‘Eighth Grade’ Director Bo Burnham and cast on social media and generational difference
“I immediately started crying.”
Elsie Fisher describes her first experience seeing “Eighth Grade” in its entirety at The Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Fisher stars in the film as Kayla Day, a 13-year-old who spends her free time scrolling through Instagram and making YouTube videos preaching self-confidence. Unfortunately, Kayla doesn’t take to her own advice and is struck by constant shyness and social anxiety.
“Eighth Grade” is the feature debut for 27-year-old writer/director Bo Burnham and has been met with overwhelming praise.
Burnham made his start not as a writer or as a comedian but as a semi-viral YouTube star. In the mid 2000’s, he would post videos of himself singing comical songs for his brother who was away at college. From the fame he garnered online, he began touring colleges and eventually some larger venues across America. His shows and songs were introspective, often dealing with issues of identity. His solo career is well encapsulated with an auto tuned Kanye-esque rant/song at the end of his last special “Make Happy.”
He has since taken to writing, finishing up his screenplay for “Eighth Grade” and directing two comedy specials for Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock. Burnham described his decision to move on from his comedy career as a longing for collaboration.
“I was done with myself,” Burnham said. “Stand up is very singular and I was really desperate to collaborate with people and not just express things through myself.”
Despite differences in what it means to direct a comedy special as opposed to a major motion picture, Burnham said he learned some ways of how to effectively direct “Eighth Grade” from his directorial efforts with comedy specials.
“It’s not the director’s medium, it’s the comedian’s medium but you definitely learn a couple things. You learn how to serve the person on camera, because that’s all you’re doing,” he said. “The creative process always helps the creative process, even when you’re switching mediums.”
Burnham said he was unsure if the film would survive the transition from script to screen well, so he tried to make sure that the script was loose on shoot days.
“I didn’t know if it was gonna successfully translate to a movie, I just didn’t know if it was gonna cut cause it was my first movie but I knew the page was trying to express something that sounded true and natural. But if what we did was try to stick violently to the script word for word, we would not serve the naturalisms,” Burnham said. “So that was my job was to make sure the actors feel free and not In their heads.”
“Eighth Grade” has an unknowing flow to it, unsure of where Kayla will go next and what she will do. It feels alive, just as Burnham intended it to.
“I wanted the film to feel alive, first. Then good. But it had to be alive first.”
The jump from comedy to directing was no easy feat for Burnham and he described the process as one that required a lot of aid, receiving support from the cast and crew everyday.
Two of those people are Fisher and Emily Robinson, who plays Olivia, a high schooler Kayla is tasked with shadowing.
“It was just super moving, it felt like a more intense version of reading the script,” Robinson said. “I had a lot of fun filming everything with [Fisher].”
“Eighth Grade” focuses heavily on this idea of identity in adolescence and how technology has altered the way society views generational difference. Robinson, 19, still connects back to a time in her life before social media.
“I can remember a time before I was using social media all the time, and soon that’s not gonna be the case which is crazy,” Robinson said. “Like seeing images of yourself all the time and how that affects how you see yourself or the world around you. I feel very caught between.. like I’ll see what my mom posts on Instagram.”
There is challenge to Kayla’s personality -- who she is online is not the same person you would meet if you saw her in class. “Eighth Grade” uses this character choice to dive deeper into the issues of social persona and sense of self that most audience members can relate to.
“I think there definitely is a duality to who you are online, for me, personally, I try to be the ‘funny person’ or whatever. But I see myself in my online persona, there is definitely me in there,” Fisher said. “I think when you’re online is an example of when you can be most true to yourself because it is kind of when you’re saying who you want to be.”
Fisher and Burnham share the idea that generations feel like they’re shrinking. Burnham ascribes some of it to social innovation and its rampant uptick in production.
“The gaps do feel like they’re shrinking a little bit to me” he said. “I do think these sort of once in a generation social innovations, like ‘I grew up with VHS,’ ‘I grew up with DVD,’ ‘I grew up with a Walkman,’ ‘I grew up with an iPod’ and now those things are happening every 6 months – they still are once in a generation, it’s just now there’s a new generation once every 6 months, it’s an exaggeration but I think it’s getting at something that feels true to me.”
Burnham believes that he, and the film, don’t have the answers to the questions they are asking.
“I don’t really have answers so much as I have questions, and feelings. If I had answers I would’ve given a ted talk or written a book or something,” Burnham said.
Burnham said “Eighth Grade” and social media’s presence over us has also changed our identities and our relationship with ourselves.
“I think [social media] has made everything more extreme, more deep. It makes us sort of meta objectify ourselves … We tend to talk about the internet in terms of like Russia, or cyberbullying, or social trends and we don’t tend to talk about the internet and how it has changed us, personally as individuals,” Burnham said.
“Eighth Grade” evokes feelings often, and the feelings of a thirteen-year-old often are more extreme and insightful when every little moment can feel like life or death. Burnham feels the duality of the social media generation, understanding its nuances and addictive habits but also fears society’s reliance on it. Much like the film, he doesn’t have the answers, just some questions and feelings.
“I feel like a nervous kid on the internet,” Burnham said. “I also feel like an out-of-touch old dude who has no idea what’s going on.”
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