'Screens Are a Beautiful Light Source': Director Bo Burnham on 'Eighth Grade'
Bo Burnham's 'Eighth Grade' is the captivatingly honest coming-of-age tale of the moment.
Every coming-of-age story is at once personal and universal. Through the eyes of a young protagonist learning the rules of the world—and unlearning the illusions of childhood—the genre offers a unique window into the humanity of a culture in a moment in time.
Onscreen, it's hard to get them right. As technological progress hastens, the chasm between the personal and the universal ever widens. Take characters from a coming-of-age film set in 2008 and place them in one set in 2018; the former's language, devices, and social norms are already outdated. But one thing remains constant across all coming-of-age stories: anxiety.
That's the crux of Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade. Starring Elsie Fisher, it's the story of Kayla, an acne-plagued 13-year-old whose wisdom belies her underdeveloped social skills. You wouldn't know it from the loquacious, self-possessed vlogs that she uploads to her YouTube channel, but Kayla is an anxious pre-teen who was voted "Most Silent" in her yearbook superlatives. Unlike her compatriots from the coming-of-age films of yesteryear, Kayla experiences much of her social life through screens. Screens are an extension of—and proxy for—her anxiety. Through Kayla and her devices (and some of the strongest scenes in recent memory), Eighth Grade shows us what plagues modern society, from alienation to the power dynamics between older boys and younger girls.
Hyper-aware of his own screen, Burnham and cinematographer Andrew Wehde use zooms liberally. They leaned into the digital feel of the film, Burnham said in a recent interview with No Film School, by shooting Kayla's vlogs with a MacBook and filming screens without digital replacement.
In other ways, too, Burnham's film is steeped in verisimilitude. It feels off-the-cuff, but that naturalism was by careful design. This is partially due to the fact that Burnham knows the material personally; at 16, he was one of the first YouTubers to go truly viral. (His song "My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay" garnered one million hits in one day.) More than anything, though, Burnham said that Eighth Grade is about his experience of anxiety.
No Film School: Let’s start with the script. It was very precisely written, but delivered in an off-the-cuff, colloquial way. I imagine a lot of people assumed that there was improv involved, but I could tell that it was very intentional. It almost reminded me of the playwright Annie Baker.
Bo Burnham: Annie's the best! And Josh [Hamilton, who plays Kayla's father] went right from an Annie Baker play to the movie.
NFS: No way!
Burnham: Yeah, Josh does a lot of her plays.
The script's precision was intended to just give [Elsie] permission to be inarticulate. It was written like, "um, like, yeah, so, um, yeah, dot, dot, dot, wait, ugh." But I was never swooping in on set being like, "You missed an um!"
Fisher: It was very easy for me to deliver it organically because of how it was written. And I only read the full script once—I mean, I got the lines for each day, but I kind of had it in the back of my head.
NFS: So what kind of research did you do when you were in the writing process in terms of figuring out the way that kids these days talk?
Burnham: Those videos. Just literally watching vlogs. I felt like I understood everything about them through that. They're not necessarily presenting themselves honestly, and that's how you get to learn everything about them. You get to learn how they want to present themselves, how they fail to, how they react to that. The only difference is that the videos are usually 12 minutes long, just rambling. The good thing about these kids nowadays is if you wanna learn anything about them, they're posting everything about themselves online. It's very easy.
But I was watching those videos and going, "Could a movie exist at this level of articulation? Could it sound like this?" I was thinking, "If this were a performance in a movie, I would think this was fucking incredible." 'Cause this is so much more complex than the usual voiceover you hear from kids, which is very precise and quippy and false.
"Screens are a beautiful light source. That is what film is—it's just light and shadow."
NFS: You and I are the same age, so I feel like I can say this without sounding geriatric: generation gaps are getting wider as technology gets more advanced. We didn't have Instagram or YouTube in middle school. Elsie spends half her life on those platforms. Did you do a lot of field research talking to "kids these days?"
Burnham: I didn't feel like I was doing anything in the script that was way off base. Like, I didn't need to ask [the actors], "You ever go to pool parties?" So I just wrote it, but I knew the actual truth of the movie would be provided by them on the day. But yeah, in pre-production, I'm talking to hundreds of kids, auditioning and meeting the extras and, you know, I had my hands in the script at that point. So I'm making little adjustments here and there. Little references. Just trying to incorporate things.
NFS: How did you two find each other?
Fisher: Well, I was already a fan of Bo's comedy and stuff. And, fun story, in my actual eighth-grade year—I love that Bo's embarrassed by this now—if you're Student of the Month, they had you fill out this form and put it on a wall. "What are your interests? What kind of music do you listen to? Who are your role models?" I put Bo as my role model.
Burnham: And she said, "I think he's a great writer," which is incredible, 'cause I only considered myself a writer, but one else considered me a writer. So she got it.
Fisher: I got it!
NFS: You saw into the architecture of his work.
Burnham: Yes, exactly. She saw what was actually going on.
Fisher: Well, I mean, you were writing every song. It was a very precise performance.
Burnham: And the performance is not great, so you gotta focus on the writing. [Laughs]
Fisher: Whatever. [Laughs]
NFS: When you began rehearsing, what were some of the first things you two talked about? What were the ways in which you started breathing life into this?
Fisher: A lot of it was just diving into the scenes and making adjustments where they needed to be, I guess. We didn't do a lot of talking. We never really talked about eighth grade at all.
Burnham: No. We talked about anxiety more than that. It's so funny, 'cause people ask me, "What was your eighth grade like?" And I'd literally be like, "I've never thought of that." Everyone thinks I'm joking, but I was not sitting around thinking about my eighth-grade experience. I was trying to talk about my anxiety.
So what we would talk about other than the scenes was, "Do you feel nervous? How do you feel? How do you get through it when you go into a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable?" Not like, "What's it like getting ready for high school?" The heart of the movie isn't just about that particular experience. It's what she's feeling, which I think other people can relate to.
I always wanted the relationship to feel eye-level. I didn't want it to feel like I'm some older person that's been where you've been. Like, "I'll tell you how to get through eighth grade."
"I think the people that worry about getting it wrong don't live it."
NFS: Many filmmakers are afraid of making films about social media and technology now because the audience operates under the assumption that they're going to get it wrong for exactly that reason--they'd be out of touch or patronizing about it. I think it was smart to focus on anxiety and the ways in which people project their anxiety—tor interact with their anxiety—through technology.
Burnham: I was writing about my own relationship with the internet—how it makes me feel. But I didn't use Snapchat and stuff.
I think the people that worry about getting it wrong don't live it. So 40-year-olds sometimes think it's this other thing. But I'm just the oldest person that's lived it, so I'm the person that gets to make a movie first. I wanted to get it right on my own behalf. I was looking at movies about the internet going like, "This is so fucking dusty and wrong."
I think that as people our age start to make more things, you'll start to see the internet portrayed more correctly—more honestly and emotionally. I don't know what the equivalent would be... maybe filmmakers in the '60s who were making movies about hippies. It wasn't until the actual flower children became flower adults that they could actually talk about it.
NFS: “They smoked the marijuana.”
Burnham: Yeah, yeah, exactly. "Smoke that grass!"
NFS: It’s difficult to translate screen time into something cinematic. How did you approach the cinematography so realistically and dynamically?
Burnham: Even before we had the money [for production], me and my DP were testing screens and phones on cameras. I think the image of someone on their phone in the dark is very beautiful. The problem is that when a lot of filmmakers portray screens, it's just, "You're texting and the bubble shows up." But the actual beautiful thing is that screens are a light source. That is what film is—it's just light and shadow.
So we wanted it to all be practical. We were filming real screens. There are no replacements in After Effects. Those are all the actual screens—how they actually looked on the day, with the actual internet—because you can't recreate it. Even if you replace the screen [in post], it doesn't look good. And even if it looks okay, the light that comes off [the screen] changes when you scroll, and that changes on your face. In shots of her scrolling, you can actually see the reflection of her phone in her eye.
Even more than that, the look in your eyes when you're looking at the internet can't be recreated. You don't look the same if you're just looking at a blank screen. I say looking at someone looking at a screen is like every color making white. You know how you mix a bunch of paint together, you can get pure white? The white light of a phone, if you actually zoom into it, is red, blue, green pixels. It's all these different things, but it adds up to white. When she's staring at her phone, that's what I see. I see every emotion, but somehow it's just registering as nothing on her face.
NFS: And the micro eye movements, too.
Burnham: Yes, yes, exactly, exactly. I never thought of that, but yes, of course. The eyes shake like crazy. And we're shooting her up close.
"MacBooks shoot at 1080 now, which is standard HD. So when I saw [the MacBook footage], it was actually too good."
NFS: How did you shoot the vlogs?
Burnham: On a MacBook. But the problem is the MacBooks shoot at 1080 now, which is standard HD. So when I saw [the MacBook footage], it was actually too good. So we down-res-ed it in post. I pictured the vlog not just being the raw file, but this streaming file that she uploads. So I pictured it worse than directly from a MacBook.
I hate, in movies, when they cap to a newscast and the newscast is clearly being filmed with the same camera they filmed the movie on. Or when they're filming a YouTube camcorder video when it's clearly just the camera, but they put a little battery in the corner.
We wanted to make a digital film. A lot of films try to look like celluloid. But this is a digital movie so we wanted it to feel digital.
NFS: The coming-of-age film has a long tradition in cinema history. Did you reference anything in particular?
Burnham: Cassavetes. The rawness of the way he captured things was really important. Also, Catherine Brillat, A Ma Soeur!—that film was very influential. Marisa Silver made this film called Old Enough. It's an amazing coming-of-age story that kind of just got buried in time. It's a story set in New York with two 11-year-olds. David Gordon Green's film George Washington— his first film. But even recent ones like Krisha. You ever saw Krisha?
NFS: Love Krisha.
Burnham: I kind of ripped that off. The pool party—her approaching the pool party in the door—that's the opening shot of Krisha. I told Trey that. I was like, "Dude, I just ripped you off." Julie Ducournau's recent film Raw... I saw that four times in the theater before we went into production.
What I think I tend to like—which is similar to probably more films in the '80s and '70s—is letting the movie breathe and not cutting. Minimal coverage. And that's just because of what I like acting-wise. There's nothing more exciting to me than watching actors pace a scene without the editing pacing it. Especially young actors. Young actors never get to sit in a frame and just act. That's what I love about that Gabe scene [in Eighth Grade]. It's just the two of them for a minute and a half just acting together. When the movie can back away and just let the actors go...that's what I pursue all the time. What I love about movies is performance.
NFS: Was there anything that you did individually or together with the actors on set that encouraged that kind of naturalism?
Fisher: I just tried to leave the film to set so as not to overthink it. Because Kayla, for me, is very intuitive. It's hard to describe because I never tried to objectify her. It was about empathizing with her. So just not thinking it in my off time was the best I could do.
Burnham: Trust. It's trust. That was the whole endeavor of this set the entire time—to create an environment where Elsie would feel free to express herself. And a huge amount of that has to be given to the crew, don't you think?
Fisher: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Burnham: The people she spent the most time with were Pat and Gary and Sarah, the cam operator, focus pullers, and camera assistant. They spent more time together than even the cast. You guys were like four peas in a pod.
Fisher: The entire crew, aside from just being good at their jobs, were all actually good people.
Burnham: It wasn't like we had to be like, "Okay, make her feel comfortable." Everyone just loved her and were so happy to do it.
That's the oxymoron of filming: you plan and budget and schedule to then get on the day and get something spontaneous. And that spontaneity is completely on Elsie's shoulders. It is her job to deliver that. So it's the rest of our job to make an environment where she can feel safe to fail. 'Cause the spontaneous thing that can't be recreated—that's right next to failure. It's basically just surrounded by failure. So you have to be cool to—
Fisher: Mess up.
Burnham: Yeah, mess up and do some awkward shit.
NFS: This is your first feature. What surprised you about the process of pulling this all together that you didn't foresee?
Fisher: I don't know. I mean, I hadn't worked in a while, and I forgot how good it felt to be on a set. And I was losing faith in my acting skill. Being a teenager with acne, I think that makes getting roles harder 'cause you can cast an 18-year-old who looks 13.
Burnham: It's like being a bird with feathers! It should qualify you for the role, not disqualify you.
Fisher: Crazily enough, it doesn't. I mean, still, sometimes I get scared about it, even though there's this cool movie that we made.
Burnham: It's a scary job.
Fisher: It is. I illustrate, too. I like to draw. I can look at a piece of art and be like, "I like it. It's good." But with acting...
Burnham: You're not in control. And you actually don't even know what it looks like. You know, I anticipated making this movie would be impossible. It was very, very hard. But Elsie was the surprise. I mean, I didn't think someone could do [the role of Kayla]. When I was writing the movie, my girlfriend, who is a writer-director, was reading [the script], and she was saying, "I don't think you're gonna be able to find a kid that can do this. You're asking them to do way too many things at once. It's just gonna feel like them pretending to be this."
So Elsie was the surprise. And once she was in place, it was really so much less stressful. I mean, it was insanely stressful every day, but I would run around and attend to the production, freaking out, pulling my hair out, and then I'd get back and look at the monitor and see Elsie and be like, "Oh, right, this is all I'm doing. The endeavor of this movie is actually way simpler than I think it is—99% of my job is attending to this performance and just being a fan of it."
As fun as [doing press] is and as exciting as it is to have the movie out, it'll never be as great as it was to make it.