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Director Jane Schoenbrun stands at a podium and speaks into a microphone, smiling. They are wearing all black.

Reality Slips Away in the Eerie “I Saw the TV Glow”

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 18: Jane Schoenbrun introduces the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “I Saw the TV Glow” premiere at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Chad Salvador/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Annie Lyons

Time blurs at the edges in I Saw the TV Glow, washed away by the neon pink gleam of a television screen, the green tint of a fish tank, and fluorescents casting a chilly light on the produce aisle. Starting in 1996 and spanning decades, the visually striking Midnight film chronicles Owen’s (Justice Smith) shifting connection to Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and The Pink Opaque, the late-night television show about two demon-fighting teenagers that they mutually obsess over. The years seem to move all too fast. 

“When you’re trans, your perception of time is specific,” writer-director Jane Schoenbrun shares before the film’s January 18 premiere at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah. “I remember when I wrote this film, I had been on hormones, I think for three months, and was dealing with the overwhelming calamity of blowing up your life in such a way that you have to when you come out. [I was] reappraising what reality is, what home is, what family is, and really wanting to put something on the page that could really articulate what I was experiencing in that moment. 

“But by the time we got to production like a year later, I was just walking on sunshine,” they say with a smile. “I was really good in my body and surrounded by amazing people and getting this opportunity to make something, and I remember feeling like I need to honor who I was when I wrote the script but I also need to honor who I am now. A year-plus later, being here in this room with all of you is incredibly moving. This too is part of that journey and change, and the film now will exist.” Schoenbrun’s emotion is met with resounding applause. 

During the film’s post-premiere discussion, Schoenbrun expands on their creative process and how they muse over why something obsesses them for years and then they uncover a new project very fast. “This time, it was something about the TV shows of my youth and growing up in the suburbs, and loving those shows so much, maybe to the detriment of reality,” the writer-director says. “And the way that my understanding of this random place where I had been dropped into existence was so intertwined with what the TV shows were selling me about what youth was supposed to be.” 

Co-leads Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine share a hug at the “I Saw the TV Glow” premiere. (Photo by Chad Salvador/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

That personal inspiration resounds deeply with Owen and Maddy’s own bond with The Pink Opaque. Owen feels increasingly at odds with himself, but finds solace in his near-ritualistic viewings of the VHS tapes that Maddy makes him. One day, Maddy, struggling with an abusive homelife, abruptly disappears. When the pair reconnect years later, there’s something troubling about Owen’s memories. 

Schoenbrun’s directorial debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, premiered at the 2021 Festival in the NEXT section and similarly considered how media shapes our adolescence. When considering the journey between the two films, they reflected on I Saw the TV Glow’s increased budget and resources, explaining, “It’s just different than making a movie in the woods with 12 people, like you have this big crew and you have resources and you get to build worlds.” Such access empowered them to “stuff” the movie with “all my favorite things,” Schoenbrun jokes.

That comes across especially in the film’s music, a priority for Schoenbrun. In a homage to 1990s television shows, I Saw the TV Glow features multiple extended live music sequences, like a number from Sloppy Jane featuring Phoebe Bridgers. In addition to the Alex G score, the filmmaker also commissioned 16 original songs for the soundtrack from favorite musicians. “I told all of them, ‘I want you to write the song you would have played if you’d played at the Bronze, [the nightclub in Buffy the Vampire Slayer].’ I made them all like 10-song mixes of ’90s songs that I wanted them to have in their head,” Schoenbrun says. “I think that the music in the movie is beautiful and hopefully will bring you back because you want to have that experience again.”

As for what media in their youth inspired The Pink Opaque, Schoenbrun minces no words. “Yeah, it’s mostly Buffy,” they share before being instantly met with raucous cheers. “There’s a little Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps in there. But it’s mostly Buffy.”