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Interview: Eighth Grade’s Bo Burnham

by Leora Heilbronn

Bo Burnham was hysterical at the exclusive screening of Eighth Grade that Brief Take attended the night before our interview. In fact, it was our second time seeing the film in three days, but it had just as much resonance, if not more so, seeing it with the multi-talented director in attendance.

However, his mood changed to that of pensive and reflective the following day as we sat down with him at the YouTube Space. We saw an enhanced perspective of Burnham (and his heart warming movie) that really proves that he is an auteur to watch. Go see Eighth Grade. And then see it again.

Here is a condensed and edited version of our roundtable interview with actor-director-comedian-content creator Bo Burnham.

What was your inspiration behind crafting this particular story? 

Bo Burnham: I really just wanted to talk about my feelings. I was always an anxious person, but at that particular time in my life, I was having sort of an anxiety crisis. I had a lot that I wanted to get out. I also wanted to really write about anxiety and the internet, because I feel like no one has been talking about the internet correctly.

I was honestly just tired of writing clever shit. I wanted to make something more granular and aggressively un-clever. It all came together with this idea. Popular culture wasn’t doing young people or the internet any favours. Neither were being portrayed correctly. Since the internet means a lot to me, I was almost advocating for myself, in a way. The internet is a lot subtler and stranger than people talk about. It’s not all hashtags and cyberbullying, which is how it’s usually talked about. I always felt that the truth about growing up, and particularly growing up with the internet, is a lot more nuanced and stranger than it’s usually depicted.

You have some distance now from your own year in eighth grade. You’re still very young but were you ever worried that you might make the kids sound of a different generation?

BB: [laughs] Every time you see teachers dabbing or you see Kayla’s dad saying something embarrassing, those are totally moments when I’m giving voice to myself. I wanted that voice to exist. I did want that older pandering voice to be in there. You need to have the voice of people who don’t understand what these characters are going through.

But for the kids, I would always defer to them all the time. I had a line in there about getting messages on Facebook, and Elsie told me straight up that no one uses Facebook anymore. Then I gave that line to someone else in the movie. I was keenly aware that I was the old guy the whole time. I was always asking them if something sounded right. I was always asking them to come up with their own references. I had their input on everything from the posters in their room to the calendars on their walls. There are references in this movie to things I’ve never heard of and that I think I’ll never understand. I don’t get what “Gucci” means. Some kid’s yelling out “Lebron James,” and I don’t fucking get it. [laughs] I’ve never seen Rick and Morty, so when they have to start acting like those characters, I just let them lead that stuff because it feels real to them. And if I can see that it’s real to them, it becomes real to me.

Coming from a YouTube background where you worked on a fairly ambitious level for that medium, I’m sure you were used to some level of collaboration. A feature film is obviously a lot more focused on collaboration with a large team of people. Did you have to change your approach to collaboration when you decided to make a feature film?

BB: I don’t think so, but there is definitely a difference. When I was first working online, I wasn’t collaborating with anyone, really, unless I absolutely had to. Then I went and did stand-up for a long time, which is very much NOT a collaborative medium or process. I would approach mostly tech people to help out with some of the more elaborate specials and things like that. The D.P. who shot my specials shot the movie, and the producer of those was one of the producers of the film. This movie was made largely with people that I had already collaborated with in some way helping to guide this along the way.

You mostly just try to find people that work with what you’re trying to do and find the people that make the most sense. I’ve always approached collaboration on a project by project basis. I want to surround myself with people I just want to spend time with. For me, that’s always been at the heart of what I want to do. You just want to be around people you get along with and that you can talk to for a decent amount of time about what you’re feeling and what you want to do. You want to be able to do that without feeling like you want to die. [laughs] That’s actually priority number one. Then hopefully they’re smart and understand the project. But mostly you just don’t want to die talking to them.

After working on something as solitary as stand-up, I was really desperate to collaborate again. I was tired and burnt-out working by myself, so collaboration and having those kinds of discussions about the material was a real joy for me. But there was some overlap here with what I learned doing stand-up, particularly when it comes to conceiving something and then trying to stage it. I’m definitely confident in my comedic timing abilities, so when we got into the editing room I was able to discuss how we could futz a line a second or two in either direction to make sure that it hits. If someone has to make a fart noise, I’ll know immediately where that would work. [laughs] But these kids came with their own sense of timing that was really helpful. But outside of pulling from my experiences being able to stage comedic moments effectively, this was really different from anything I had ever done, and it couldn’t have been done without truly great collaborators like I had here.

The film has a very different musical score than other films in the coming of age genre, in the best and most unique way possible. Most of the soundtrack is electronic and not the kind of poppy, bubblegum stuff that adults usually associate with kids in their early teens. Can you talk a little about working with composer Anna Meredith and how you came to license the Enya song that’s central in the film? 

BB: I always wanted something electronic because I always thought the acoustic, lilting sort of mandolin scores for teen movies felt so fake to me. I just wanted it to be visceral and reflect her subjective experience. Whenever Kayla sees Aiden, you get this musical sting that’s nothing like what you see in teen movies, but that’s definitely an approximation of the real feeling. Those feelings aren’t cute and little. They’re pretty grandiose. The inside of a young adult’s mind isn’t all pop songs. There are pop sounds, which is what we wanted to use. We wanted to take the sounds of pop music, but to overlay it onto a weirder, more avant-garde score, which is exactly what Anna was able to do so amazingly. She makes music where you can recognize the sounds as poppy and bright, but they’re assembled in this emotionally strange and sometimes scary sort of way. What I actually told her was that I wanted to sound like what it would be like if Trent Reznor was a thirteen year-old girl. Anna definitely tapped into that.

And the Enya thing was something I always wanted. To get the rights to it, I actually had to send her a note. I had to send a “Dear Enya” note. [laughs] I was, like, “Do I tie this to a salmon and put it in a river? How do I get a note to Enya?” [laughs] But I was just obsessed with getting that song in the movie! I knew the song, and I heard it again during the production, and I knew that the sequence where Kayla is browsing social media on her phone was going to be an important one, and cinematically I knew that scene needed something grand to make it come across how I wanted it to come across. I wanted it to feel as grand as surfing the internet feels to me. I never wanted the stereotypical sort of hacker score that people use when they’re on a computer. For me, surfing the internet can be something really transcendent, and that’s how I wanted the music to feel. I wanted it to feel like a spiritual and emotional experience, which is what Enya sounds like. I think Enya sounded like the internet before the internet even existed. It’s acoustic sounds that sound electronic. It’s also the kind of music you might listen to when you’re thirteen in an effort to sound deep.

When you make a film that’s about feeling awkward all the time, I assume there are different levels to the creative process, and that there are unexpected turns in the road. I can imagine that there are scenes in this that turned out differently from how you envisioned them on the page when you went to shoot them, and probably scenes that, once they were completed, played differently from what you expected when you put them in front of an audience. Were there any specific moments that turned out differently than how you imagined?

BB: That’s really interesting to think about, but you’re right. That definitely happened, but never in a bad way. The goal was to always stay true to the tone. We had to stick to a sense of honesty in terms of depicting how awkwardly kids talk to adults and to each other. If that was funny or scary or sad, that would all emerge on set when we found what we felt was that sense of honesty.

There’s a scene where Kayla is trying to talk to her crush, Aiden, during a school drill where they all have to hide under their desks, and I was terrified that no young actor would ever be able to do all the things that I’m asking Elsie to do in this one scene. It was too much even for me to probably do. I was asking her to flirt, but also be terrified. I was asking her to lie, but to also be completely transparent. She had to be covert, but also terribly awkward. It was the scene I was most convinced going in wasn’t going to work, and the one that I had the most anxiety about. And I couldn’t believe when Elsie performed it how close it was to what I had envisioned.

But in terms of things playing differently with an audience – and in a really good way – I would have to say that the scene where Kayla is in the backseat of a car with a boy was definitely that moment. Watching that play with a crowd for the first time blew me away, but in a good way. We were hoping that the scene pulled people in the way we wanted it to, but we didn’t know how it was going to come across at the time. People always ask me now what it must have been like to film that scene, but really when we filmed it nothing exceptional or harrowing happened outside of us capturing the scene. There were seven people in this car, and it wasn’t crazy intense or anything like that, despite what the scene depicts. It was a really safe, well lit environment. Elsie actually had her lines sitting in her lap. [laughs] And yet, some people when they see the film are so unnerved. To watch that with a crowd for the first time was something special. None of us realized at the time what we were onto. It struck the chord we wanted it to, but we never expected how well it would do that. People were yelling at the screen. It was a fucking awkward room to be in, which was great because it was what we wanted.

We were never concerned that we were going too far, but we had plenty of other blanket concerns, and we always wanted to create an environment and a film where we could talk about all of these different and awkward life moments. If we got no reaction at all, we would have failed horribly. I was always aware that I was a dude telling this story, and that I had to work extra hard throughout this process to make sure we were true to the lives of other young girls and not just my own. That was there from the moment I thought of the idea. I was always drawn to this story, but I knew we all had to work really hard to make sure that we did it properly and that we were never backing down from anything.

I loved the father-daughter dynamic in this movie! The scenes with Josh Hamilton and Elsie Fisher are the beating heart of the film and had the audience both laughing and crying. Can you talk a little about crafting those scenes and what drew you to Josh? 

BB: That character was so fascinating to come up with because he’s clearly trying too hard to be cool, but he’s also the most genuine in his effort to connect to a child in a non-cynical way. He’s not pandering in the way he shows affection or any kind of kinship to his daughter. And I don’t blame teachers for dabbing or trying to get an easy reaction from their students. Whatever these teachers are trying to do, I like to think they’re trying to do it from a place of love, and I think that’s what makes Kayla’s father such a special character. He’s kind of embarrassing, but that love is so pure and unfiltered.

Part of the point of being the parent of a teenager, I think, is to just let them repeatedly punch you in the face. You kind of have to be their punching bag because they need to get all of these big emotions out, and taking it out on a parent might be healthier than taking it out on someone else. She’s so frustrated by her classmates, but she can’t take it out on them because she’s too scared. She’s going to take it all out on him. We’re often meanest to the people we love because they’re the only ones we’re comfortable being mean to. He’s taking it and he should take it. People actually ask me now, “How do I get my kid to stop being mean at the dinner table?” My answer is that you don’t. You have to let them be angry. We teach our kids that it’s okay to be angry, but as an adult you know there are only so many places where displays of outward anger are socially acceptable. You have to get something out. If your kid isn’t expressing any of that to you, that’s when I would say you need to look out. That’s when something is more seriously wrong. If your kid isn’t expressing any of that stuff, that’s even worse.

And Josh I had loved for a long time. I always found him to be really warm, human, and exciting to watch. He’s a really warm, and attentive actor. I knew that if Josh and Elsie could hold a scene together and find a common ground that the film would be really exciting. Josh is so refined, technical, and brilliant, and Elsie is really raw. By working together, you could see that she became a little more refined and he became a little more raw. That was so great to watch it happen.


Eighth Grade is now available on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray!

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