans cinema. Films like Vera Drew’s “The People’s Joker,” Paul B. Preciado’s “Orlando, My Political Biography” and Alice Maio Mackay’s “T-Blockers” have crafted new movie forms and images that compellingly reflect trans experience.

"I Saw the TV Glow," though, has been uniquely championed. A24, the boutique indie studio, is distributing. Emma Stone is a producer. Co-stars include Danielle Deadwyler, Phoebe Bridgers and Fred Durst. All of them ultimately responded to Schoenbrun's unfiltered vision.

“I felt it had come from a really deep place in Jane. It was asking to be connected with. It was like an invitation,” says Lundy-Paine. “It was like: Are we going to completely bear soul, show whole? And we said, ‘Yeah.’ We allowed ourselves to go there.”

Schoenbrun, as they walk the rounding paths of Green-wood, is brightly talkative, self-deprecating and confidently insightful — particularly about their own journey. Schoenbrun, 37, grew up in Ardsley in Westchester. They worked in a local movie theater but were most captivated by the character evolutions of shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Before starting as a filmmaker, Schoenbrun often wrote for Filmmaker Magazine; it recently shot them for its cover. They were married for a decade before figuring out they were trans in April 2019 on a mushroom trip while struggling to write their feature film debut, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.”

“I was really trying to figure out why I had such shame about making my own art. That was explicitly the goal of that trip," says Schoenbrun. “I was like: I need to figure out why I can work a day job and work really hard for someone else’s thing but why does the idea of sharing and advocating for my own thing feel horrible to me. Internalized gender shame was where I arrived in a very circuitous way.”

Gender, transformation and filmmaking remain innately connected for Schoenbrun. Their film tastes are wide but trend toward, they say, movies that seem impossible and films that suggest new possibilities. The gentle dramas of Kelly Reichardt, the body horror of David Cronenberg and the outlandishness of Tom Green's “Freddy Got Fingered” all come up as sign posts.

“How does cinema, how does art continue to become itself as hopefully human beings are doing the same in their fledging and flawed and destructive ways?” Schoenbrun says, smiling.

Smith, the 28-year-old actor of “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” and “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” was drawn to the odyssey of Owen’s arc.

“Usually as characters get older, they become more sure of themselves. This character becomes less,” says Smith. “It was one of the first films where I was like, ‘I really have to let go.’ I was having this parallel experience to the character who was so resistant to accepting themselves as enough.”

Schoenbrun now finds themself emerging as a filmmaker and as themselves at the same time. The 2021 Sundance premiere of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” about about a teenager immersed in an online role-playing horror game, was virtual. But it was still the most public Schoenbrun had been since transitioning. “That was starring in the school play in your underwear for me,” they say.

On both counts, the response has been validating. That doesn't mean that there won't be difficulties along the way. As they walk past seas of graves, Schoenbrun notes the high mortality rate for transgender people.

“You exist in a much more precarious space than you previously did,” they say. “The past is (expletive) you up because of all that lost time and the future is (expletive) you up because you can no longer feel stable in the narrative of, like, I’m going to be a grandparent some day.”

But it would be hard to see anything but liberation and hard-earned self-actualization in Schoenbrun. The doors of self-awareness might be just creaking opening for Owen in “I Saw the TV Glow” but they have been blown off the hinges by its maker.

“It has just been an incredibly moving few years of feeling things for the first time that I kind of knew about or had experienced as a ghost,” Schoenbrun says. “Trans people love ‘Under the Skin.’ I think that’s because of the feeling of finally entering the human race but as this alien experiencing things for the first time.”

An outsider viewpoint, though, might be highly desirable, even necessary for a filmmaker. As our circular route brings us back to the Green-wood front gate, Schoenbrun says they now feel not 37 years old but 23.

“It’s so, so incredibly beautiful,” says Schoenbrun, looking forward. “And I can’t wait to make a work about it.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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The story has been updated to correct the title of the film “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.”

This image released by A24 shows Justice Smith, left, and Brigette Lundy-Paine in a scene from "I Saw the TV Glow." (A24 via AP)

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Credit: AP

This image released by A24 shows writer-director Jane Schoenbrun, left, with actor Ian Foreman on the set of "I Saw the TV Glow." (A24 via AP)

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Credit: AP

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun poses for a portrait on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in New York to promote her film "I Saw the TV Glow." (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Credit: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

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Credit: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

This image released by A24 shows Ian Foreman in a scene from "I Saw the TV Glow." (A24 via AP)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun poses for a portrait on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in New York to promote her film "I Saw the TV Glow." (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Credit: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

icon to expand image

Credit: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP