'Eighth Grade' Director Bo Burnham On Empathizing With Kids And Taking Inspiration From YouTube [Interview]

I didn't discover Bo Burnham when his YouTube videos went viral and he began performing at age 16. I saw him sing "Art is Dead" on The Green Room with Paul Provenza and loved the music and statement so much that I bought his stand-up album, Words Words Words, to hear more. I thought his wordplay was the second coming of George Carlin, so I've followed him ever since and went back and caught up his pre-Words releases, too.

So when Bo Burnham became a filmmaker, I couldn't wait to see what he had to say in this medium. Eighth Grade deals with the same sort of youth issues as Burnham's early work – Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is graduating eighth grade and trying to get accepted by high school kids.

Burnham spoke with /Film in Los Angeles about his feature film and stand-up work. He's actually played short sets since directing to begin working new material. Previous stand-up, including his latest full show Make Happy, are streaming on Netflix. Eighth Grade is in theaters Friday, July 13, 2018.

You got your start performing young, and at 16 I imagine you probably still related to 13-year-olds, but now it's 10 years later. That must be an eternity in generations of eight graders. How were you able to relate to the eighth graders of 2017/18? Is it just a matter of observation and empathy?

Yeah, I think both to some degree. Also, it was a belief that just because they're eighth graders doesn't mean they don't have access to the feelings we all have, and also feeling like wanting to tackle the internet and feeling like the internet kind of makes eighth graders of at all. When I look at my own friends on the internet I'm like, "Why are you 30 and you're acting like you're 13?" It's kind of a way to talk about the culture and what's happening in a way that's just very pure and honest because you have no faculties to even lie. And if you lie or pretend at that age, it's all very transparent. Part of it was just being open and listening and allowing the kids to lead in a lot of ways.

People always marvel when there's a movie that seems to understand youth. I tend think all it takes is taking kids seriously. Like you said, they have the same emotions. Even if they're being immature and melodramatic, they don't know they are. Do you agree with that?

Yeah, totally. It's taking kids seriously on their own terms and believing them. When something seems significant to them, it is significant. Making a subjective movie about a kid, which is what we're trying to do, is taking her emotions seriously and not judging her for the way in which she sees the world, or the scale at which she interfaces with the world, which is that every day for a middle schooler is life and death. Even when it's very simple, banal things happening to her. So can we make those simple banal things feel like life and death to an audience? Can we somehow sync their heart rates without making her life, on paper, any more dramatic than it would normally be?

You're so good with words. Did you ever feel like you couldn't articulate what you were feeling?

For sure, of course. The words that I was good at presenting, I would take two years to write an hour  worth of material. The rest of the day I was struggling to find words for things. Yeah, for making very hyperarticulate shows, I was very interested in trying to talk about being inarticulate and the failure to have words for what is going on inside your head. I was interested in running away from that.

I think you're right. I'm the same way. Look, I wrote all my questions down ahead of time. In the moment, I can't articulate.

Exactly, that's what it's like to live in real time in the world. We wanted to make that. This is not a story about someone who's, and even she tries to prepare her videos. You can prepare as much as you want. Performing something is a whole different thing and comes with its whole different stress, but there's a beauty in that. There's a beauty in the way you fail to live up to your own articulated ideals. I think that's a beautiful thing.

I still remember being a kid and when adults would condescend to me, I'd think, "Why are they talking to me that way? Don't they remember being a kid and people talked to them like that?" Now that I'm 40 I realize most people don't remember. Every day is new to them. Do you think it's a rare thing to remember that feeling?

I just think the way you remember that age is different than the way that age is. Adults tend to remember eighth grade and go, "Man, I wish I was in school again when I had no stress, I didn't have to pay taxes, I didn't have to pay rent." It's like, well, no, but you had the same stress. I think stress fits into a container and latches onto whatever it can. At that age, you're untethered, you have no autonomy and no freedom. The only freedom you have is the walk from your parents' car to the front door of someone else's house. That's not really freedom. We wanted to tell a story of what it means to be a kid, not what it means to remember to be a kid. So in order to do that, we had to consult kids and let them lead the way. Most of that was in the research process of looking at kids online and seeing what they actually feel, and not interpreting it, not projecting my own experience onto it but just going, "Okay, I believe you. I believe what you're saying. Now go from there."

Do those kids know they informed this movie?

No, and they better not ever sue me or I'll countersue. I'm a powerful Hollywood mogul now that can take them down. [Laughs]

Were there any well known resources?

No, the whole point was watching kids that had no audience. That's what I was interested in. We tend to talk about only the people that go viral on the internet and the people that are seen. The truth is most people, 999 to 1, most of the internet is people expressing themselves not being heard, so I was interested in that.

I feel that too. YouTube and podcasters told everybody they could be the next viral star, but nobody's talking about the 99% of people who are trying to make someone and no one knows what they're doing.

Yeah, that's the real story I think in what the internet means to us as a culture. The internet is something like God in the sense that it's a blank thing we can project things onto and sometimes may answer us but may not. We've talked enough about people that went viral, and as someone who went viral, it wasn't that interesting. What's much more interesting is the sort of quiet personal relationship with yourself and your own image.

Since this is Kayla's story, were you able to approach the film with a female gaze?

It was a Kayla gaze so it's definitely a female gaze because it's hers. The only person that is even vaguely I think sexualized in the film is Aiden, the boy that she looks at. Even that, it's not sexualized as much as crushalized. I feel like she's more infatuated with him than necessarily pining for him. It's just subjective. The whole thing is meant to be subjective and it's meant to be subjective to this person so hopefully it feels female and 13 and her and anxious, all the things that make her her.

You really captured the parent/daughter rift. It made me think about how I spent so much time trying to figure out how to get along with my parents, should we just all accept that it's going to be awkward living with someone 20 or 30 years your junior or senior?

Of course, totally. It's not that we should accept it and not keep trying. It's just that is the beauty of it. That's what love looks like. Love doesn't look like "I love you, you're cool, yay." Love is a struggle and is awkward and is strange. The point of that relationship kind of is showing that they can be in a pretty decent situation with really good intentions and it still doesn't work out, but it's not about working out. Part of that parental relationship is working out their frustrations between each other. There's no such thing as a perfect relationship in that sense, only a healthy one and an unhealthy one. I think they have a healthy relationship.

You made Eighth Grade before Parkland. Was there a sense back then that school shooting drills were just like duck and cover in the '50s and kids are just sick of it?

Yeah, and we get sick of stuff really quick. Parkland happened but the way our culture can normalize things is pretty insane. I wrote this four years ago, but Columbine happened when I was in fifth grade so I've lived my whole life with this stuff. Luckily the conversation seems to be picking up a little bit.

Have those scenes changed now that the gun lobby is putting even more pressure on the schools and the students after Parkland?

Yeah, I mean, we didn't think certain things would become insane, but we would hope that the movie would interface with the culture somehow. We just thought if we were honest, we don't have anything to worry about. Whatever is relevant will be relevant. Maybe in five years, something else will be relevant and maybe that issue will behind us. That would be wonderful if it was.

I got to see you at Largo working new material. How long have you been writing the Explicit Verbal Consent song about making sure you hear a "yes?"

Oh, very briefly. That's just a vague, vague idea.

I can tell it's going to kill

That's funny. We'll see what happens with it. It's a little idea.

Eighth Grade Review

There was a time when you thought you might give up performing entirely. I get that, when you want to try new things it feels like you have to make a clean break. Now that you've written books, made a movie and performed, do you feel like you can have something to say in the spaces of standup, music, film, books and everything simultaneously?

I have no want to be some crazy multi-hyphenate doing a lot of things. I really just want to figure out something and get good at it. Hopefully film is that and maybe I can dip back into standup if I have something to say. I really just follow what I'm passionate about. I'm not trying to do a bunch of stuff just to do it. It depends where inspiration strikes but I have a feeling it will be film again before I get into standup, but maybe not.

Have you started writing anything else?

A little bit but not really. I'm still in the very, very exploratory vague phase of trying a bunch of different things.

Do you think you'll continue to be interested in youth stories?

Not necessarily. I'm not against it but definitely not looking only in that space.

Will there ever be an album of Make Happy? Because I want those songs on my phone.

Oh, that's nice. I think you have to burn it because the deal with Netflix was to not have a CD. That was part of it, but it's also a visual show. Maybe down the line.

It's the only one of your acts that I don't have the music.

Yeah, it's the only one that's not available, it's a bummer.

One thing that come sup in a lot of your acts is the difference between love and fandom. Is that something that genuinely bothers you, like when audience members shout out they love you, the artifice of strangers loving you?

No, I don't personally hate it but I think I hate it as a cultural thing. I don't know, not hate. I just have a complicated relationship with it. Most of my stuff is just about stating what I feel like wasn't being stated, not so much passing judgment on it. I mean, I was but the real issue of it was just no one really talks about how weird it is, even the idea of fans are. It's just a very weird idea.

I hope a healthy way to approach it is celebrating someone's talent but not mistake it for intimacy.

I think so. I think just enjoy the work. Just enjoy the work, or whatever, or be a fan. Or, like you're 15 and be fans of people and I should just chill out. I think I have chilled out.

Is Kayla sort of mistaking that too, trying to get popular for videos?

Everyone's just looking for connection and love and something. I don't really knock anybody for trying it. It's the adult and the culture's job to maybe create an arena for kids that's a little healthier to navigate but I don't blame the kids themselves. Yeah, I'm sure she's reaching in some way for something. I don't want to talk too definitively about that stuff because I think that's open to the audience. In her own way, she's just looking for connection any way she can find it.

Does that sort of fandom/love just as easily turn toxic as we've seen with Star Wars and Stranger Things fans bullying those female actors in those series?

Sure, I'm not totally familiar with that but that sounds totally right.

In Make Happy, you say if you stop entertaining us, we should leave. That makes sense that we should discover new artists we might like and not get mad about entertainment we like. On the other hand, should we also be open to our favorite artists evolving, like you're making a film now and maybe we want to see if we like you as a standup?

Yeah, sure, I think if you like someone creatively, of course. I just think the focus should be more on the work and less on the people delivering the work. I just think sometimes it feels like the work is completely subordinate to the person as an idea. That seems dangerous to me, or not even dangerous, just lame. Isn't the whole point of Hollywood and all this stuff that we make art for the world to see and like and not just people for them to follow? That's just weird for me and I just always think I make things. It's all about the things. I hope people like the things. If they like me for making the things, that's chill but it's all about the things.

Did you experience angry fans who stopped liking your work after a few albums?

Probably. I can only imagine. I hope so, or that means I'm not really taking any risks if I'm maintaining everybody through everything. Yeah, I'm sure.

Whether in the film or in your standup, you've always been very perceptive about human nature. Did you realize growing up that you had a unique perception of how people behave?

I don't know. I think everyone notices that. It's just that being able to articulate it or something, I think that's the only difference, just being able to articulate things people already know. If there's any strength, it's just being able to maybe put it into words. I think everyone's very perceptive. I don't think I'm any more perceptive than anybody else. I think I've just learned how to talk about it in a way that makes sense.

At the Largo show, you mentioned that people questioned the pork lyric in "From God's Perspective." What did they say, that God would in fact be against pork?

That God would not be cool with eating pork. God would want to be vegan or something. I was like oh, that's probably right.

So it was about any meat at all, not just pork.

Yeah, exactly.