Do You Dare Take the ‘World’s Fair Challenge’?

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair hasn’t left my mind since I saw it way back in January during the virtual Sundance Film Festival. An uncanny, dreamlike merging between a coming-of-age film, found footage, and body horror, it features a fictional online phenomenon called “the World’s Fair Challenge.” Each participant draws their own blood before their webcam as they vow to partake, then they alternate between watching a series of increasingly strange videos and posting more of their own videos, in which they document the changes that the challenge supposedly induces in their bodies. Preteen protagonist Casey (Anna Cobb) develops a remote friendship with a grown man also taking the challenge, and their growing intimacy intensifies the film’s sense of dread.

Writer and director Jane Schoenbrun grasps and conveys both the familiarity and alienation of an online community in a way that few filmmakers manage. It’s one of the best movies yet made not just about the weirder parts of the internet, but about what simply existing online feels like. During the Indie Memphis Film Festival, I chatted with Schoenbrun over Zoom about the film and the ever-evolving peculiarities of the internet. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Hyperallergic: This movie is so immersed in the vocabulary of being online, threading the needle between the old and new internet. You based it on your experiences in online forums in the ’90s. How long did it take for this to come together?

Jane Schoenbrun: The movie wasn’t necessarily inspired by one era of the internet, and I didn’t think much about that while crafting it. It’s definitely playing on nostalgia — as much an aesthetic nostalgia as a structural nostalgia for what the internet of my childhood was. There’s the internet I never experienced as a youth, but which I immersed myself in as I discovered the creepypasta community. That’s the community the plot is most commenting on, this 2010–2015 era of kids on Reddit and YouTube trying to scare each other. Obviously there are still kids doing that, but I think a lot of people look back on that as the golden age of making up weird shit online. I think even with that generation, there’s a growing nostalgia. I’ve certainly seen it in the reviews for the film, people being like, ‘Oh my god, this captures this 2013 time, my teenage years of staying up too late and getting involved in some really gnarly shit.’ And I’m proud that I was able to capture that.

A lot of it was research that took a long time, an immersion in what those spaces were like. I started doing that research around 2014. I made a found footage documentary out of archival materials entirely from YouTube. In a way, that was almost a mood reel for this project. I was as concerned with the aesthetics of amateur video at that time as much as I was in the tropes and narrative threads of those videos.

Jane Schoenbrun

H: Were there any influences you looked to for making the internet cinematic?

JS: Oddly enough — and I don’t think he ever made much work explicitly about the internet — one of the filmmakers who’s always very important to me is Abbas Kiarostami. I watched Taste of Cherry for the third or fourth time while I was developing this film. There’s something about the patience of the film, especially during these long interior car shots that he returns to throughout his filmography. I tried to think of my own obsession with screens, the glow of a screen on somebody’s face as they stare into it, and the way that Taste of Cherry and a lot of Kiarostami’s films play with duration in these moments of traveling. They aren’t so much about getting somewhere, but just about traveling.

H: I can definitely feel 24 Frames in this.

JS: Yeah, those gorgeous setups are so patient, and so much about progression and tension-building, but also about time as a concept. And with Taste of Cherry there’s also this thing I found extraordinarily moving, this idea that you can’t access something beyond its exterior. Like we can’t see inside this character’s head to understand what’s motivating him, even though that is the question of the film. The answer we ultimately arrive at is that the camera can only reveal so much. And this seemed so at the heart of the thematic pursuits of my film, which is very much about the internet, yes, but also performance and the versions of ourselves we show to others.

H: Was it difficult to guide Anna Cobb’s performance with that many layers of character in mind?

JS: It’s funny, literally right before this I rewatched Anna’s first tape that she made when she auditioned. She says in it something that we talked about a lot in production, about how people are a lot of different people all at once. Anna is an incredibly talented actor and so dedicated to her craft, and she’s also unusually wise for her age, in terms of understanding the human condition and how complicated and strange people are. I think the role would’ve been a challenge for anybody of any age to crack the different layers of a character who never really shows us her true face.

There are a few stray moments when we see her with a camera off, but anytime the camera is on, there’s her performance and what the character wants you the viewer, or the viewer in the film, to think. And then there’s what the character is actually feeling, whatever premeditation went on before turning on the camera. Anna and I went through a rehearsal process so that when we were on set, she knew the character like the back of her hand, and we had a shorthand where she understood what was going on in each layer at each moment. There were a lot of conversations about what was motivating each specific scene, a lot of conversations about what the character was drawn to and why. Anna would make improvisational tapes as Casey, uploading videos, and we would watch them and pick out what moments that felt right or wrong, and zero in on the person behind this mask.

From We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

H: Did any desktop cinema have an influence on the film?

JS: I was very aware of those films while developing this, and I like both Unfriended movies a lot. I haven’t seen Searching. But I’m very aware of that form, and one of my initial challenges was to express this cinematic, poetic version of the internet. I think there’s something amazing about the evolution of the found footage genre that you find in these films, and they’re capitalizing on the fact that there is increasingly a common visual language for what using the internet is. But I also knew that there are such limiting constrictions when you adhere completely to that form. The camera can’t take on a life of its own in a way that it can in all my favorite films. That is a very crucial element, the idea of the camera as my camera and not a character’s camera.

A lot of the process was figuring out how to create a structure that would allow me to to explore what fascinates me in found footage and desktop films, but to also be more cinematically evocative. I settled on this idea of starting with a third-person camera in somebody’s bedroom, slowly drifting toward the screen until we have closed the gap between our camera and the character’s camera, and then getting lost within the unreliable haze of an algorithm, trapped in the dream of the internet. When we emerge from the dream, we’re in somebody else’s bedroom and lost contact with the person we started with.

H: How exactly does one script a sequence that feels convincingly algorithmic?

JS: Yes, such a difficult process! I really do think that algorithms and dream logic have a lot in common. If you’re drawing those connections authentically, they’re almost being drawn from something subconscious deep in the video. It doesn’t work either as dream logic or surrealism if the boundaries between one video to the next are too overt, if we watched a video of somebody picking at a scab and next we’re watching a video of somebody picking at a giant wound. If it feels too perfect, I think you lose believability, but if it just feels like random shit it also loses believability.

I think the key was turning off my conscious brain, which takes a lot of practice as an artist. You turn off the part of your brain that makes logical waking-hour connections and get yourself into a state where you’re able to tap into something that feels like it’s from more of a subconscious, unconscious dream logic. You make these associations and connections, where to even explain them too much would be to bleed them of their power.

H: Speaking of what’s unconscious, you’ve talked about the trans subtext in the film. When did that element manifest?

JS: It was apparent and top of mind fairly early in the process. Honestly, making the film was my coming-out process, to myself as much as anything. I think it was born of a need to explore something I didn’t have any language for. When I looked into these online spaces where identity and self could be refracted in beautiful and troubling ways, I was drawn back into my own strange youth on the internet, and this thing I was looking for that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. So much of the film was about exploring the desire and feeling of unreality that I think the word ‘dysphoria’ captures better than any other. I think that like many coming-out processes, there’s not just one line through it. There are so many different parts of your life that you can trace back to ‘the egg crack moment,’ when you see yourself in a way that you can’t unsee, which for me came not long before I finished writing the script. Everything in the film was born of that feeling from the gut. I think that’s what resonates with folks.

Poster for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

H: Do you still keep up with how people are trying to freak each other out on the internet, like on TikTok?

JS: I’ve seen a bit of it. I’m not on TikTok, but I have a lot of friends who are, and they show me things, and people DM me articles about the really crazy and strange, sometimes beautiful trends. The one that I’ve been really into recently, which is just so in my wheelhouse, is reality shifting. All these people on TikTok are trying to shift to the world of Harry Potter or something like that. For kids, it’s exactly what I think the internet is there for, and what I think a lot of films overlook. What is that if not longing for a different world than the one that’s waiting down the street. The medium keeps evolving, but I believe that sort of longing will be a constant for as long as there are humans interacting with the screen.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is currently touring film festivals and will soon premiere on HBO Max.

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