You've talked a lot about your relationship with YouTube and how it's changed over time. Is it weird to still be associated with the stuff that you did when you were 16?
Burnham: I mean, yes. Of course. I've come to at least not see YouTube as a slur anymore. I think I was very scared of that. It's a bummer people Google me and they're seeing not just jokes, but I was writing offensive jokes -- intentionally offensive jokes -- because that was the name of the game in 2006. Comedy was pretty shitty. So shock jock humor as done by a 16-year-old is not the most subtle shit in the world. But yeah, I just hope people are open to someone changing and evolving and being forgiven. I disavow. And that's part of the movie too: I know what it's like to have cringey videos online.
Yeah, and on a much larger scale. When watching the movie for the first time I kept waiting for the moment where something would go wrong, where other kids would find her videos and torture her for it. Or even the scene with the boy pressuring her to take her shirt off in the car, which does go to a really dark place, but doesn't go to the darkest place it could go.
Burnham: The intention was to rein it in, but also to say it doesn't need to go there to be significant. She doesn't need to go viral and be bullied for her life to be traumatic. And especially the scene in the car: It doesn't need to be that significant for it to be wrong. Because it's the type of scene you could imagine her describing six months after the fact, but someone going to her, "What, he sat in the backseat with you, and touched your arm, and you said no, what's the big deal?" But when you actually sit with her you realize it's violent and emotionally violating and awful.
That's kind of the carapace of the whole movie, saying experiences don't need to go to a movie level of significance to be incredibly significant to somebody, and that we project meaning. Not that she's projecting meaning onto everything -- things like the Riley scene are actually truly significant. But to take it on her terms and show what would actually happen to a kid, which might not be a lot. My hope for the movie is that you leave the movie and go, "Oh my god, that's intense." And you go: "Well what happened? I guess she just went to a pool party and nothing happened.' It sounds very small.
Having been a boy at that age, what was it like thinking about the differences for girls?
Burnham: Part of it was I did comedy for a long time and the people that would come up to me after shows and really get what I was going for when I was talking about my own emotional experience were, like, young girls. More than boys my own age. They would come up and be like, "I get what you're saying about having anxiety and having an audience and being worried." And I would be like, "Huh." If there was a bridge between us that I had to walk, it was built by them to me first. I really actually feel understood by someone like Kayla before I presumed to understand someone like Kayla. That's what it was built from. It was confirmed by meeting Elsie when I met Elsie. I was like, "Oh, we're the same person."
Were you a kid that was friends with girls at that age? I wasn't friends with boys at that age.
Burnham: I was. Probably like 50/50, but I didn't really turn in on myself until, like, sophomore year. The movies that I tend to really connect with viscerally and emotionally and personally are movies I don't demographically align with. That is what is most powerful to me about specifically film is to be able to see yourself in someone that is demographically not like yourself is really, really powerful and beautiful to me. To show that despite whatever circumstantial differences, I feel like this person, while at the time trying to serve the specific experience of her and knowing what I didn't know and deferring to other people on what I didn't know.
And also thinking like, there's a kind of a shitty thing that's like, why can't she be a conduit for a human condition? Everyone has been forced to see themselves in straight cis white male characters.