It’s not often that an experimental horror film generates buzz outside of the horror geek, especially one made by a transgender writer-director-editor, with a newcomer who has not yet turned 20 as its star.
But critics have put the forefront of Jane Schoenbrun’s new indie, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” since its debut last year at the Sundance Film Festival. The film is currently in theaters and is set for digital release on April 22nd.
The film is mostly shot in Ellenville, NY, in Ulster County, and the film stars Anna Cobb as Casey, a teenager who lives with her father in a rural home, where she drowns out creepypasta videos (or web scares ) in his attic room and awkwardly trying to connect with other lovers of the macabre, including an anonymous older man who goes after JLB (Michael J. Rogers). The film’s title comes from its opening scene, where Casey makes a video announcing that she’s taking the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game that, if one is to believe the videos Casey sees, makes people go crazy.
A growing story about the dangers and benefits of creating virtual identity, “We All Go to the World’s Fair” joins other recent low-budget scary movies (“The Strings”, “Rot”) that disrupt the tone and form. Cobb, 19, makes his feature film debut with a disturbing performance grounded in a tad of electricity, like an outsider fusion of Billie Eilish and 1960s-era Sandy Dennis. Schoenbrun, 35, used found shooting techniques, webcam announcements and digital noise to “zone into a queer experience,” they said.
“I did not set out to make a film that did what 98 percent of the horror films set out to do, which is to be uneasy,” they said.
The film received strong announcements from festivals, and Schoenbrun and Cobb have already signed on to higher-profile projects. Schoenbrun’s next film, “I Saw the TV Glow” with a horror theme, will be made for A24. And Cobb stars opposite Timothée Chalamet in “Bones and All,” the new drama by Luca Guadagnino.
About being transgendered in America
Schoenbrun, who is from Westchester County, and Cobb, who grew up in Plano, Texas, recently sat together in New York to talk about making “the world fair” and seeking solace in monsters. The interview is edited and compressed.
What inspired this film?
JANE SCHOENBRUN In 2014, a friend told me about the Slender Man sting, the case where these kids suffering from mental illness had essentially convinced each other that this online boogeyman was real and that they had to do some horrible things in the real world as a tribute to him.
How did it resonate with you?
SCHOENBRUN Ten years earlier, I was a child up later than anyone in the house, reading and writing scary things, and looking for an expression as a young, queer, creatively frustrated person who did not have many opportunities to express himself in a way that should be viewed positively. . As a transgender person who was in a very long process of coming to terms with my transness, the idea of the internet as a space to explore it through fiction, before I was ready to explore it in reality, felt very moving.
Anna, what drew you to the role?
ANNA COBB I was so lucky that Jane thought I was interesting enough to watch. But I also think that many times when people portray teens, they are either incredibly flamboyant or comfortable in the skin. As someone who comes out of that time, I know you are never really comfortable in your skin and Casey felt very related.
Jane, how much of your transgender identity is part of the movie?
SCHOENBRUN Oh, it’s all over. The first time Casey and JLB talk together, he asks Casey about this transformation she claims to undergo as part of this role-playing game. She says it makes her bad and she has a deep shame about what it makes her. Clearly, there is this desire for change, for transformation, to assert her self-identity as a teenager in a way that would probably be considered awful by the people in her life. It’s a very personal thing for me, and it’s a very trans thing.
SCHOENBRUN When I started writing this movie, I did not know I was trans. When I finished writing the movie, I knew I was trans. I came out to Anna after we finished production in February 2020, just before Covid.
It is something of a path to self-discovery.
SCHOENBRUN I might have been out to half the folks on the set, but I hadn’t started my physical transition. When the film premiered, I was six months on hormones and conversion in public. It is impossible to settle the two. It’s a movie about this desire to express something, like when I felt it as a teenager, I did not have a name for it.
What were some of the techniques you used to shoot?
SCHOENBRUN Photo Booth, the application on the Mac that you can film yourself on. I think it’s great. We shot some on a Canon Vixia, a really consumer-friendly camera. We were trying to find the kind of camera that Casey actually wanted. Anna even filmed some of those things.
COBB I forgot to press the record button a few times.
How much of the film is improvised?
COBB I would say about a quarter.
Anna, were you intimidated by something you saw?
COBB Jane showed me some creepy things before we started. So I guess I’m used to seeing scary things.
Do you think it’s a horror movie?
SCHOENBRUN No. I consider it a movie about someone who loves horror and I love horror.
Anna, are you a horror fan?
COBB I feel too easily uncomfortable when I watch horror movies. I’m trying to make my life feel a little more light-hearted today. I listen to love songs. I love drinking smoothies.