Bo Burnham On Finding The Perfect Leading Lady For 'Eighth Grade' [Interview]

If you're familiar with the stand-up comedy of Bo Burnham, you might not peg him to be the first candidate to write an emotion-driven comedy about a socially awkward eighth-grade girl who is trying to find her place in a world that she feels has no interest in getting to know her. But ever since its premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Burnham's Eighth Grade has been one of the most eagerly anticipated and critically acclaimed independent movies of the year, making its way through the festival circuit and now finally opening to wider audience beginning this weekend (the film is currently in very limited release in New York and Los Angeles).

Eighth Grade doesn't adhere to a conventional, plot-driven structure, instead allowing Burnham and acting newcomer Elsie Fisher to piece together a compelling and inspirational character study of young Kayla, who lives with her well-meaning, single father (Josh Hamilton) and makes what she probably believes are inspirational YouTube videos about being yourself and having confidence—neither of which Kayla feels comfortable doing. But it becomes clear that these videos are more about boosting her own sense of worth in the world. Burnham places Kayla in a series of scarily authentic and believable situations, some of which make her wildly uncomfortable, while others give her (and the audience) hope that she's on the verge of breaking out of her shell and becoming the young woman she imagines she is once she hits high school. It's a film that walks the line between tragedy and comedy with such grace that you might think a more seasoned filmmaker had pulled it off.

Several years as a successful YouTube sensation and successful stand-up comedian whose humor blended music, visual elements and a twisted perspective, led to Burnham releasing a series of highly successful comedy albums and specials, including "Bo Fo Sho," "Bo Burnham," "Words Words Words," "what.," and "Make Happy," all of which are available either on YouTube, Netflix, or Comedy Central. He also co-created and starred in the popular MTV series "Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous," and he published a book of poetry, titled "Egghead: Or, You Can't Survive on Ideas Alone." More recently, he's appeared in supporting roles in such films as Rough Night and The Big Sick, and directed Chris Rock's most recent Netflix special "Tamborine." Eighth Grade marks Burnham's feature debut as a writer/director.

/Film spoke with the 27-year-old Burnham in Chicago back in May when he was in town for the Chicago Critics Film Festival; Eighth Grade was the Closing Night film. The post-screening Q&A (moderated by this author) before a sold-out crowd was quite enjoyable and moving, especially when Burnham invited an actual eighth grader one stage to answer his question about arguably the thorniest scene in the film (the video for the entire Q&A can be watched below here).

The following interview took place earlier the same day, and we cover such topics as the impetus for the project, how casting Fisher changed aspects of Kayla's personality and dialogue, and the ways in which the entire work reflects his anxiety about the internet.


You have this perfect young actress who is both lacking confidence but wants to possess it so desperately, and I could wonder was, how did you find someone who exuded those qualities that would even come in for an audition?

That was the challenge. And I knew going into this it would be a challenge for literally the reason you just said. I said, "The type of person who's right for this won't come in to an audition." Kayla would never come in for an audition, and I wanted it feel like a shy person playing confident, not a confident person pretending to be shy. I dug around online. Elsie had acted before, so she had some experience and confidence, but had stopped acting over the last couple of years because she felt, as she should, weary about the world of acting as a 12 or 13 year old. She was just the sort of unicorn who had all the vulnerability and inarticulation that Kayla needed and also could carry a production on her shoulders. I really think she's a one-in-a-billion type of person.

It was a long process of getting to know each other really well. She came in nervous, and I came in nervous as a filmmaker. It was hard for me, in terms of going, "Can I do this? I have no idea." It was just us sticking together and getting to know each other, and the crew working toward this thing of letting her have a safe space to be what she is. And after we gave her that, she very quickly didn't need it anymore. She was incredibly confident and strong, while giving a very vulnerable performance.

Over the last couple of years, there have been a fair number of comics who have turned to directing or writing. Did you gather any inspiration or guidance from what they did?

Comedians are overall selfish jerks [laughs], and we're all doing our own thing. We're very rarely going to each other for advice. But yeah, I'm definitely inspired by what happened to Kumail [Nanjiani, director/co-writer/star of The Big Sick] and the work he did. Historically, all of those people who carved out a part of the path. There's been so much great work done by other people, that the idea of hopping around to another medium actually feels culturally instantiating. It almost feels like a requirement. A lot of people led by example, for sure.

The process of putting together your on-stage act is actually quite elaborate—it's more than you just getting on stage and talking—but it's still very much a one-man process. What was it like to have to collaborate? You wrote and directed Eighth Grade, but still have to rely on a great man people to make your work good on screen.

It really is our work. [Collaborating] was the main reason I wanted to get into film. I started doing theater—that was my first love—and I fell into comedy. In doing comedy, the thing that I missed was collaborating with people. I'm a huge fan of everyone I worked with, of my composer, my production designer, my DP, and my job was being a good fan and liking everyone's work very specifically and maintaining everyone else's skills, much more than me standing up and going "Okay, this is my vision! Kneel at the alter of my vision!" It really wasn't that. It was totally freeing and not what could be pictured, which is this stand-up comedian who has no idea how to work with other people. Of course, there's a learning curve, but I was desperate with other people to work with and I got that.

One of the ideas you explore is our relationship with the internet and how it causes causes us all a great deal of anxiety, even though it was designed to bring us closer together and form a community. What is your relationship with the internet these days, and how did you filter those feelings into what Kayla is going through?

Even thought this is about the eighth grade, in terms of it being personal, it is about my experience now more than it was then. I was not that much of a nervous kid, but I am a nervous kid now. Well, I'm not a kid, but there are ways in which I feel like a nervous kid and it's because of my relationship to the internet, in some ways. There are a lot of things about the internet that feel like people want to be very critical or have a big thesis, an overarching statement, and my feeling is that for those of us who participate on the internet, we are drowning in it.

I'll be very curious in 15 years, if Elsie becomes a social scientist, I'll read her dissertation. Until then, I want to take emotional inventory in what's going on. How does it feel? What are the question we have? So that was more the idea, and that's why it was so great to collaborate with a kid. It was like "I want to express my confusion, my worry, not my answers, because I have none." I'm not coming to you as an adult and saying "I've been through it and now I can teach everyone." The only teaching is: "Forgive yourself a little bit. Understand that everyone is feeling this way. Try to engage in the real world maybe a little bit more."

The issue I get into in answering a question like this is that, if I had a coherent answer about the internet, I would have written and essay. But I don't. Part of [writing this] was expressing that confusion and those feelings, and the things I was feeling felt like they were best expressed through images and scenes and emotions.

This message of spending more time in the real world is not that different than the message of Ready Player One, and they spent a lot more money getting us to that place.

[Both laugh]

This is a very funny movie at times, but I will admit, every time I found myself laughing, like when she's making one of her videos, I felt horribly guilty, like I was part of the problem.

[laughs] No, no. It's alright. Sometimes when I watch the film with people, they seem really nervous to laugh in the beginning because they feel like they're laughing at her. But hopefully you realize over the course of the things that the movie is kind to her, and we can laugh at her and also lover her. We can cringe and laugh at her stumbling over her words, but also feel kindness toward her. People get worried that this movie is making fun of her, but it's the same way we are with anyone who's younger or even remembering yourself when you were that age. You can read your old stuff and cringe and laugh at yourself, and also forgive and love yourself.

The way I got past that feeling was to think "In 10 years, she's watch these videos and laugh at them too.

Exactly! Of course, and I defy anybody at any age to make a three-minute video of being yourself and not have it be actually laughable.

Of all of the things she could be doing with these videos, the idea that she's making self-help videos seems so ironic. She might as well be talking into a mirror. You make it very clear that virtually no one is watching them.

But we are [laughs].

Eighth Grade Trailer - Elsie Fisher

The idea of us watching somebody who spends a lot of time online isn't inherently cinematic, and you've done a really beautiful job of taking advantage of the light that comes off a phone or computer screen. Tell me about filming the internet.

Well everything you see is practical. There are no screen replacements; that was very important to us. Me and my DP, Andrew Wade, six months before this film was even talked about being financed, we were doing tests with screens. The reason screen replacements suck to me, even if they look real on the phone, is that the ambient light that comes off of a phone onto your thumb, onto your face, is particular to whatever is on your phone.

It's not just a steady white light.

Exactly. So if you have a white light replace it, that's not going to look right. You also see the reflection in her eyes. So we wanted the internet for the internet. It felt like, from the film world, a technology phobia, like it is really un-cinematic. My belief is, so Barry Lyndon writing a letter by candlelight is super cinematic, but if the candle and the letter become one in the form of a phone...someone is staring into a light source—that's perfect cinematically. The issue for those who don't think it's cinematic is that they probably have no emotional connection to the internet; they don't find it cinematic. I don't find vinyl records cinematic because I don't feel a connection to those, you know what I mean?

The internet is light, but there can be strobing of the screen and throwing focus through the pixels can make a weird light. And that's real Instagram, real Twitter. Our props department had to make 500 fake accounts. Those are real Likes, real Instagram DMs being sent. It was a nightmare logistically, but she's really on the internet, she's really watching these videos.

How many false starts did you have before you landed on this particular person being your central character whom you could filter your anxieties through?

It wasn't even false starts. Well, it was, but I wasn't calling them thought because I thought I was writing Magnolia [laughs]. "I'm going to write 12 characters," but I didn't realize until later that I was writing 11 characters that weren't good and finally I found one that was good. She was initially embedded in this tandem narrative thing, and then I realized I could say everything I wanted through her; she was completely alive and this is really working. When she showed up on the page, I was like "Oh, she's way more substantial than everything else."

What was it about her that made that true?

It almost can't be described. It was high stakes, immediate, current, alive. It was inarticulate; I think that's a huge part of the story for me—it's about someone trying to articulate themselves. At that age, you're learning how to form thoughts, and what comes out of your mouth is as much an imitation of things you've heard as it is a real expression of yourself. The way that the internet acts with someone who is forming thoughts and expression in real time is really interesting to me.

The opening scene is her making one of her vlogs, and in a great way, we learn just about everything we need to learn about her in those couple of minutes. Part of that is because of the writing; a lot of it is in her delivery. Again, how long did it take you to realize that that's how it needed to begin? Or was that always the opening?

That was always the opening. It was actually the initial thing I wrote because I'd watched all the videos online of these kids. And watching them, I was thinking "If this were a performance, this would be incredible." And then it became "What is her life after she turns this off?" So that was almost the initial dynamic of the entire thing. But yes, having seen the monologue being done by a lot kids who weren't Elsie, the meaning is entirely in the delivery. What is so impressive about Elsie's performance is that her performance is of a kid giving a performance. You see Kayla he person and then you see the performance that Kayla is giving. You don't see the performance of Elsie being Kayla being someone else. Those are my favorite performances: characters who are trying to be something other than themselves, and that's so what Kayla is in almost every single moment.

I vividly remember my last week of eighth grade, because if you can get through it, you have the opportunity to reinvent yourself in a new setting when the next school year begins. And Kayla is desperate to do that, and she's created this much more expressive version of herself.

People ask me "How did you get to know kids so well?" "They're literally posting their entire lives online. It makes the research very easy.

This was one of the most talked about films at Sundance this year. What do you think it is that people, especially adults, are responding to about it.

It's still pretty early in this process, but I think it's her. I would think most of it is. I had felt, and I hope the movie does this, that people wanted a movie about the current moment that wasn't over-the-top or preachy or satyrical or ironic—something about the internet that doesn't feel like a Subway commercial, being like "Hashtag blessed!", something that is hopefully about kids and the internet that isn't pandering to them, I hope. Maybe that's it.

Even before making this movie, everyone could have a conversation about kids and the internet, everyone I meet has so many opinions, and we could talk for hours about social media. Hopefully this is the kind of movie that can allow those conversations to be had maybe on a more granular, human level. But people are thinking about this stuff all the time, so hopefully this movie can clear a path for conversation. I think we're going to see a lot more movies likes this as young people are allowed to tell stories, and people like who have an emotional relationship with the internet tell stories. There's a more subtle, emotional story to be told about phones and the internet than just "Oh my god, I took a selfie"—that sort of bullshit, ironic thing. And I'd be happy to make a movie about that person. Kayla was almost that person and she could be perceived as that person by other people. People could watch her YouTube videos and say "Look at this self-obsessed generation that just wants to talk about themselves." But when you get the context of her life, you realize that's not true.

Bo, best of luck and thank for chatting with us.

Great meeting you.