“I Wanted To Make One Of The Great Teen Angst Soundtracks”: Jane Schoenbrun On The Music Of I Saw The TV Glow

“I Wanted To Make One Of The Great Teen Angst Soundtracks”: Jane Schoenbrun On The Music Of I Saw The TV Glow

Jane Schoenbrun has stated they wanted their new film I Saw The TV Glow, which gets a wide release May 17 through A24, to feel like the “memory of television.” Most literally, this refers to how a millennial might remember something like Buffy The Vampire Slayer 20 or 30 years later, but it’s tempting to see the statement in a more abstract way: if television was actually remembering things, if the life-force looming behind the screen in a film like Poltergeist or Videodrome developed a nostalgic streak and a sense of poetry.

If television could dream, maybe it would look like Glow, all bathed in neon green and pastel purple, replaying some events on fast-forward and others in hypnotic half-speed. This is a film you feel more than understand, and though Schoenbrun’s films have been lumped in with horror — especially the “analog horror” movement that explores the mystery of decaying physical media and obsolete technologies — they’re really more coming-of-age art films that revel in wildly abstract plot points while still managing to jerk tears. Small wonder the iconoclastic filmmaker and Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader described the 37-year-old as “the most original voice in film in the last decade,” while worrying their films might be too “confounding” for large audiences.

Yet if Glow might be too bizarre to present A24 with another crossover mainstream hit like Civil War or Everything Everywhere All At Once, it’s easy to imagine the soundtrack becoming a generational touchstone. Featuring over an hour’s worth of music commissioned by Schoenbrun from their favorite artists, the album plays like the best teen-drama mixtape there never was. The contributors are mostly younger artists who have emerged or come to prominence in the last decade, and the bulk of them are women and non-binary artists; together, they form a fantastic cross-section of a particular moment in indie music while also hitting a ’90s-melodrama sweet spot. “From the beginning I talked about the soundtrack as its own creative project,” Schoenbrun says. “Part of my initial pitch to A24 on making the movie was that I wanted to make one of the great teen angst soundtracks to stand up against my own favorites.”

With a soundtrack like that plus a score by Alex G and a cast featuring Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan, I Saw The TV Glow is one of the bigger indie music/film crossover events in recent memory. Stereogum discussed the project with Schoenbrun over Zoom; below, stream the soundtrack and read our interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When you got in touch with these artists to make these songs for the film, what prompts did you give them? Was there anything that you told them not to do?

JANE SCHOENBRUN: I’m a big believer that when you’re inviting other artists who you love into your own project, you want them to do the thing they can do that you can’t. It would be besides the point to limit that. I think it’s always this tightrope between creating a spirit or an overarching ethos for them to be working within while also giving them all of the freedom that they want or need, even if that’s complete freedom to do their thing.

I’ve done a lot of curatorial work before, and this was no different. I was incredibly involved and listening to voice memos and talking throughout the entire process with some artists and having a really active role in the creative guidance of the process, and then they disappeared and came back with an incredible song. I try to let the artists guide that process, but there was a prompt: write the song you would play if you had been around in the ’90s and were booked to play at the Bronze on Buffy The Vampire Slayer or the Peach Pit on 90210 or the Roadhouse on Twin Peaks. This trope has maybe passed us by a little bit, where there’s a club in whatever small town where the TV show takes place where all the characters hang out. I love that, and it fits within the world of the movie, which is the world of ’90s television.

One of the things I found poignant about the movie is that the songs almost tell a different story emotionally from what’s going on onscreen. What are these songs expressing that the characters aren’t necessarily able to?

SCHOENBRUN: I was talking to Lindsey [Jordan] from Snail Mail about this at the New York premiere, how we don’t really have teen movies in the same way anymore. When we do, they seem to be The Fault In Our Stars-style teen movies that are essentially tragedies. They seem really heavy, someone’s gotta die really early on in the movie, and we’ve lost the plot a bit from the golden age of the teen movie, which I think was when I was a teenager myself in the ’90s. It’s a genre that is so influenced by the soundtrack as a work, and the great soundtracks add an energy to the movie that carry us from one scene to another.

In the original Scream early on in the movie there’s this great kind of alt-rock acoustic angsty cover of “Don’t Fear The Reaper” playing underneath a dialogue scene between Skeet Ulrich and Neve Campbell. You would never see this in a Hollywood movie at this point. We just don’t play non-diegetic covers of “Don’t Fear The Reaper” under our movie scenes anymore. It sets such a specific mood that feels so far from the contemporary vocabulary of filmmaking, and I love it. I very consciously was like, “We need that energy in the movie.”

There’s an incredible club scene in the film with Sloppy Jane, Phoebe Bridgers and King Woman performing. Tell me about filming that scene. Why did you decide to feature those artists?

SCHOENBRUN: The dream from the beginning was definitely Phoebe. I love her music. I saw her open for Julien Baker right after Julien’s first album came out, and I remember seeing Phoebe play to a half-filled crowd at the Bowery Ballroom and being like oh my God, this person is incredible. It was crazy actually watching her become a force to be reckoned with over the course of the couple years it took to make this movie, but I knew that her sound was so tied to the teen angst of the film and that seeing her up there would be amazing.

I also adored Sloppy Jane, who she was in a band with a while back. I think Haley [Dahl] is such a magnetic performer who is indebted to so many of the Lynchian touchpoints I am. I made them a playlist called “Interior Goth Club,” which was an assemblage of teen angst anthems that felt romantic in the way that I wanted that moment to feel. And the only real prompt I gave them besides that was to make the first line of the song “I Saw The TV Glow,” which is what I had written into the script.

I had originally just written one performance into that scene, and then my friend Meryl took me to see King Woman at St. Vitus maybe eight or nine months before I made the movie, when I was sort of in the conception stage of the movie. I saw Kris [Esfandiari] perform “Psychic Wound” for the first time, and I was just like, this needs a place in my movie. This is cinema.

That comes right at the center of the film bookending us from the first half of the movie, which is like the Phoebe and Sloppy Jane song [“Claw Machine”] — very romantic and almost nostalgic — to the second half of the movie. The King Woman song is like a howl, a shriek, shouting into Hell basically. This is where the idea for the double bill came from, and getting to film a live performance was such a dream for me. When you get to make a movie, what you actually get to do on set is point the camera at things that you think are beautiful, and getting to do that with these songs was such a pleasure.

I really felt like “I’m deep in this movie now” during that scene.

SCHOENBRUN: That slow dissolve when we first enter the club and enter that performance of Haley on the floor singing “Claw Machine,” that’s one of my favorite moments in the movie. We’re entering this rich, red nook of a space that we’re gonna spend a little while in. I do think it takes you down into a deeper layer of the movie that you will then continue to descend further and further until the end.

Who was the first person to send you a completed song?

SCHOENBRUN: I don’t quite remember because I was listening to so many demos throughout the process. The first demo I got was from Frances Quinlan, who I had been a huge fan of for so long. I think it was a pretty simple voice memo, but the song was quite formed. It was the first song that I heard that was written after [the artist] read the script and we’d talked about the themes of the movie and how they resonated with them. I remember where I was, I got it while I was book shopping at McNally Jackson. And I remember playing this voice memo and listening to the song, and it was such a cool experience to hear the first kernel of what would become my soundtrack. It was such a perfect encapsulation of the themes of the movie while also feeling like something that could have only come from Frances.

How do you discover music? Tell me about your life as a listener.

SCHOENBRUN: Music has been such a huge part of my life from adolescence, and the Internet would probably be the short answer. Honestly I came up on Stereogum and BrooklynVegan and Pitchfork and the Saddle Creek web board and all of these different places. If you’re a nerd and you want to find music that people haven’t heard around you, you find those places online, and that was me. I miss a lot of those outlets for finding music, and the ones that still exist I really do still try to tap to find new stuff.

The music industry feels like it’s in a uniquely depressing place right now. Economically, there’s not a lot of incentive to be writing and touring the great songs that we deserve. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of moving out of the basement show to something a little bit bigger. It feels like a strange moment, and a moment where a lot of folks are struggling to figure out how to make that work in a contemporary post-pandemic setting.

I discovered Sadurn, for instance, through the Spotify algorithm. I wish that I had discovered them opening for a band at a show. Maybe in this way I am just getting older. I was the 22-year-old egg at the P.S. Eliot DIY basement show, and now I’m the person pushing 40 in the VIP section at the Alex G show. It’s a lifelong thing, and I feel like it’s rarer and harder for me to tap into the same love of a cathartic indie rock experience that I used to be able to live and breathe.

Do you feel like creating this soundtrack album helped you get back in touch with that a little bit?

SCHOENBRUN: I think that this was a childhood dream come true, to get a bunch of film studio money to make the mixtape of my dreams with these artists who I’d loved in various ways for a long, long time. It was literally the coolest thing I ever have gotten to do. Getting to collaborate a bit and getting to know a lot of these artists as human beings was incredible. I don’t really feel like a 14-year-old kid when I meet other filmmakers who I admire, but for some reason with rock stars, I really do. I’ll always be that 14-year-old kid at the Bright Eyes show.

The I Saw The TV Glow soundtrack is out now via A24. The movie is screening now in New York and Los Angeles and will see wide release on 5/17.

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