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Bo Burnham, Writer/Director of “Eighth Grade”

Taking the Snapchat Generation Seriously

Jul 13, 2018 Bo Burnham Bookmark and Share

When writer/director Bo Burnham initially was considering a visual style for his debut feature film, Eighth Grade, he thought about employing a documentary-like approach inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Burnham’s funny and empathetic film, about a friendless, socially anxious 13-year-old girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher), encapsulates the highs, lows and mundanity of Kayla’s final week of middle school, during which she creates online self-help videos, endures school band practice and assemblies, internally gushes over a boy classmate and stresses over an invitation to a pool party. Ultimately, Burnham decided that a solely vérité style wouldn’t be honest to the emotionally hyper-real way in which early teens experience significant moments in their daily lives.

Eighth Grade retains some cues from The Wrestler, as the camera repeatedly stalks Kayla from behind her shoulders, but some of the film’s most memorable moments occur when Burnham invites us into Kayla’s headspace through stylization. There’s a montage set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” where Kayla drifts off into a galaxy of social media sites and Burnham superimposes Kayla’s face, or just her eyes, onto waves of those images. The film’s most sensory-stimulating scene occurs when Kayla, moments after suffering a panic attack, hesitates to join her peers at a pool party. As she looks on behind a sliding screen door, Anna Meredith’s playfully ominous “Nautilus” blasts on the soundtrack and Burnham pulls back from a close-up on Kayla to slowly reveal a wide shot of the pool party circus. Sometimes to comedic effect, several shots in the film bear more resemblance to horror than the coming-of-age genre.

Until now, Burnham has been best-known as a comedian whose stand-up specials have aired on Comedy Central and Netflix. He first gained notoriety when he was a teenager by posting videos to YouTube. Last month, Under the Radar met with Burnham, now 27, to discuss Eighth Grade and, among other topics, how his experience as an online personality informed the film and why he chose to write about a 13-year-old girl.

Chris Tinkham [Under the Radar]: Eighth Grade is a pretty definitive title. How far along was the film when you decided on that title?

Bo Burnham: It was late. The initial title was The Coolest Girl in the World, but I didn’t like it. I liked it as a title once you’ve seen the movie, but before the movie, I feel like it made it feel very twee and small. I wanted a title that felt a little more blank and cold, so that the heart of the movie could be discovered. Eighth Grade almost sounds like science fiction. It’s really cold and simple, and it’ll make it sound like this big concept, but then you’ll find out that it’s something else. So yeah, it came pretty late.

What was going on in your life when the idea for Eighth Grade came to you?

I was putting a name on my anxiety for the first time in my life, coming to grips with that.

How old were you?

Twenty-three, twenty-four. I wanted to talk about it. I was getting tired of stand-up, and I wanted to write something that I enjoyed writing. I sat down and tried to talk a little bit about the Internet or what it felt like to be alive right now. And then this happened. I definitely didn’t sit down thinking that I want to make a YA coming-of-age movie about a girl. I wanted to talk about myself and how I was feeling, and for some reason this happened.

At that point, had you written any feature-length screenplays?

I had written one or two, one-and-a-half. But I had been writing scripts for a while in terms of screenplay format. I love the format a lot.

Why did you want a girl as your protagonist?

I didn’t really want it. It was more that I was interested in this age, and I watched a lot of videos of young kids talking about themselves online. The boys talked about Minecraft, and the girls talked about their souls. Girls just go a little deeper at that age. Also, it being a girl sort of buffered me from projecting my own experience under her as a young person. I didn’t want it to be nostalgic. I didn’t want it to be an exploration of my eighth-grade experience. So, it being a girl made me have to look at it fresh and say, “I don’t know what she’s gong through, really.” My disconnect from her is twofold: I was never a 13-year-old girl, and I’m not a 13-year-old now, and I think both of those lend themselves to a specific experience.

Once that decision is made, does a research process begin?

No, it was the research that led me there, just watching kids talk online. If you want to learn anything about these kids that are posting everything about themselves online, you have more research than you know what to do with. You don’t have to hide outside a school or anything. That’s where it really was, just trying to see how kids behaved, let them lead and try to write a version of it that felt true and authentic.

During casting, what were you looking for in someone to play Kayla?

The part needed to feel like a shy kid pretending to be confident, not a confident person pretending to be shy, which a lot of actors feel like. It needed to feel like someone genuinely terrified of coming to an audition. Kayla’s very self-conscious and in her own head. A lot of young actors, they end up working for the exact opposite reason, because they’re so bluntly confident. Elsie was the rare person who had all that vulnerability and yet had the strength to carry a production on her shoulders and could act her ass off. Every other kid would come in, and they would try to act like Kayla. Elsie would just be Kayla, and then she was acting like all the people Kayla thought she needed to be in the moment to be cool or to be accepted. That’s the tough thing about Kayla. Kayla as a performance is a kid trying to be something she’s not. She’s not trying to be shy. She’s not trying to be awkward. She’s trying to be the opposite of that.

Filmgoers who are versed in movies about kids this age will spot several points where things potentially could go terribly for Kayla, and those moments create underlying tension. How much did you wrestle with the overall tone of the film during the writing?

That’s part of the story, saying that life to an eighth-grader feels like life and death. Things feel very intense. Anxiety is about life feeling intense, and things don’t have to go as badly as you think they would go normally in a movie for them to be that significant. You don’t have to be publicly humiliated to feel humiliated. You don’t need to be outwardly bullied to feel ignored. Sometimes movies conspire for perfectly awful things to happen to characters. The point is, it doesn’t need to go that far. Part of the story was, can we make the feelings feel as big as they normally would with just a banal, regular day. I believe that life isn’t that perfectly awful, but it’s still pretty hard. When you’re bullied at school, you’re not shoved in lockers anymore, you’re kind of ignored, but it doesn’t mean that those things don’t register as incredibly significant.

The hope was to keep things spontaneous the way life is. The world isn’t conspiring to make [Kayla] feel bad. She’s not in a movie in that sense, where people are just types that are perfectly going to service the plot. Sometimes things come up and then they’re unresolved, because things in life become unresolved. I hope the movie zigs when it feels like it’s going to zag. That was the hope, to let it breathe like life does.

But there is tension built in by you. The scene where Kayla asks her dad if she can go to the mall is set up like something from a horror film.

That’s the thing. The drama of the movie is really what’s happening in her head. It doesn’t need to be reflected in the world. We know where her head is at. We know how big that question is. To her, it’s such a high-stakes moment. And that’s the hope, that you’re just following her state of mind. If you can follow her state of mind, the movie will be thrilling. It doesn’t matter what the outside world is doing, ‘cause the moments are thrilling to her. I think what a lot of great horror movies have is very subjective filmmaking. If horror movies are happening right, you’re really feeling what the characters are feeling, it’s just the feelings are horrifying. That’s the hope with our movie: you’re always feeling what she’s feeling. Sometimes the feelings are good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re horrifying, sometimes they’re happy. But try to be honest to her subjective experience.

Kayla’s dad seems to suffer from some of the same communication difficulties that she does. Was that parallel intentional?

Totally. They’re both struggling to articulate themselves and be heard. Her audience, in her mind, is the whole world. His audience is just her. Maybe she gets a little bit of her anxiety from him as well.

Were there any other films or texts that you referred to in making this, or anything that you referred to Elsie?

No. Elsie was already so right for it that I didn’t want her to get in her head. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be one, for sure, just the vibe of that and the freedom of the acting. There’s this David Foster Wallace short story called Forever Overhead. That almost started the script. It’s like a 20-page story just about a kid walking up the diving board and jumping off, but it takes it so fucking seriously and so deeply. I loved what it did in terms of taking such a banal event and treating it like the most beautiful, intense, deep thing ever. But also Fat Girl, the Catherine Breillat film, and Marisa Silver has a film called Old Enough. David Gordon Green’s George Washington. Those are some movies that, in this space, inspired me.

With respect to the Internet, is this movie a product of, as they say, writing about what you know?

Oh definitely. 100 percent. I feel like I knew the Internet as well as anybody. And I know younger kids as well as anybody, other than them, but they’re not allowed to make movies right now, so I’ll do it. But yeah, for sure. And I felt like the Internet and this generation was not being taken seriously. It was being represented in a way that pandered to them, which felt very dishonest. It’s very personal to me.

There’s a scene where Kayla prays to God, and another where she’s asked if she believes in God. Those also seem to point to your personal history.

Yeah, belief meant a lot to me when I was young. A relationship with God at that age is very powerful for people. Belief has become so politicized now that it can’t just exist. I don’t think it needs to be politicized at all, the idea of God or the idea of belief. Yeah, I just liked having it in there. I had never seen God in a movie for kids, thrown in there without any commentary. I prayed at that age. I don’t pray now. Sometimes I pray. I have a weirder, more adult relationship with it.

There’s that scene where the high-school kid says that Kayla is wired differently because she’s had Snapchat since fifth grade. I felt like that might have been you talking to Elsie.

I feel that way. I feel like I have more in common with people 10 years older than me than three years younger than me. The generations used to be separated by things like VHS and then DVD. But now those things are happening every six months. The joke to me is that I feel like the generation gap is shrinking and shrinking, and now there’s a new generation every two years or something. It’s so different to grow up with Twitter than grow up with Instagram. Kids three years younger than me had Facebook all through high school. I didn’t. And that changes you I think a little bit.

And it seems like nostalgia happens a lot faster now.

Yeah, instantly. Sometimes you’re nostalgic about things that haven’t even happened yet. Truly, kids are going to a party thinking about how they’ll reflect on it. It’s very strange.

Was Kayla’s acne enhanced with makeup?

No, that’s just what it is. Makeup exists in the movie in the way it exists in Kayla’s life. All the makeup is makeup she would have put on. We wanted to keep that natural and real and unstated because nothing needs to be said. And I think it’s ridiculous how little you see that in movies. And if a character does have acne, it’s a big plot point, which it just isn’t in real life. It’s just a fact.

At one point when Kayla is narrating one of her videos, do we hear her stomach growling?

Yes! That was not added. What’s crazy is that is happening in the video where she is talking about having a nervous stomach. That was just Elsie. I think it might have been just because of lunch, but yes, that was not added, that was just happening.

As an artist, you wear a lot of hats…

In real life, I wear no hats ‘cause my head’s too big.

Right now, are you immersed in promotion for this film, or are you juggling other things?

No, I’m not really good at multitasking. I want to get back to writing another script. I’d love to do another movie. It’s the hat I’ve enjoyed most, for sure, more than anything else, so I hope I can do it again, writing and directing.

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher will appear in-person throughout the weekend for Q&As and screening introductions at Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark in Los Angeles.


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September 30th 2019

It is interesting to see Bo Burnham’s new work. Previously, I didn’t even know who it was, but thanks to my friend, an explorer who loves his work, I also became interested. Recently, I want to see Yale in his interpretation of Letter from Birmingham Jail, but it’s more of a dream.