Nearly six months after premiering his feature directorial debut at Sundance, Bo Burnham still remembers exactly how he felt before screening it for the first time: terrified. For the 27-year-old standup comedian and musician, that terror didn’t stem from the quality of the film, its writing, its performances; it came from being a dude telling a story that, on its surface, is very much about the coming-of-age of a young woman. Who was he to tell it?
“I was so terrified going there, specifically of being a guy,” he said. “I was so worried at the time, like ‘I am in trouble.'”
Burnham didn’t need to worry, because his film — a charming dramedy about the waning days of eighth grade, told from the perspective of shy 13-year-old Kayla (breakout star Elsie Fisher) — was a hit at the festival, garnering glowing reviews and assuring indie distribution powerhouse A24 that it had another hit on its hands. (This writer, like many others at the festival, gushed over the film: “an achingly real modern coming-of-age story.”) But, seriously, how did a guy write this?
“I wanted to talk about the internet and how I felt about it,” Burnham, who first rose to YouTube acclaim as a teenager after he posted a couple of pun-riddled songs to the site. “I was also doing a lot of stand-up and I was talking about my feelings, and most people that came up to me that understood what I was going through were 14-year-old, 15-year-old girls. Truly, more than men my own age.”
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(Anecdotally, at least, Burnham’s theory about his teenage girl fanbase holds true, as Fisher enthusiastically confirmed that she first got hip to his work when she was just 12, billing herself his “biggest fan” even before she read for the part of Kayla.)
“I’m Writing a Story About This Girl”
Asked if Kayla could ever have been written as a boy, and Burnham was resolute. “It just didn’t happen. It just didn’t ever happen,” he said. “I was writing a bunch of stuff, and then I wrote this person and it was so alive. It never felt like ‘I’m writing a story about a girl;’ it’s like, ‘I’m writing a story about this girl.'”
When audiences first meet Kayla, she’s staring straight into her computer, delivering a motivational speech about “being yourself” that she will then upload to her YouTube channel. It’s a disarming introduction, but it’s one that reads as even more honest when we realize that, for all her online bluster, Kayla is a shy and overlooked kiddo. No one at school is watching her videos. No one at school is even talking to her in person. Those videos aren’t just ways to kill time online, they’re an outlet for all the emotions and attention she lacks.
“I’ve always been interested in middle school as like a confusing, violent place,” Burnham said. “And the girls, it’s a cruel generality, but it’s just true: Having met hundreds of them, the girls are just asking deeper questions of themselves. I don’t know if that’s innate or if that’s just cultural pressures asking girls to ask deeper questions earlier … I watched a lot of videos of kids online talking about themselves, and the boys talked about Minecraft and the girls talked about their souls. And it was like, ‘Okay, the movie’s gonna probably be about a girl.’ I see myself way more.”
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Burnham describes his own middle school self as “hammy, slightly nervous.” He remembers using Instant Messenger to chat with girls he liked, a way of putting on a show and building a distance that’s reflected in the film.
“I didn’t want to make a nostalgic movie,” Burnham said. “I didn’t want to make a movie about my past experience. I wanted to make a movie about what I was currently going through. … Being [about] a girl really isolated me from being nostalgic and projecting my own experience. It was really great to be able to look at something like eighth grade, which is so familiar to all of us, but to be like, ‘I actually know nothing about this, so I have to research and try to experience this for the first time with her.'”
“The Movie Was Alive When She Read It”
While Burnham wrote the film as a reflection of his own experience and emotions, he also recognized that it required an actual teenage girl to bring it to life. The filmmaker confessed to being “very, very nervous” when it came time to find his Kayla.
Appropriately enough, Burnham found Fisher in an online video. The filmmaker was just searching for young actors on the internet, when he found an early interview featuring young Fisher, who is best known for her voice work on films like “Despicable Me” (she’s the one who yells, “IT’S SO FLUFFY!”) and series like “Masha and the Bear.” “When I saw her, I was just like, ‘If she can act, this would be incredible,’ and she came and she could act,” he said.
Burnham joked that he “met with every actor in the world, and no one was even close” when it came to Fisher. “She walked in and the lights came on and then the lights went off,” he said. “The movie was alive when she read it and just dead every other time. Almost incoherent every other time. … Every other kid, it felt like they were playing Kayla and she felt like she was being Kayla, playing all the people Kayla wants to be, in every moment.”
Fisher admits that, before “Eighth Grade” came along, she was feeling a bit “meh” (her words) about the acting game. “With teenagers, a lot of roles, number one, don’t usually allow for the actress to have acne, which I had a lot of at the time. And two, are just disingenuous … I was a little surprised [by the script] at first, I think, because you just never see that kind of writing in media, for anyone. Except for a character who’s, like, specifically stuttering and that’s their whole personality or quirk.”
That Fisher approached Kayla in an honest manner is what struck Burnham the most, and her interpretation of the character helped the filmmaker realize some deep truths about his creation.
“Everyone one else felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy; she felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident,” Burnham said. “She made Kayla active, which was just so important to the movie. Everyone else made her small and nervous. It’s like being shy isn’t cowering; it’s wanting to speak at every moment.”
Teenagers can sniff out artifice, and who better to call out posturing than a literal eighth grader – Fisher shot the film in the weeks after she graduated middle school – but Fisher had zero qualms with Burnham’s creation. “I didn’t read the full script until I had actually gotten the role, and that’s when I saw Kayla’s whole story, but by that time I had already known Bo, and it wasn’t surprising,” she said. “I just saw it as him writing about a person who feels the same things, just in a different set of circumstances.”
Burnham was eager for Fisher’s input, and the actress said she started improvising Kayla scenes even while auditioning for the part. “I would tell her all the time, ‘You know what this is like. I don’t. I don’t,” Burnham said. “‘I was never a 13-year-old girl, and I was never a 13-year-old in 2018. So show me, tell me.”
The Tough Stuff
So what’s it’s like being a 13-year-old girl in 2018? It’s hard, and Burnham’s film is rife with scenes that speak to that truth, from a mortifying pool party to Kayla’s everyday school routine, filled with fast-texting fellow teens utterly oblivious to her plight. It’s not all sad, though, and Kayla has a tremendous sense of self. It guides her through some of the film’s more touchy sequences.
In the film’s second half, Kayla engages in the gentlest of flirtations with seemingly kind high school student Riley (Daniel Zolghadri). After hanging at the mall with new friends, he offers to drive her home, and when he pulls the car over and moves into the backseat with her, the audience braces for the worst (at Sundance, you could practically hear the collective intake of breath). It doesn’t happen, but it’s still a scene that smarts.
“People will say, ‘Man, I’m so glad that scene didn’t go where I thought it was gonna go,'” Burnham said. “But it doesn’t need to go there for it to be really significant and violent and emotionally violating.” The filmmaker described his intent as “trying to portray a type of scene that when described after the fact, people are gonna be like, ‘Oh what, so he sat in the back seat with you and touched your arm and you said “no” and he stopped, like nothing happened?’ But when you actually sit with her, you feel the truth of it.”
While Fisher promises that filming the scene was “way less intense” than how it looks on the screen — “there were like six people in the car!,” she said with a laugh — she knows that it required a deft touch to make it work.
“We just wanted to take a sensitive approach and just be honest about this, and portray a type of toxic event that can happen,” Fisher said. “I think in reality a lot of women, especially, experience this more emotionally manipulative [event]. It’s like the nice, sensitive guy who knows how to get into your brain and make you comfortable around him.”
There is also a lot of joy to be found in “Eighth Grade” and its warm response from critics and audiences alike, and the charming film seems poised to rocket both Burnham and Fisher to bigger heights. There’s Oscar talk for both already, but Fisher is tempering her expectations as only a wry teenager could.
“People at school know the movie’s coming out, but no one cares,” Fisher said. “My friends are supportive of me, but they’re over it already. A couple of my classes played the trailer and they’re like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and then 20 minutes they’re like, ‘okay, what’s new?'”
Fisher is still auditioning, but as a sophomore in high school it’s only one interest of many. Burnham is having a little trouble letting go of “Eighth Grade,” a product of his self-professed inability to multitask and the desire to find another story that speaks to him as clearly as this one did.
“I’d love to do another film,” Burnham said. “Once this is out, I’ll try to sit around and just think for a little bit, just bang my head against the wall or something. But who knows? ‘Fifth Grade.’ We’ll do a ‘Lord of the Flies.’ And that’ll be chaos. That’ll be like actual chaos.”
His star, however, hopes that Burnham will stop worrying.
“I just hope he does what makes him happy next,” Fisher said. “Whatever he wants to do, whether it be return to comedy which I doubt, or keep directing, which is probable. Just do whatever makes him happy. But he’s a fantastic director, fantastic writer, a good boy.”
“Eighth Grade” will be released on Friday, July 13.