I sit across from him in a hotel room suite at Chicago’s Waldorf Astoria. We are both slouching into our adjacent chairs. Not out of discomfort, but because this is how two people in their mid 20’s tend to converse. There’s a relaxed feel to this whole operation. It is all very low-key.
But when you look into the eyes of Bo Burnham, you get a sense that things might not be as low-key inside. That a million other things going on in his head simultaneously. That’s not to say he’s ever on auto-pilot or isn’t in the moment, as he very much is. But it seems as if there’s just so much going on at any given moment, and here’s one guy who’s trying to juggle it and present himself a certain way.
So much of that feeling is present with Kayla, the lead in Eighth Grade, the new debut movie from Bo Burnham. Kayla doesn’t say very much, because she doesn’t have to. That is the sheer brilliance of her character and the subsequent performance by Elsie Fisher. You find yourself transfixed on her every move. Within her social silence, you understand so much more about her than you ever would be able to through dialogue. In contrast, whenever she does speak, such as in the vlogs she delivers, it is done with the upmost teenage elegance, with ‘um’s’ and awkwardly-timed pauses peppered beautifully throughout.
“The impulse was always if it didn’t sound right out loud, it was the scripts fault, not [Elsie’s],” Bo tells me. It is things like this that set him apart from most writer/directors. With other filmmakers, that ‘writer/director’ name-plate feels like it’s a vanity thing. Here, it’s merely a technicality. Case and point: As I was heading out at the end of our talk, he left me with the following. ‘Who gives a sh*t about me? I hope people see this movie and leave it and like it and have no idea who I am or that I did it. That’s fine with me.”
“There was a certain empty space allowed for her to sort of fill,” Bo says of her performance. The script alone is stellar, but Elsie takes it and propels it further. So authentic is she that you truly believe that yes, Kayla Daye is a real person. And so much of that comes out of just how much control Burnham, as a director, provided Elsie with. ‘Just talking to the costume designer and the production designer and everyone. I would tell them ‘Just take cues from her. What does she like? What does she think of the character? Let’s not pretend to be 13 year olds. Let’s have a 13 year old tell us what it actually means.”
Much like a comedian will figure out what their voice is after time, a director will usually figure out on their first film what kind of a director they want to be. So much of the environment on set can be found in the film. In a medium where chemistry among a cast is so integral, a good set can make or break a film. You, as the audience, can usually tell when a cast is truly having fun or not. It’s infectious.
This is also something that was very well understood by Bo going into it. He went out of his way on the set to make the kids feel relaxed and at ease. Unlike most teen films, he simply treated them as people. And it shows.
“[Collaboration] was incredibly important,” he explains, “especially for the kids. One to collaborate for the authenticity of the actual movie. And two, I knew in order to get the performances we needed, which were naturalistic and real, the kids had to feel very, very comfortable. If they felt like (in an over-exasperated voice) they were on a movie set and they had to deliver, that’s the kind of nerves that don’t translate to anything natural. So we had to make it feel like summer camp.”
So many films of people in their teenage years cater to just that demographic. It is such a niche marketplace, when you really think about it. What may be a universal experience isn’t going to be enjoyed by a lot of people who have already lived through it. It’s like trying to show your grandfather The Fault in Our Stars or Mean Girls and asking him to relate to it.
What is refreshing with a film like this is that it gets rid of that cliché. It’s a film that, in theory, may only seem relatable to people of this generation. After all, a lot of what the film deals with is growing up in a social media age. However, there is a deeper and way more intensified feeling beyond all of that and it’s something we all can relate to.
“When you’re in eighth grade, it’s a little harder to look at yourself like that,” says Burnham, when asked about his hope of how eighth graders will respond to the film. “But once you’re out of it, just out of it maybe, you can look back at it. I hope actual eighth graders can connect to it. But I also hope adults see that “Don’t worry, this is not a movie for eighth graders. This is a movie for everybody and you as well.”
Within the last few years, this 27-year-old veteran stand up comic has grown more accustomed to stepping behind the camera. In the past year, he has directed specials for Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock. For this project, he wanted to make something where he didn’t have to look at himself. “It was very freeing,” he says of the experience. “It was very nice to be able to look at something I made and not have to look at my own face and roll my eyes.”
Bo Burnham, the filmmaker, does not stem from a lifelong ambition to be a filmmaker. He was a theater kid, and then after that, a comedian, who occasionally would do acting work. It was through that, and his time on the set that he discovered his newfound passion. “I slowly figured out ‘Oh, I think this holds everything I love to do about work.’ Enough time spent watching other people do a job from close up on the set, you will start to think about what you would do if you were a filmmaker. But I have been, I think, sharpening and trying to build a skill set of being a director without knowing it. Even doing a stand-up show. What I loved about doing a stand-up show, more than performing it, was writing it, conceiving it, staging it, lighting it, which is so much of directing. So yeah, it was sort of like the last 5 years where I was like ‘I think this may be what I really want to do.'”
Bo Burnham, the comedian, came from the internet. When he was 16, he started putting funny songs up on YouTube. But now this is Bo Burnham, the filmmaker. And while yes, the film lives and breathes in the state of the interwebs, Bo really doesn’t these days (or at least not as a willing participant).
“Over the last 4 or 5 years, I’ve really tried to only participate professionally on the internet at least in posting,” Burnham tells us. “This doesn’t feel like a case of biting the hand that fed you. It feels more like a healthy evolution, or at least a somewhat healthy one. I mean I’m on it all the time as an observer, but never really participating. Basically, with any long form piece of work, it helps to stay away from the internet for a little bit. It just encourages a constant export of material. And in order for me to work on something, I need to step away from that. It’s tough for me to work on a big, long form thing when I’m too engaged in the internet.”
And yes, Bo is completely aware of the fact that having something so current (social media, where trends change as often as you change your pants) featured prominently in a movie runs the risk of dating it in years to come. And he’s okay with that. “It will date it, but I don’t know any other movie that isn’t dated. I see a bunch of movies with cassette players and vinyl records and all that shit, or like a Volvo. Everything is going to date it, unless you’re, I don’t know, in some like white cube or something.”
“The film is a time capsule in a way. And we thought ‘Let’s lean into it. Let’s get as specific as possible. Let’s not run away from this. Let’s show everything. So we couldn’t be fearful about it. Let’s just be true.” But also, in 10 years it might be dated. But hopefully, in 10 years, anxiety is still there.”
As of this past Sunday, July 15th, it was announced by Variety that Eighth Grade claimed the best per-screen average of 2018 with $63,071, and a grand-total of $255,000 on its opening weekend. That’s a remarkable feat when you consider that the film was only playing in two cities on only four screens. Further expansions will take place this upcoming Friday, the 20th, and is slated to open wide on July 27th. On top of that, the film has already been generating summer Oscar buzz, similar to last year’s The Big Sick, which Bo co-starred.
If all of this was the only thing that he had going this year, that’d be one of the greatest things a first-time filmmaker could ask for. However, earlier this year, Bo Burnham’s other script Gay Kid and Fat Chick, was picked up by Paramount Players, a newly formed division of Paramount, to be directed by Amy York-Rubin. In fact, this was a script that actually pre-dates Kayla and Eighth Gradeand for a while, Bo even tried to direct the film himself.
“I tried to direct [Gay Kid and Fat Chick] but it didn’t sort of work out. Then I was like ‘I’m going to write something I know I can direct,’ which was a smaller, more intimate scene-centric movie. [Gay Kid] is a lot larger, and then in retrospect, after I was done, I realized that wasn’t really my story to tell. I could write the script, but I don’t really intimately personally know the experiences of those characters like I feel I know Kayla, as I also struggle with anxiety. So after this movie was made, and after that movie was getting picked up, I knew it was not the right decision for me to direct that movie. So we got Amy York Rubin, who’s incredible and she’ll be doing it.”
Eighth Grade, much like the actual experience, is everything all at once. Every emotion imaginable: happiness, lust, fear, paranoia, guilt, determination, joy, and all else in-between, are present here. And yes, anxiety. So much of Eighth Grade is about how you present yourself, what others think about you, and those anxieties that come with. Burnham himself has spoken much about this in interviews promoting the film. He has been quick to point out that while a lot of his own experiences in 8th grade aren’t there (save for the occasional, such as the marker sniffing), a lot of his own anxieties have made way for telling the story of Kayla.
Naturally, in theme with the movie’s theme, I wanted to ask Bo about how he thinks he was perceived. Is this something he sits around thinking about??
In one word: “No.”
“The movie’s probably about this, I have learned if I focus on my legacy or how I am perceived outside of my work or the big oeuvre of my career, it’s not healthy for me and it actually makes me feel anxious. And it’s part of what makes Kayla anxious is her want to see the narrative of her life. ‘What is the story of me?’ rather than just actually engaging in the present moment or what’s actually in front of you.”
If there is one thing that Bo Burnham is always guaranteed to deliver it’s honesty. He doesn’t sugar-code anything. You are better than that. You, as the audience, deserve so much more than that. He’s not going to waste your time by giving you some bullsh*t answer.
“Truly I inspire to having a body of work that is incoherent and contradicts itself and doesn’t make any sense. I’m not working on making a body of work. I’m working on making a project, and then I’m working on another project. And I’m trying to focus on what’s in front of me and not worried about my biography. Because that is just… I spent time doing that when I was younger and it didn’t lead me anywhere good mentally. That is my answer to that, that is I just try to keep my head down and work on what’s in front of me. And it’s someone else’s job to think about all that other sh*t.”
“What was it like doing the truth or dare scene?”
Bo sits on the floor directly across from the young man who asked this question at a Q & A following a screening at the Chicago Critics Film Festival a mere 12 hours prior to our chat. The young man in question is 8th grader, Max. The scene in question details a very intensely difficult scene to watch, between Kayla and an older guy in a car. Signals are ignored, to say the least. And here is an actual eighth grader asking about it. A hush falls over the room. We see the youthful innocence in his eyes. We don’t want to see a kid crushed right before us.
“The scene itself feels intense and scary,”Bo tells young Max, as he sits across from him on the floor of Chicago’s Music Box Theater. “The hope of the scene is to try to portray a certain type of thing that on paper might not seem like actually a big deal, but when you actually sit with her in real time, you realize how violent and violating that thing is. It’s a conversation a lot of schools aren’t really having. You’ll have a lot of education about anatomy and not really a lot of education about the dynamics of a relationship and being a boyfriend or a girlfriend. It’s something that I hope you might have heard people in this country talk about a little bit more. But we’re hoping to try to invite a conversation about this slightly more subtle dynamic of young kids in very high stake situations. These things are going to be very high stakes for you going forward. And the best thing to do, unlike that scene [in the movie], is to be upfront and communicative the entire time. Communicate and talk with whomever you’re with.”
And in that moment, all 800 strangers in this 89 year old art-house theater became unified. We were all hopeful for the future, and just what Max has been given, all thanks to Bo. There’s more of that honesty Bo Burnham has become famous for.
Eighth Grade is playing now in New York and L.A., with additional cities on July 20th, and a wide expansion on July 27th. Information about screenings and tickets can be found on their website.