One would not necessarily expect someone who rose to prominence as a YouTube star to be the writer and director of what is one of the best films of the year so far. Yet somehow Bo Burnham is that person.
I'll confess that I wasn't familiar with Burnham's internet presence and clout before seeing the film, which I actually found helpful. Eighth Grade feels very much a departure from his YouTube videos and comedy specials. Given his background, it does make sense that some of the strongest parts of the movie are how it captures the current way we operate as a society online.
As if puberty and middle school weren't hard enough, now it's easy to measure popularity in literal numbers. Instagram and Facebook followers (okay, not even the latter, because apparently no youths use Facebook anymore) are the new social currency. Burnham clearly understands the universal pain of longing for acceptance at a young age, but he also craftily sets the piece very much in the here and now.
If in 200 years one wanted a snapshot of what life was like for a younger person in 2018, this film would become the perfect reference material.
I had the chance to speak with Burnham about the film (interview has been mildly edited for clarity):
DHK: Which character do you admire the most, and why?
Burnham: Well, admire is a strange word. That's interesting. I mean, I see myself in Kayla the most, but I also admire her and where she goes in the end. She certainly has a self-awareness about herself that I did not at that age and gets to a place that took me a long time to get to. And then there's a lot of my mother in the dad character. So there's a lot of admiration there for sure as well.
DHK: How much of yourself would you say is reflected in Kayla?
Burnham: It's much more emotionally autobiographical than circumstantially biographical.
DHK: Are you telling me that you've never been an eighth grade girl?
Burnham: I know, exactly (laughs). I sort of didn't come to terms with my own anxiety until I was in my early 20s. She sort of comes into it when she's 13 or 14, so she's way ahead of it. But you know, I was having panic attacks backstage at a theater instead of, you know, in a bathroom before a pool party. But the feeling is the same, so I relate to her very closely emotionally. And again, I relate to her much more now than I did then. I see myself in her now more than I see my 13-year-old self.
DHK: What was or would have been your class superlative in the eighth grade?
Burnham: Mine was– I got best actor because I was in Footloose. (Laughs)
DHK: I hope playing the Kevin Bacon part.
Burnahm: I don't know, most gangly or something? Most lollipop shaped?
DHK: That's a very bizarre superlative; you have a very specific school you went to apparently. What was the most logistically or emotionally challenging scene for you to shoot?
Burnham: Logistically challenging was really the pool party. It was just, like, 30 kids wandering around — you gotta make sure they don't drown. Literally logistically you gotta make sure they don't drown. And the scene that might have been the hardest was her storming up the stairs when she was upset after the scene in the car. Just because it was very high energy, sort of emotional, and it's all one shot, so a lot of things have to be working at once. You know, all the scenes were a challenge and enjoyable in their own way. We tried to approach everything with a high level of sensitivity. Even things that are sort of comedic in the movie, we treat it very seriously on set.
DHK: Speaking of sensitivity, I think that scene in the car leading into that — I didn't breathe through the entire thing. It was well done, very stressful. Where did that come from — is that just kind of the things that children are facing now, and you saw that reflected? Or is that sort of inspired by something else?
Burnham: It's not completely unfamiliar to me personally, without getting too specific. But yeah, it just felt important to talk about these early experiences that on paper might not sound like a big deal. But when you actually sit in the moment, you can imagine her telling the story six months after the fact, and someone saying, "so what, he sat in the backseat with you, touched your arm, and you said no. What's the big deal?"
But when you sit with her in the moment and experience her actual subjective experience, you see the truth in that it's incredibly violent and emotionally violating. And it doesn't need to be on-paper criminal to be incredibly incredibly wrong. So that was sort of the idea of trying to explore how loaded these things can be. Kids are taught how to use birth control, yet they're not taught how to actually be in a relationship. Or be a boyfriend or be a girlfriend, or how to enter your first sexual experience, and what should be stated and what shouldn't be. Those things are rapidly changing now because of the national conversation, thank god. But it felt important to– the scene doesn't actually end up going that far, but that's sort of the point. It doesn't need to go a certain distance for it to be incredibly traumatic.
DHK: As a woman who's experienced situations like that, I appreciated how you — as a guy — were able to capture that sensation and communicate it across. Congrats, thank you? I don't what to say to that…
Burnham: I appreciate it, yeah. It was important to me. I was never HIM — but I knew, I was around young boys, and I think I have an insight into the sort of toxic way young boys can manipulate young women in those circumstances. So it felt important for me to interrogate that thing as well. You know, that thing I was familiar with.
DHK: Actually, speaking of toxicity — the internet has evolved greatly since you sort of put yourself out there. What do YOU think the biggest positive and biggest negative change has been?
Burnham: I don't even think it's necessarily even positive and negative. I think it's just a matter of depth. It asks such deeper questions of us now. When I was 16, I would post, you know, a three-minute video on YouTube every two weeks. Or not even. Over the course of three years I posted 13 three-minute videos. And now it's like, you post 15-minute videos every other day.
You used to have Facebook and you'd make a little website about yourself, and now they have Twitter and Instagram. Which is "What do you think?" "What do you look like?" "What do you think?" "What do you look like?", share your every thought, share your every look. And those are just deeper questions — it's so much more involved with young people at like, a soul-type level. It's more that it gets deeper and wider, so all the sort of things that were already there — yeah, it's good and bad, it can make you feel shitty or excited. Now those emotions are just bigger and more exaggerated. That's what it feels like to me.
DHK: Are there things that make you feel out of touch? Do you feel like you have to keep up with — first it was YouTube, now it's Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat — all the things. Do things make you feel out of touch?
Burnham: Oh yeah, totally! I had written Facebook into the script as the way that she messages everybody, and then Elise read the script and told me that no one uses Facebook anymore, and so that's why that line is in the movie. That's why all the DMs are on Instagram and such. I was totally out of touch, and I knew that, and I was deferring to the kids always to tell me what it was like. It moves so, so quickly. I feel like I have my eye on it more than the average person my age, and I still feel like a– I feel elderly around 13-year-olds.
DHK: Do you have any desire to go back to performing, or now are you trying to shift towards more of a writing/directing track?
Burnham: Not right now. I mean, maybe in a couple years or so I'll feel drawn back to it. And I'd love that if I did. But there's just nothing really urgently I want to express up there. It was much more exciting to collaborate with people and work with other people than to just sit — look to myself for inspiration — and have to express everything through my own face. I got a little tired of that, so I'm taking some time off. But the door's not closed forever.
DHK: What is something you learned from directing comedy specials that you applied to directing a narrative?
Burnham: Comedy specials are really about serving the comedian — it's not a director's medium. You really learn to just serve the person on screen, which I think is very valuable to narrative filmmaking. And also, comedy specials are very much about making one look very versatile — only setting up and lighting one setup but being able to shoot it for an hour and have it not look boring. So that helps too, when you get to a location to really see the location from every angle and want to get everything you can out of it. And then obviously there's just the sort of nuts and bolts, working with a crew. When you're shooting with eight cameras it becomes a lot easier than shooting with just two.
DHK: That's a lot of coverage!
Burnham: Yeah, exactly!
DHK: My last question is: If you could go back in time and say one thing to middle school you, what would it be?
Burnham: Chill out, and you're a kid, and actually you don't have to keep looking forwards. You're going to grow up, even if you don't — you don't have to try to grow up to grow up, you just will. You can just chill out about it.
DHK: Thanks so much!
Eighth Grade is in theaters now.