Interview with Bo Burnham, Director and Writer of the film ‘Eighth Grade’
During festival season this year, a few of us got to sit and talk to the incredibly deep thinking and quite personable, Bo Burnham, about his outstanding, authentic coming-of-age film ‘Eighth Grade’ which comes out this weekend and I insist you see. Below is the conversation we had with the writer/director of the critically lauded film which is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a rating of 98% and deservedly so. His film moves deep into the psyche of a young girl and here we get to drill deep into his mind as he, almost painfully, attempts to describe his love/hate relationship with the internet which was the inspiration of the film. He speaks a lot with his hands because he has an energy that’s hard to contain. While talking to him, you feel you’re important to him because he keeps eye contact with you. Though his tugging on his ears, sleeves and buttons on his shirt says he might be a little uncomfortable, you can tell he isn’t. He’s slender, very tall, happy and pauses a lot while he thinks before he speaks… every utterance is desperately important. I hope you like it.
TMC: There are a lot of coming-of-age films that have been made throughout the years but this one not only stands out today but will stand the test of time. You do what most people wouldn’t which was write, not from the perspective of an adult dealing with this youngster who’s in the eighth grade, but her. And a girl to boot! Did you have any hesitations toward that? How did you find this character?!
BO: I wanted to write about the internet and how I felt at the time which was nervous… and my nerves felt connected to the internet, so I set out to write it, ‘Okay. How am I gonna write about this?’ So, I set out to write a ton of stuff about all these different characters and I stumbled upon her and felt like I could say it, everything I wanted, through her. It was not a conscious decision, ‘I’m gonna write about an Eighth-Grade girl.’ After the fact and realizing I was going to write about this, I was violently aware that I was a man in the position of writing this story. Truly, I was proceeding with caution.
But… I mean, it just felt natural to me and after, I look back and think, ‘Why was that?’ And it’s like, I think on the internet, we all act like eighth graders, so it makes sense that a movie about the internet, when taught purely, would be about an eighth-grader cuz an eighth grader is actually the only one that’s being themselves on the internet. We’re all just being more immature versions of ourselves. And then, you know, I watched hundreds of videos online of kids talking and the boys talked about ‘Minecraft’ and the girls talked about their souls… truly. So, it was like, at that age at least, the girls run a little severely more deep and interesting. (Laughs) The eighth-grade boy stories were just a little bit more closed off, so I saw myself in her more. The things that I struggled with, with the internet, which are sort of how I feel about myself and how I see myself and how I see other people see me, I think girls, for whatever reason, (cultural pressures or whatever) are sort of forced to see themselves in that narrative a lot earlier than boys. I don’t know… boys… I don’t know what they’re thinking about at that age. I met a lot of them and I still don’t know what they’re thinking about. (Laughs) Girls you actually can have adult conversations with. They talk. They seem like young adults that are very thoughtful, and the boys are just like. (Shrugs)
TMC: In the mall, Kayla meets Olivia and her friends. Some of them immediately dismiss her cuz she’s a different generation almost. You have Gen-X and Baby boomers and generations seems to have this wide span of years, but do you think that’s shrinking because of technology?
BO: I do. It feels like it. My girlfriend is twelve years older than me and we feel closer than people four years younger than me. I got Facebook when I was sixteen, seventeen and to have the ability to sort of have a little bit of a sense of myself before social media I think that would have been different if I had that my freshman year of high school, only three years earlier.
I do think, because these… paradigm shifting, brain-altering things are happening really rapidly. The culture turns over so quickly. Do we even remember before 2017? When was Obama president, like, twelve years ago? It’s a combination of the generations getting shorter because the time is getting, wider, or something. The present moment feels very long and weird. Culture ages like milk. It’s a weird moment so to be a kid now is just… wild.
TMC: Your movie is very timely, very relevant. It feels like it was written two months ago.
BO: It will be dated in six months and I’m fine with that. I’m not afraid of it being dated. I have just as much affinity for an I-Phone as I do a vinyl record player.
TMC: Would you want to live in a time before all of this technology?
BO: No. I don’t think so. (Thinks a moment) I’d probably be happier or something but I’m so inextricable from it. I’m wired with it. Umm… so it’s all I would know. I definitely wouldn’t want to write about another time. You know? I’m interested about this time. Eventually, I probably might want to, but I mean, I feel lucky to be a part of… I think it’s a reckoning in a way. It’s a cultural rift. This is getting way off topic. (Laughs) But… it’s an interesting time to be alive, to be American and be in the culture. Yeah. I probably do need another time. Is that what we’re saying? We’d go back to cassette players and half the country not hating the half of the country? (Laughs) That sounds fine.
TMC: Is there a time when that wasn’t happening?
BO: Maybe. That’s probably right. There’s just a sense of visibility that’s crazy.
TMC: This is your John Hughes film. Your film captures the essence of what it’s like to be a student, a youngster at this age. It’s something people can appreciate no matter your demographic or age.
BO: I think he’s a good reference in a sense cuz I think he captured, at the time, something very true which is that maybe the crux of the struggle at that time of being a teen in the 80’s was, ‘How do you fit into the ecosystem of the class? Specifically, how do you feel with your parents and your family and, again, it was captured so well that people have just recycled that with cultural decoration in different decades, but I just don’t think it’s relevant. I’m not relevant but I don’t think it’s the core issue that they’re dealing with so when you see them dealing with that, dealing with being a jock or an emo kid with a cell phone and going– for me the struggle of being a kid now is interior. She doesn’t get bullied, she gets ignored. She doesn’t get people’s attention, which is all that people are giving and withholding to each other; is just this dispassionate attention as this currency that goes around as opposed to… we’re almost like… we wish for the days of high school hierarchy and parents that hated us and yelled at us and we slammed the doors in their face. It’s like, now we’re like this, fragile little ‘ego people’ in our own head and our parents are looking in and going, ‘Are you okay?’ and it’s a bunch of kids on their phone, hyper-connected and super lonely. Overstimulated and completely numb. I think that extends to adults, too. I think the bigger American problem of it being, like, no sense of community. Even the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders and the dorks… that is a community, you know? The breakdown of that is sad in a way.
TMC: You’ve spoken several ways about how anxiety informs this movie, in Kayla possibly seeing the symptoms of her anxiety disorder. You’ve also spoken about the anxiety of wanting to consolidate a really free and freewheeling and terrifying life into little social media posts and trying to break it down and make it feel comfortable, in these social web games that we’ve invented. The existentialists would say, ‘To be anxious is to be human.’ Do you think that social media is just another conduit for anxiety?
BO: Yeah. It’s human and everything but it’s more just like innovation works in a lot of areas. It took an hour to get to work on your horse and now it takes half an hour to get to work in your Model T, now it takes ten minutes to get there in your Ford Focus. Good! Good. Innovate. That’s great. To innovate socially? There’s no reason that’s good. Oh, you can have a conversation with your friend, now you have twenty conversations with twenty friends. ‘Oh, you can see a photo of yourself two weeks after you give it to CVS, now you can see 1,000 photos of yourself right away!’ Those things… that’s where I think the anxiety comes from. There’s a natural sense of anxiety that I think everyone will have and certain people with certain dispositions will always have just because, like they say, ‘To be human is to be anxious or self-reflective.’ But there’s a mechanism right now that encourages it and ramps it up in a way that I feel. I feel like I’m anxious to the degree I am because of the internet. It has something to do with, and I’m not being articulate about it, but there’s this impulse to pursue… like, social media is becoming efficient in all other areas of technology are efficient and there’s no proof that human interaction has to be perfected and sped up like everything else does.
Yeah, let’s make high-speed railway. Do we need to make high-speed conversation? High-speed national conversation in the form of Twitter?! It’s crazy. It’s a very capitalist view of ‘Social Stuff.’ That’s so weird. It’s so much weirder than the internet. The internet is all cool… I think this social media showing up is more significant than the internet showing up. The internet is, ‘take all the information from all the libraries and now you have access to it all.’ High-speed information is cool. High-speed feelings… which are social media? High-speed feeling about yourself and relationships with other people? That shit’s deadly.
You should be able to go to the library and type a thing up and get any entry into the history of the world but to apply that to relationships and the relationships of children is crazy. Literally, it’s not spoken, I can’t believe, eight years into this thing and I’m struggling to articulate this because I’ve never heard it said out loud. I don’t understand that there’s twenty-thousand conferences for Twitter, Facebook, social media, all that stuff… never at one point do we say, ‘Should we be doing this? Is this good? Is this making people better friends?’ Of course not. It’s laughable that Facebook is making you better friends with people. Is there anyone on the internet you like more on the internet than you like in real life? No. Are there plenty of people you like in real-life and then hate on the internet? Yes. It’s crazy to me, so, there’s a big long rambling answer to that question but… but…
TMC: It’ll be fun to transcribe.
BO: (Smiles) Yeah. That’s vaguely what I feel about it. I think it has a direct line to my anxiety… to a kids anxiety. She would be nervous without social media, for sure. Without the internet, she would be sort of nervous, but it’s not helping. It’s not helping.
TMC: I get a sense you have a love/hate relationship with technology and social media. You basically got your start on YouTube and social media so how do you balance that?
BO: It’s like God or something. It’s big and empty and full… it’s like if you mix every color of paint together and get white. That’s how I sort of feel about the internet. I don’t know. It can be used for real good or real bad. Again, I don’t think that conversation’s put in the framework yet to even know how morally powerful it is to then steer it in one direc– The conversation, about the internet, I hear are about cyberbullying or Russians and I think there’s a subtler conversation to be had about, like, how does it make you feel personally… as a person about yourself and your own experience? It has saved people’s lives, I know it has, by connecting them. It can be a really, really good thing. It can be a really crazy thing, can literally destroy the world so, it needs to be recognized as such.
If you want to get TV changed, you gotta go before Congress. If you want the internet changed, change it. Right now. Go for it. Write anything you want on Wikipedia right now. So, that’s sort of how I feel. Yeah. Net Neutrality and all that stuff but also, we need some sort of structure to look after this thing. I personally think you should have to take like a… like a driver’s license… you should not have the internet until your fifteen or sixteen. Right now, the safeguard of the internet… you go to a porn site, it says, ‘Are you Eighteen?’ Click ‘Yes’ and you’re in. That’s how we safeguard our youth. Can they click the word, ‘Yes?’ It’s insane.
TMC: I loved her relationship with her dad. It’s a supportive household. Kayla’s not always present mentally but it’s great. What if Mark started dating someone? How would Kayla react? Would she pull back or would she fight for attention?
BO: That’s hilarious. I don’t know that he hasn’t. That is a whole other movie. So much of the story is about, that the tiny things in life are huge to her so that is way too big of a question.
TMC: I love how you show some really strange things kids do to their bodies, which makes the film that more real. Collaborative effort or…?
BO: For sure. Asking kids, asking crew members. Before the pool party, asking stuff like, who can do anything weird? Who can spit the water between their teeth and one kid could do it, so he got the part. Can anyone do the eyelid flip or whatever, who’s double-jointed? I met every extra just so they knew me a little bit and I’d ask them all if they have any special talents and one girl said, ‘I have eczema.’ (chuckles) I was like, ‘Awesome.’ That is the whole thing… just like, embracing the weird little stuff kids do. You can tell when a kid is doing a weird thing he does all the time versus when he’s being told to shove something up his nose by a director or whatever.
TMC: You open the film with her giving life advice and you think about who she is and we don’t know that she’s had all these experiences until she finds her time capsule and watches her video of five years previous. It was an interesting and bold choice opening with that because we get to see her intimately, within the frame of a video… because, like a comedian who’s talking to an audience, unless they’re laughing at you, it’s not reflective. And with video, you don’t know how the audience is reacting unless you get a like.
BO: Yeah. You don’t even know that there is one when you’re making it.
TMC: Exactly. So, I thought was a bold choice because you start her out in her own world and gradually build on that until she gets her time capsule. You have the image of the Phoenix engulfing her time capsule and she starts anew, and I think that’s an important progression from seeing her intimately at the beginning of the movie; giving advice that she doesn’t know has had an impact on the world. And I think that goes back to the social aspect that you fear, as the writer and as the director, you don’t know whether your message is getting out.
BO: Yeah. It was interesting, what those videos looked like, too. We had to down-res it because those videos are too good now. They don’t even look shitty. The flatness of those images are interesting to me, too. The weird flatness of the way a camera views you on your webcam. The.. the crux of the… pressure of the movie is almost about someone that thinks the movie of her life sucks. That the movie of her life is unwatchable, and she wants to… she wishes she lived like the girls in the movies she watches. She wished she sounded like the girls who do voiceovers in movies and she can’t. The irony for me is, ‘That IS watchable.’ You want to be better than yourself. You want to articulate yourself and failure to do so is what’s watchable.
TMC: And yet she’s the most confident of the characters in the movie.
BO: Yeah. Totally. The one on screen is.
Bo Burnham is a fascinating person and I hope this movie gets the kind of attention it deserves. See it this weekend and then see it again. There’s a lot to unravel here and one thing I’m positive about is that since this is his debut feature, you’re going to see a lot more of Bo Burnham. You’re going to want to see a lot more Bo Burnham, too, because not only does he write in a way that examines and defends the human condition but tells that story in an intoxicating way. I can’t wait to see what his mind and spirit purges next. I hope you enjoyed reading this. Now, go see the film as soon as you can.