Bo Burnham is a modern renaissance man. Since his humble YouTube beginnings in 2006 that quickly went viral, he has dabbled in mediums across the board, including a stand-up career that earned him specials on both Comedy Central and Netflix (“what.” and “Make Happy”), a MTV show he created and starred in (“Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous”), and a poetry book (“Egghead”).
Now, Burnham has dipped his toe into something new: filmmaking.
Burnham wrote and directed “Eighth Grade,” which premieres July 13. Starring Elsie Fisher, it follows her character Kayla through her last week of middle school as she navigates her relationships with herself, her single father (Josh Hamilton), her classmates and social media. As an eighth grader in the digital age, Kayla is inundated with technology at all times, and Burnham explores how this impacts Kayla’s apparent social anxiety.
The Chronicle spoke to Burnham about how he approached his first feature-length writing and directing experience, the themes in “Eighth Grade,” and the way he captured the perspective of an eighth grade girl so well.
THE CHRONICLE: You’ve directed comedy specials in the past, but this is your first time directing a feature-length film. How was that transition? What challenges did you encounter?
BO BURNHAM: It was good. It felt right. I did a lot of theater when I was younger, so I love working with actors and I love acting. I was desperate to collaborate with people, because that’s not what you get to do with stand-up. It’s very, very singular. So that was enjoyable. It was exciting and new and strange.
It’s all challenging. The whole time, you’re trying to navigate the challenges. Like, “I want to learn some lessons here but also not make a piece of s–t.” I had six or eight months to prepare, and I was reading a book a week on film-making and watching all these movies, like, “OK, I’m trying to prepare myself a little bit for this even though I know it will be a violent learning experience.” It’s all a challenge. It’s very managerial, in terms of setting a tone and keeping everyone focused and working and engaged and getting what you need. [It’s also about] making choices. Not even the right choices, just making choices. It’s very important to make a choice. If someone comes up to you and goes, “This one or this one?” Just point at one. Really. You have to get things going, that’s all that really matters.
What parts of Kayla’s personality are most comparable to your own?
We’re both anxious people, both coming to grips with our anxiety. I was coming to grips with my anxiety pretty late in life and she’s coming to it early. She hasn’t even named it yet. I think she has a similar impulse to go in her head. It feels like the drama of her life plays in her head, and that’s a struggle in my life, too: trying to square what’s internal with what’s external. I don’t want the narrative of my life to be the conversation I’m having in my head about myself. That’s something similar to what she’s feeling.
Why did you choose to tell this story from the perspective of an adolescent girl?
I wanted to treat someone who is often [slighted] … significantly [instead]. Yes, her experience is valid and important. I feel a kinship with her and with people like her. The anxiety I have is shared by my mother and my sister. I often have found in my personal life, I connect with the women around me. I think anxiety in general is statistically shared by more women than men, so I feel like that part of me is more feminine. I’ve always felt like I’ve had a feminine part of me.
[I also] did not want to tell my young story. I did not want to project myself onto her. I know I cannot understand her fully, and part of that was the joy of it. To go, “I want to attempt to understand something that I [don’t] and maybe reevaluate a time in my life from a different perspective that I wasn’t aware of. I certainly wasn’t aware of the interior life of the girls around me when I was in eighth grade.
Technology was a big part of the world-building in “Eighth Grade.” Why did you make a point to integrate so thoroughly but so casually?
[My relationship with YouTube started] in 2006. I posted to show my brother [a video] in college. It was literally, “Oh, you made that funny video? You know there’s a site where you can post it and you can send the link to your brother.” That’s what I thought it was. Even at that time, YouTube just asked of you, “Hey, you got a funny thing? Put it here.” Now it’s like, “Who are you? Reflect yourself here. We are a mirror, or a glass box for you to exist in.” The lines are way, way blurred, and it’s way deeper for kids to participate in.
I wanted to portray [technology’s role today] as an atmosphere without judgement. Not to go, “And then she threw her phone into the ocean and she was happy.” That bulls–t thing that a lot of old f–ks do when they try to write this stuff.
A lot of coming-of-age films feel like an older writer speaking through a younger person, but the characters and dialogue in “Eighth Grade” felt very realistic. How did you approach that?
[I watched ] hundreds of [YouTube] videos of these kids [and transcribed] the way they spoke. I feel like I had the voice. The whole thing was pursuing inarticulation, pursuing the inability to articulate yourself. Not pursuing perfect little quotable lines, where she looks over and goes like, “You know, time is just a river.” Or, if she does that, she’s trying to do that. If she’s saying that, she’s trying to make a quote. It’s lines like, “The hard thing about being yourself is it’s not always easy.” That’s one of her lines, [and] that’s the kind of shit you say when you’re a kid. You think you’re saying some cool phrase and it actually means literally nothing.
The car scene between Kayla and Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) perfectly captures a feeling that many young girls can relate to, of an older boy having the social upper-hand while they feel like they have no resources or empowerment. How did you approach both writing and directing that moment?
First of all, I’ve been in a relationship for six years with a writer and director [who] is my only eyes on anything I’m writing, so I knew if I was doing anything completely off the mark, she would call bullshit on me. Also, I am familiar, one, of being in a position with someone who has more power than you and being taken advantage of, and two, I am definitely familiar with the impulses of being a young boy and what the specific type of manipulation that looks like. “It’s a joke, it’s not even a big deal.” Consent isn’t even on the table for her because he’s not letting the situation be framed in the stakes that it actually is. It’s so weird to watch people laugh in that scene, because it’s part of his tactic, is to make it feel like a funny, uncomfortable situation instead of a scary, uncomfortable situation, which it is.
That was part of the writing, to try to treat it honestly. To portray a situation from him where it isn’t just the bro lacrosse guy, sometimes it’s the sensitive, intelligent, emotionally sensitive guy who gets you who’s going to do that, and he’s going to use all of his knowledge and sensitivity against you. He knows exactly what she’s afraid of. He knows exactly what she’s afraid of, he knows exactly what she wants, and he’s using that.
Elsie, first of all, snaps from intensity to laughing and joking very, very easily. I’m the one that’s way, way more heavy on set than she is. Two, there really [were] seven people in the car and fifty people around her, so it’s way less tense than it feels. And she gets it. She understands the scene. She understands the purpose of this, that, when we do this correctly, a girl can see this and know that she has more power in the situation than she thinks she does, or a boy can see this and realize his actions that he thinks are subtly flirtatious are actually really bad.