Eighth Grade

#Interview: Scannain Talks Eighth Grade with director Bo Burnham

Scannain was lucky enough to catch up with Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham when he was in Dublin for the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. The film is out in Irish and UK cinemas tomorrow, April 26th and is a wonderfully warm, informative, and tender look at the scary time of adolescence.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school — the end of her thus far disastrous eighth-grade year.

Eighth Grade stars an amazing Elsie Fisher in the lead role, supported by Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, and Fred Heching.

Scannain: You came to initial prominence doing videos on YouTube and now you’re in the traditionally more mainstream moviemaking business. How did you find it?

Bo Burnham: I made videos from 2006 to 2008. So I’ve been out of that for a while and I’ve been doing standup for a long time. I guess the movie legitimised me in a way, but I don’t really see it like that. Any medium is legitimate to me and I think that for a long time I was worried about that. “Oh, I’ve got to make a movie so that I’m real.” It took me a while to realise that I’ve been real the whole time or that I’m still faking and it’s all bullshit!

You were given that chance when you were younger to write a feature. 

Yeah, I did that with Judd Apatow. It shouldn’t have been made and it wasn’t. But I got to learn how to write a little bit. It’s been a long process to have gotten here, but I’m glad that this is the first film of mine.

What made this the one that you had to make?

I don’t know. I’d written a bunch of things, but this was really the thing that felt like the most urgent thing for me, the thing that felt true. Like something that I had authority over, not that I had authority over it, but if anyone was going to tell this story it should probably be somebody like me, someone that understands the internet. Because I seem to see the internet being talked about by people who seem to not understand it or see it as some other thing, rather than someone who has actually lived with it. And someone that cares about it. I wanted to do it. I wanted to tell it. This story meant something to me.

One of the things about social media and platforms liek YouTube is that there are hundreds of thousands of people uploading videos that might never be watched.

The top point one percent of YouTube users – that aesthetic is not the aesthetic of the internet. The internet is actually very handmade and delicate and human and interesting and complex, and nothing like the overlit brand-centric version that you see on the trending pages. I was very interested in telling a story about real people dealing with the internet, and not the sort of satire of influencers that we see.

And you do so at one of the most difficult times in a young person’s life, the transition between schools and also between bodies. 

Between childhood and young adulthood. And it happens across cultures. Rights of passage happen at that age. For a real reason. It’s a very clear transition between two things. So whether you have eighth grade or not, you have what it means. You have this crossroads when you’re 13, when you have to leave your child behind and enter something else.

One of the interesting things you do in the film is the use of real technology of real message and Instagram posts. Was that a big technical challenge?

It was tough. There were no screen replacements. Nothing was done after in the effects. We really had someone sending them. We had to create hundreds of fake Instagram accounts and fake Twitter accounts and really message her in real-time. It was really tough but I think that it was worth it for us. You just can’t fake that stuff. If she had have been on “Friendbook.com” it would have been over.Our props people and our production designer did a really good job with it, but it was an absolute nightmare.

Hollywood is struggling with how to display social media and texting on screen. You see text bubbles overlaid or you see something completely different like John Cho sitting in-front of a computer and it being filmed from the computers perspective. Your’s is another film that gets it right

That was a great example with John Cho. I think it’s important that it’s on a phone, that it’s on a screen. I don’t like the superimposed stuff. Part of the meaning of the thing is that it is behind glass in your hand on a small screen. And I actually think phones are very beautiful. Barry Lyndon writing a letter by candlelight is so cinematic, but a girl on her phone in the dark isn’t? I think it’s completely cinematic. It means something to me and other are annoyed by their phones. I’m annoyed by my phone, but it is an emotional thing for me so that’s probably why I see the emotionality in it.

You lucked out with casting Elsie, she’s absolutely fantastic.

Yeah lucked out like crazy. I think that she just understands. She made her active and other people in the audition played Kayla as this person who was cowering in the corner, and Elsie understands what shyness is. That shyness is attempting not to be shy every second. She was just able to bravely dispaly the chaos of that age. A lot of kids have to shut off everything about themselves to be able to act, she’s able to keep all of those complexities going on.

There’s a lot going on with her behind the eyes.

As a kid, as a person but especially as a kid, everything is a lie, everything is a performance. Everything you are doing is pretending to be a series of different people in every single moment in order to navigate it. She is able to do that in the movie very beautifully.