A glimpse into the dark, lonely, and often very creepy world of DIY online horror with filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s breakthrough feature debut.
I can’t decide what would have been a more appropriate way to watch We’re All Going to the World’s Fair for the first time. Making its virtual premiere at Sundance 2021, many were first introduced to Jane Schoenbrun’s coming-of-age horror drama by watching the screening at home, more often than not alone, and intimately connected with the viewing on a laptop or television screen.
However, there have been a few of us who have been lucky enough to catch it on the big screen as it was recently screened at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas, Texas. A viewing that was much more communal, but also perhaps even more deeply terrifying as you’re much freer of any convenient distractions as you follow along with a story that gets creepier and creepier as it slowly unravels.
Telling the story of a teenage aspiring YouTuber who falls into the grooming habits of a fellow online horror game role player who lures her deeper into the latest internet horror challenge, Schoenbrun film gives a rare, and very intimate, look into some of the darker corners of the creepypasta-inspired “World’s Fair” challenge.
No Film School: While We’re All Going to the World’s Fair marks your directorial feature film debut, you’ve certainly been no stranger in the independent film scene spearheading several omnibus projects like collective:unconscious and The Eyeslicer, as well as championing new funding and distribution models for fellow filmmakers. How has your filmmaking journey led you to finally try out directing your own project?
Jane Schoenbrun: Well, I got my start with the IFP (Independent Film Project), which is a nonprofit based in Brooklyn that supports filmmakers. That’s where I really learned how hard it is to mix the worlds of art filmmaking and commercial filmmaking, so I sort of made it my business to try to carve out a space for myself and my friends to make the kind of projects that we were really passionate about.
A lot of the things I was doing before I worked up the courage to make my own film as a director were these experiments in collaborative filmmaking. Our first project was collective:unconscious which premiered at SXSW in which five filmmakers adapted each others’ dreams into weird kind of David Lynch-y short films. I also worked on our touring TV show called The Eyeslicer which was basically a way for us to commission and license a bunch of cool punk rock short films and to make these mixtapes out of them and drive around the country going to different theaters selling old school physical media.
Now, as a trans filmmaker working on my first film as a director, I just felt like I was ready to try to finally have the freedom to make something that’s fully my own. The most important goal for me was to conceive of and write something that I knew I could make on my own with friends. That meant coming up with something that was going to be very limited in terms of budget and scope, but that would still hopefully be very personal and overall a very engaging film.
NFS: Before we dive into these DIY filmmaking aspects of the film and what makes it so uniquely intimate and creepy, would you say you consider your film to be a horror film?
Schoenbrun: I think the movie is whatever people want it to be. I try to not think in terms of genre because I'm not so interested in genre structures when I'm making something. Instead I’d say I try to make my own and just feel the emotions of the characters. I’m trying to expressly dictate my own structure and the genre terms of the film, rather than sort of following a playbook of a horror movie where X, Y, and Z needs to happen on page 20, 40, and 60. I’m certainly playing with genre in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, but I wouldn’t say that my main goal was to make a horror movie.
NFS: Your film is also very unique in just how much it has to do with the internet, and specifically with characters who only really interact with each other by being online. How do you think internet culture has changed film overall?
Schoenbrun: Yeah, I mean, the film is certainly a reflection on the question of how the internet has changed storytelling, interpersonal relationships, and basically all forms of interaction. I think that the internet that I came up in, which was like dial-up internet, which led into DSL, and eventually led into something more akin to the internet that we know today, was a very different world from the one that kids are growing up in now.
But I certainly came up a little bit in this era where YouTube was starting up and there was this sort of dream that the internet was going to democratize storytelling and anyone with a camera would be able to break down all these borders and boundaries.
However, I do think that in the last 10 years or so that online spaces have really been corporatized and while you might still be able to upload a video, the means of distribution and the ways in which people can build an audience online are controlled by these tech models. So I don’t know if the internet right now is a space of like, pure filmmaking and artistry. I think it’s still a space where a lot of people go looking for that and are trying to express that.
NFS: While not mentioned by name in the film, in the Q&A after you gave a shout out to the “creepypasta” corners of the internet for some of the inspiration for the story. Can you tell us a little bit about this internet phenomenon and how it might play into modern horror storytelling?
Schoenbrun: Sure thing, and I do certainly think that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair could be construed as part of creepypasta. Although again, I don’t want to put any sort of boundaries or labels on what it is. Creepypasta was developed rather organically as the internet sort of evolved, I think it started around 2009 on the Something Awful forums and sort of birthed along with the Slender Man which is one of the most well-known exports of the community.
The idea behind creepypasta, which is a very internet idea, is that you will never really know whether what you’re reading is true or false. The idea is that you’re telling stories and comparing notes as you’re building these mythologies within this game.
So everyone’s kind of agreeing to this collaborative process where the most elaborate creepypastas are sort of developed communally. It’s a very internet-esque process of trying to create an alternate reality essentially that people can sort of live in and disappear into.
This for me was fascinating as a creative kid who grew up on the internet who was certainly looking for a space where I could explore my identity outside of the prison of body that I didn’t feel comfortable in. That’s what really drew me to the subject matter, as for whether film itself is creepypasta or not—while I’m certainly playing on creepypasta iconography and while the film is indebted to the genre—it’s still just a film at the end of the day.
NFS: Another theme throughout the film is the influence of YouTube’s algorithm where at times it appears we’re watching a character’s YouTube feed one video after another. What was the creative process for bringing this YouTube content to life cinematically?
Schoenbrun: I really wanted portions of the film to feel genuinely algorithmic in how we were jumping from moment to moment. I think it’s a form that, ironically enough, let me get away with some pretty poetic and experimental styles of filmmaking under the guise of the randomness of a YouTube recommendations algorithm.
When it came time to actually make these different YouTube algorithm videos it was really fun because it became about pulling in other voices. One of my biggest goals in particular for the project was to make sure I wasn’t making videos that felt like I had made them in the style of YouTube, but instead that I was making videos that really genuinely felt like YouTube. And so, whenever possible, we collaborated with real YouTube creators either to act in them or to help create them.
In terms of how I constructed what we see in the film, it was obviously a careful process, but I also didn’t want it to feel too obvious. I didn’t want it to feel like I’m controlling a straightforward narrative from video to video. I wanted it to actually have this feeling of randomness where I’m showing you something completely unexpected and different from what you saw previously.
NFS: Speaking of these different YouTube videos, many of these different styles and formats are seen within the film by being played on a projector or laptop screen. How did you all physically manage these different videos and files?
Schoenbrun: It certainly took a lot of planning and coordination. One of my producers had the very unfun job of making a master document—what we called our “screen needs” document—to keep track of what we’d be seeing on the screens.
We also spent a lot of time before production building all the various web pages that we see on screen in the film. Making all these videos, having them organized, and then logistically on-set, the continuity of it all became a real puzzle.
So, having somebody there who was keeping track of all that turned out to be really important, but it was really important to me too because, you know, it’s a film that is quite contained in a lot of ways. It takes place in isolated, small spaces without many people in them, so the film feels much more open than it actually is because of these screens.
One of my big ideas structurally in the film was that we would spend the beginning of the film drifting closer and closer to the screen until the second half of the film we’d be kind of inside the screen and there’s no distinction between the real world and the dream world.
NFS: For those who are interested in creepypasta storytelling, or horror-genre filmmaking in general, what advice would you give to anyone looking to create a project of their own in this medium of internet-inspired film?
Schoenbrun: Yeah, people who have watched We’re All Going to the World’s Fair have actually reached out to me to tell me that it inspired them to make a movie. And that’s like one of the highest compliments I think, if people can watch this movie, which was really made in a very homemade style, and feel inspired to do something similar.
If I were to pass along my advice to anyone who’s inspired by this type of model, I’d just say that it’s okay to take your time before you set out to make your first project. I’m 34 and I’m so glad I didn’t make a film at 24 or 28 even because it gave me time to work on other films. It gave me time to really understand my own process as an artist and understand how I wanted my own life experience to be reflected in my films.
I think a common mistake that people make when they’re young and starting out as filmmakers is that they act out of fear and they try to emulate what they think people want rather than working patiently—with a lot of faith in themselves—to create their own worlds and their own way of making art.
The other advice I'd give that’s probably more straightforward is just to watch a lot of films. Even though I was always a film nerd, I came to film history a little late and didn’t really dedicate myself to watching all the classics and building more of an encyclopedic understanding of the evolving language of this medium until my mid-20s.
It’s like going to the gym, if you don’t surround yourself with a diet of really adventurous art that inspires you to reach high in your own pursuits, you’re going to fall out of shape.