#INTERVIEW: BO BURNHAM ON “EIGHTH GRADE”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
“I connect to her personally. This isn’t a story about my daughter. This is a story about me, now, through her.”
This type of observation is not what I thought I would hear from Bo Burnham. Admittedly, my knowledge of the 27-year-old Comedian was limited to his scene stealing role in last summer’s Oscar-nominated The Big Sick. But as I discovered his eclectic and zany stand-up comedy routines and music videos on YouTube (the online arena where he was first noticed by the likes of Judd Apatow), I began to put together a picture that contradicted the lanky, insightful and thoughtful Writer/Director I was listening to in a recreated TTC subway car alongside other local online journalists a few weeks ago.
His Film, Eighth Grade, has received unanimous praise since debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. The Film revolves around Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and how she navigates through the challenges presented by her last week of middle school. The Film is honest, raw and unflinching in its awkwardness, but it is also quietly hilarious and moving.
Burnham finished the first draft of the Script in 2014, and it took three years before he was finally able to make the Film. His initial intention was to write a story about the Internet from the point of view of someone like him, but quickly pivoted when he realized how it “just felt so embarrassing because [the character] was just so hateable and like why? Why is this person doing this? But when you’re an eighth-grader, and when you’re 13 – you can kind of forgive our behaviour a little bit better.”. As he was preparing to write the story that would become Eighth Grade, he watched YouTube videos made by teenagers as inspiration: “I [transcribed] exactly what they said, every sound…‘uh yeah, so, eugh, neugh, sorry, blah, so what I’m trying to say is.’. That’s what I was trying to write. Cause the way kids actually sound is so much more complex than the way kids are written and performed.”.
Where other Filmmakers and Writers have told stories within the nostalgic realm of high school, Burnham felt it was very important to set his story in middle school. He points out emphatically early in our discussion that “You’re coming of age in high school, but high school’s like yeah, you’re becoming an adult. When you’re in eighth grade, you’re literally still a child.”. And this way of thinking extended into his depiction of the Internet and its importance to Kayla and the rest of her classmates: “The Internet means the most to those kids, because they don’t know a world before it. It’s not this other thing to them that they’re living with. It’s the way that they live, and always have.”.
When it came time to cast the Film, Burnham says there was no magical formula: “It was just a mixture of kid actors. All of the extras were just from the school, from the surrounding areas and the day players were ones from the school we shot at. The girl whose pool that is, is in the pool party scene with some of her friends.”. He wanted the Film to be as authentic as possible and acted alongside the actors during rehearsals to make them feel comfortable. But what he strived for on-set was to “make a safe environment for the kids to be free…and give them permission to be themselves.”.
While we touched on various aspects of the Film from the awkward humour (“I love cringe. If you’re cringing it means you’re feeling it with the person”), to the Film’s electronic Score (“I wanted the music to be intense…and reflect her inner experience which is visceral and big”), to even politics (“I was certain I was making it for Hillary’s America…[Now] I don’t know if the country makes it to when she’s a senior”), the most enlightening aspect of our discussion was also the most mature. In discussing the importance of Kayla’s father Mark (Josh Hamilton) to the story, Burnham says that parents “don’t specifically know you moment to moment, but they know the big overarching you that at that age you just can’t attend to because two years ago feels like fucking forever ago and you were a different person.”. But while the watchful parental aspect is heavily emphasized, Burnham feels the Film’s more relevant thesis is that “moments that don’t sound like a big deal, of all different types, when you actually live them, are a huge deal.”.
Burnham’s lasting hope for Eighth Grade is simple from the on-set: “I just hope people see it and feel something.”. He hopes it will serve both parents and children well but notes that “It definitely wasn’t [made] for eighth-graders. I hope eighth-graders like it, but it’s definitely not primarily for them.”. As he dug a bit deeper however, touching on the inherent sexism involved in centring the Film on a young girl, it becomes clear what his ultimate intention was in making the Film: “Like no one goes oh Hamlet, was that only for Princes of Denmark? Everyone sees themselves in him, even if they aren’t a prince, or a man, or Danish or whatever he was. And I think a 13-year-old girl can be the same thing. Everyone should be able to see themselves in her.”.
When asked what’s next, Burnham deadpans, “I’ll bang my head off the wall. I’m not a great multitasker.”. It’s only after he says this that I begin to remember who Burnham was before he made Eighth Grade and how many of his fans will soon see a completely different side of him. And as someone who has yet to properly harness time management, I know we will be awaiting eagerly whatever he crafts as his follow-up.
Elevation Pictures release EIGHTH GRADE in Toronto on Friday, July 20, 2018 and additional cities starting Friday, August 3, 2018.
(Photo credit: David Baldwin)