From first-time feature writer/director Bo Burnham, the indie comedy Eighth Grade follows awkward 13-year-old Kayla (in a truly terrific performance and one of the year’s best from Elsie Fisher), as she just tries to make it through her last week of middle school before beginning a new life in high school. The painfully honest look at contemporary suburban adolescence shows that, although there have been no major catastrophes in Kayla’s life, being ignored and overlooked can still be disastrous when you just want someone to see and hear you.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, comedian/actor turned filmmaker Bo Burnham talked about why Eighth Grade would have been dead without Elsie Fisher, finding Kayla’s voice, why he wanted to set this story in eighth grade, what he did to research what eighth grade kids are like now, why he wanted to shoot all of the electronic screens for real and on real devices, the challenge of shooting the big group scenes with the teenagers, cutting the film down from a two-hour version, why he wanted to keep the dialogue feeling spontaneous, and why he wants to treat every story subjectively and treat the characters on their own terms.
Collider: I very much enjoyed this movie and I thought that Elsie Fisher was really tremendous in it, but it must have been such a worry that you weren’t going to find an actress that age who could pull off this material.
BO BURNHAM: Without her, it was dead. It was her or nothing. We shouldn’t have greenlit this movie before we found her, but we did.
Did you ever have a point where you thought, “Oh, my god, I’m not going to find anybody,” or did you find her pretty quickly?
BURNHAM: She was the first person on my list when I was looking at kids. Through the whole audition process, I was looking at kids to see if any other kid was even close, but that was never the case. She was one of the first kids that I auditioned.
What did you see in Elsie Fisher that made her the actress you wanted to do this?
BURNHAM: Every other kid played it like a confident kid pretending to be shy. She was the only person that felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident. She was the only person that felt like she had the vulnerability needed and yet could also carry a movie.
Many writers talk about the fear of facing the blank page. What was it that made you want to sit and stare down the blank page to tell this story?
BURNHAM: I don’t know. I was really just trying to write anything that I was interested in, and when I stumbled on this idea, the pages were not blank for long. I found that I could put her in any situation, and it felt alive and interesting to me. The first draft was done in about two weeks. It went very, very quickly. Sometimes, I will stare at a blank page for a long time, but with this one, it just came very quickly, which felt like a good sign.
Were you surprised that you ended up finding the voice of a 13-year-old girl so easily?
BURNHAM: Yeah. It’s not something that I set out to do. I really just fell into it, but I felt like I understood her very deeply and I felt like we had similarities. It just worked. I was very aware of it, the whole time, to make sure, as my position as a man writing the story, that I felt the connection, and I felt like I understood her.
Why did you choose eighth grade, specifically?
BURNHAM: I just felt like I had seen a lot of stories in high school and I felt, for a long, long time, that our culture was just asking questions of kids much younger. By the time they get to high school, they’re a little bit blasé and over it. I felt like eighth grade was the true battleground for me. It’s a little more chaotic, insane, exciting, dangerous and terrifying. I’ve wanted to do a middle school story, in the back of my mind, for a little while.
You’ve said that to research what eighth grade is like now, you would search eighth-grade vlogs and watch kids that had the least amount of views. What did you learn from watching other kids, talking like that?
BURNHAM: It was just about observing how they are, more than learning specifics. I was observing the way they carry themselves, the way they would self-reflect, how they try to express themselves, how they hear themselves, and then how they adjust themselves, as they hear themselves. It was really just the vibe of how desperate they seem to articulate themselves. That was what I wanted to mimic. I just remember watching these things and going, “If this wasn’t a real kid, but this was a performance in a movie, I would think it was fucking incredible.” There was so much going on in their faces, and what was happening was so complex. I wanted to make a movie that existed at the level of realism that these videos are existing at.
This is obviously so different from anything you’ve done before. Were your own friends and family very surprised that this was the turn you took in your career?
BURNHAM: No. I think my friends and family know that this is probably closer to my actual personality than my stand-up was. I just tend to be an interior, more sensitive person. For the people that knew me, this wasn’t surprising. But for people that have just seen my stand-up, it probably feels a little strange.
What’s it like for you to go from writing this film and making it in your own bubble, and then hearing such a huge response for it, starting with when you screened it at Sundance?
BURNHAM: It’s just really nice. It’s what you hope for, that the movie will be seen in the way that you thought it would, or in the way in which you felt about it. It’s been really, really lovely and lucky, and I already feel like I’ve gotten way more than I ever expected to get out of it. This all feels like extra credit. I’m just trying to enjoy it, but also not bask in it too much, where it becomes a requirement, going forward.
I thought it was so interesting that you set up Instagram accounts and you shot all of the screens on real devices, since it typically never happens that way. Why was that important to you, and how challenging was that to actually do?
BURNHAM: It was very challenging. We were told not to do it because it would be very hard, and it ended up being much harder than even that. I just don’t like the way fake screens look in movies. Even if their screen replacements look good, the ambient light that’s coming off the screen isn’t right. If you scroll through Instagram, the light on your face changes, the light on your thumb changes, and the way the lights reflect changes. Also, the way you stare at the internet when you’re searching is very specific. If she was staring at a green phone that we were going to replace later, I wanted to actually see her with the internet as a real presence. We also knew that, if she logged onto Friendbook.com, we were just totally dead. We wanted it to be the real thing, and I’m very, very happy with the final product, but it was a nightmare, having to do it on set. We had to set up one hundred Instagram accounts. [Elsie] was being DMed, in real time. We had to send the DMs in real time, and then figure out a way to clear the DM, which was a nightmare. We also had to make sure the timestamp was correct, even though we were filming it at 3:00 pm, with the lights blacked out. It was all a nightmare.
Were there other production challenges, specific to making this film?
BURNHAM: The big group scenes with the kids. With the pool party, it was about just making sure that they didn’t drown. We had the struggle of logistically wrangling kids. Because they were all actual 13-year-olds, with the child labor laws, we could only shoot nine hours a day with them. We just had to be very efficient, and when we felt like we got it, we had to move on. Time was a challenge.
Do you have any deleted scenes, or is what you shot what we see, especially due to budget and time?
BURNHAM: No, there was a two-hour cut of the movie. There are definitely some deleted scenes. There was a six-minute magic show that Gabe (Jake Ryan) did for Kayla, after the dinner scene, and hopefully that makes the deleted scenes in the DVD extras or something. There are a few things that I really liked, and I hope it will be included in things.
Do you find it hard to cut stuff?