Bo Burnham On the Cringey Pre-Teen Moments that Inspired 'Eighth Grade'
Near the end of my conversation with comedian-turned-director Bo Burnham last month at the A24 offices in Manhattan, he drops that he's not trying to be a "multi-hyphen douchebag or something." I can't help but inform him that while he may not be a douchebag -- he was very friendly in the 20 minutes we spent chatting -- he is certainly a multi-hyphenate. Specifically, the 27-year-old is a comedian hyphen songwriter hyphen filmmaker hyphen wunderkind. And now he's making his directorial debut with the acclaimed film Eighth Grade, a so-real-it-hurts portrait of a shy 13-year-old girl who longs to crack the shell of nerves that keeps her from the cool crowd.
Burnham himself was only a little older -- 16, to be exact -- when he became famous posting funny, crass songs to YouTube, the same platform from which his heroine Kayla (Elsie Fisher) gives uneasy advice about "being yourself" and other wholly earnest methods of self-improvement in her vlogs. Over the years, he's evolved from teenage smart aleck relying on offensive provocation into a savvy critic of pop culture tropes. With Eighth Grade, his confrontational stand-up persona entirely recedes, but his insight remains, yielding a film that's unexpectedly sweet. The plot is simple: Kayla just tries to get through the waning days of middle school in a world of Instagram filters, idiot boys, and cliquey girls as her well-meaning dad (Josh Hamilton) tries to figure out what the hell is going on in her head. You're well aware of what she's feeling because Burnham details her emotions so vividly that shudder of your own awkwardness may come flooding back.
Thrillist: This movie is so stressful to watch, but not in a cringe comedy way -- in a relatable way. How did you approach the tone?
Bo Burnham: I love cringe. I think cringe is a deep form of empathy. It means you're feeling with the person. The tone was trying just to be honest and the truth is, especially with eighth grade, if you're honest it'll be scary then weird then funny then silly then horrifying then boring then whatever. The tone of it is just the tone of a day for me. The tone of a day is not thematically consistent. You wake up bored, then you're stressed, then you're annoyed, then you're tired. The tone for me is just real. Eh, but that's not totally true. I definitely am selectively choosing things that are interesting things to me, and probably lean into a place of big feeling. Because that's what that time is. At that time, everything is just so stimulative and you're feeling so much. That's what I wanted the movie to be. I wanted the movie to be just intense.
That middle school period isn't explored that much in pop culture. Why do you think that is? It's a state of being in-between.
Burnham: It really is directly in-between. When you're in high school and you're coming of age, you're not really a child anymore. But in eighth grade, there's part of you that's still a child. I don't know why, and I've always been interested in it, and [have] always been like: Why isn't middle school being talked about more? When my friends and I would get together those are the stories we tell when we were 25, middle school stories. That's when stuff was crazy. For boys, it happens I think on average, not to be cruel to them, a little later. It probably happened sophomore year, but just around that time when self-awareness is flicked on. All of a sudden, it's like that feeling of being in a bar when the lights come up and you're like, oh my god look at us. Have we been like this the whole time? Kids going like, oh my god I'm a mess and I have to try to build my parachute when I'm falling out of the sky. The problems that we are going to deal with for the rest of our lives really start there. I'm still trying to be myself. I'm still trying to put myself out there. I'm still trying to be confident.
Same. For you, what are those stories about those middle school years that you tell with friends and did you filter those into the movie at all?
Burnham: I never talked about my middle school experience with Elsie, not as a privacy, just because I didn't think to bring it up. I really was trying to talk about my current feelings as a nervous 25-year-old at the time. We talked about anxiety a lot. We talked about how we're feeling. The whole point was this story's coming to you and your middle school experience isn't my middle school experience. I mean, when we got on set and there were art classrooms and pool parties it started to come back, but the impulse was really to not make a nostalgic movie.
I really tried to resist projecting my own memory onto it and instead try to say like something new and different is happening. Because I didn't really start getting nervous or anything until [later] -- that aside, pool parties were rough for me. I did not like a pool party. Malls meant a lot. I can remember that distinct feeling of being around older kids. I remember being in first grade thinking fifth graders, like this kid Nate whatever, I thought he was 40 years old. I thought he looked like Alfred Molina and he was in fifth grade.
I can just remember the glimpses of that eighth grade that I had where, like, it wasn't my first kiss, it wasn't these big tentpole moments, it was staring at a clock and being like, holy shit, there are four hours left [of school]. So I wanted to go, how can I make a real-time experience of eighth grade that doesn't feel like a tour of memories? Like The Wrestler with an eighth grader. That was kind of the initial thought, almost. What if you treated like an eighth grader like movies treat soldiers? What if you took them that seriously?
Even though it is a really modern depiction of this time in someone's life -- Snapchat in fifth grade, shoot me -- it is a very nostalgic experience for the viewer.
Burnham: Totally. I wasn't trying to exclude that. I get more nostalgic watching it than making it. I think the way to accurately portray that time so that people get nostalgic is not to make it nostalgic, or then you feel the heavy hand of the person making it something. But yeah, I want it to be a nostalgic experience for people watching.
The moment for me that was most nostalgic, in a bad way, was the kid flipping his eyelids up in the pool party scene, because a kid used to torture me doing that. Were you choreographing those moments or were you just letting kids run wild and the result of the scene is the shit that they did?
Burnham: I was lining all the kids up at the pool party and going, "Who can flip their eyelids inside out?" One kid raised his hand. I gave everyone a water bottle and went, "Can anyone shoot stuff between their teeth?" And then I would go like, "Any special talents?"
Before production, I had conversations with every extra. I would go up to where we shot, because all the kids were taken from the area of the school, and I would just do meetings with the extras and just have a two-minute conversation. Just so they got to know me a little and didn't feel terrified. I would ask them, "Do you have a special skill, do you have a special talent?" And I would try to incorporate those things. One girl I asked, "What's your name?" She said her name. "Do you have a special skill?" She goes, "I have eczema." There was a kid eating a bell pepper like an apple.
They're all eighth graders so they are just perfect for the roles. The whole question was: How do you get these kids into the movie unprocessed? Not to have them show up thinking: I have to be in a movie now. Just be. You're the expert, just do.
The eczema comment made me think of this: Did you have a conversation with Elsie about covering up her acne? That's such a meaningful thing, but I could see how it could be hard for a kid.
Burnham: You know what's weird: The actual conversation with Elsie was [about] putting the makeup on. She tends not to wear makeup so she was sort of uncomfortable with that a little. She's a very smart and strong person and also has awareness of where she is. I would tell her all the time, "thank yourself that you're getting this now because I got it all through my junior and senior year, so wish I was getting my acne through eighth grade." But also she stopped acting for a while because she would go into auditions, and she told me the person would say, "why is the acne not in your headshot?" She knew the value of this.
She wanted to see someone with acne on camera because it would have made her feel better. And also, it's not commented on in the movie. I think it's beautiful. It looks great. It was so great working with the makeup artist to say, "What's really cool about your job in this movie is your makeup exists in the movie. You're not trying to hide your makeup. When you put makeup on kids, it's because that kid put makeup on, which is a fun thing." Sometimes her acne is covered because she's going to the mall.
She's following those makeup tutorials.
Burnham: There's a lot of wonderful push for diversity in film, but there's to me not a lot of aesthetic diversity. There's not a lot of diversity in complexion or height and size, really. That is also really, really important for kids to see that you are still magnetic and watchable and interesting if you're not some ridiculous porcelain Rodarte model that's 12 years old.
"Why isn't middle school being talked about more? That's when stuff was crazy."
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.
A long time ago, there was talk of you doing a musical that was going to be your first film.
Burnham: Yeah, I was 18. Ten years ago. I was not ready.
Were you going to direct that? And what happened?
Burnham: No, I was 18, so I wasn't ready. I just wrote it. Judd Apatow was helping me with it and producing it. It was great because it didn't come out, which it shouldn't have, but I got to write a movie and learn how to do that. I would love to do a musical in the future. Probably for the stage. But yeah, I wasn't qualified at the time. And I actually am only qualified now because I know how unqualified I am and I know I would need a musical collaborator. I couldn't carry a musical myself.
Where does your comedy go after you've had this experience?
Burnham: I kind of gave up on it. I really haven't performed for two years. I hope to get back into it maybe at some point. I try to compartmentalize. I'm not trying to be some multi-hyphen douchebag or something.
You're not a multi-hyphen douchebag, but you are a multi-hyphen.
Burnham: I really am kind of a "one thing at a time" person. I kind of have to sink myself into whatever I'm working on.
The word "cool" comes up a lot in the movie. Elsie uses a lot. She addresses a time capsule to "the coolest girl in the world." What is your relationship to "cool" and has that evolved?
Burnham: It's cool. My relationship is cool. I don't know what my relationship is to that. It's very good. But the [movie's] original title was "The Coolest Girl in The World."