New York-based distributor A24 is currently marketing writer-director Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade with the tagline “Based on the most awkward year of your life.” Thankfully, a rising crop of adolescents will have the film, as full of trenchant wisdom as it is with cringe-worthy humor, to help them through the gauntlets of social media and school cafeterias. That is, so long as their parents buy the ticket, given that the film bears an R rating.
Middle school is hardly child's play, which is something that Burnham grasps acutely. At the film's New York premiere last month as a part of BAMcinemaFest, he made sure an actual eighth-grade girl in line at the Q&A got to ask him a question—after which, Burnham pulled her aside for a genial hug. Indeed, those expecting the often-acerbic standup to turn against the internet forces that fueled his rise to stardom will be pleasantly disappointed.
In a recent chat at the A24 offices, I spoke with Burnham about how his debut feature film functions as both an extension of his comedy work while also serving as a corrective to some of the toxicity he frequently lampoons.
A few years ago, you told Pete Holmes, “If you're going to criticize something, you need to erect replacement values.” Now, maybe because Eighth Grade isn't really a prescriptive TED Talk so it doesn't really have to, but are there replacement values possible for a world that's so tethered to technology?
I don't need to replace the technology. I think I was just tired of being cynical and satirical and neurotic in all my stuff. The movie itself is all right, instead of all the shit I hate, why don't I talk about the shit I value? Which is honesty and love and connection and vulnerability and fear and being honest about your fears and anxieties. She connects, she disconnects, all those things. She connects with people, she's isolated from people. But it's not just to be critical. If we're only critical of the institutions or the mediums, and we don't see value in them or suggest value, it's not much of a good use of something.
Is it now just a matter of accepting that these devices are going to always be a presence in our lives?
Oh, yeah, for sure! It's a matter of understanding the power and significance of them. They can be used for great good or great—they're just powerful. They're not good or bad, they're just powerful. To recognize that power isn't just over our elections but over our kids' hearts—and our hearts.
I can imagine some people might see some incongruity between your over-the-top, irony-heavy stage persona and the sincerity of Eighth Grade. To me, though, this felt like a very natural outgrowth of your standup, which uses humor to raise genuine concerns that people might not be as receptive to from another messenger. Do you view the two as closely connected?
Yeah, I think it's a continuation, but the mediums call for way different things. The medium of being on stage is, like, it's never going to be naturalistic so why not write the fuck out of the show and make it crazy? It's a change, but I hope the soul of the things is still the same.
As you've said, your standup is often about performance, and in Make Happy—as I'm sure many people are reminding you—you state, “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” I'm going to show my stripes as an insufferable sociology major here, but is there ever any time when we aren't performing, when we don't have an audience? Has there ever been?
Historically or currently?
Well, that's the interesting thing. What's the difference between a person and an audience? When does a group of people become an audience? Is it a number? Is it a way in which they're seen? Who defines it? Sometimes you have a captive audience, some people can treat their first date like an audience, and that's a bummer. I don't quite know the answer to it.
I don't think there is one.
It's interesting to think of ourselves in terms of that. What's the difference between a stranger, a friend, an audience, a public, a crowd, a mob.
But there's also the front-stage/backstage divide, which some people would argue doesn't exist, and we're always performing.
All the world's a stage, Shakespeare said, the people it's players. That's the jam. He had some shit figured out, that William Shakespeare.
Even Kayla's webcam videos didn't have a captive audience—or any views. In a sense, she was doing a performance for herself.
That's the thing: If you read your old diaries—even if they were private—you'll read them and go, “I was performing. Why am I trying to sound smart? Who am I doing this to?” I think probably the first audience is ourselves, we perform to ourselves all the time.
I think, in general, filmmakers have struggled to find a visual language to depict the way we use social media, and I think the way you chose to shoot the big scene of Kayla diving headfirst into her phone is ingenious in the way it superimposes the screen with her face, fading back and forth between the two. They aren't separate. How did you settle on the style that you did?
The thing I hate is when the text bubble pops up on the screen overlaid like a CGI aftereffect. But how can it not just be cutting back and forth between screens? Then I literally shot my girlfriend on her phone in the dark and some fun stuff with just my Canon 7D, then put it into iMovie. I had the idea of doing the opacity at 50% each and overlaying them, and there was this really cool effect that was immediate even on my shitty little test. If you overlaid a person over a screen, it looked like the person was a reflection in the screen. The screen seems closer than the reflected person in it. The person has depth, and the screen is flat, so that was very cool. And it just felt like a nice way to practically have an effect. It's an effect, but it's all in-camera and practical.
The adults in the film are constantly trying to reach the teens by poorly ripping off pop culture, like dabbing, or using phrases like “it's lit,” always seeming out of touch. As someone outside their generation who connected with young people making the film, do you think it's worthwhile to try and connect with them using this internet lingo? Or is it just going to backfire?
It's very worthwhile to give kids something to make fun of. The way I would get along with the kids in the film, I would show up and say “gather 'round” and dab, and they'd all make fun of me. That was part of the whole thing. It's similar in relation with her dad. The point of being a parent is so your kids can be, like, “Shut up!” That's part of it. Yes, adults should continue being dorky, that's the best thing we can be.
People around our age like to think we're authoritative when talking about social media and technology, but eighth graders now are truly a different generation. What assumptions did you have to shed to make this film?
I thought they still used Facebook. Elsie told me they don't use it. But I really came into the story not wanting to explore my own experience. I wanted to make something that wasn't nostalgic. I went into it, like, “I know nothing about eighth grade right now, so let me do this like it's World War II.” I just want to walk this experience with her and act like I know nothing. Then, over the course of the thing, I could rediscover myself. But I started clean. Let's go to eighth grade for the first time rather than remember it.
You've mentioned Andrea Arnold as an influence on the film. Is that mostly from Fish Tank? Because when I saw you mention her name, I immediately started to see parallels between Mia's dance scenes and Kayla's webcam videos. They can only fully express themselves away from everyone else.
Yes, exactly, and the way she watches other people. And the visceral nature of her movies are so real. The group scenes with kids are so beautiful.