Making its world premiere in Sundance’s NEXT category, WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is a both intimate and mediated view of a teenage girl (Anna Cobb) who becomes thoroughly invested in an online, horror, role-playing game. Her main touchstone becomes another player (Michael J. Rogers). Writer and director Jane Schoenbrun (THE EYESLICER) spoke with us about the process of making the film and its themes.
Science & Film: Why was the setting of a multiplayer, online horror game appealing to you?
Jane Schoenbrun: This community calls themselves the Creepy Pasta community. It’s been around for almost a decade on the internet. The general idea is: campfire stories that are uniquely positioned for the internet. It took off in 2009 with the advent of the Slender Man, which is this community’s most famous export. It’s a unique form of storytelling to the internet—it’s not just somebody telling a scary story or posting a written one, the entire idea is that it’s taking advantage of what the internet is which is a place where you can claim anything with some plausible deniability of fact. If you go to the Reddit page where a lot of these stories get posted, one of the rules is: everything is true here, even if it’s not. What that means in terms of the page’s policies is that you’re not allowed to say, this isn’t true. The heart of this collaborative medium, why it rose to prominence, is because people could create these myths together in a fluid, user-generated way. One person would post maybe a doctored photo with a ghost in the background, and the next person would offer an origin of that ghost, and another person would offer another version, until 10 years later there’s a Sony Pictures movie about the ghost.
I was a kid posting scary stories I had written on message boards on the Internet in the pre-YouTube era. If I had been born when Creepy Pasta had gotten started that would definitely have been a place for me to flex creative muscles. I saw myself in the desire to be scared, or to invent something scary. I saw myself in that desire to conflate truth and fiction that is unique to the genre. I saw a lot of very interesting emotional places to take that sentiment of: everything is true here even if it’s not.
S&F: The main character in your film is often seen by us through the gaze of the computer. How did you go about establishing that from a production standpoint?
JS: Years before I had happened upon the specific story or character the movie would follow, what drew me into it were questions of form. I wanted to investigate what a cinematic form of filmmaking that speaks to the internet could be. We’ve seen found-footage films, what people call “desktop films,” like UNFRIENDED or SEARCHING—I like these films a lot, but they’re almost like a BLAIR WITCH-style movie where you’re simply inside the computer, and to me that seemed like a limiting form in terms of what you could emotionally get across using the language of cinema. I also saw the benefit of that sort of conflation of lo-fi aesthetics and the portraiture that goes along with a lot of YouTube videos and internet art pieces.
A lot of art trying to speak authentically through the internet tends to be very maximalist, and I like that art where the cacophony of the news feed is flying at you, but I was interested in the boredom of the internet, the loneliness of the internet, and the in between time of the internet—that feeling when you’re scrolling and all it is, in essence, is you alone in space staring at a box for hours on end. I wanted to get across what you see in a lot of earlier YouTube videos: that person sitting alone for 15 minutes talking about whatever might be on their mind. I wanted to develop a language that could speak to all of this in a uniquely cinematic way. The solution for me was a movie that felt like that experience of disappearing into a screen or down a wormhole late at night on the internet.
In keeping with this idea of wanting to make a movie that speaks authentically and emotionally to the experience of watching videos online or making videos online, I wanted to create a movie that in some way carried with it a lot of the ambiguities of watching amateur videos online: between truth and fiction, who’s a troll who’s real, who’s a robot who’s not, also the ambiguities of not really knowing anything other than what people show you on the internet. One of the core tenets of the movie was that we wouldn’t know a ton more about each character than what they would know about each other. There would be this constant danger of these people being real to each other but not quite—a potential for them to disappear and stop posting videos at any moment.
S&F: Two of the scenes that you’re bringing to mind is when the man walks away from his computer and you realize where he lives. The other is when Anna’s character is sleeping and the ASMR is playing on her projector.
JS: Slight Sounds is a real ASMR artist. I think that’s the only video in the film that is an existing artifact from YouTube. Everything else was made for the film.
S&F: How did you work with Anna Cobb in terms of acting, recording herself for the internet?
JS: The hardest and most intensive part of the process was preparing Anna, who is insanely talented and hardworking, and makes something that was an impossible amount of work look totally natural. I knew she was perfect for the role when I saw the tape she initially made; she is such an individual, she’s not trying to be a child actor or blend with aesthetics we typically are used to seeing from actors of a certain age. Her personality caries into the film and that was one of the things I really wanted.
The reason Anna’s performance feels as alive as it does on the screen is because of how much prep we did. She made probably ten hours of YouTube videos in character, learning the fake mythology of the film, getting into the perspective of this very complex character. For her, one key thing breaking into the characters mind was how no person is one person—we’re all contradictory and complex and in different situations show different sides of ourselves. She came to the movie with this very sophisticated understanding of all of the different sides of Casey, the character in the film.
We had a very small crew, we shot most of our scenes in one takes, and this was for me all about creating an environment where both Anna and myself could feel comfortable. There is some improv in the film. For instance, there is a scene where she does a Tarot card reading for another character, which is one of my favorite scenes, and we came up with it day of. Anna is an incredible Tarot card reader and I think the only direction I gave her was, “give this character a Tarot card reading.” She was so immersed in her role that she was able to give an incredible monologue that I could never have written.
In that spirit of the internet as a place where multiple voices can collaborate to create something, I wanted the film to carry that in its DNA. I wanted the film to feel like there was this centralized vision but was perhaps a little more crowd-made than a normal auteurist film.
S&F: What about the title, “The World’s Fair,” why did you choose that for the game?
JS: It came to me in a dream [laughs]. I’ve certainly thought about it though. I think there’s something to this notion of imaginary futures on the internet—going to a place to see what the future is going to look like. But it was just one of those things that when I woke up with the idea, it fit better than anything I could have come up with.
S&F: Speaking of dreams, the film has some interesting parallels to THE EYESLICER and COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS and the collaborative nature of those projects.
JS: It’s my first feature and I’ve been preparing myself for it for a long time. It’s absolutely the most personal thing I’ve made, by far. I will always be the type of filmmaker who is more interested in exploring work collaboratively with other artists than trying to fine-tune every piece of fabric in a film to represent my own vision.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is written, directed, and edited by Jane Schoenbrun, produced by Sarah Winshall and Carlos Zozaya, filmed by Daniel Patrick Carbone, and scored by Alex G. Anna Cobb and Michael J. Rogers star. The film makes its world premiere at Sundance on January 31, with a second screening on February 2.
Cover photo courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Daniel Patrick Carbone.