Original-Cin Q&A: YouTube star Bo Burnham tackles the real world with the acclaimed Eighth Grade

If you're plugged into YouTube, you probably already know Bo Burnham's name. If not, you'll you’ll hear it plenty in coming years. The YouTube comedy star has cleverly segued  to standup comedy, Netflix specials and now movies. And he’s just written and directed his first feature, a coming-of-age film called Eighth Grade

Read our review of Eighth Grade

The film stars newcomer Elsie Fisher as Kayla, a 13-year-old who endures adolescence and everything that goes along with it as she makes her way through her last week of middle school -- and the end of one disastrous year of eighth grade.

Eighth Grade was the talk of Sundance when it premiered there earlier this year; and is a film that makes all of us who are well past our teenage years grateful that we don’t have to live them now.

Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer sat down with Bo Burnham to discuss the film and why it meant so much to him on a very personal level. 

Elsie Fisher is Kayla, whose life is reflected back to her online, in Eighth Grade.

Elsie Fisher is Kayla, whose life is reflected back to her online, in Eighth Grade.

Original-Cin: Why did you choose to focus on a 13-year old and the eighth grade for your feature film debut? 

 Bo Burnham:  “To be honest, I don't know. I just know that I really wanted to talk about how I was feeling when I wrote it and still am feeling - which is sort of anxious about being on the internet and about how those things were connected. Then I realized through writing that, that I think I felt like an Eighth Grader (laughs).  I think a good way to talk about the current culture and the current mode that we’re in is through young people, because they're experiencing it most purely. They kind of experience culture in the moment, mostly because we (adults) are all bogged down with the other stresses.”

OC: That’s an understatement. Tell me about your own anxieties. You literally got discovered on the internet, particularly YouTube, and then you went on to do so many different things including standup. I would think doing stand-up comedy is one of the scariest things to do. So I am sure you could relate to these kids on so many levels. 

BB: “I was having panic attacks backstage instead of being in a bathroom before a pool party like our main character Kayla. I equated it as feeling the same way. Anxiety not just circumstantially couldn't stand up on its own. But I wanted to explore my feelings through someone else’s different circumstances.  I was trying to talk about it in my standup and I was just feeling like a snake eating its own tail, if you get what I mean.  I couldn’t work it out.  So it being a young person especially a young a girl, I couldn't protect my own past experiences.  I had to come to this approach humbly and as something that was new and fresh.”

OC: Your star Elsie Fisher, the young girl who plays Kayla, is simply amazing.  Was it hard to find her and how did you know that she was going to be able to carry this whole film? 

BB:  “She was the second or third person that came in to read for the role. I had seen a video of her, and trust me I saw a lot of young people for this part. But she was the only young actor  who actually wasn’t pretending to be shy. She was the only one that was pretending to be confident in the way she played it. 

“She played Kayla as someone who wanted to be someone else, and everyone else was just trying to play Kayla. I tested her seven or eight times, and I never saw another kid more than twice.

“But I needed to with Elise because the movie is SO her.  She starts with a three minute monologue and then she doesn’t speak for another 10 minutes. The movie really is ALL, so we would do tests just having her reciting the monologues. Then I would do a  silent test to see how her facial expressions would work. Looking back at it, I really out her through the wringer. 

“But I needed to make sure that she could do it. She had to show up for 27 days and deliver day after day. But she did. She really just did and I couldn't be happier with her performance and how it all worked out.”

OC: The film really brings to light how, not just kids, but all of us are all so dependent on our devices and how much we go to social media for acceptance.  What is so sad is that every little thing, every microcosm can really set someone off. It’s pretty scary if you ask me how people, especially kids, are reacting and relating to what is important on instagram, YouTube and Twitter. How did that all play in for you when you began the writing process? 

BB:  “It means a lot to me. I just see the Internet being talked about in this sort of arms-length, sort of hovering helicopter kind of way, where it's talked about in terms of big social trends.  I was much more interested in a subjective portrayal of the Internet as experienced by one person, in the way it makes them feel in their tummy and in their heart. And not so much like its implications in a sort of like Black Mirror-esque type way.

“I love that show, but I'm just saying it feels like we only talk about the internet in these big sweeping satirical, ironic or  dystopian ways. And I wanted to talk about it and have people come out of it saying, what does it mean? I think it means something very deep and subtle and emotional.”

OC: I was so happy that you focused a lot on Kayla’s relationship with her dad. I think kids need to understand that as parents all we want to do is help and be there for them and there’s a pivotal scene in the film where you hit that nail right on the head. 

 BB:  “I hope both parents and kids come away with a little more empathy for each other. My mother has always been so supportive of everything I have done and she just wanted to help me all the time. Look we know that there’s two sides to that, like, ‘Oh my God please stop! Give me something to rebel against!’”

OC: Of course, there always has to be some kind of pushback.

 BB:  “Right, but also the point of being a teenager or young teen and a parent isn't for it to always go well. It's for it to be fraught and to be able work things out. 

“Hopefully it’s not explosive and destructive, but part of it is being a punching bag so the kid can get their frustrations out on you. 

“The irony is that we are often crueler to the people that we love, because they’re the only people we’re comfortable enough (to be that way with). And sometimes you just have to take it and hope they will appreciate it down the line.

“Personally I hope everyone can relate to his movie in one way or another. When you make it for 13-year-olds, 13-year-olds don’t always love the truth. I think the movie is primarily for people who are older, even a couple of years older. It’s much easier to be in high school and look back and laugh at your eighth-grade self.”