Film & TV

Bo Burnham on the Making of His First Film: “It’s Okay to Stumble”

Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham, stars Elsie Fisher who explore what it means to be a middle schooler today.
Courtesy of Alexandra GaglianiEighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham, stars Elsie Fisher who explore what it means to be a middle schooler today.

Written and directed by Bo Burnham, “Eighth Grade” stars Elsie Fisher (“Despicable Me,” “Despicable Me 2”) as Kayla Day, and Josh Hamilton (“Dark Skies,” “13 Reasons Why”) as her single father, Mark, who watches over Kayla as she shyly navigates her way through social media, relationships and anxiety in the modern age.

A film both endearing and provocative, “Eighth Grade” is a new breed of coming-of-age cinematography that seems uncannily real and relatable for anyone who has lived through middle school in the social media age.

“Eighth Grade” is Burnham’s first full-length feature film, and The Phoenix recently had the chance to chat with him about the movie and its impact.

Bo Burham sits with Elsie Fisher while on set of the movie "Eighth Grade"Photo by Linda Kallerus, Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of Linda Kallerus, A24Bo Burham sits with Elsie Fisher while on set of the movie “Eighth Grade”.

I know you’ve directed comedy specials in the past, so how was it transitioning to directing a feature?

It was good! It felt right. I did a lot of theater when I was younger — I loved working with actors and I loved acting, so I was just sort of desperate to collaborate with people because that’s not what you get to do in stand-up, it’s very, very singular. So that was enjoyable. But it was just exciting! It was exciting and new and strange and enjoyable.

 

What kind of challenges did you encounter?

It’s all challenges! The whole time, you’re just trying to navigate the challenges. Like, “I want to learn some lessons here but also not make a piece of shit.” I had six or eight months to prepare and I was just reading a book a week on filmmaking and just watching all these movies just to make sure. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to try to prepare myself a little bit for this, even though I know it’ll just be a violent, violent learning experience.”

It’s very managerial. Just setting a tone and keeping everyone focused and working and engaged and getting what you need. And just making choices. Not even the right choices, just making choices. If someone comes up to you and goes, “This one or this one?” just point at one. You just have to get things going. That’s all that really matters.

 

There are a lot of parts of yourself that are prevalent in the movie. There are references to musicals, vines, and Kayla makes YouTube videos. That’s all you. But what parts of Kayla’s personality do you think are most comparable to your own?

Yeah, really! It’s like, she loves “Hamilton.” And the LeBron James kid, that was just a kid I put aside and I was like, “Shout something out.” He was like “LeBron James!” “Alright.”

But, dispositionally, it’s anxious. We’re both anxious people, I think. Both coming to grips with our own anxiety. I was coming to grips with my own anxiety pretty late in life and she’s coming to it early. She hasn’t even really named it yet. But I think she has a similar sort of impulse to go in her head, you know? It feels like the drama of her life sort of plays in her head. And that’s probably the struggle of my life, too, and probably everybody to some degree is just trying to square what’s internal with what’s external. I really don’t want the narrative of my life to be the conversation I’m having in my head about myself. I think that’s probably something similar to what she’s feeling.

 

This was a very subjective film. As a man, why did you choose to make this film from a youthful, feminine perspective?

… it just felt right. I wanted to sort of treat someone like this who is often treated slightly, to treat [her] significantly. That, yes, her experience is as vivid and important and [as] deep as, I don’t know, some soldier or something. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know, I just feel a kinship with her and people like her. The anxiety I have is shared by my mother and my sister. I often have found in my personal life I connect with the women around me, personally. I think anxiety in general is statistically more shared by women than men, so I feel like that part of me is more feminine. I’ve always felt like I’ve had a feminine part of me.

Then there was the other thing, which is I did not want to tell my young story, I did not want to project myself onto her. I know I can’t understand her fully, and part of that was the joy of it, was to go “I want to attempt to understand something that I didn’t understand. And maybe reevaluate a time in my life from a different perspective that I wasn’t aware of.” I certainly wasn’t aware of the interior life of the girls around me when I was in eighth grade. As most boys are not aware of.

 

You had technology as this casually integrated, prevalent part of the world, because it is. Obviously it has changed so much since you started on YouTube, so how did you go about creating her relationship with YouTube when yours might have been so different?

Mine [started] in 2006, so I posted to show my brother at college. It was literally like, “You made that funny video, you know there’s a site where you can post it and send the link to your brother?” That’s what I thought it was. And even at that time, YouTube kind of just asked of you, “You got a funny thing? Put it here!” And now it’s like, “Who are you? Reflect yourself here. We are a mirror. Or a glass box for you to exist in.” The lines are way, way blurred and I think it’s way deeper for kids to participate in.

I probably feel experientially like I have more in common with forty-year-olds than I do with you, because you guys had a very different experience. I did not have Twitter in high school. Twitter, I think, started when I was in college, maybe I had Facebook in high school. It is a different, deeper, stranger experience. When I was in middle school it was like, MySpace. You literally made a website. And now with Twitter and Instagram it’s literally like, “What do you look like? What are you thinking?” Those are deeper, stranger questions than “Design a website and share it,” or “Write a blog and share it.” I just wanted to portray that as an atmosphere and without judgment, and not to go, “And then she threw her phone into the ocean and she was happy!” You know, like a lot of old fucks do when they try to write about this stuff.

 

While coming-of-age films are nothing new, “Eighth Grade” is still highly original. How did you avoid using tropes and clichés during the writing process?

It’s not that there aren’t tropes, I didn’t actively try to avoid cliché. ‘Cause I think trying just to be original all the time is corny, you know what I mean? At some point a daughter and a father sit by a fire and say, “I love you” to each other. That’s pretty cliché, but life is cliché. I wasn’t trying to avoid tropes, I was just trying to be honest, and if it was original, great, and if it wasn’t, great.

[I was] just trying to approach it honestly, but also for the narrative to have the attention span and focus of a thirteen-year-old. Not the pace of that focus, in terms of I wanted to be a little more patient than that. Storylines didn’t need to be followed through and tied up in a way, because nothing is resolved when you’re in eighth grade. Let it happen the way it happens and just follow it. There are a bunch of ways the story could go at any point. That was probably the feel of the story, is that it isn’t a story that could’ve only been told this way. It should flow with life.

Courtesy of Linda Kallerus, A24

A lot of coming-of-age films feel like an older writer speaking through a younger person, so what was the process like to construct realistic characters and dialogue?

[I watched] hundreds of [YouTube] videos of these kids, transcribing the way they spoke, and I feel like I had the voice. The whole thing was pursuing inarticulation, pursuing the inability to articulate yourself. Not pursuing perfect little quotable lines where she looks over and she says like, “Time is just a river,” or whatever the fuck. Or if she does that then she’s trying to do that! She’s trying to make a quote. It’s lines like, “The hard thing about being yourself is that it’s not always easy.” That’s the kind of shit you say when you’re a kid. You think you’re saying some cool phrase and it actually means literally nothing.

[Also] telling the kids, all the actors, all the time, giving them permission to be incoherent. And [saying], “If you stumble on your words, it’s fine, don’t take yourself out of the scene. Being your age is being inarticulate.” Being a human is being inarticulate! So it’s okay to stumble. It really was just giving them permission to speak the way they normally speak. That’s what I love about Elsie’s performance, is that there’s so many performances that Kayla gives. You can see all the different voices that Kayla’s putting on in the different situations she’s in. It was just that. It really is more like, write it carefully and considerately, and then tell the kids to relax. And make an environment in which they can relax.

 

In reference to the car scene, I think a lot of young girls can relate to that moment of being alone with an older guy who has the social upper hand and feeling like you have no resources. How did you begin to approach that scene in terms of writing, but also in terms of directing Elsie?

First of all, I’ve been in a relationship for six years with a female writer-director [who] is my only eyes on things when I’m writing, so I knew if I was ever doing something completely off-mark she would call bullshit on me, so I had that added security. Also, I am familiar, one, with being in a position with someone who has more power than you and being taken advantage of, and two, I am definitely familiar with, not the particular behavior, personally, but the impulses of being a young boy and what that specific type of manipulation looks like. “It’s a joke. It’s not even a big deal.” Consent isn’t even on the table for her, because he’s not letting the situation be framed in the stakes that it actually is. And it’s so weird to watch people laugh in that scene, ‘cause it’s like it’s part of his tactic is to make it feel like is to make it feel like a funny, uncomfortable situation instead of a scary, uncomfortable situation, which it is. That was part of the writing, was to try to treat it honestly.

In terms of the scene itself, I was much more worried about a lot of scenes in the movie. Elsie, first of all, just snaps from intensity to laughing and joking very, very easily. I’m the one that’s way, way more heavy on set than she is. Two, there really are like, seven people in the car and fifty people around her, so it’s way less tense than it feels. And she gets it! She understands the scene, she understands the intention. She understands the purpose of this, she understands that when we do this correctly, a girl can see this and know that she has more power in the situation than she thinks she does. Or a boy can see this and realize that his actions that he thinks are subtly flirtatious are actually really bad. But it was just being honest, communicative, open with both Elsie and Elsie’s dad.

But I will say, also, their performances are what make it feel so intense. It is not, on paper, an intense scene. When I ask Elsie, “What was the most uncomfortable thing to do in the film?” she says “The Rick and Morty scene.”

 

At one point in the film, Kayla says something like “I feel all of the butterflies, but I don’t get the feeling when you get off the roller coaster.” I thought that spoke really poignantly to how it feels to have anxiety, and how a kid would describe anxiety. How did your experience with mental illness factor into this film?

That’s my favorite line in the movie, for sure. And it is how a kid would explain it, but I think it’s the most accurate description. It’s how I would explain it, truly. In that monologue, she does in two minutes what I spent seven years trying to express onstage and was not able to express as nearly as coherently and viscerally and truthfully as she was.

I don’t want to talk too much about mental illness issues of anxiety and things. I don’t want to imbue it too much. But that’s sort of the line of the movie for me. And it’s almost what the movie’s just trying to express the whole time, is expressing that feeling of being nervous all the time for no reason. And that’s really what anxiety, I think, is. I specifically think that’s what the Internet gives people. Of course you have anxiety about a test coming up, or whatever, the fuck. But when you start to have anxiety when you have no idea what’s happening, you’re doing nothing and you’re nervous, that’s when it’s like an actual issue, and I think the Internet does that. Our phones and things too, but the Internet is anxious, it’s an anxious place.

 

This film educates older audiences on a generation that they often don’t empathize with. Was this one of your intentions in making the film or is it more of a byproduct?

I think it’s probably a byproduct. My intention was really just to make what I want and make something I like, truly. I mean now that we’re showing the movie around for sure, it’s like, have some respect, have some humility for this generation. You don’t know what the fuck they’re going through. You also created everything that gave them this. And let’s have a subtler conversation about the Internet. Something a little more subtle than “RUSSIA!” When people talk about the Internet they’re like, “RUSSIA!” and I’m like, “What?” So I hope older people can go [see the film] and just get it a little more. I hope so.

 

The dynamic between Kayla and her father was really honestly depicted and beautifully done. Why did you choose for Kayla to have a single father?

In a lot of the choices, they’re never intended, you write it because it feels right, and now that it’s done I can go, “Why was it like that?” And I think it was like that because she didn’t have an older female presence when she was being written. So she was kind of stranded, she only had an older guy looking after her when she was being written. So, it just made sense to me that I was her, I was a nervous kid on the Internet, and I was an idiot dude who was trying to sympathize with a young girl when I actually had no fucking idea what she was going through, so that was part of it, I think. And then I just kind of loaded everything about my parents and my mother into him, and everything about myself into her.

“Eighth Grade” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

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