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Interview: Bo Burnham Talks 'Eighth Grade'

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Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher on the set of Eighth Grade. Photo by Linda Kallerus. Courtesy of A24.

For many people, their eighth grade experiences (including this writer’s) were just the worst. However, A24’s Eighth Grade, written and directed by Bo Burnham, is far from it—it’s one of the best films of the year. In a world colored by Snapchat filters and self-worth based on Instagram likes, Burnham’s feature debut captures an authentic look of what it’s like moving through the world as a young girl that feels overrun by nervous energy. Academy Art U News sat down with Burnham to discuss his film during a recent press stop in San Francisco.

Burnham, a Boston-bred comedian, who got his start on YouTube and shot to fame as a stand-up comic, began working on a script as a way to address his own anxiety and to talk about the internet. He had an interest in telling a story about middle school, because of the openness of kids at that age, and that “you’re really, truly between being a kid and being an adult,” but didn’t know at the time it would result in what would eventually become Eighth Grade.

While writing, Burnham stumbled on the voice of Kayla Day, a shy eighth grader that’s trying to get through her last week of middle school in one piece, and made the decision to center the film around her character. Kayla makes YouTube videos that a smattering of people watch, if any, where she offers advice on being confident, how to be yourself and growing up, all things she’s working on while dealing with feeling “really, like, nervous all the time.” The distance between the person that Kayla is and the person she wants to be combined with how the character “actually feels in an intense way” is what Burnham found to be relatable.

“It felt like it’s all of my experience, except without all the sort of cynical adult stuff that makes it unlikable and annoying,” he explained. “It felt like the conversation about the users on the internet and the way we are on the internet is so cynical, and it’s about how shallow and annoying we are, but when it’s heard, you feel for it and you understand sort of where this is all coming from, which is a place of just wanting to be loved and wanting to be seen.”

Playing the role of Kayla is Elsie Fisher, who Burnham thought was “just immediately right” following her initial reading.

“[The film] was alive in a way that it never was when anyone else read, so I was certain it was her immediately, and then working with her was just amazing,” he said. “She was the lighthouse for the entire production. She set a level of realism that everyone else in the movie had to deliver up to.”

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Bo Burnham, writer and director of Eighth Grade. Photo by Jeff Vespa/@portraits. Courtesy of A24.

Fisher’s performance comes across as naturally instinctive, yet nuanced in the way Kayla’s state of nervousness radiates off the screen as she engages with her peers and in the way she paces back and forth in her bedroom while on the phone. And even when she’s not speaking, you can almost sense the gears in her brain working overtime while she tries to best articulate her thoughts.

When it came to providing Fisher with direction for these specific scenes, Burnham said the experience was almost like he was acting along with her, playing the voice inside Kayla’s head.

“The experience of anxiety is something about the voice in your head, like the voice we’re not hearing, the thoughts we’re not hearing. Well, this is happening,” he explained. “So that was part of the direction. We’re just providing those thoughts, providing what’s running through your head as you stand at a window and look out at a pool party or anything like that. [Elsie] was very intuitive and smart, and I didn’t have to supply her with every moment; she very naturally understood it.”

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Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in Eighth Grade. Photo courtesy of A24.

Part of what makes Eighth Grade stand out is the way the internet is portrayed and utilized in the film. All the characters’ social media accounts were real accounts created for the film, and Burnham chose to shoot actual phone and computer screens to allow his actors to interact with the internet as if it was another character.

Being that social media is tangible throughout the film, and an ever-growing part of the current online climate, Burnham shared his thoughts on how young people interact with social media platforms and the potential danger in its wake.  

“The issue isn’t so much that we live our real life and we have our fake online persona, it’s more that we’re projecting all of the things about our online life onto our real life and we’re viewing our real life as just means to the game of online life, which is a bummer,” he remarked. “Like, kids are going to a party and before they even go, they’re thinking about what pictures they’ll take at the party to be seen later, and then they're thinking about how people are going to react and what they should do if they react and they haven’t even went yet. You know what I mean? … You're viewing your real life from the future and you're never actually in the present moment. … That's the danger of the current moment; it's not that we act like the internet world is real, it’s that we act like the real world is the internet.”

 

Eighth Grade is now playing in San Francisco.