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Interview: Bo Burnham and the Stars of “Eighth Grade”

“Eighth Grade” is a film so viscerally authentic about the agonies of middle school that it all but dissolves the distance between the film and the audience, making us feel as though we are 14 years old trying to find someone to sit with in the lunchroom. In an interview, writer/director Bo Burnham and the film’s stars, Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla, and Emily Robinson, who plays an older girl named Olivia talked about making them feel comfortable playing characters who are very uncomfortable and how social media as intensified some of the anxiety of adolescence. Burnham, who has been very open about his own struggles with anxiety (and who is still less than a decade from his own years as a teen) talked about what he learned from watching teenagers talk about their lives on YouTube.

Bo, why did you choose to make a girl the main character? Is it because boys are even more clueless at that age?

BB: Yes, they’re less self-aware probably or maybe they’re more self-aware but it just doesn’t make it out of their mouths. They can’t really process things. They just don’t run as deep at that age certainly. I don’t know, I didn’t really even like start understanding myself until I was 16 or 15. When I was in 8th grade I was just like hammy and a loser and had no self-awareness and all of a sudden the lights turned on and I was like, “What was I doing this whole time?” and I think for a girl it probably happens a little earlier. And I think the culture just asks deeper questions of girls way earlier than boys. With boys it’s like, “What do you like to do?” and with girls it’s like, “Who are you?”

EF: I do also think though that is a function of social media because I feel like it is getting younger and younger.

Has social media has been helpful as well as making it harder on middle schoolers today as opposed to 10 years ago?

BB: Yes, I think it’s both. I think it expands the spectrum of their emotions; it creates deeper and more immediate connections. They’re hyper-connected, they’re lonely, they’re over-stimulated, and they’re numb, they’re all of these things at the same time so it isn’t introducing new emotions as much as it is introducing new degrees of the same emotions.

The performances are so open and vulnerable and honest. Tell me about the audition process for this film.

BB: I really wanted somebody who felt like a shy person pretending to be confident rather than a confident person pretending to be shy which all the other kids felt like. Elsie was the only one who played the layers of the character correctly. She played Kayla with a lot of purpose. Other people would play Kayla as an inactive because they saw her as the shy girl, as someone who has her head down. But Elsie played her as someone who was wanting things. That was so important to the story and of course this is about an active person trying to get something out of the world.

Emily, is your character she as confident as she seems? Or would like to seem?

ER: I think the reason that Kayla and Olivia have such a great relationship is because Olivia kind of in her own way was Kayla. She has those anxieties. She understood that experience and I think because of that she is very empathetic to it. She is super cool but she still has anxieties. She’s awkward but she’s drawn to people she’s friends with and that gives her some confidence. We were joking on set because I have awkward arm tendencies, so Olivia does, too.

BB: It was great. You guys have these great little physical mirrors that happen between you two over and over. You guys mirror each other physically and it’s very, very sweet.

At the beginning of the film, which takes place in the last week of eighth grade, Kayla sees a video she made at the beginning of middle school, where she makes some predictions about where she will be when she goes to high school. Do you think it’s a good idea to make a video to speak to yourself in the future and what do you think you would learn from it?

EF: Yeah why not make a video to yourself? Maybe it’s not a good idea for everyone it could cause cringyness but yeah, it’s a good straightforward look back on who you were as a person then. If you want to grow as a person you could look at the past. I think you would learn a little about how you’ve grown. It is very person dependent I suppose, and you could learn specific things about yourself and see your progress.

What about the videos Kayla posts online with her advice to other kids, good advice she does not always follow herself?

ER: Kayla makes videos that deal with the issues that she internally is struggling with and the video projects like where she wants to see herself in the future. That is her way of coping and figuring out her place in the world right now and how to get through that but also her means of expression and whether it be a video or a journal or some other medium.

BB: And it’s a funny thing those videos because it’s like, “Okay now, I’m going to make a video but instead of making a video for my audience, I’m going to make a video for myself.” Maybe you’ve been talking to yourself the entire time, which is okay. It’s good to express in any form. It’s good to think out loud in any form I think.

Bo, in writing the film did you watch a lot of teenagers’ videos or vlogs?

BB: The process of the whole movie was just watching these videos of these kids and transcribing them word for word and not even word for word but like sound for sound because some of them weren’t words. So they would be written, “So, um, yeah, so, yeah, the — sorry — um, wait, so okay, yeah, like uh.” It just seems like I could capture the sort of staccato way that they spoke on the page. So that was the initial thing and it was watching those videos of kids talking about how to be cool with ten views. I was watching it going, “If this was a performance in a movie I would think it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, because there are ten things that are going on in this girl’s face at once. I see her presenting herself, I see her reacting to her reflection in the camera, I see her perceiving her perception by other people watching her and jousting and wondering and being bored and engaged.” It was so complex and interesting and so starkly different from the webcam voiceovers I’ve seen in teen movies where people go, “I’m going to tell you the story about how I went from this to that.”

The whole point of this is the articulation. I can see the people in movies she is trying to be, I can see the cultural references she has in her head and I can see her reaction to her own failure which is beautiful and true and right.

I think it’s a job of movies about young people to just not be operational but to be honest, and I think actually a form of honesty is aspirational. And also that who you want to be even if it’s a lie is honest; I find that more honest and vulnerable than who you are, admitting what you want to be and hope you could be is actually the most vulnerable thing you could possibly be. So the way she kind of lies about herself I think is actually a big truth about her. I think people are way happier being concessional than they are admitting what they would like to be perceived as. That’s actually the thing that people are really terrified of, it’s not what they are but what they have failed to be.

As a mom, I really felt for Kayla’s dad and the scene where he tells her how he feels is just beautiful. Why is it so hard for her to be nice to him?

EF: I don’t know this sounds weird but I don’t want to speak for her. I think she loves him. She simply gets annoyed and she deals with so much stuff in her normal life and then for him to be there and be still supportive is almost like a joke being played on her and it’s almost rude.

BB: I didn’t want that scene to feel like some big oratory thing where it’s like, “Oh, he’s saying the perfect thing.” It’s much more just like his intentions are very clear and his effort. I hope that actually the relationship between them is not so much what they say to each other but the effort and the feeling they convey to each other.

Bo, you have said that the small moments are the big moments. What does that mean?

BB: The movie is about anxiety in a small way. I do think the drama of everyone’s life is actually wrapped onto very small moments. People have very stressful days if you ask them what happened they don’t go, “Well I defused a bomb in a parking lot and then I talked to the President.” No, more like some weird tiny thing happened at the grocery store and it made you angry and then the real micro interaction I think played a very big part in how you feel. I think we are actually non-confrontational sensitive creatures. There’s this idea that movies often feel like you have to elevate the action of the story to justify the fact that a movie is going on. I wanted to try to portray something with all the drama and force and nature of a movie but grounded in the particulars of what happens in life which are not that significant. So I hope that when you leave the movie going, “Wow, that was intense,” and then when I ask you what happened you say, “I guess she just went to a pool party and the mall and nothing really happened.” For most 13-year-olds every day is life and death so can we make any day feel like life and death. The question is, can we take a normal day in a kid’s life and make it feel at highest of intensity as it registers to her?

Bo, what does being a stand-up teach you about the rhythms of storytelling or about filmmaking in general?

BB: Making things helps you make films. Truly just having an idea and trying to see it through and also having a dialogue with an audience and seeing how things are received and understanding people’s attention and interest helps staging, conceiving something. Having something in your head, putting it into practice, taking inventory of the distance between what you thought it would be and what it is, trying to shrink that, that all helps. I had to learn a lot of things about film technically but I felt lucky that I had time to at least develop my own creative process. I think engaging in the creative process no matter what type is helpful in any type of creative process going forward.