For the ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Soundtrack, Jane Schoenbrun Wanted the ‘Greatest ’90s Mixtape That Didn’t Yet Exist’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

I Saw the TV Glow” is a film that will have you searching for the soundtrack on your ride home from the theater. It’s an assembly of incredible tracks that collectively capture the emotional journey of Owen (Justice Smith) growing up in a suburban world where he can’t be his true self.

“Music was such a formative part of my teenage years and remains such a formative part of my life,” director Jane Schoenbrun said when they were on an upcoming episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast to discuss “I Saw the TV Glow.” “It just made sense that this very teenage movie needed a classic teenage soundtrack.”

More from IndieWire

The writer/director started with an ambitious plan: Ask their favorite modern bands to write songs for the film’s fictional 1990s TV show, “The Pink Opaque,” which becomes Owen’s obsession after new friend Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) introduces it to him.

“It was like getting to make a mixtape that didn’t exist yet. None of the songs were written,” Schoenbrun said. “A lot of them are queer artists, who make music in a lot of different genres, but like any good curation — and I’ve done a lot of curatorial work — it can also add up to something that’s more than the sum of its parts.”

Schoenbrun’s curatorial background is deep. Prior to making their directorial feature debut “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” Schoenbrun spearheaded and curated two successful omnibus projects: the feature “collective:unconscious,” and the local access TV-inspired series “Eyeslicer,” both of which melded the works of talented filmmakers. That taught the director an important lesson they carried into working with bands on the “I Saw the TV Glow” soundtrack.

“Once you’re kind of making it feel like work-for-hire, then as an artist you shut down and don’t do your best work,” said Schoenbrun.

The key was finding different points of inspiration and connection with the musicians. Emily Sprague of the band Florist said Schoenbrun’s script took her back to her own teenage years growing up when writing the song “Riding Around in the Dark.

“I used to drive around at night and soak in these coming-of-age emotional tidal waves, dreaming about the world beyond my doorstep while simultaneously feeling a sense of ominous darkness,” said Sprague in the press release for “Riding Around in the Dark,” which was released before the soundtrack. ”I wanted to try capturing that feeling in our song for the film. In many ways it defines what being young meant to me. Believing that the world is ending but somehow still living in it.”

Most of the musicians also received an individualized 10-song mixtape of inspirations from the director, and discussed the film’s themes with Schoenbrun. From there, the prompts varied.

“Drab Majesty is this great band who does real ’80s-style goth stuff. I remember talking to them about the Echo and the Bunnymen song on the ‘Sixteen Candles’ soundtrack,” said Schoenbrun, referring to “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” “It doesn’t sound like many other Echo of the Bunnymen songs, and he knew exactly what I was talking about.”

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine appear in I Saw the TV Glow by Jane Schoenbrun, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
‘I Saw the TV Glow’A24

In the case of “Green” from L’Rain, Schoenbrun didn’t want to rely on a specific musical reference, but more of a vibe.

“When I talked to L’Rain, I [said], ‘Every song you write is like its own universe. I just want to give you a one-word prompt that I think would be interesting, and that prompt is the word ‘electricity,’” recalled Schoenbrun. For Jay Som, who wrote and recorded “If I Could” for the soundtrack, the prompt was: “Write a song that would have been Teenage Fanclub’s biggest hit.”

For Caroline Polachek’s “Starburned and Unkissed,” which drives an incredible scene of the camera tracking Owen walking through the high school, Schoenbrun said the “absolute banger” came from the singer/songwriter with little to no guidance.

“That was mostly her,” said Schoenbrun said. “Caroline was on that shit.”

Schoenbrun looked for modern bands to evoke the feeling of the ’90s and early 2000s. “[I was] thinking back to ‘Donnie Darko,’ and the way that movie reinvented or reintroduced so many great alt bangers from the ’80s,” they said.

Schoenbrun used only two re-recorded ’90s tracks. One of them, yuele’s re-recording of Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl,” became a mini-theme for Owen.

“I had originally gotten on the phone with yeule to talk about an original song, and then we just started talking about ‘Anthems,’ and I said, ‘I’d absolutely love to hear you do that song,’” said Schoenbrun, who was obsessed with the song in high school.

“That song isn’t just about being a 17-year-old girl,” they said. “It’s about being a 17-year-old girl and feeling not cis normal, like you don’t fit in with the people who have assimilated to a sense of normative culture.

“That’s also represented in the original song in the way it is produced and sounds,” said Schoenbrun, who vocalized elements of song on the podcast to underline the point. “It’s a very early version of this thing that now a lot of queer artists do, through hyperpop, that [‘I Saw the TV Glow’ composer] Alex G.-like pitch modulation style — this sort of queering of voice and production … it has always struck me as this low-key queer anthem.”

The other re-recorded ‘90s track, Snail Mail’s version the Smashing Pumpkins “Tonight, Tonight” existed before the “TV Glow.” It largely ended up on the editing room floor (it’s heard briefly during a key transition) and is not part of the film’s 15-song soundtrack. However, the original “Tonight, Tonight” music video, itself inspired by Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent film classic “A Trip to the Moon,” is the basis of the “Pink Opaque” villain, Mr. Melancholy.

“Those two songs felt like the very core of the movie. They were both in my head as I was writing it,” said Schoenbrun. “I’m obsessed with [Smashing Pumpkins’ 1995 album] ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.’ That’s like the magic of a suburban youth encapsulated in that album. It’s like the magic of nighttime in the suburbs. The romance of that double record is so rich, the visuals just are so perfectly in line with this kind of haunted fairy tale — it was one of the first places I went when I was thinking how I wanted this movie to feel.”

Composer Alex G’s score helps unify all the music tracks and sound design. To share how they wanted the music to feel, Schoenbrun used audio editing software to pull instrumentals and isolated stems from the Smashing Pumpkins’ album to create what became known as “Deconstructed Melancholy.”

Schoenbrun also paid tribute to ’90s TV and music with Double Lunch, the fictitious club where bands perform in the movie. Double Lunch was inspired by other fictitious clubs like Peach Pit in “90210″ or The Bronze in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

I Saw The TV Glow D11 07 26 2022-263.ARW
‘I Saw The TV Glow’ director Jane SchoenbrunSpencer Pazer

“It was paying homage and bringing it into the language of the film, this trope of this town has a club where all the latest acts on Interscope are going to play their new single before the video comes out, which is such a part of ’90s TV shows,” said Schoenbrun. “David Lynch has done it most recently in his ‘Twin Peaks’ reboot, so people go right to Lynch, but it’s like, ‘Yeah, no, this is Buffalo Tom [playing “Late at Night”] on ‘My So-Called Life,’ or REM [playing “Country Feedback”] on ‘Party of Five.’”

While Schoenbrun went into soundtrack curation with the Double Lunch in mind, the idea is stirringly executed when King Woman performs “Bury” in a key scene at the club. It’s a full-circle moment for a soundtrack that promises to live on for decades to come.

The “I Saw the TV Glow” soundtrack will be released on Friday, May 10. A full track list is below.

Look out for IndieWire’s “Filmmaker Toolkit” episode with Jane Schoebrun on May 9 on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or where podcasts are found.

  • Yeule, “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl,”

  • Frances Quinlan, “Another Season

  • Caroline Polachek, “Starburned and Unkissed”

  • Florist, “Riding Around in the Dark”

  • Bartees Strange, “Big Glow”

  • Maria BC, “Taper”

  • King Woman, “Psychic Wound”

  • Jay Som, “If I Could”

  • L’Rain, “Green”

  • The Weather Station, “Moonlight”

  • Drab Majesty, “Photograph”

  • Proper, “The 90s”

  • Sadurn, “How Can I Get Out?”

  • King Woman, “Bury”

  • Sloppy Jane (ft. Phoebe Bridgers), “Claw Machine”

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.