'I Saw the TV Glow' director breaks down that emotional ending, teases potential sequel

Spoiler alert: The following story contains major details about the ending of “I Saw the TV Glow” (now in theaters nationwide).

Few movies will haunt you quite like “I Saw the TV Glow.”

Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, the psychological horror drama follows high school outcasts Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Owen (Justice Smith) as they bond over “The Pink Opaque,” a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-style soap opera. Owen sees himself in the series’ dynamic female protagonists and feels both tranquil and empowered dressing like his favorite character. But he's compelled to keep his obsession a secret from his oppressive dad (Fred Durst), who denounces it as a show for girls.

When Maddy disappears and the series is eventually canceled, Owen is left devastated. The film jumps forward 20 years when Owen is going through the motions at a menial arcade job with a wife and kid at home. One day, Owen loses it at work and starts screaming. He runs to the bathroom, where he claws open his chest and discovers luminous TV static inside his body. No longer able to deny his true self, he makes his way out of the restroom and begins apologizing profusely to the people around him.

The critically acclaimed movie is “allegorically, and literally, quite queer,” says Schoenbrun, who is trans and nonbinary. The film even begins with a younger Owen (Ian Foreman) wandering under a pink and blue parachute at school, a reference to the colors of the trans pride flag. And yet, judging by confused reactions on social media, the metaphor has seemingly gone over some viewers’ heads.

"The movie does speak for itself, to a certain degree, to the people who are listening,” Schoenbrun, 37, says. “The fact that certain audiences can watch it and not be able to find that legibility, whereas other audiences can watch and be bawling their eyes out and talk about it surfacing feelings that are deep and visceral – to me, that almost feels like the thing I'm most proud of."

Schoenbrun recently spoke with USA TODAY to break down the film’s gut-punch ending and tease a hoped-for sequel (edited and condensed for clarity):

Owen (Justice Smith) is miserable and sickly by the end of the film. "He's spiraling downward into this final scream, and then eventual acknowledgement of self," filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun says.
Owen (Justice Smith) is miserable and sickly by the end of the film. "He's spiraling downward into this final scream, and then eventual acknowledgement of self," filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun says.

Question: As a queer person, Owen coming out of the bathroom and immediately apologizing felt sadly relatable. Why did you want that to be the last moment in the film?

Answer: To get Owen to a place of true self-love and self-acceptance would take at least another movie. I knew that I wanted it to be really honest to the fact that just because you've now finally seen yourself clearly doesn’t mean that the half a lifetime of damage that repression has instilled in you is going to go away. I don’t view it as a cautionary tale or a definitively sad ending; I just think it’s truthful to the fact that if you’ve been taught your whole life to think of yourself as an impostor or apologize for being yourself like many trans people are, that instinct doesn’t go away overnight.

The image of Owen opening his chest and finding TV static is so striking. How early on in the writing process did you envision that moment?

I’ve always been obsessed with static and this idea of internal body horror. It’s been appealing to me for a long time for fairly obvious reasons: the ambient horror of repression. It’s not so much like, “Oh, I wish I looked like a beautiful girl but I look like a disgusting boy.” At least my experience of dysphoria was much more subliminal: It was like this wrongness humming quietly in the background, but in a way that was not quite so easily portrayed. So the idea of being seemingly OK on the outside, but on the inside being this hollowed-out sack of static, felt like a nice way to talk about the pre-transition mindset.

Justice has spoken about an alternate ending, in which Owen runs out of the arcade. Why did you eventually decide to cut it where you did?

The script always ended with “I’m sorry.” There was a really cool laser-tag arena in the arcade, and we did this scene of Justice running through it. But the catharsis never felt right; it felt unearned. Owen is just at a point when he’s ready to start thinking about the hard thing, not make it through the hard thing.

So have you thought at all about a sequel?

I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. I always ask myself, “Where do the characters go? Is there anywhere else after this?” Sometimes there’s not an answer that deserves further exploration, but I do think there is something about this particular movie that needs a yang to its yin. I don’t think it’s something people will be expecting, but it will be something that’s very much in the same world, from the other side of a looking glass. (I'd want to make it) in a few years, not 25 years, and only if everyone else wants to do it, too. I have quietly talked to Justice and Brigette about it, so there is definitely another side of the prism I’d like to glance through.

Looking back, did you ever find it emotionally overwhelming to make something so deeply personal?

Writing was a really overwhelming moment for me. Chasing that level of emotional catharsis is endemic to any creative process, but this was another level of that. I really did write it from within the storm of early transition and was feeling so deeply many of the ideas and experiences that are in the film. It felt great to get it out, but it’s also the kind of thing you don’t want to do too many times in your life, that level of purging.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'I Saw the TV Glow' director unpacks ending, movie sequel (spoilers)