Today in our first of two-part series of EMExclusives, we are gearing up for the upcoming film Eighth Grade. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a young lady who must endure the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through her last week of middle school — and the end of one disastrous year of eighth grade. For our first interview, I recently sat down with comedian turned first-time director Bo Burnham.
What made you want to go from comedy to directing a film?
I was tired of my face.
You were tired of your face? (laughs)
And my voice, and my head. Really, I was wanting to just work with other people and collaborate with other people and try to express my ideas without them being all from me, so this film was a way to do that.
That’s good to hear. How did you come up with the idea of “Eighth Grade?”
I just wanted to make a story about how I was feeling at the time and how it felt to sort of be in the world, maybe a little bit about the internet, and I feel our culture is sort of existing on an eighth grade level a little bit. The internet makes eighth graders of us all, so it felt like a good way to explore it. And it is a time of adolescence we don’t really talk about a lot. We do a lot of stories about high schoolers, not middle schoolers.
You’re right. There are a lot of films that focus on elementary school, and high school, beginning and the end but never in between.
Yeah, I think that’s where all the crazy stuff happens, around thirteen.
Yes, indeed. So, social media plays a huge role in the film. How were you able to capture the essence of the film, but make sure it doesn’t take away from Kayla’s story?
I was just trying to portray it honestly and not really think about it too much. I have a huge relationship with the internet and social media, so it’s just a part of my life. We’re portraying it as part of Kayla’s life and not think of it as—sometimes when it’s put in movies, it’s way too much emphasis. It’s this big thing that’s shoehorned in as a plot device and for me it’s just part of her life, like her clothes. It’s just present and there when she needs it. So yeah, just portray it honestly and show it on camera in the way it feels like it’s integrated in our actual lives.
Wonderful! How did you get Elsie Fisher to portray the role of Kayla?
It was a lot of rehearsal, but she was pretty out of the gate good and natural. It was about with her and all the kids, giving them permission to be themselves and not to feel like they have to be all uptight, worried about being in a movie and delivering and being professional, it’s like, “Don’t worry, you’re 13, you’re not supposed to be professional.”
Just have fun and express yourself. It’s ok if you hiccup, or cough or sneeze. I didn’t say anything in complete sentences until I was twenty, so you shouldn’t worry about being articulate. The story of being a kid is being inarticulate. That was part of it. How can you rehearse and plan for what would eventually be spontaneous? That’s the oxymoron of movies, is you organize, you schedule, you show up and try to capture something that feels fresh and new and exciting.
Well, I like that approach, especially since you want the kids to be kids and not just feel like they’re reading off a script, because I felt that the dialogue seems so natural but yet it’s scripted.
Yeah, that was the challenge of the writing, the costume design. How do you write kids who don’t know how to speak? How do you dress kids that don’t know how to dress themselves? The story of being young is failing to articulate yourself, failing to be what you think you can be, or failing to be in “movies”. So that was our hope, was to try to portray the kids in the way they actually are, all the way down to the way they actually speak and express their thoughts.
Absolutely. How much of “Eighth Grade” is your life?
It’s more my life now. I hope people see themselves in Kayla now. And of course, I hope it will feel a little nostalgic of that time, or anti-nostalgic and be thankful that they’re not in that time. But really, I’m a nervous person on the internet. I’m a nervous person in the world, so I can relate to her and I think a lot of people can relate to her and her feelings of wanting to be more confident and put herself out there and try to square the person she thought she was going to be with the person she actually is, so…there’s a lot of me in there. It’s not circumstantially personal for me; I was never a thirteen-year-old girl in 2018. It’s emotionally personal.
Do you feel the internet has changed the way we perceive ourselves?
I think so. I think it’s changed the degree to which we perceive ourselves or the frequency with which we perceive ourselves, like we have to think of ourselves constantly. We used to be able to get away from other people’s perception of us sometimes when we were alone and that follows us everywhere. It’s not that it’s presenting anything radically new, it’s just presenting a new degree of similar feelings. When you were a kid, you were always self-conscious about who you were and what other people thought about you. You used to be able to go home and get away from school for a little bit, and now school follows you in your pocket wherever you go. Your social life is constantly with you and has numbers attached to it, so that’s a lot.
Yeah, it’s a lot, considering how I grew up in eighth grade and the internet was just beginning, it was this new tool and it was like, it’s everywhere. It’s part of my life, it’s part of my daily life, my social life. It’s everywhere and it’s scary in a way.
Yeah, it’s scary to imagine being—we both had a little sense of ourselves before the internet came along, and for kids to never have known a world without it is something to really acquaint the version of yourself online with your real life self is a lot and heavy at work. It’s not a movie that’s meant to demonize the internet, just portray it. It’s scary, but it’s also a place where people can connect. It’s meant to objectify yourself, but it’s also a place where she can express herself. It’s just a powerful thing, I don’t think it’s good or bad; I just think it’s deep.
I take it that the social media pages that we saw, are real pages? They were real people? They were not created just for the movies?
Oh, they might have been. They were actual, real accounts, they were real Instagram accounts. Oh, the things she’s scrolling through, those are real accounts. But when she’s on her Instagram, we made that. We made a bunch of fake accounts to do it. We really are shooting actual Instagram, actual Twitter. We didn’t do any screen replacements; it really is the real thing. We knew if she logged into “Friendbook.com” we were dead. We knew the movie was going to be over if that happened.
I’m about to talk to the co-stars Elsie and Emily especially this is the first time we actually see a senior help out an incoming freshman—which that never happened to me in high school—so, I want you to talk about that scene, that experience.
Yeah, I think it was important to show as much as the world seems to be conspiring against her, there are good people out there. That’s also what makes life more tragic and sad is that there actually is good to be had out there. The world is just conspiring to make you miserable, you just give up, but the truth is, there is real connection, love and friendship to be had, so that’s part of it. Part of it is to portray the world honestly and say yes, there are dangers kids face, but there are also good people out there trying to help you. As many problems I have with the culture, there are also good parts of it, so it was just trying to give fair duty to each side.
I like the actor who played the dad. He seems like the trying hard dad, thinking about losing his daughter, but at the same time he realizes that he has to let her grow up. And I want to talk about the relationship between the actor who plays the dad and Kayla’s character.
Josh Hamilton plays the dad. Him and Elsie were the only actors we rehearsed with.
I rehearsed with her separately, but every other experience she has in the movie is new to Kayla so part of it was going like, “we’re going to keep you guys separate until the day. I’ll rehearse with you, but those experiences should feel fresh, but her and Josh need to feel like they’ve known each other literally forever, and that dinner scene, that scene needs to feel like it’s happened every day for ten years, so we ran that scene a hundred times, so by the time we got to the day to shoot it they hated that scene, as they should.
(laughs) I’ve got to say, I hated that scene too, but it was fun to portray. If I was fourteen and my dad was bothering me about my school day, I’d feel the exact same way.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. That’s really what it was and Elsie and Elsie’s dad and Josh spent some time together, which was nice. They got to know each other. It was just getting them comfortable.
Excellent. You’re directing a movie for the very first time, who were your inspirations to become a director?
My girlfriend’s a writer/director who was directing before I was. I got inspired by her, and directors I’ve worked with, friends around me, and even theater teachers I had been around, movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. I’ve just been inspired mostly by the immediate people around me that were in that space, I saw them functioning and it felt like, “Oh, I’d like to do that.”
I usually ask this question of first time directors, and the question is what is the lesson you would take after directing your very first film that you’ll take into your next film?
I think not to direct it a thousand times in my head beforehand and try to let it be open. The process is going to be a compromise so as open as I can stay and open to better ideas as I can stay, the better, I think.
One last question. What do you hope audiences will take away from this film, especially with those incoming eighth graders?
I don’t need them to take away anything specific. They can think what they want; I just want them to feel. The movie is not there to tell you what to think. I hope it inspires feelings. I hope people feel a lot and then maybe on the drive home they can have a fun talk about whatever they want, but as long as they feel something, that’s all that I care about.
Something tells me we’re going to compare notes about the talks about how was eighth grade for them.
I hope the parents have a little more empathy for the kids and the kids have a little more empathy for the parents.
Probably, but due to the generation gap–
Yeah, who knows?
Thank you Bo for the interview. Click HERE to read the 2nd part of the Eighth Grade interviews which I talked to co-stars Elsie Fisher & Emily Robinson! “Eighth Grade” – IN THEATRES NOW – IN DC THIS FRIDAY