Bo Burnham has found incredible success with his directorial debut, “Eighth Grade,” which he also wrote. Mostly known for his work in stand-up comedy, Burnham is now earning nominations left and right for “Eighth Grade,” including ones from the Writers Guild and Directors Guild, where he won the first-time director category on Saturday night).
Burnham recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about attending the Golden Globes this year, some of his particular choices in writing “Eighth Grade” and other movies he would recommend to those who liked the film. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Bo Burnham, how was it attending the Golden Globes over the weekend?
Bo Burnham: It was great. It was crazy. It was strange. We didn’t think we’d be there. It’s both bigger and smaller than I thought it was gonna be. It was wild. It felt a little fake. We sort of felt like the kids that had snuck into the adults party, which we kind of literally were the whole time. Yeah, it was wild.
GD: You won so many awards over the last month including Best Original Screenplay from Columbus, San Diego, Utah Film Critics Associations, Directorial Debut from the Gotham Awards, Best Picture from the Detroit Film Critics. This week, the nominations you got from the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America, how did you find out about those nominations and what did they mean to you?
BB: I got a text about the Writers Guild and then the president of the DGA actually called me yesterday morning, and that was crazy. That’s amazing. Just to be recognized by other writers or other directors is obviously incredibly flattering. I don’t know the membership of the DGA but I know the WGA is like 15,000 members or something, so that’s incredibly, incredibly flattering. It’s really incredibly flattering to be recognized by, I guess now they’re peers. It’s hard to even consider them peers because I wasn’t their peer like two months ago. It’s incredibly, incredibly wonderful and surreal. I don’t really know how to process it. If it was my job to process it I would be very bad at it. I feel like sometimes if I smell the roses I’ll pass out. It’s unbelievable. And, I’m pro-union (laughs).
GD: So you were nominated by the DGA in the Directorial Debut category. I’m wondering why you felt that you needed to direct this movie as opposed to writing a script and then passing it off to somebody else.
BB: I really wrote it to direct it. That’s what I was most interested in. I love writing and I think of myself as a writer first but I wanted to work with actors. That was my initial passion when I was young in the world of theater. That’s what I really enjoyed doing, so as I was writing it, there’s a specific performance style implicit in the writing of this movie that I felt like I at least understood what it needed to be. The script in a lot of ways was a blueprint for the type of performance I wanted to see in a film. I’ve written things where I thought, “I don’t need to direct this,” but this one, it was thought of for me to direct from the conception of it.
GD: You’ve also written things that you’ve acted in, so why not give yourself a part in this one?
BB: I don’t know, maybe I would in the future but I can’t imagine directing myself. It just seems hard. It just seems like I wouldn’t be able to look at the thing objectively if I’m in it. Also watching playback, I don’t know how Kevin Costner did it. There really wasn’t a part for me. I don’t know where the 28-year-old guy would’ve figured into the story. I could’ve been like a weird substitute teacher or something. My voice is in the movie. I read the puberty video just because we couldn’t get a voice actor. We didn’t have time. My temp vocal is actually in the movie. I had done standup for a long time and was just tired of myself so I was looking forward to making something that didn’t have me in it.
GD: You’ve talked about how you even changed the sex of the main character to disassociate it from yourself a bit and also for a variety of other reasons. You also have talked about how this movie kind of reflects your relationship with your mother. I’m wondering why flip that one as well and turn that character into a male father character?
BB: Yeah, it wasn’t necessarily a flip. It just sort of came out that way where I wrote it and it was this guy. It was this dad, which I think was in part because I needed to represent my own disassociation from her, even though I felt very close to her. I felt like I understood her. I also felt like a guy that had no idea what was going on and was desperate for an older female presence to tell me what to do with her. That’s why it was a single dad, ‘cause I was sort of a single dad writing the script. The parental relationship I was just interested in exploring happened to be the parental relationship closer to my mother, which is incessant support to the point that you actually crave conflict. I would sometimes with my mother beg her to be more critical of me so I could have something to rebel against, rather than be in my corner all the time and feel like my only friend is my mother, or my only friend for Kayla is her dad.
GD: How did you find Josh Hamilton for this role and what did he bring to it?
BB: I just always loved Josh, “Kicking and Screaming.” I had seen him in some things and always loved him thought he was just an incredible actor and sort of underutilized. I hadn’t seen him in a part this substantial in a while. I just wanted to work with him. He was just the type of actor I felt like I wanted to work with. He just brings a real sensitivity and lived-in experience. He has two kids and he’s close to what I originally pictured the role as being, and also with Elsie [Fisher], she’s a kid so she’s got a raw, unrefined talent and he’s a very refined talent. He’s a trained, professional actor so I think she made him a little more raw and spontaneous and he made her a little more structured. I think they both helped each other over the process.
GD: Toward the end of the movie he gives a speech to Kayla that kind of reminded me of some others that I had seen recently in movies like Michael Stuhlbarg’s in “Call Me by Your Name” or Jennifer Garner’s in “Love, Simon.” Tell me about writing that big speech that he gives to Kayla toward the end.
BB: I sort of arrived at that scene where I knew they were gonna talk eventually. I kind of think the plot of their relationship over the movie is “I love you.” “Shut up.” “I love you.” “Shut up.” “I love you.” “Shut up.” “Do you love me?” “Yes.” Thank you.” She doesn’t wanna hear from her dad. She doesn’t want her dad’s attention. She doesn’t want her dad’s input for the whole movie, and then at a certain point as I was writing, I realized she was going to ask for it and he was gonna get his opportunity to say everything, which is very intimidating. Writing it was really just the impulse to communicate rather than him make some perfect speech. I didn’t want him to make some big, flowery, perfectly articulate speech that solves their problems. What he’s really more providing her is the knowledge that he really believes it. That’s what’s more important is that she can tell he really believes what he’s saying. It’s not that what he’s saying is perfectly said. That was a struggle in the writing, and then a lot of rehearsal to de-articulate the speech, not make it oratory but rather just make it emotional and almost instinctual.
GD: Technology is a huge part of this movie but it’s also a story that’s supposed to be more universal, that exists whether the technology is there or not. Did you consider making this a bit more of a period piece, even just setting it 10 or 15 years back?
BB: Never. It was always gonna be about the internet for me, and then the universality of it presented itself as the movie was being made and as I started writing. I realized, “Ah, yeah, there’s certain things that are particular to this time but being a kid, some things never change. You’re still self-conscious. You’re still worried about yourself and your body and how other people are perceiving you.” Maybe there’s a different degree to which those degrees are amplified because of the medium, but the actual experience doesn’t change. I didn’t wanna write about being a kid. I didn’t care about being a kid. I wanted to write, to me, what it felt like to be alive right now. That was my impulse for writing. It was never a period piece. If anything, it started as not about a kid, just about the internet and about right now and then it happened to be about a kid. Then it became more universal from there.
GD: Coming out of this movie, I feel like maybe the thought that was at the forefront of my mind was actually, “Wow, kids are the worst.” Not because they’re so mean or anything but just because they’re glued to their phones throughout the whole movie. What was it like to shoot that and do you feel any similar thoughts?
BB: As far as kids are the worst for being on their phones, I think we all are. The worst people on the internet to me are in their 30s. The worst people on their phone in public are in their 30s. Whatever they’re struggling with is what I think we’re all struggling with. Part of it was just trying to portray the reality without judgment. It’s totally valid to look at it and go, “Oh my god, these kids need to get off their phones. What are they doing?” But the hope was with the movie not to embed a judgment or belief system. No judgment on the technology, just portray the reality of it. It was really just trying to get real kids, actual 13-year-olds, actual eighth graders in the space in the scenes and just have them exist.
GD: This movie is rated R in the States. I get that the burden should not be on you as a storyteller, but I feel like the reality is that with the R rating, 13-year-olds are not going to see this movie as much as if it had been rated PG-13. How tempted were you to just removed four of the F-words, just to clear that?
BB: Yeah, it was weirdly not even that. It would’ve been way more than that. There were whole scenes that would’ve had to be lifted, the banana scene, even references to nudes and things, any of the sexually charged stuff. Unfortunately, that’s just things kids are exposed to, and I think the most dangerous thing you can do for a kid is only expose them to those things without context as they are on the internet or on their phone or god forbid in real life. I think it’s important for movies to put that stuff in context. I didn’t really care. First of all, when I was 13, I saw any rated R movie I wanted to. I maybe had to sneak in, so maybe the box office suffered a little bit, but I think kids can see any movies they want and I think movies about kids often suffer for trying to be for kids and trying to pander to them. We just wanted to make a movie about kids, not for kids, and hopefully, if the movie was honestly about kids they would wanna see it.
GD: I think the scene in the movie that really subverted my expectations the most is the scene in which she’s singing karaoke because I expected something to go wrong, but why did you give her that small victory?
BB: Yeah, there’s a lot of moments in the movie just trying to do that. A movie like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” I really love but subjects the character to a lot of losses. Something that’s a little sadder to me is the fact that there is goodness to be had in the world. There is good moments to have, and the way you ground drama… If you just beat her over the head with humiliation after humiliation at a certain point there would be no tension, You just would feel like we’re watching this masochistic story. That scene’s important to me. It’s sort of whatever structurally launching into the second act moment of her having this big victory to her that is nothing in real life. No one’s even paying attention to her. That is the drama of our lives. The drama of our lives are us grafting our anxiety and our emotions onto these small moments and projecting meaning onto them. We show a lot of the bad versions of that in the movie, the small moments that register very traumatically, but we also wanted to show the small moments that register very positively.
GD: You just a dropped a title right there but I’m wondering what are some other recommendations for films that people should check out if they like “Eighth Grade,” especially for kids?
BB: “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is probably not for kids, and I love that movie. I don’t know. I don’t wanna get back too much into what a kid should watch. There’s a great film called “Old Enough” by Marisa Silver, “A ma soeur!” the Catherine Breillat film which is not for kids, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I sort of watched that when I was in that grade and really fell in love with film acting. To me, I wanted the kids in the film to have the energy that the actors have in that movie, the spontaneous, raw energy where it feels like the line between acting and reality is really blurred. “Krisha” is another great movie for me that was big, by Trey Edward Shults, his first movie, which was a big reference for me in terms of stylized naturalism.
GD: You’ve talked about how you set this film in eighth grade because you felt like the older grades have been done already and maybe they were actually talking about the age that you portrayed, but now that you have done this, do you feel like you could pick up Kayla’s story in a few years and tell a story called “Twelfth Grade”?
BB: I could. I would have to let Elsie and Kayla live their life a little bit before I tried it out. I definitely wasn’t trying to start a series of something, but if it worked I’d be glad to. I think there’s a lot to still say about her experience. The movie was really trying to capture a moment in the world and a moment in the culture, so I would really not wanna anticipate what that moment would be. I would have to wait to see what it was and then start to talk about it.
GD: And finally I wanna ask if you are nominated at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, what clip from the film do you hope that they play that captures the spirit of the film or sells it to perhaps an international audience tuning into the Oscars?
BB: The first scene I wrote is the scene of them in the car where it’s just her looking at her phone and telling her dad, “Don’t look like that.” I think that one’s pretty good. I definitely like them at the dinner table as well. If it was a script scene, those are the kind of scenes that I like. I just like watching the actors act, so I don’t need some fancy camera move. I would just like to see the actors do their dialogue. Maybe the car scene or the dinner scene.
GD: All right, Bo, thanks very much for chatting. Congratulations on all the awards success and we look forward to seeing what you have coming out next.
BB: Appreciate it. Thank you.