Interview: Bo Burnham Discusses New Film ‘Eighth Grade,’ Rise from YouTube

With Eighth Grade hitting theaters this weekend, I was lucky enough to sit down and talk about the brand new movie with writer/director Bo Burnham! Burnham became a household name through comedic music and rising through the YouTube ranks. With over a million subscribers and three stand-up specials, he’s making his directorial debut at 27 years-old, and in case you haven’t heard any of the buzz for the movie, he might see some awards action towards the end of the year. If you haven’t had a chance to check out my review of the film, which you can find HERE, I think that it’s a movie that everyone should see. It’s kind of unfortunate that it’s rated R, but parents, it might actually be one worth taking your middle schoolers and high schoolers to. I promise they’ve heard everything in this film before, and you might walk out of the movie with a better understanding of each other! The movie opens this Friday, July 27th!

Justin Lyons: Your new movie, Eight Grade, is coming out on July 27th here in Phoenix, and we’re going to talk a little bit about it! When you first sat down to record your music over eleven years ago, was writing and directing ever part of the endgame? Was that ever something you saw yourself doing?

Bo Burnham: No, not really. I mean, I think I only watched the movie Con-Air for the first fifteen years of my life. But no. Before that I wanted to do theatre. I loved acting and doing theatre, and I wanted to go to school for that. Then I sort of stumbled into comedy for a while and did that, and as I was doing comedy I was trying to assert everything I loved about theatre in it which was like staging things and writing things. Then I think I sort of realized that directing kind of took everything I loved about both and put it into one place, which is, I really loved conceiving things and staging them and writing them, and I didn’t really love my own face, so directing allowed me to do all of that without my face being in the front of it.

Justin Lyons: Obviously you got your start with musical comedy, so you’ve written a lot of music, and you’ve written a lot of comedy sets. How did writing comedy sets transition into writing screenplays, and did you see any key differences between structuring a screenplay and timing a film and timing a stand-up set?

Bo Burnham: Yeah, they’re very, very different. I was writing a lot of scripts concurrently just as a thing I was interested in and enjoyed doing, but yeah. It’s more just like, “Are there any similarities?” They’re totally different. One is completely collaborative: making a film. One is completely on your own: doing stand-up. But yeah, they both have the same idea which is that eventually you’re going to do this thing for an audience, so to understand the rhythm of what an audience is as an organism, or whatever, and how it responds to something was really helpful. I was craving, as I was doing stand-up, collaborating, because I was just so tired of only working with myself and through myself, and film just allowed me to work with other people, so it was really just, “Oh, great! I can use all the skills I had in stand-up and everyone else’s skills around me!”

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Justin Lyons: You kind of talked about your relationship with the audience, and you talk to your audience a lot. You connect with your audience at your shows, so what’s the key difference between connecting with your audience at a live show as compared to connecting with your audience through your film?

Bo Burnham: Yeah. I can’t be there to connect with the film, and with a stand-up show you have to be connected with them much more consistently. If you don’t get a laugh for two minutes, your show is very bad. The actual visceral exchange between the crowd and the performer is a lot more hyped up where films are a little bit more contemplative and people can just kind of sit and enjoy it more quietly. I do think the film is funny, but yeah, I don’t know. It’s less intimidating to show a movie than it is to stand up there and perform a movie in the form of a show for sure. I’m glad I don’t have to perform a movie every night.

Justin Lyons: In terms of vulnerability?

Bo Burnham: Just in terms of, I know even if you, the audience, don’t like it, the movie is going to be the movie. The movie I like it still going to be up there playing, and every time when you do a stand-up show you can screw up. I mean, this could be the night where I forget everything and the show just dies halfway through and I run off the stage crying.

Justin Lyons: I’m not going to be the first person or the last person to tell you this, but I love the movie. I was lucky enough to check it out, but for everyone who can check it out on July 27th here in Phoenix, can you tell them a little bit about it?

Bo Burnham: Yeah, it’s a story about an eighth grade girl during her last week of eighth grade. You know, going to pool parties, chilling at the mall, whatever. You know, a story, hopefully about what eighth grade is now really, and it’s funny and weird. That’s sort of the idea is that being in eighth grade, everything is life and death, so hopefully taking a story that is maybe, on its surface, not that much is happening, but to her, everything is happening, so to try tell a story like that.

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Justin Lyons: One of my favorite things about the movie was the dialogue, and it’s not in the conventional way that movie dialogue usually comes across, almost like every single character is a poet or can just reel off roasts the way that they really want to. It’s really reflective of real life in that the content almost doesn’t really matter. It’s more just that the conversation is taking place and the further implications, even of what the characters don’t say. Is that kind of how you saw the dialogue?

Bo Burnham: 100%. Totally. I think that’s totally right that for everybody, but especially kids, the story of speaking is being inarticulate and failing to say what you meant to say. And just like you said that part of it… it’s not really about necessarily what’s being said, but what’s trying to be said and the effort behind what they’re saying or what they’re choosing not to say to each other. That was the point. I don’t tend to like the movies about young people that are just about them throwing one-liners and zingers back at each other because, like, yeah they can be fun and sort of pyrotechnic, but it’s not true. I mean, the truth is, I don’t know if you’ve ever eavesdropped in on eighth graders talking to each other, it’s horrifying. Even best friends that know each other well and are not scared of each other at all can barely speak to each other. It’s insane. It’s nothing like the movies or like what adults sound like. And even adults, we are very rarely articulate to each other.

Justin Lyons: Again, one of my favorite things about the movie was how you nailed the father-daughter relationship, and I have a sister, so I got to see exactly what you put on-screen here. How did you master the chemistry between Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton? Was that something that you saw in your real life?

Bo Burnham: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s probably similar my relationship with my mom in a certain way. I wanted to depict a parent that was pretty good and loving and attentive, you know? And to show that even those relationships can suck and be hard to navigate. That even someone just loving and caring is not really enough to make things easy. But yeah, we just rehearsed a lot together and it was just about Elsie and Josh being comfortable with each other, or comfortable being annoyed with each other, which is, you  know, the real struggle of it. We didn’t rehearse much else because that’s sort of the only relationship to her in the movie that is familiar. Everything else is new to her that she encounters, so we wanted that to be fresh and not overwork that, but that was the relationship where it needed to feel like, “Oh, you’ve done this at the dinner a thousand times,” so we did it a thousand times, and she hated the scene by the end of it, and that’s right where she needed to be.

Justin Lyons: One thing that I wasn’t expecting in the movie was the scene with Riley in the car. I won’t go too much into it because I wasn’t expecting it to go in that direction. How did you tackle that scene in particular?

Bo Burnham: Just open and honestly and trying to communicate with young actors to understand what was happening. Yeah, I mean, it was just trying to show the type of scene that, maybe when described after the fact doesn’t sound like a big deal. What? He was in the back seat, and he touched your arm, and you said no, and he stopped, but when you see it and feel it in real-time you see how violating and emotionally violent it is, and that’s the truth of it, I believe, is the subjective felt truth of what those moments feel like, not how those moments stack up legally on a piece of paper after the fact. But yeah, it’s a tough scene. There’s a lot of tough scenes in it, but yeah. Just try to approach it honestly and directly and communicate. If it’s real and it happens, we shouldn’t be afraid of depicting it.

Justin Lyons: This is a movie that’s going to get added to my list of painfully relatable movies. It kind of hurts. It’s like, you kind of put your face in your hand like, “Oh, that’s me.” Aside from, of course, making YouTube videos, that’s maybe like a less obvious parallel to you in any of the characters?

Bo Burnham: I feel like her now. I do. I feel like, you know, I was backstage in theaters having panic attacks before a show instead of, you know, in a bathroom before a pool party, but I feel like her now. I don’t relate to the movie as like, this isn’t a story about my younger self or my younger sister or my future daughter. It’s a story about me in the way that it is personal. I feel like her now and I feel like if people are honest with themselves hopefully they’ll see themselves in her, too. Sort of the way we engage the Internet is like, we act like thirteen year-olds. We all try to be cool and smart and funny and present ourselves as really chill and awesome, and we’re desperate and lying and acting like we’re cooler than we really are. So that’s why it felt like she was the right way to talk about this. I didn’t set out wanting to make a story about an eighth grader. I just wanted to talk about the Internet. The Internet is a place where we all act like eighth graders, so why not talk about eighth graders on the Internet.

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Justin Lyons: So obviously you’ve worked with higher-ups. You’re only twenty-seven, and you’ve done a ton of stuff. How was working with A24 different, from a creative and artistic perspective, from working with other higher-ups? It’s just recently hit the scene with Moonlight and last year’s Lady Bird, so it’s just only getting bigger. How did that allow you to put 100% of yourself into it?

Bo Burnham: Yeah, I mean, well, I haven’t worked with so many people, but I obviously know that A24 is incredible and it will just probably prove everything else disappointing if I don’t get to do more things with them. It’s very, very rare to be in a position where the brass making the movie are people that you deeply think are cool, and you actually want them to like the thing, and you want to hear their ideas for marketing, which is usually not the case. You’re usually trying to, like, trick people into liking your ideas. But they’re just someone that, you know, tries to make specific, cool stuff and tries to sell it off of its specificity, so it’s just really, really incredible, and I feel very, very lucky. But yeah, it’s a little terrifying. And when you realize that a huge part of how they make films is by giving a lot of creative freedom and to realize like, “Oh, I just have to make this good? I’m not Barry Jenkins, but I’ll give it a shot.” So yeah, it’s been good.

Justin Lyons: The last question I’ve got for you is that, a lot of times we look back on coming of age movies, say from the 80s or even the 90s or even really, really recently, and you think, “Man, these wouldn’t work today. Kids these days wouldn’t see themselves in these, maybe even just because of technology, but I feel like Eighth Grade is definitely different, especially because we talked about the Internet and how we perceive ourselves on the Internet. Do you see Eighth Grade possibly shepherding in more coming of age movies like this in the age of technology?

Bo Burnham: Maybe. I don’t know. Yeah, that would be cool. I would like people not to be so afraid of screens in movies. It feels like people are very screen-phobic, but I think screens are very cinematic. I mean, they’re beautiful, bright light sources. You’re so happy to see, like, Barry Lyndon write a letter by candlelight, and now just the letter and the candle are just one thing now. So yeah. I’d love to see that. I’d love to see the Internet try to be talked about more. As young people get a little bit of power to make things, we’ll see it, because I think for a long time the only people able to make movies were people from a generation that did not understand the Internet. They saw that the Internet was happening, but the Internet meant nothing to them emotionally, so they just felt like, “Oh, well, why am I going to put, like, texts in when I could have someone run to the airport? It’s so much cooler!” I think you’ll see it because it is so tied up in the way we feel, people my age and younger. Whether my movie does it or not, I think it’s going to… I just think I happen to be one of the first people of that generation to sort of get to the age where I’m allowed to make stuff like this. But I think we’ll see a lot more things about the Internet, and I’m excited for it!

Are you planning on seeing Eight Grade this weekend? Comment down in the comment section and let me know! It’s absolutely worth checking out, and if the R-rating is holding you back from taking your eighth grader or high school student, seeing it together might be worth a few awkward moments to gain a little bit better of an understanding for each other. As always, thank you, and keep listening to 88.7 The Pulse!

Justin Lyons

Hey, it's Justin Lyons! I am the Chief Film Critic for The Pulse. Have any questions for me? Please feel free to email me at [email protected]