Youtube personality, turned stand-up comedian, turned Writer/Director, Bo Burnham, has crafted a coming-of-age story about an 8th Grade girl struggling with defining her identity. There are many “coming-of-age” films out there, but “Eighth Grade” stands apart. Its insight not only into the life of a middle-schooler but the impact social media plays in their lives.
During the film’s festival run, we had the chance to talk to Bo Burnham about what the inspiration behind the movie, and how his own experiences and opinions on social media are reflected in the lead character.
“Eighth Grade” is out in theatres now!
Excerpts of our conversation are below, or you can listen to it, in its entirety below.
TCF: There are a lot of coming of age stories out there and they can start to blend together, but yours stands out. One of the things I found interesting was you were writing it from the perspective of an eighth-grade girl. Did you have any hesitations towards that? How did you find this character?
Bo Burnham: Yeah, I mean, the way I found it was I just really wanted to write about the Internet and how I felt at the time which was nervous. And my nerves felt connected to the Internet. So, I set out to write it, “Okay, how am I gonna write about this?” And I wrote just a ton of stuff with all these different characters and stumbled on her and found I could say it, everything I wanted through her. So, it was not a conscious decision, “Oh, I’m gonna write about an eighth-grade girl.”
After the fact, I was violently aware that I was a man in the position of writing the story. Truly, so I was like, proceeding with caution. But it just felt natural to me. And, after the fact, I can look back and go why was that? I think on the Internet we all act like eighth graders so it makes a lot of sense that a movie about the Internet when talked purely would be about an eighth grader. Cause they’re actually the only one that’s being themselves on the Internet and we’re all just being more immature versions of ourselves.
I watched hundreds of videos of kids online talking and the boys talked about Minecraft and the girls talked about their souls, like truly. At that age at least, the girls run a little, severely more deep and interesting, you know, than the eighth grade boys’ story’s just a little bit more like clustered and closed off. So, I saw myself in her more. I’m saying the things I struggle with the Internet which are sort of how I feel about myself and how I see myself and how I see other people see me. I think girls, for whatever reason, cultural pressures, whatever, are sort of forced to see themselves in that narrative a lot earlier than boys.
Boys are like, I don’t even know what they’re thinking about that age. I met a lot of them and I still don’t know what they’re thinking about. The girls you can actually have adult conversations with.
We have Gen X, and baby boomers and generations seem to have these wide swaths of years, but do you think that’s shrinking because of technology?
Bo Burnham: I do. It feels like it. My girlfriend’s 12 years older than me and we feel closer than people four years younger than me or five years younger than me, people that- because I got Facebook when I was 16, 17 and to have had the ability to sort of have a little bit of a sense of myself before social media, I just think I would have been very different if I had had that freshman year of high school only three years earlier.
It’s sort of like, it used to be like the printing press. Then 200 years, then the Model T, and then this, and now it’s like huge paradigm shifting, brain chemistry altering things are happening really, really, really, rapidly. So, yeah, the references are- you know what I mean. There was a whole decade of people that listened to the Beatles, you know what I mean. Now it feels like the culture turns over so, so quickly. I mean, like do we even remember before 2017? When was Obama president, like 12 years ago? It’s a combination of the generations getting shorter because the time is getting wider or something. The present moment feels very long and weary.
Would you want to live in a time before all this technology?
Bo Burnham: I don’t … No, no, I don’t think so. I mean, probably. No, no … Yeah, I’d probably be happier or something, but I’m just so, I’m inextricable from it. I’m wired with it. I definitely wouldn’t want to write about another time, you know. I’m interested about this time. I mean, eventually, I probably might want to, but I mean, I feel lucky to be part of … I think it’s a reckoning, in a way. It’s a big cultural reckoning.
It’s an interesting time. It’s an interesting time to be alive, and to be American, and to be in the culture. Yeah, I’d probably like to be in another time. Is that what we’re saying? Where we’d like to go back to, yeah, go back to like cassette players and half the country not hating the other half of the country. That sounds fine.
This is your John Hughes moment because it captures the essence of what it means to be a student and a youngster at this age. You mentioned that there’s a gulf between somebody’s who’s four or five years younger than you and somebody who’s probably our age difference. I think everybody, regardless of your age or your demographic, people can appreciate what you’ve accomplished.
Bo Burnham: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think Hughes is a good reference, in a sense, because I think he captured, at the time, something very true which is that maybe the crux of the struggle of that time of being a teen in the ’80s was how do you fit in into the ecosystem of the class. Specifically, how do you feel with your parents and your family? And it was captured so well that people have just recycled that with different cultural decoration in different decades, but I just don’t think it’s the core issue that they’re dealing with.
So, when you see with them deal with being a jock or an emo kid with a cellphone and for me, the struggle of being a kid now is interior. They would prefer a swirly to like complete oblivion in their own heads. I think that might be the larger point which I think the shift is, which is that if you notice in the movie she doesn’t get bullied. She just gets ignored.
You know, she just doesn’t get people’s attention. All the people are giving and withholding from each other is just sort of this like dispassionate attention as a sort of currency that goes around. As opposed to, we wish for the days of high school hierarchy, and parents that hated us and yelled at us, and we slammed the door in their face. Now it’s like we’re these fragile little ego people in our own head and our parents are looking like are you okay. And it’s a bunch of kids on their phone, hyper-connected, and super lonely: over stimulated and completely numb, you know.
And I think that extends to adults, too. And I think the bigger American problem of it being no sense of community. Even the jocks, the nerds, and the cheerleaders, and the dorks, that is a community, you know. And so the breakdown of that is sad in a way.
The existentialists would say that to be anxious is to be human. Do you think that social media is just another conduit for anxiety? If that weren’t to exist would there be another eighth-grade girl finding different ways to try to compartmentalize and explain her life?
Bo Burnham: Yeah, definitely, but it’s more that innovation works in a lot of areas. Like, oh, it took an hour to get to work on your horse and now it takes half an hour to get to work on your Model T. Now it takes 10 minutes to get there in your Ford Focus. Good, good, innovate. That’s great. And that goes through a lot of places of technology. To innovate socially, there’s no reason that’s good. Oh, you can have a conversation with your friend. Now you can have 20 conversations with 20 friends. Oh, you can see a photo of yourself, you know, two weeks after you give it to CVS. Now you can see a thousand photos of yourself right away.
Those things, that’s what I think the anxiety comes from. There’s a natural sense of anxiety that I think everyone will have and certain people with certain dispositions will always have. But, there is a mechanism right now that encourages and ramps it up in a way. I feel like I am anxious in part, to the degree I am, because of the Internet. And it has something to do with, social media becoming efficient at the level that all other areas of technology are efficient and there’s no proof that human iteration has to be perfected and sped up and like everything else does.
Yeah, let’s make a high-speed railway. Do we need to make high-speed conversation? High-speed national conversation in the form of Twitter, vulcanizing, atomized news in the form of Twitter and all? It’s a very capitalist view of social stuff, you know. I mean, that’s so weird. That’s so much weirder than the Internet. High-speed information is cool. High-speed feelings, which are social media, high-speed feeling about yourself, relationships with other people, that shit’s deadly.
From some of your stand up and there’re elements of it in the film, I get the sense that you have kind of a love/hate relationship with technology & social media. How far does that extend? Because you basically got your start with YouTube and now it’ll be social media that get the word out about this movie.
Bo Burnham: Yeah, totally, it’s like God or something. It’s very big and empty and full, and it’s like how you mix every color of paint together and get white. That’s how I sort of feel about the Internet. It can be used for really good or really bad. Again, I just don’t think that conversations have even been put in the framework yet to even know how morally powerful it is to then steer it. The conversations I hear about the Internet are about cyberbullying or Russia. I think there’s like a subtler conversation to be had about like how does it make you feel personally as a person about yourself and your own experience.
And there’s some really great stuff about it. It really is a snorkel for people that would not otherwise have it to connect with people. It saved people’s lives. I know it has by connecting them. It can be a really, really good thing. It can be a really crazy thing that could literally destroy the world. So it just needs to be recognized as such. If you wanna get TV changed, you gotta go before Congress. You want to change the Internet, change it right now. Go for it, you know. Write anything you want on Wikipedia right now.
What I love about this movie is it feels like a horror movie at times, too. ‘Cause there are scenes in here that are very shocking, they’re very uncomfortable. When you set out to write this movie, were you going for something that shows the horrors of being in eighth grade and the pressure that comes with it?
Bo Burnham: Yeah, I wasn’t going for that specifically, I was trying to be honest and … I mean, I’m interested in cringe as a high form of empathy. I really do think it is. To cringe with something is to feel it. Not just to be embarrassed, but to be like, you know. But, I mean, eighth grade’s horrifying.
But, yeah, I just wanted it to feel high stakes, ’cause it feels high stakes to her. So, that was the hope always with every choice of the film was to go like how can we … with the score, how can we make this feel bigger than this would normally feel in a film or something because this feels huge to her. And it doesn’t make sense to … our natural feeling of showing up at a pool party is like oh my, you know. But, to her, it’s deadly serious and we wanted to take it seriously. We didn’t want it to be a joke.
Sometimes there are like certain jokes. I’m saying, like the fact that she’s looking at this boy drooling, but we know that he’s a little 13-year-old boy with a bird body who’s obviously like gonna be sort of ironic. But, the impulse isn’t to be ironic. The impulse is like, no, this is what it feels like for her to stare across at this boy or whatever. So, yeah, it’s just trying to go truthfully. The tone I hope is truthful and sometimes the truthful experience is scary, or funny, or weird, or boring, or you know. But, that was just the hope, just try and be honest with it.
I love the kid doing the eyelid flip and the markers in the nose, all those little things. Was that a collaborative effort or did you come up with that?
Bo Burnham: Oh, for sure. There were certain things, but it was asking kids, asking crew members. For the pool party, I had said, “Who can do anything weird?” “Who can spit the water out between their teeth?” They all tried, only one kid could do it, so he got the part. I was like, “Can anyone do the eyelid flip?” or whatever and just like, “Who’s double jointed?” You know what I mean, just asking the kids all the time, do you have any weird stuff.
I met every extra. I would go there on Saturdays and just meet all the extras just so they knew me a little bit. And I would ask them all, “Do you have any special talents?” And one girl said, “I have eczema.” That was great. I was like, “Awesome.” So, just that was the whole thing, just like embracing the weird little stuff kids do, but, again, not taking some, “Okay. I have a very specific image a kid used to do so I’m gonna take a kid and force them to do that.” No, it’s like finding the thing that is natural to the kids, the things they actually do. ‘Cause you can tell when a kid is actually doing a weird thing that he does all the time versus when he’s being told to shove something up his nose by a director, whatever, you know. So, yeah.
You talked a moment ago about making the film bigger and larger than life because growing up is a scary enough prospect. It was an interesting and I think bold choice to open the movie with her YouTube video about giving life advice because you get to see her intimately within the frame of a video. Because, you know, like a comedian, you’re talking to an audience and unless they’re laughing at you it’s not reflective. With video, you don’t know how the audience is reacting unless you get a like.
Bo Burnham: Yeah, I was interested in just what those videos look like with those webcams, because it was recorded really off a Mac book, you know with those webcams we actually had to down-res it because like the videos are too good now. They don’t even look shitty, but it’s down-resed in the way that it would if she compressed the file.
‘Cause that’s the idea, it’s like the bad compressed wav file or whatever. But, yeah, the flatness of those images is interesting to me, too. The weird flatness of the way a camera views you on your web cam and then, but also knowing that like that grain … we also wanted to make a digital movie that was unabashedly digital and was not trying to be film. And saying like, if we’re honest though, that like if you just add a few more pixels to that web cam image, it’s our in-camera image, you know. And sort of all of this is a lie and like, you know, we’re making a movie about a girl that makes movies, you know. And like, maybe we should all stop this, you know.
That’s sort of the idea, too. I don’t know if I said this already, but that’s sort of the crux of the pressure of the movie is almost about someone that thinks the movie of her life sucks, that the movie of her life is unwatchable. And she wants to, she wishes she lived like the girls in the movies that she watches. She wishes her life was as … she wishes she sounded like all the girls that do voice overs in movies and she can’t, you know. And the irony for me, or the thing is, going that is watchable. Your want to be better than yourself, your want to articulate yourself and failure to do so is what’s watchable.
Your career took off very young and you’ve created a lot since then. Do you have any words of wisdom for people who are attempting to create, such as someone who spends a lot of their time writing about other people’s creation and terrified of financial ruin?
Bo Burnham: Yeah, I mean, you know, I sort of stepped in shit my life. So it would be disingenuous for me to give professional, practical advice ’cause I’ve just been very lucky in that sense. You just do it, you know what I mean? You can start the creative journey whenever you want. You can start to get better and progress without anyone paying attention or watching. It isn’t required to get the thing from it. Is it better with it? Of course, it is. Are we all working for it eventually to sustain it? Yes, definitely. But, like, the work is … the real core of the work, what will always be the core is the thing that’s available right away which is the creative process: making things, looking at them, being critical of them, figuring out what you like about what you do, trying to make the thing that you’ve never seen that you really want to see, seeing yourself try to make it, seeing yourself fall short, realizing why you fall short, correcting all of that.
That’s the beautiful thing, is that like some of the greatest artists ever died with no one knowing who the fuck they were and they did it, you know. And I’m saying, so like that’s all I can really talk to I think and I’m saying it as a mantra to myself as much as advice to anybody else. To remind myself that the thing that is really happening here is this, unfortunately, the thing that’s happening right in front of you which is just like make it, write it, do it, try it, get better. And then, and I say this to young people all the time because we’re such in a world of being your own publicist, your own agent, your own promoter, and making a brand for yourself, the best promotion is good stuff. The best promotion is skill, I think.
So, I see a lot of people that know really well how to sell themselves and have nothing to sell. So, they do get a 100,000 Twitter followers, but then nothing sticks ’cause they don’t make anything. So, just a lot of cart before the horse with this younger generation, I feel like. And I always say, like get something worthy of being seen and then sell it, you know, but don’t sell first or go into advertising and sell. But, yeah, that’s all I think.
I’m interested in cringe as a high form of empathy. To cringe with something is to feel it.
High-speed information is cool. High-speed feelings, which are social media, high-speed feeling about yourself, relationships with other people, that’s deadly.
And I would ask them all, “Do you have any special talents?” And one girl said, “I have eczema.”
It’s a bunch of kids on their phone, hyper connected, and super lonely: over stimulated and completely numb.