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Bo Burnham on Writing and Directing the Awkward, Endearing and Totally Relatable ‘Eighth Grade’

July 23, 2018Ferdosa Abdi

Eighth Grade marks Bo Burnham's directorial debut, which has been receiving tons of praise for its honest insight into the life of an eighth-grader and her relationship with social media. The film follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an awkward, shy, anxiety-riddled tween trying to discover who she is and who she wants to be, during her last week as a middle schooler.

Following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie has been garnering buzz akin to last year's Lady Bird, with critics and audiences alike in unanimous agreement that Eighth Grade speaks most to an underserved group of teens, while still tackling themes and emotions that everyone can relate to.

The Reel Roundup recently spoke with Bo Burnham during a roundtable interview at the YouTube Space in Toronto. The following is an edited version of that discussion.

In some of your interviews, you've said this started as a project about the Internet. How did it transform into a movie about an eighth-grader, and do you feel like you managed to do what you initially intended?

Burnham: I think so, yeah. It's like you said, it started as a movie about the Internet; but what does that even mean? I wanted to talk about how it felt, just how it felt to me. And when I try to write about someone my age dealing with it, it just felt so embarrassing because it was so hateable, like why is this person doing this? But when you're an eighth-grader — when you're 13 — you can forgive your behavior a little bit better. We can look at it and go, "Oh right, she's not narcissistic, she's not self obsessed, she's just looking for connections she's just like desperate to be loved." Like we all are.

And I think that is actually how we all are acting on the Internet; we're just pretending like it's something else. So it was a way to sort of purely engage with it, because the Internet means the most to those kids because they don't know the world before it. So it's not this other thing to them that they're living with. It's the way that they live and always have.

We've seen a lot of coming-of-age movies set in high school, but there aren't many that tackle the junior high age. What was it about eighth grade that made it an interesting time for you to explore?

Burnham: It's way more exciting to me. The stories that I would look back at and tell were always [from] eighth grade. I met a lot of high schoolers that seem very blasé and over it. They have a thousand-yard stare that feels like they got [out] from the war of junior high. I know you're coming of age in high school, but high school is like becoming an adult — when you're an eighth grader, you're literally still a child becoming a young adult. In high school you don't have [that] child left in you, but when you are in eighth grade you still have a full-blown child going on.

I think the reason there are more high school stories is because we like to look back on high school. We don't like to look back at middle school, so we block that out. So yeah, I've been interested for a while in a middle school movie.

Could you discuss the importance of and the emphasis on music in the film? There are many points in the movie where it's just music.

Burnham: I wanted an electronic score because it's a digital movie, so it felt like it had to be electronic. And a lot of scores in movies like this can be kind of cutesy and acoustic and sort of plucky. "Oh, look at this cute girl in this world," you know? But the story to [Kayla] is not cute. So I wanted it to be subjective and reflect her inner experience, which is visceral and big and intense.

So I wanted the music to be intense and reflect her intense experience, and Anna Meredith, our composer, is just so brilliant. She writes incredibly dense, theatrical, exciting, visceral electronic music. So that was the hope with the music, just because music is a great way to sort of get people's heart rates up, and [Kayla's] experience of her life. Even though her life on paper is like a cute little thing, to her it's a very intense experience, so I wanted the music to reflect that.

Who is this film for? Because it's focusing on the eighth-graders, but you also have this incredible relationship with the adults. Is there a particular group you're trying to speak to?

Burnham: Me. I mean, truly I wanted to make a movie that I liked. So it definitely wasn't for eighth-graders. I mean, I hope eighth-graders like it, but it's not primarily for them or only for them. And if I'm honest, I think people are just about as awkward and weird as eighth-graders. I don't think it's that different. I think we're all pretty awkward. But yeah, that's my hope. I hope it serves kids and their parents in specific ways. But I also hope anyone can see themselves in her.

It's this sexist thing that's put on a lot of young female stories; like no one goes, "Oh Hamlet, was that only for princes of Denmark?" Everyone sees themselves in him, and I think a 13-year-old girl can be the same thing. Everyone should be able to see themselves in her. I connect to her personally. This isn't a story about my daughter. This is a story about me, now, through her. [Eighth Grade] is not just about that, but it does personally relate to me.

One of the great things about this movie is that Kayla sounds like 13-year-old kid, as opposed to the more screenwriter-like movie version. How long did it take you to find that voice? Was there like a scene or a moment where you felt like you really started to understand it?

Burnham: That was the actual first step. The first step was the voice of [Kayla]. So I was just listening to kids talk online about themselves. You know, kids with 10 views on their channel. And my first thing I did was just transcribe exactly what they said. I was watching these videos going, "If this were a performance, that would be incredible," because the way kids actually sound is so much more complex [than] the way kids are written and performed. So then, after transcribing a dozen or so I started to write my own [script], and it was in that voice.

So that was the impulse the whole movie grew out of. That voice, to me, contains the whole meaning of the movie, which is the performance and what she wants to be and who she thinks she might be and the gap between that. It's all there in just a sentence, because that's what's interesting with kids — when you write a kid well, you just throw out the entire point of it, which is the space between what they have in their head and what comes out of their mouth.

Did Elsie Fisher have input with what happens with her character?

Burnham: She's authoring every moment. She's literally just authoring every moment, like we're not talking about it because talking about it is to objectify it, and we should just be in it.

Speaking of the casting, how did you get this group of teenagers together? They're all incredible, especially Elsie.

Burnham: It was a mixture of kid actors. A lot of the kids were just from the school we shot in and from the surrounding area. I would do the scenes with them and just see if they could exist in a natural sort of way. And then I would know that if they could do it with me, that I could at the very last minute pull myself out and just have them do it with each other, [and] it would feel like they are in sort of a world together.

So yeah, actors are number 1 through 10 priority as a director, and I feel like in order to direct I have to act with them. So a lot of it was just trying to make a safe environment for the kids to be free and give them permission to be themselves. Be free to stumble, forget your lines and say something by mistake. So I would tell them, "The worst thing you can do is do this perfectly."

Throughout your career — from your YouTube days to your MTV show — you've been known for your signature type of awkward comedy. Why do you think awkward comedy is an effective way to tell a story that has some pretty hard truths?

Burnham: Well, I think it's specifically what you're saying: awkward comedy is the way. I just think cringing is a very high form of empathy. Really, it's like if you're cringing, it means you're feeling it with the person. So I've always loved that. I'm just pursuing cringe of all types. Sometimes you're cringing because it's very not funny or whatever, but I just like how you get people to feel with the person, and if they're squirming in their seat, that's good. I don't know why it's effective. It's just been effective to me. It's the things I've loved that I've seen that made me feel something.

And I just don't love where the comedy is all about "look how clever I am and look at this cool take I have on something." Awkward stuff is much more human. It's presenting "I don't know how to navigate the world" as opposed to "look how smart, cool and clever I am," which I really got over and tired of doing.

So when you're delving into the darker material, what happens? For example, the car scene; how did you approach making that scene seem real but also not too out of touch with the tone of the rest of the movie?

Burnham: I really did approach every scene the same, in terms of just trying to reflect a subjective experience. I wasn't trying to be funny in the banana scene. We weren't laughing during that scene. I was taking that very seriously, because I feel with her this is an awful moment of your dad catching you in this really bad thing, you know? And with the car scene, it was similarly just trying to approach it honestly. And a lot of people tell me, "I'm so glad that scene didn't go where I thought it was going to go." But it doesn't have to go there to be bad. It doesn't have to have gone to a criminal place for it to be traumatic.

I used to be a girl in middle school, and there were many many stories like that.

Burnham: Yeah, and that's the issue with the stories themselves; you can feel like she could tell that story six months after the fact, and people will say nothing happened inside the car. He touched your arm, you said no. But when you actually sit with it, you see it's f****d up and wrong. And that's even kind of the broader thesis of the movie, is that moments that don't sound like a big deal [come in] all different types, [but] when you actually live through them they are a huge deal. Going to pool parties is nothing, but when you actually go to a pool party it's not nothing.

Do you view social media as just something that's a part of kids' lives now, or is it something that they need to learn how to engage with properly?

Burnham: Both. I mean, [the Internet is] there. But it's also theirs to change, so that doesn't mean they can't react to it. I just think that the older people in charge at Silicon Valley need to more deeply understand the responsibility they have, and how important this thing is and how deep that reaches into them; that it is the neurochemistry of an entire generation that you have in your hands. So the kids will learn that it's more the job of the people with power. And if we wait until the kids [to have] that power, we may not make it there. I really have no instructions for kids or parents or teachers; it's more like Silicon Valley needs to realize what they're doing. They have power to wield responsibly.

What's your lasting hope for this movie, for both parents and kids?

Burnham: I just hope people see and feel something. I don't want the movie to be prescriptive or tell you what to think, or wag a finger or be a TED talk. I hope other people see it and dig it. The hope with everything is always [to help] you feel a little less alone. I mean, that was the point for me to do it; so a whole wide array of people can see it and see their own feelings reflected in someone that may have been like them or may have not been like them.

Eighth Grade is now playing in Toronto and opens in Vancouver and Montreal July 27th, and in other major Canadian cities August 3rd.

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