Written and directed by Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade follows the story of Kayla (portrayed brilliantly by Elsie Fisher), a pre-teen girl in the final week before her middle school graduation. Looking forward to high school in the fall, Kayla is caught between who she was and who she wants to be. As her school year comes to a close, she must attempt to find herself in the midst of adolescence without losing herself in the process. When asked why he chose to focus his story on the trials of an eighth grade girl, Burnham explains that there’s an innocence and awkwardness to that age that he wanted to explore.
“I’ve met a lot of high schoolers. [Today’s] high schoolers seem very blahzay and over it,” he begins. “They have a thousand yard stare that feels like they got from the war of junior high. You know what I mean? I think of coming of age in high school, but high school is when you’re becoming an adult. When you’re an eighth grade, you’re literally still a child. When you’re in high school, I don’t think you have ‘child’ left in you but, when you’re in 8th grade, you still have full blown child going on [within you].”
“I wanted to make a movie that I liked and I wanted to see. So, it definitely wasn’t for eighth graders,” he continues. “I hope that eighth graders like it, but it’s definitely not primarily for them or only for them. If I’m honest, I think people are just about as awkward and weird as eighth graders. I don’t think it’s that different. I think we’re all pretty awkward. I hope it serves kids and their parents in specific ways but I also hope anyone can see themselves in her, you know what I mean? It’s the sort of sexist thing that’s put on a lot of young female stories. No one goes, “Oh, Hamlet. Was that only for Princes of Denmark?” Everyone sees themselves in him, even if they aren’t a prince or a man or a Danish or whatever. I think a 13 year old girl can be the same thing. Everyone should be able to see themselves in her… I connect to her personally.”
With Kayla, Burnham has created a character who feels completely honest and authentic in her approach to the world around her. In order to bring that sense of genuineness to life onscreen, Burnham realized that he had to perfect Kayla’s voice, a process that took him online for research.
“The first step was [to create] the voice of [the film],” he remembers. “So, I was just listening to kids talk online about themselves. You know, kids that we’re talking with 10 views on their channel. The first thing I did in writing was to just transcribe exactly what they said. Every sound, you know what I mean? So, I was transcribing [things like] ‘Uh, yeah. So, uh, yeah, sorry, what I’m trying to say is…’ That’s what I was trying to write. I was watching these videos [thinking] if this were a performance, that would be incredible because the way kids actually sound is so much more complex than the way kids are written and performed. So then after transcribing a dozen or so, I started to write my own in that voice… The movie grew out of that voice, really. The voice, to me, contains the whole meaning of the movie. [It’s in] the performance and what she wants to be, how she thinks she might be, and what’s the gap between that? It’s all there in just a sentence.”
Once he’d established Kayla’s voice, Burnham’s next step was to establish the film’s tone. Looking back, he sought to emphasize the weight and importance of her challenges, rather than focus on broad comedy.
“I really did approach every scene the same in terms of just trying to reflect your subjective experience,” he explains. “I wasn’t in funny scenes trying to be funny. [For example, in] the banana scene, we weren’t laughing. I was taking that very seriously because I was trying to feel with her. This is an awful moment of your dad catching you in this really bad thing. Moments that don’t sound like a big deal of all different types, when you actually live them, are a huge deal. Go to a pool party. It’s nothing. But when you actually go to a pool party, it’s not nothing, at least initially.”
Also central to Eighth Grade is Kayla’s relationship with her father, an earnest man who loves his daughter yet struggles to connect with her in the midst of her issues. When asked why he chose to explore that tension between generations in this way, Burnham answers that this sort of miscommunication is simply reality.
“I just think that’s the truth and how it maybe even should it be,” he states. “It might be the point of it to not quite understand each other. What he kind of gives her at the end is, “I cannot understand you in this moment. I have no idea what you’re going through right now. But I understand like the meta-you better than you do.” That’s sort of what my mom gave me all the time, when I’d be going through [stuff]. I’d [say], ‘You don’t know what I’m going through at all right now.’ Then she’d say, ‘I don’t. But I saw you go through something at four and then eight and then 12. I know this feels like a really new thing you’re going through, but I’ve seen you feel this way before and you’ve gotten through it.’ [Parents] don’t specifically know you moment to moment, but they know the overarching you. At that age you just can’t attend to [that] because two years ago feels like forever ago and you were a different person.”
While one might wonder if he were overwhelmed at the prospect of stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, Burnham believes that he was able to play to his strengths by focusing on the youth themselves.
Says Burnham, “I wrote it with the intention [to direct]. I had written another script that I tried to get made and it didn’t happen and then [thought I would] write something that I know I can direct… The intention was to lean into whatever strengths I thought I had, like scene work or working with young people. I may not be a director that really knows how to direct a film, but I know young people in the Internet pretty well, so if I can stay close to what I feel like I know then I can be in decent shape.”
“I was certain I was making it for Hillary’s America,” he expresses. “The movie just felt different when we were making it because then, all of a sudden, Trump is there and felt like, ‘Whoa.’ When she’s making that video to herself at the end , we were making [the film] saying [we] really don’t know if she’s going to make it. I don’t know if the country makes it to when she’s a senior, which was so different than when it was written. When it was written, it was going to be a subtle sweet interrogation of this thing. Now that there’s a female president, we all feel a little better about ourselves. Instead, the story became a lot more urgent when Trump was there which was insane.”
Of course, with any conversation about today’s youth comes an exploration of their relationship with the internet and social networking. A veteran of the YouTube world, Burnham wanted to explore the online world in a way that revealed how pre-teens engaged it, rather than his own generation.
“I wanted to talk about how [the internet] felt to me and I think I did,” he explains. “When I tried to write about someone my age dealing with the Internet, it just felt so embarrassing. It was just so hatable. But, when you’re an eighth grader, we can kind of like forgive our behavior a little bit better. We can look at it and [say that] she isn’t narcissistic. She isn’t self-obsessed. She’s just looking for connections. She’s just desperate to be loved, like we all are. I think that’s actually how we all are acting on the Internet. We’re just like pretending like it’s something else… The Internet means the most to those kids because they don’t know a world before it. So, it’s not this other thing to them that they’re living with. It’s the way that they live and always have.”
“[The internet] is there but it’s also theirs to change. That doesn’t mean they can’t react to it. I just think that older people in charge of in Silicon Valley need to more deeply understand this responsibility they have because of how important this thing is and how deep it reaches into them. It isn’t just like some cool marketing technique. It’s actually the neurochemistry of an entire generation that you have in your hand. The kids will learn that. It’s more the job that people with power [must realize]… They have like a lot of power and they need to wield that responsibly.”
“I just hope people see it and feel something,” he claims. “I really don’t want the movie to be prescriptive or tell you what to think or wag a finger or be a ted talk. The hope with everything is always that you just feel a little less alone. I mean, that was the point for me to do it, just to [realize that] these feelings that I have that I think are so unique are not unique. They are shared by other people. A whole wide array of people can see it and see their own feelings reflected in someone that may have been like them or may have not been like them.”
Eighth Grade is in theatres now.
For full audio of our interview with Bo Burnham, click here.