Eighth Grade is in theaters now. Grab your Drafthouse tickets here!
Eighth Grade has the logline of a John Hughes picture, but the approach of a horror film. Following Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates her final few days of middle school, we watch this awkward everygirl deal with puberty, cliques, and other standard anxieties that define teenage years, with the added pressure that comes via her generation’s obsession with documenting their lives on social media (not to mention school shooting drills and unwanted sexual advances from older boys). It's an unapologetically immersive fictionalization that often feels oh too real for comfort, which is also why Burnham's feature directorial debut is one of the very best movies of 2018.
We were gifted the chance to chat with Burnham about Eighth Grade, and what followed was a pretty succinct summation about his approach to accurately bringing Kayla's world to auditoriums, and how it often resembles a movie made by an alien...
BMD: I saw the film back at SXSW, and I went in knowing very little about [Eighth Grade], sort of expecting something along the lines of John Hughes. Instead, I kind of got a horror film about the environment in which kids come of age today...
Bo Burnham: I think that's just one element. We were just trying to make something visceral and felt, trying to approach a thirteen-year-old girl's story the same way one would Saving Private Ryan. Sometimes it's scary, sometimes it's happy, sometimes it's intense, sometimes it's weird; I wanted it to just immerse you in these feelings. You usually don't feel immersed in movies like these; it almost always feels like you're remembering them a certain way. We didn't want to make it feel like a memory, we wanted it to be an experience.
BMD: During a solid chunk of it, I was trying to align my own memories of growing up with what was happening on screen, and it was impossible. My brain was washed out, and this feels stark and even cold at times.
But that's my next question. I'm 35. You're 27. Neither of us really grew up in the modern age, and we certainly didn't do it as a thirteen-year-old girl. How did you research and develop the movie in order to make it feel so authentic?
BB: If you wanna find out anything about these kids and how they exist, it's really easy: you look online. So we just started looking at social profiles of thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls. We shot in a real middle school, and they let us keep all the artwork up from the year. That's what this is all about: getting inside these spaces, and being with these kids, and letting them empower and be themselves. In a way, it's much more about letting go of control than asserting it.
BMD: Now, without spoilers - there's a scene in the movie that just totally jarred me, emotionally. It involves a school shooting drill. Where did that come from?
BB: That's just real. That thing happens. You can look that up online - they're carried out that intensely. In fact, our version isn't even as intense as some of the ones I've read about. We wanted to present to you the white noise of the cultural background. Not only do these kids have to deal with all the problems they have from just being thirteen, but they also have to deal with all of the larger cultural things happening in this moment. That's just true. We wanted to show something that was really happening, and this is really happening.
BMD: What's upsetting about it is that Kayla simply uses this moment to crawl under her desk to talk to her crush. It's like it's not even happening for her.
BB: Right, it doesn't even register. This is just something they do. The [school shooting drill] has become normalized for them, and that's the problem.
BMD: It's terrifying.
Now - you looked at social media, you shot in a real school, you really studied these kids - is there a "real" Kayla that the character is based upon, or is her's a "collective" story?
BB: No, I was watching a lot of kids online talking about themselves, and I watched a lot of girls doing it, and then an original voice just started to form. There was a common thread that just became a new voice as I was writing.
BMD: Talk to me about Elsie Fisher - the movie obviously doesn't work without her, as she's so incredibly lovable and vulnerable. How did you find her and how did you collaborate to help create this character?
BB: I basically auditioned hundreds of kids and she was the only one who made [Kayla] come alive. Every other kid played it like a confident kid trying to be shy, where she played it like a shy kid trying to be confident, which is who Kayla is. There was just a long rehearsal schedule with me and her where we were just going through the script together, and she was just incredible and kind. And the movie is not improvised. She gives a very technical performance. I can show you seven takes where she stumbles in the same place each time.
BMD: Tell me about your choice of music. You use this really discordant electronic score that ends up complimenting the visuals incredibly well.
BB: I wanted an electronic score, and something that was visceral, in the place of where mandolins and strings would go, that'd make her experiences just seem plucky and cute. To [Kayla], her experiences aren't plucky and cute. I found Anna Meredith, who's a British composer and is just wonderful. She does classical and electronic styled music, that's very warm and accessible while also very dramatic. I wanted it to be foreground music, not background music - music that really elevates her experiences.
BMD: It reminded me a lot of Bernard Herrmann, where the score becomes a character unto itself.
BB: This is Anna's first score and she should do a million more. She's just amazing.
BMD: Now, your film doesn't quite feel American, but...
BB: You're gonna say it feels French, right?
BMD: Actually, I was going to go beyond that and say it feels like it was made by an alien. Like, if aliens had set down and decided they needed to document the existence of an American high-school girl. A clinical recounting in a language we probably don't speak.
BB: That's definitely what we were going for. We didn't want to look at Eighth Grade is if it were telling the story of something we've all been through. We tried to look at it fresh. Because she sees things like an alien. She sees a pool party like an alien would. OK, it's just this hole in the ground with water in it, where all these half-dressed kids thrash around and play? What is this thing? Almost like something out of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin. Looking at all these cultural standards and happenings as if we're encountering them for the first time, because she's encountering it for the first time. It's her film.
BMD: It really places us in her head, lets us see through her eyes.
BB: We wanted to make a subjective film, and a subjective film about a thirteen-year-old means that we just don't have the information at all times. We didn't want it to be anthropological. We're feeling as she feels - feeling everything in this world the way she does.
BMD: Were you worried about folks who were familiar with your comedy approaching Eighth Grade with perhaps the wrong expectations?
BB: Oh, yeah. I knew what the idea sounded like on paper, which was not good. I understood that most people who'd heard that I'd made a movie about a thirteen-year-old girl were like "what?" But I was hoping the movie would just speak for itself, but I also don't fault anyone who looks at the idea on paper and thinks it's fucking insane.