Kayla is having a hard time. Her father tries to reach out, but he’s too embarrassing for words. No one at school talks to her, which is ironic because she has so much to say. On her YouTube channel, she makes tutorials about basic social activities like fitting in. She has no followers – she is only 13-years-old – so all this is more like therapy than advice. Eighth Grade, the perceptive new film from comedian Bo Burnham, acutely understands Kayla. It treats her life as seriously as she does, even though she’s just worried about boys and whether the popular girl will invite her to the pool party. It is unlike most films about young people because it never, not once, waivers from Kayla’s point of view or condescends to her. Thanks to a brilliant performance from Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla, the film can be funny, although part of it are so awkward and “cringeworthy” that we cannot help but wonder how we made it through that period in our lives. But as Burnham explains to me, his film-making debut deals with a lot more than just a young girl.
Brightest Young Things: A lot coming of age films like Stand By Me are set in the past. How important was it for you to capture “now”? What were the challenges of doing that?
Bo Burnham: Making a movie about now was definitely my impulse. I did not set out to make a movie about kids. What I set out to do was making a movie about now, and how I was feeling now. This isn’t a story about my younger self. People ask me, “How much does this reflect your eighth grade experience?” It’s so weird how little I thought about my own eighth grade experience. I was thinking about my current experience, the experience of the kids themselves, and finding commonalities in that. I tried to make the film how she sees it. She’s experiencing things for the first time, and I wanted to create the feeling of what that was like.
BYT: One way you accomplish that is through music. There are a lot of intense, jarring music cues in this film. Were they always written into the script that way?
B.B.: A lot of technical choices were all about creating a subjective feeling. The rules of the camera, the sound, and whatever were all about getting into her head. I wrote a temp score that was bad (this was shortly after the film was greenlit). I wanted something electronic, but not mechanical, since this is a digital movie. A lot of music in films use mandolins and instruments like that, which make everything seem cute and small. This story does not feel cute and small to Kayla, so the movie should reflect that.
BYT: I was really taken aback when I heard the Anna Meredith tune “Nautilus.” I’m a big fan of hers.
B.B.: Oh, really? You know she composed the whole film. Some of the music was written before, but a lot of it she specifically wrote for the film.
BYT: Have you seen her Tiny Desk Concert?
B.B.: Oh, my god! It’s so good. You know the last tune she does in that concert, “The Vapours”? We wanted to use that in the movie, but couldn’t find a place for it. I show that concert to everybody… You know, I stumbled onto her stuff very late, but when I heard it, I knew it was perfect for the movie. It’s very theatrical, very bold. It’s foreground music, not background, so I feel a lot when I listen to it.
BYT: The script does not have the precocious, twee conversation we hear a lot in coming of age films. There are a lot of “ums” and “uhhs” like the way we are talking right now. How much of that was written? How much of that did you get just from watching teenagers on YouTube?
B.B.: I watched the videos first. The way I started writing this film was I watched young people on YouTube and transcribed everything they said. And I mean every bit of the way they spoke. The “ums,” the “likes,” the stutters, and the stops. Then I tried writing originally in that voice. The script was pretty written like that. It was written to be inarticulate. It’s to the actor’s credit that there is little improvising in what you see. Part of the story is talking about what it means to be inarticulate. To me, that is the experience of being a person, let alone a young person. I don’t mean to talk smack about other movies, but sometimes it feels that if a young person is in a movie, they have to be completely in charge of their own narrative. Yes, they have problems at schools and problems in their personal life, but they’re perfectly able to articulate their struggles. I don’t know… life for me is the gulf between what we have in our heads and what comes out of our mouths.
BYT: Was that what you meant before when you said you wanted to describe “now”? Was this girl your avatar?
B.B.: I feel myself in her. I am an anxious person. I have panic attacks. I think your typical 13-year-old has just become self-aware. They just realize, “Oh, my God, I’m a person and I need to fake everything.” We get better and better at that; the mechanisms to hide ourselves are smoothed over. But with a 13-year-old, there’s a beautiful transparency to the way they’re trying to fool the world.
BYT: I definitely felt that in the scenes where she interacts with the high school students.
B.B.: Even at seventeen, kids have a rhythm and an ability to articulate themselves. When you’re thirteen, you can’t really get your thoughts out like they should, even when you’re around someone you’re supposed to be comfortable with.
BYT: Do you like to watch stuff on YouTube for fun?
BYT: What do you gravitate towards?
B.B.: I gravitate toward videos no one else is watching. I gravitate toward a young kid talking about how to make pancakes, and he has four subscribers. Or someone my age talking about their day or whatever. If you look past the first layer of the Internet – trending videos and whatnot – there’s so much raw humanity out there that’s really beautiful. The way I find them is I search for topics and sort by upload date. That’s where you see the actual people on the Internet. We tend to only talk about the people who are seen because… they are seen.
BYT: When you were working with your younger actors, was there ever a worry you might have them act through something they might be genuinely feeling?
B.B.: Before I found the actors, I was worried about it. I was worried when I had an idea of the kind of actor who would play Kayla. I was worried that I would have to make her feel uncomfortable in the scene where she was supposed to look uncomfortable. That just wasn’t the case. Elsie just isn’t like that. I can explain things to her like an adult actor, and she gets it. In the pool party scene, whenever I said “cut,” she would start laughing and playing with the other kids. She wasn’t in that mind space, which is good because I didn’t want to be exploitative like that. Then I realized it should be this way with all actors. I said to my young actors, “The beautiful thing is you’re never going to be thirteen ever again. This is all stuff you’re feeling, and you know it. Tell me the truth. Show me what it’s like to be an eighth grader in this scene. Tell me what’s wrong.”
I think good art is about showing the world things you’re struggling with, not stuff you’ve figured out. The same is true for kids, too: they don’t have to figure out being a 13-year-old in order to artistically express it. I don’t like the opposite, when I see 16-year-old actors pretending to be thirteen, and I can tell they’re pretending to “be a kid.” When you look back on that time, you’re objectifying yourself. And when you’re actually thirteen, you’re not trying to act like a 13-year-old. You’re trying to be older.
BYT: You said you wanted your young actors to tell you their truth. They must have said at some point, “Kids don’t actually do this.”
B.B.: The big one was when Elsie read the early script and all her messages to other kids were on Facebook. She said to me, “No one uses Facebook anymore,” so I put that line into the script. Everyone now uses Instagram and Snapchat. What they corrected were technical, decorative references like that. I ended up asking questions like, “What would you reference here? What shows do you guys like? What would be a heckle a kid would use for their principal?” One kid replied with, “Lebron James,” so I put it in the script. The script contained the empty space for that to be filled.
BYT: Some of your stand-up has been taking the piss out of celebrities, and punching up. But this film is about empathizing with people who cannot express what they’re feeling. How does the toolkit change when you’re making fun, versus making us empathize?
B.B.: I was just tired of that toolkit. I was tired of irony, cynicism, and satire as ways to try and talk about the current moment. Man, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t know what the fuck is going on. It’s all really confusing; it makes me feel scared and nervous. So the film feels like a way more honest version of myself. My stand-up is going after cultural people. I’m fixated on people who have a lot of power in pop culture, and the Mount Olympus of pop culture is pretty shitty. Rather than doing the negative, which is just criticizing them, I thought I could do something positive by portraying the victims of this culture, or portraying their fans. Just because I dislike a certain facet of pop culture doesn’t mean I don’t love the people who love their culture. Kayla is a fan of all that. Also, I was just done with satire. Once the satire becomes true, what else is there to do?
BYT: Which came first: the desire to make a film, or a desire to tell a different kind of story?
B.B.: They came at the same time. I was tired of myself, I was tired of expressing things through my head, which is what all comics can do. I wanted to do something more grounded and non-authorial. Something that was not clearly me. It all pointed toward the same thing, which is to get behind the camera, work with other people. Film works to that end because with stage, it’s never naturalistic because everyone knows you’re on stage. In a movie, you can sort of forget. You know, my first impulse was to go total cinema verite, and be totally naturalistic. As we were prepping, I realized that a naturalistic style wouldn’t serve her subjective experience because you wouldn’t get in her head. Her experience in the world is heightened, a little surreal.
BYT: A lot of the film is her posting on social media, posting on YouTube, to the point she’s alienated from her father at the dinner table. Do you have any thoughts about what that does to a young person? Were you thinking about a smartphone-addled generation, and how that affects them?
B.B.: I was really trying to portray it honestly, and take inventory of how they live. I wasn’t trying to be prescriptive, or give a TED Talk. I’m not trying to take a stance on the Internet. I just think the Internet and the culture is so dense, so confusing, that my job was just to make it accurate. We can get to the analysis later.
Eighth Grade opens in DC theaters on July 20.