For his first big departure from the stage, standup comic Bo Burnham has shocked audiences with his delightful and touching first film, Eighth Grade. While he has directed other TV specials and broadcasts, writing and directing a feature film is tough to master on your first time out, yet Burnham certainly called his shot and backed it up.
Now, it may be ignorance on my part, but for whatever reason, up until the point I sat down to talk with him, I still imagined Bo Burnham in my head as this young kid—still looking to just make people roll around in a sea of uncomfortable laughter. So upon hearing he’s making his writing-directing debut, it might be natural to assume it’d be a movie containing lots of smart, low-brow humor that would have audiences giggling uncontrollably. Which is not condescension; there is a slew of well-known comedians who went on to make very poignant and very thought-provoking films, but that normally does not come in a first offering. So it’s fair to wonder if people are ready to digest something different from what they have become accustomed to from a talent’s past.
“I was really desperate to do something like this,” Burnham defiantly states. “I was a little tired of my comedy tools. I was tired of cynicism and satire, and being cleaver or ironic. So I wanted to do something that was more sensitive or emotional. And yeah, this still has comedy too, and leans on a lot of stuff I honed doing my other thing, but I felt like this is more who I was. The people who watch my stuff are probably going to be a little surprised, but the people who really know me, will see this as a true expression of who they know.”
It also it a bold move to drop such a film on fans who may not be expecting a deeply soul searching story. If you look at Burnham’s standup as he matured, you can see him talking about some of the same issues that are presented in the film, but a lot of people may not really have been ready to listen so intently to what Bo wanted to say.
Says Burnham, “Part of the evolution of my work was really me just growing up. I’m 18, 20, 25, and I’m just a different person. Actually though, I felt like I learned to speak with less authority as I matured. When I was young, I was trying to talk about things I figured out and criticize cultural institutions, or religion, because I was some ‘cool 19-year-old atheist.’ Who cares? Then I sort of learned that it was much more interesting for me to talk about things I was struggling with and things I didn’t have answers to than talk about things I figured out. This movie is about that; I struggle with anxiety, I struggle with the feelings she is having, so that is what I want to do now. Rather than present the audience with things I am sure of, I’d rather present things that I’m struggling with.”
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The struggles explored in Eighth Grade are universal too—not just problems that are identified as being attached to those awkward teenage years. As I look what is being said about the film, while positive—they seem to focus too much on the film being about a glimpse into the life of an eighth grader, or perfectly capturing the minds of a younger generation. Yet, these are only the characters going through the struggles of their times, but the overall emotion and soulfulness of protagonist Kayla’s problems are those that many, if not most, adults deal with. This was something that Burnhman does hope comes across while viewing the film.
“That is what I hope,” Burnham says. “I hope adults can see themselves in her, and not just see her as their kid, or their younger self. Though, I hope that is also true, I hope they can see that as well. For me though, I see myself in her. The emotions and the experiences are true, those are common. I was having panic attacks backstage, instead of in a bathroom before a pool party. The feelings are all the same. The belief in the movie is just that a 13-year-old girl has access to some of the deepest questions and feelings that we all struggle with. I’m still struggling with how to be myself, how to put myself out there, how to be confident.” The filmmaker even recounts on how Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla’s single dad in the film, once told him “maturity is a phase, and adolescence is forever.” Which may just encapsulate the timelessness of the film.
“The hope is just to present people truth and emotion and feeling, and when you leave you can go and think back on it and have conversations. But I don’t want the movie itself to be a conversation. The truth is if you just honestly engage with kids at their level, they are just colliding into big ideas all the time. It’s part of the soup they are just swimming in. It is just this super loaded, high stakes, culture. Part of the movie was just to skate on top of that.”
Even though the events in the film may not mirror exact events from Burnham’s life, he was trying to look for someone that reminded him of himself at a young age (or maybe even now), and finding an actor to lead a film, let alone a young one who’s still honing her craft, is a tough thing. Elsie Fisher, who portrays Kayla, has been working for a long time, audience may best remember her voice of Agnes yelling, “It’s so fluffy!” from Despicable Me, but this is her first starring role. While choosing to hire her might have been an obvious choice, it doesn’t mean it was still so simple.
“I found her pretty quickly, but I still saw every other kid after her, and no one came close,” Burnham says. “She was the only actor that when she read it, she sounded like a shy kid pretending to be confident. Everyone else sounded like a confident kid, pretending to be shy. She played the role as active, as someone who wants something; not as passive or scared, or nervous. Shyness isn’t being shy, shyness is the want to speak, but failing to speak. It is the drive to want to not be that. When she played it, it was alive. When everyone else played it, it was dead.”
There are plenty of comedians who start as standups, find another niche, and never really look back. While the plan for Bo’s immediate future is not set in stone yet, he definitely would want more time behind the camera. “I’d love to do another film,” Burnham says. “I think I need to stop and retreat and just sit awhile and see what ideas comes and pull and dictate what I want to do. I hope it’s a film; I’d love to do another film. I’m not just going to pursue a bunch of shit just to do it. That is nauseating to me. I’m just trying to write things and make things.” And while he isn’t sure if he would be able to just jump into something much larger in the film world, such as taking on the director’s seat for something as huge as a Marvel film (if that opportunity came down the pike), it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some ideas on what would make that type of film, different and interesting.
“I don’t know, that would be a big decision to make. But, I would love a world where I could bring my type of film into this big, giant world. I think it would be really funny to have this type of realism, the way these kids talk, into a giant fantasy movie. I always watch those types of big films with kids and I’ll think, ‘Why can’t those kids just be real? There is no reason why these kids can’t be real while this stuff is happening.’ So that could be fun. Like Goonies, those kids were real, and Goonies was kind of an inspiration for this, in a way.” So maybe that means someone can reach out to Bo about doing a Goonies remake. You know someone, somewhere, has the plans to make one. Until then, we just will have to survive on the satisfaction that is Eighth Grade.
Eighth Grade is playing in theaters now.