No one wants to relive the eighth grade, but Bo Burnham is going to make you do it anyway.
While it would be fair to call Burnham’s feature film debut as a writer-director “cringey,” that’s sort of baked into the concept: The film follows Kayla (played by Elsie Fisher) through her final year of eighth grade, as she struggles to sort herself out, make connections, and put this chapter of her life behind her.
The movie is, smartly, just that. There are very few grand pronouncements, no harrowing deviations from a typical middle school experience that might permanently scar her. What viewers get instead is part nostalgia and part specific-to-now, all wrapped up in anxiety: Eighth Grade.
I talked to Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher during the Seattle International Film Festival about why 8th graders care so much, how they tried to capture the current moment, and why it was important to light the film with natural cellphone brightness.
In all seriousness: How did you handle the tone going in, and throughout production?
BB: I felt like it could be a horror movie—not a horror movie, but the hope was that it would have a lot of tones, but that the tones would be arrived at just sort of organically, just being honest in the moment. Because for me, my life is not tonally consistent; you come across a bunch of different tones in your life. We wanted it to feel visceral and subjective, and true to her experience. We knew there’d be a lot of intense stuff in there; we wanted to be chained to her, sort of hand-cuffed to her, and sink the audience’s heart rate with hers.
You’ve said before that you stumbled on Kayla’s voice when you were trying to write about internet anxieties—what felt good about staying there? What attracted you to it?
BB: It was something about how significant everything could register to her, which felt very true. It just felt like—well I think, specifically young girls at that age are just subjected to way more culturally than boys are. So they’re within the culture—I don’t know, boys are just smelly and not really doing much at that age. And girls are kind of interfacing with the culture and interrogating it; they’re just engaged a little more.
I realized that in order for something to feel anxious, to explore anxiety, we need to get people to care. And eighth grade girls care, they care, you know what I mean? That’s probably why it’s middle school and not high school, because it wasn’t going to be about this sort of cynical teen—
EF: Yeah, 8th grade girls care more than freshman girls. I’m just saying from experience.
BB: High school kids across the board just check out a little bit more. It’s right before you become completely jaded.
What about you, [Elsie], what attracted you to the role of Kayla?
EF: You know, she’s not shy in the typical sense. She doesn’t have her head buried in a book. She just is not noticed, and she’s not necessarily made fun of for it. And that’s something I can personally relate to.
And just a lot of her experiences aren’t verbatim my own eighth grade experiences but they’re very similar. I really liked the portrayal of that in media.
Was it weird to have just wrapped eighth grade and then go back to it with a—you know, we’re not going to impart a whole life lesson philosophy, but there’s a takeaway, certainly.
EF: No it was definitely a little weird. I enjoyed it though. It was interesting to reflect back on my experience so soon after.
BB: That’s very millennial—or not millennial, it’s very Gen Z. Like that old Demetri Martin joke [pretends to take a picture] “Aww, look at us!” you know? We are like immediately nostalgic about our experience, we’re immediately reflecting. Sometimes we’re reflecting on experiences we haven’t even had yet. Thinking like “Oh OK I hope this grading tonight goes well, and then maybe after tomorrow morning I’ll be thinking about it.” But part of it was just getting you out there unresolved, right? You can feel when young actors [are] two years older than what they’re playing. You can feel that distance, you can feel that, oh I’m playing a 15-year-old but I’m sort of remembering what it’s like to be a 15-year-old and playing a kid. And the whole point was: you’re it. We’re trying to show the feelings you’re not sure about, and the things that are unresolved around you.
EF: I was still in the mindset of an eighth grader.
BB: You were an eighth grader! It was the summer after.
How did you work to keep the portrayal grounded, or just each other grounded?
BB: Hmm…how’d you keep me grounded? Slap those lattes out of your hand?
EF: It was really hard, because you’re very tall. But I don’t know. It was just about doin’ it. Just feeling out the script, and stuff.
BB: She only read the script once. She only got the page the day of. I wanted everything to stay fresh, for her not to totally know—I wanted her to know what was happening so she was comfortable with everything beforehand, but not to specifically know what’s necessarily coming everyday so it feels like it’s being processed on camera, rather than rehearsed and then thrown. So it was really all about anything we can do to make things feel raggy and—raggy’s not a word. Raggedy? What am I thinking of, “scrabby?”—
EF: You’re just thinking of Scooby Doo.
BB: [laughs] exactly, I’m just having a stroke.
EF: Drink your water.
BB: And just making it feel organic and natural. And I would tell the kids all the time: “The worst thing you can do is do this scene perfectly. Please don’t do it perfectly.” Because I didn’t say a complete sentence until I was 20, so don’t worry about speaking coherently. You’re not supposed to speak coherently.
[Bo] is pretty plugged in, but did you have to explain to him how middle schoolers use social media?
EF: No, I mean, honestly I think Bo got it pretty well. I think I said, “No one uses Facebook,” and then [that made it in the movie]. But that was like my only social media advice.
BB: And I’d ask you—I’d be like “What was a [trails off].” I didn’t even know how to use Snapchat.
EF: Dude I don’t either.
BB: You don’t either! Someone else had to.
EF: It was whoever managed Kayla’s social media or something. I followed all the accounts, though, that she’s scrolling through. That’s in my interests, kinda.
How did you work to weave social media into the film?
BB: The big challenge is visually, I just didn’t want any screen replacements, and I knew if she was on “FriendBook.com” then we’re dead, the movie’s just dead. So I was like, it has to be the actual internet playing the internet, it has to be filmed. Because screen replacements—the light that comes off them is not the same. And the thing of people texting, and the bubble comes up on the screen, I hate that, when it superimposes on the screen, I think that’s really corny.
So that was a challenge. It ended up going to production design and props and they had to create 200 fake accounts, and do all the fake likes—it’s real, in-time DMs. So Erica [Severson, assistant property master] was off-camera with a phone sending her DMs. But then we have to reset it so the clock [reads] right; we’re not shooting the scene at the time, sometimes we’re blacking out windows because it’s 2 p.m. So logistically it was bad, and it was very, very, very stressful. But I’m very happy with how it turned out.
EF: The outcome looks very good.
BB: Yeah I think it looks cool. And we had one chance to break that phone.
EF: Right. I love the crack on the phone though.
Oh you had to actually break the phone?
BB: Yeah because we tried a screen protector, just cracking the screen protector, but you could see the border of the screen protector. And I was just like, We’ve gone this far, we can’t. So we all stood over the phone—with our production designer—and it was like, [mimes hitting it] and it cracked perfectly, and we were like, Thank God.
EF: It cracked perfectly! And honestly it’s so pretty. I’ve never seen a phone crack like that.
BB: And we couldn’t have gotten free phones—because we cracked the phone, Apple wouldn’t give us free stuff. So we really only had one phone.
What do you have against superimposing that stuff on screen? Why did you want that to be real?
BB: It feels honestly like if someone were to be reading the newspaper and then on the screen the typewriter font were to come up. Sometimes it can work but I actually think part of the significance of interacting with the phone is that you’re staring at this light source, and the size and look of it on the screen is as important as what’s being said. And that’s robbed of it when it just comes with a “bloop” on the [screen]. I want to see the light, I want to see the pixels. It’s meaningful to me in the same way that Barry Lyndon writing by candlelight is meaningful, you know what I mean? Writing a letter by candlelight is super cinematic. Why can’t this be cinematic? And it’s actually more cinematic to me because the candle and the letter are now one thing.
It was half being important, and it was half just saying, I think this can be really beautiful. Like looking over at my girlfriend in bed at night, and she’s got her phone in her face in the dark. And it’s like, This is a surreal image, this is a cool image—that I’m sure I look like that too. But when you see someone on their phone in the dark (or on their laptop in the dark) it’s cool looking! And strange, and the look on their face is specific.
EF: Yeah. It’s so blank.
BB: Yeah it’s so blank.
EF: Like you never have that expression except when you’re reading.
BB: And that’s the other thing about her actually having the phone to scroll through, that when she’s looking at the thing, if that had just been a white screen and she was just pretending to do it you wouldn’t have seen the reflection in [her] eye. And also when you’re scrolling you can see your eyes are going [back and forth], your eyes are scrolling and vibrate as they’re looking. So that was important too—because it’s like your scene partner, you know? The internet is your scene partner in that thing.
How did it feel working as a scene partner with the internet?
EF: It was cool and interesting, and it’s not something you ever get to do.
BB: [laughs] You probably just forgot we were shooting.
EF: Yeah I would! It was comforting! I could totally forget about the scene and just be looking on Instagram. Like I could totally forget that there were cameras there, and I did sometimes.
BB: Yeah, ‘cause we had to shoot for a while. And you’d just be [mimes scrolling]. Sometimes in movies there’s the equivalent of the phone of people playing video games and they’re [dramatically moves body back and forth], and it’s like no kids play video games like this, [quietly and without motion].
How did you want to engage with the internet, not necessarily in terms of what you initially approached it with, but once you were filming the movie?
BB: It’s not necessarily like the movie’s about the internet, because the movie’s about her in the world. But I think it’s about—the way the internet really exists in the movie for me is the way it clearly informs the way she perceives herself and her life in the real world, that there’s just a real objectifying thing the internet does to us. We’re no longer living moments, we’re hovering over ourselves where the camera is, hovering over ourselves watching ourselves experience things rather than being in them. And we’re watching other people watch us, and we’re watching other people watch them watch us, you know? And there’s this dissociative thing that happens with the internet.
It’s similar with movies and pop culture, where it’s just part of Kayla’s stress [that] she wishes her life was good enough to be a movie. She thinks her life sucks, she thinks her life isn’t worthy of a movie. And we’re saying the struggle with that failure to not live up to the narrative standard of the internet, of culture, of the movies is worthy of a movie.
Every movie dates itself a little bit. Did you think about how this movie was going to be dating itself a little bit?
BB: Yeah sure—I think people are scared about portraying the internet because they’re worried about dating themselves, but I look at The Breakfast Club and they’re listening to Walkmans. I want the movie to be a time capsule of that specific point, but also, even if people are not using Instagram, and Twitter, and Snapchat in 10 years, I think they’ll still be struggling [with the same things]. The scene is not really about Snapchat, it’s how she thinks of herself, and how she perceives herself. So that’s what we’re actually pursuing, the other stuff is just decorative. I don’t think you need to know what Snapchat is to understand what she’s doing on that thing. It’s really just images and messages.
So we wanted to lean into the dated aspects of this. She’s got a Wonder Woman poster on her wall because that came out a week before we filmed the movie. We were like, Let’s just make it perfectly current, and then we’ll back off. Let’s just capture this moment as it is, and stop trying to make it—the impulse was to make it “timeless,” by having her listen to indie rock which I don’t know why people think it’s timeless to like, listen to The Ramones. But no, it should be specific.
EF: And aside from the movie being dated because it’s in 2017 and it’s heavily about social media that could change at any second, it’s about one week of Kayla’s life, and that is dated, almost.
BB: She also looks into a time capsule that’s two years old, and it feels dated to her. She looks at a magnet of Justin Bieber from two years ago and he’s a sweet little choir boy. And now the Bieber in her room is some bad boy with shaved—so that’s sort of the point is that we’re living in a—
EF: The whole point of the film is we’re showing a very specific time.
BB: And the culture is changing so rapidly; that’s part of the struggle of being young. I mean, do any of us remember before Trump [was] elected? I don’t. I don’t remember anything! So that feels like a generation ago. We wanted to embrace that. And then maybe in 20 years we’ll be a little more stable and we’ll go back and be like, Man this was a weird time. Or things will just keep going and people will find the Blu-ray in the charred remains of our country. And be like Ooh and try to eat it or boil it for calories. Or use it as a plate to eat the remains of another tribe.
It’s every filmmaker’s dream right?
BB: [laughs] Exactly. Just to be a club in the future of, you know.
EF: Yeah, it really does feel like we’re on the brink of that.
Just constantly—like it could be tomorrow.
EF: It really does feel like we’re on the brink of that!
BB: But that’s how I felt making the movie too. When we were making the movie I was like, “I don’t know if we’re going to have a country in two months”—truly! So I was like, “This shouldn’t be about anything other than capturing the current moment.”
How did you think about this young woman changing over the course of a week? It’s not one of those “I’m going to turn my life around” kind of montages at the end, but it’s still a major period in her life.
EF: I never really thought about her story as a whole when filming it. It was more about being in the moment for each scene, really. Her story isn’t—it is coming of age, I suppose, but it really is just a week of her living her life. And it’s not revolutionary or life-changing for her, as far as we know.
BB: She’s right—it’s my job to look over that. It’s my job to attend to the arc of her, it really is only her job to be just so in the moment. Because Kayla isn’t aware at any moment; she doesn’t know where she’s going. Except at the end, we’re hoping she—well, she still doesn’t.
EF: Right. She has an idea of where she maybe wants to go, and maybe that’s what this week was kind of about figuring out. We don’t know what happens to her after that.
BB: I think maybe she’s just a little more forgiving of herself. For me, that’s what she kind of gains; she’s just going to forgive herself going forward a little more.
EF: Yeah, be comfortable being herself. Like she actually takes the advice of her very first video—which is nice, it comes around full circle.
Tell me about how you use the camera to dance around with Kayla’s life.
BB: One of the ideas was just playing against the flatness of the screens. But also just being really close to her, not doing this sort of long lens/far away thing, but doing the big wide lens right next to her. Because wide lenses up close to her—when you follow her in real time—it’s nice because it makes the ceilings higher and the hallways longer. Because the world does feel bigger when you’re that age.
But also just wanting to breathe and follow her through space in real time, to feel what it feels like to move through the world. That sort of Z-axis was our axis of going, “OK, the world in your phone is really flat, but then when you get in the real world there’s this whole other dimension.” So we really want to add that, that the real world has this whole other feeling.
And then just to let the actors act and get out of their way; that’s sort of my thing. I didn’t want to do too much pyrotechnic sort-of editing. If a scene is ever working and I can just let the actors sit in the frame and act, that’s what I prefer. I just like getting out of their way.
This isn’t a huge message film, but what did you hope audiences would take away or understand when they walked out of the theater?
EF: Just like, we’re all weirdos. [laughs] Because when I was reading the script and when I was in 8th grade I was like, Oh my God, I’m a total outsider. I’m not even like a stereotype, I’m just weird. And then after reading it and being Kayla it’s like, oh this is literally everyone—or at least one weird tall man.
BB: Yes, which in a way I am everyone.
That’s the best thing. It’s a movie about loneliness to a certain degree, so you hope people feel lonely when they watch it. But my thing is I’m more—I just want people to feel, period. As long as you’re feeling in the movie, thinking maybe afterwards, talking afterwards—
EF: Especially because people don’t really do that, in our culture. Everyone’s numb and we’re just receiving information.
BB: And we like to theorize about things more than we like to feel things. But I don’t really need it to be about anything; my hope is just that I don’t want this movie to be instructive or prescriptive. The movie should just be, hopefully, descriptive emotionally, and then I want you to feel about yourself. And then walk out talking about things, and have a little more information to have conversations about. But whatever conversations they have, great. Unless it’s “Whoa, what the fuck was that?”
EF: You know that’s still a good conversation to have!
BB: You’re exactly right, that’s not a bad conversation to have.
It’s kind of the A24 brand.
BB: Yeah, exactly. It’s better than “meh.” If people are like “What the fuck?” that’s actually kind of cool.
EF: Yeah, if it affects you in some way then we did our job right. Even if it’s negative.
How did you guys want to trouble the water of portrayals of middle school girls?
BB: I didn’t have many references—I had older references. I just felt like I hadn’t seen middle schoolers at all, now. Like, now. I felt there were other things, like Stranger Things, but that’s ‘80s and a retro, Spielberg thing.
As much as the impulse is to go, “Ugh, I hate these portrayals of teens,” we weren’t thinking about the other stuff there. We wanted real stuff, with real kids and real skin and real hair. We just wanted to feel real. There’s definitely an aesthetic sort of standard for kids on screen that’s gross that’s like 1) hypersexual, and 2) so unrealistic and ridiculous that I don’t understand. There’s a wonderful push for diversity on camera, and yet there seems to be no aesthetic diversity. They’re all still flawless, no blemishes on their skin, all the same height. So I wanted to show what people actually are like, people who are worthy of being on camera and do look great.
EF: I really like the wardrobe diversity too—
BB: Yeah yeah! Kids were dressed shitty, because kids don’t know how to dress in middle school.
EF: And aside from it not being hypersexualized, at least for girls it’s either that or you’re a complete tomboy. Which, no. Like right now I’m not really hypersexually dressed or really a tomboy; I’m just normal. But it’s like people need to be dressed more normal in media—or weird.
BB: Right, whatever it is. Boys with non-fitting basketball shorts, and then XL [clothes]—
EF: Yeah, nothing needs to be perfect. It can be non-fitting because that’s how people dress.
BB: We go to the scouts, who are going out to middle schools, and we say, “We want this, how do we get exactly this in a fictional setting?” So that was the standard, the standard was reality.Was it a fight to capture that regular middle school vibe?
BB: No they [A24] were really on board, and saw [Elsie] and immediately fell in love with her. And liking her was really, “Oh we’re cool.” And we saw every actor in the world, more “established,” at the time, or “famous” choices. So we were cool. It was very easy to me.
The challenge is actually practically doing it, but we felt totally supported to be whatever. And Elsie’s actually—she’s the most refined professional choice in the movie, by far. The rest of the kids are like [laughs] maniacs. I mean there are a few actors—
EF: They’re cool, I like all the kids. They seemed very specific.
BB: Yeah, they were real…weirdos.
How much did the story change from its inception to the final product?
BB: Not a ton. There were definitely some scenes that were cut here and there, and then things that were updating the tech. But the central idea—and it got better, it just got a little more mature, a little more nuanced I think—the central idea, like that opening monologue, didn’t change. And this idea of a lonely kid in her own head navigating the world, that was always there.
But some things changed. [To Elsie] Did you ever read that mall scene where you went—because you used to go to the mall not to meet Olivia, you used to go on your own. Did you ever read that? I don’t think you did.
EF: I don’t remember. Because I only got to read the full script once. That sounds not [like] what I read.
When you say you read the full script once, do you mean you got a script, you read it, and you just ran with each scene?
EF: Yeah, pretty much.
BB: Well, I only let her read the full script once. And then at rehearsals I’d show up with signs.
EF: I like that choice though, to only have me read the script once, because it worked out perfectly that way. And it felt very fresh to me that way.
BB: She has an incredible memory too, like a freaky, freaky photographic memory. So you remember the scenes but you’re not going to, like, be home rehearsing stuff. I didn’t want her to do that. Don’t worry, you’re fine, all this is good. When you were auditioning you didn’t know these scenes and it felt right, so let’s keep it that way; let’s not overcook this thing.
How does this compare to other acting roles you’ve had?
EF: For me personally they’re not even on the same level. This is such a beautiful thing that I’m so proud of making. And my other stuff is cool—like Agnes and Despicable Me, that stuff is cool. But this, I’m passionate about this. I’m proud of it. And I got to make it with super cool people that I’m now friends with. And that is amazing, and it gives a message that I wish I had heard. It’s on a whole other level.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.