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The World's Biggest Elsie Fisher Fan: Bo Burnham on Eighth Grade

Kayla puts videos on YouTube. In them, she stutters, and smiles, and makes her clumsy way through good, if well worn, advice, shared with the nameless, faceless void. She’s animated and flustered, waiting to be found, to be helpful, to be liked. Then she goes to school, and shrinks. She is almost done with eighth grade, and it cannot end soon enough.

Bo Burnham puts videos on YouTube. He did, anyway. As of this writing, he has 1,457,234 subscribers; his most recent video, a clip from his Netflix special “Make Happy”, was uploaded in June of 2016. Elsewhere in that special, he says, “Social media, it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘here, perform everything, to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”

Hotly anticipated since its Sundance premiere in January of 2018, writer/director Burnham’s wondrous debut feature, “Eighth Grade,” opens this week. In it, Kayla puts videos on YouTube. But Burnham’s story isn’t an acidic takedown of a culture drunk on social media, or a hard-eyed look at the very real terrors and tragedies that kids sometimes encounter. It’s something much subtler, and funnier, and more lasting. It’s an empathetic glimpse into life as a kid right now, in this moment. It’s a week in the life of Kayla (the remarkable Elsie Fisher), a nervous, quiet, ordinary marvel of a human being. She wants an audience, but isn’t sure she could ever find one, or even deserve one. She doesn’t know we’re watching.

On the eve of the film’s closing-night screening of the Chicago Critics Film Festival—during which Burnham memorably concluded his Q&A by plopping down on the stage for a chat with a real life eighth grader— spoke to the filmmaker about the horrors of adolescent pool parties, anxiety, and being the world’s biggest Elsie Fisher fan.

Can we talk about pool parties? 

Yeah, of course.

What is it about pool parties, do you think, that makes them such a perfect microcosm of adolescent hell? 

I mean, it's pretty materialistically incredible. Just forget about pool parties as something that's normal, and actually try to see them as an alien. I think a lot of what the movie is trying to do is just trying to forget about things as normal, and just see them for what they are when kids see them. 

So. It's a concrete thing in the sun. Everything's hot, the stones [are hot], and it's just a basin of water, and we all take our bodies that are exploding, and show them off more than we ever have or ever should. We all get in this water together, and splash around, and scream, and drown almost. It's very Hieronymus Bosch. We kind of just threw a pool party to film it, and you see that wow, it's as primal and carnal as anything is at that age. Just the sound of a pool party. And being in the shallow end, it measures your height so perfectly—for the short kids, it's like, "we know you're shorter now." It's bodies, it's—it's a lot. It should be illegal. For kids.

I don't think I personally realized what a nightmare I found pool parties to be at that age until I, as an adult, watched an eighth-grader live through one. 

I don't think anyone is okay [with them]. I don't think any eighth-grader feels cool about that. I hated them. I had no hair on my arms. I was really self-conscious, because I hadn't hit puberty yet. But I'm sure all the boys with hair on their arms felt fucking awful, too. I don't think anyone was like, "hell yeah."

So you were not a pool party kid? 

No. No. Hated pool parties. Wore my shirt.

Did you have a go-to substitute birthday, if other kids were the pool party kids? Were you a roller-skate kid, or a laser tag kid? 

Laser tag. I would get blisters on my fingers because of laser tag. 

That's some serious serious laser tag. 

It was.

How did you develop the karaoke scene at the pool party? Because it’s all such a perfect adolescent nightmare, but then it arrives at this moment that's still kind of nightmarish, but is also sort of lovely. It’s a great surprise.

Oh, thanks. Well, that's that's the one I like most, probably. Or it’s the scene I consistently like the most, or [the one that] means the most to me. That's a good little microcosm for what the movie is trying to do, which is to take a pretty extensively banal and tiny thing—a fucking karaoke video game, who cares— and show the power of it. 

I've always been interested in stages and performing, in the idea of performers, and audiences, and how those play out socially in real life. You know, the sort of "all the world's a stage" thing. Bowling is one for kids. Bowling is basically just a stage, and everyone goes up, and watches each other. And [karaoke is] another. It's a bunch of kids sitting around, watching as one of them, one at a time, gets up there. And it's a pretty high stakes moment. For [Kayla] to be able to volunteer, and put herself out there, and do it, and and come out of it, and realize, "I'm okay, I'm still here," is a triumph, no matter what the kids think. If the kids are laughing at her, it doesn't matter. You got up there, and you did it. You pretended to be confident, which is great. 

Do you think if Kayla were a real kid, in 10 years, she'd still be doing karaoke? Would she be at a dive bar, being a karaoke person? 

Maybe. Yeah, she probably would. Since that’s such a big moment for her, I'm sure she'll fall in love a karaoke later, not realizing [why]. But I felt that way getting on stage every night. I felt like that. I felt exactly like that. Like, "I'm just gonna pretend to know [what I'm doing]. I'm going to pretend to be confident," and I'd get up there, and then I'd [think], "oh, this is fun. It's fun to pretend to be confident.”

I hadn't really thought of it that way, but I when I was a kid, I was always terrified of things like that, and then it would be so gratifying, just to get through it, whether it went well or not.

Yes! And [Kayla] says it. She says that's what being brave is. The good thing about being scared is that you have the potential to be brave, and if you're never scared, you'll never be brave, because bravery is actually overcoming fear. And if you don't have fear, you're just a psycho. 

Those little ways that kids can start reframing their minds is impressive. It sounds corny, it sounds like a like a cat poster with, you know, "put yourself out there" on it, but I believe those are the questions and problems you are going to face for the rest of your life. I'm still trying to be myself, and put myself out there, and be confident.

Whenever we see Kayla’s videos, beneath each of them, it would have a view count. “2 views.” “0 views.” “6 views.” I liked imagining that there's another kid that is actually taking that advice to heart. Obviously that's what happens to Kayla, she ends up giving herself advice. When you were creating those films in your imagination, were there other kids watching them? Was anyone watching them?

I mean, I think one kid does. I think one does watch it, and puts himself out there, by inviting her over and giving her Chicken McNuggets, you know? But it's more the idea of potential, the potential that someone could be out there, always. We hope that someone's out there, but we don't have the numbers to know that someone's out there. I think most people's experience of the Internet is coming into contact with the Internet as this giant vat of potential, without ever really getting an answer back. The only people we pay attention to, culturally, are the people who go viral. But the truth is, by a giant majority, most people on the Internet are not being heard, not being seen. And that's what I wanted to tell a story about. Someone that isn't being seen.

The pool party is the first time we see Kayla struggling with something that looks a lot like anxiety—at least to a person who deals with anxiety, it looked a lot like anxiety. Was that intentional? 

Yeah. I mean, she definitely doesn't know that word. Or knows that word, but doesn't realize that's what she's [experiencing]. I'm an anxious person. I have anxiety. At the time I was writing this, I was coming to terms with my own anxiety. So it is, in many ways, a portrayal of that. And it spikes and, you know, all of those things. She doesn't know she's having a panic attack in the bathroom, but it is one. 

As a person who was once an awkward eighth grade girl, I found Kayla to be almost shockingly realistic. It was startling, and it would be startling no matter who had created her, but you were not an eighth grade girl. How did you come up with this person? Did you have any sense, as you were doing it, that she was going to feel that recognizably feminine to people who were once eighth grade girls?

I mean, I hoped she would. Also, I wasn't writing a novel, I was making a movie, so it was always going to be a collaboration with someone. I told Elsie all the time, "You know, you are the truth. You are providing her soul, not me. So I'm gonna leave some gaps open for you to fill."

You know, what people respond to [in her]... it was my job to not fuck it up, to not ruin what was already a complete person in front of me. I hopefully wrote a script that could hold someone specific, but it wasn't written to be, you know, "she's 5'3", and blond, doesn't have braces." It was just a person that was hopefully recognizably human, and then could be imbued by this specific person. But I felt like I understood [Kayla], and knew her, and felt a kinship with her personally, even though I was a man that's, you know, twice her age. Legitimately twice her age—a month before I graduated from eighth grade, Elsie was born, which is incredible. I just felt like I understood her, and knew her, and trusted her. 

I'm sure there are many, many instances, but can you think of any particular scene or moment where you left that space for Elsie to sort of step in and fill in with her own experiences, or her own soul?

The entire story of this person is the way she articulates herself, the thought process. The story is really about, for me, what's going on in her head, not what's coming out of her mouth. That was all shit I could never do. That was all on her. I can't climb in your head and do a thought [process]. So for me, what she was doing was [creating Kayla's] every moment. That sort of authorship wasn't really like, "You know, I'd actually say this instead of that." It was more like she was authoring the actual story, the entire time, by giving [Kayla] inner life.

I watched so many actors do this part. Every other actor reading this part was playing Kayla. They were all playing a nervous girl. Elsie was playing a nervous girl pretending to be a cool version of herself. She was the only one. I didn't see someone playing Kayla. I saw Kayla playing someone, playing whatever Kayla needed to be in that scene. That's what the performance is. And that's what I think the reality of being 13 is. You are constantly pretending to be someone else. To find an actor that could play a character [who was thinking], "I'm gonna be cool in this scene. I'm going to be [cool], and I'm gonna fail, and you're gonna see how I fall short. You're going to see my reaction to me falling short. You're going to see me try to sound like Oprah, and then..." She was able to do that incredible layering in the performance. It's just fucking magical. 

And I think that is the truth that [people] responded to. It's not just the blue nail polish and the tie-dye shirt. What I think really makes the character resonate with people is Elsie's moment-to-moment performance. Our collaboration was... She didn't even have to say it. I mean, she'd do a scene, and I'd go, "this isn't working, it must be the script's fault." I would just know. If it was working, it was working. If it wasn't working, I was fucking up. I knew that. "This line must not be right, because she can't say it."

So she was like a human bullshit detector. 

Yes! And she was just a lighthouse for the entire production across the board. Every department. It was like, "she is setting such a bar of realism that we all better step up our game, because if you put a costume on her that looks fake, it'll look really fake next to her performance." And that was for everybody. Like, "can we elevate our game to reach her?" And I think, you know everybody did. 

And then the final product makes it kind of look like, "oh, that's a documentary." It isn't! It really isn't. Her performance is not improvised. It is a technical, reliable performance that was written, to her credit. 

To that point, I'm curious about how you went about both rehearsing and filming her videos, because they really feel as though it's not possible that anyone else was in the room when she did them. They’re so solitary and private. Even thinking of them as a part of the production process, I can't imagine somebody else there. 

What's hilarious is that, even worse, those videos were [shot during] the required stage day we had to do in New York. That was a third of her bedroom, built on a stage, with like 50 people standing around. That was the most contrived version ever. 

It was a long rehearsal process. Really all it was doing was getting her comfortable, and she was already there, but [it was about] [unlearning] some lessons and giving her permission to be inarticulate. To find these words. Because that was what was really important. Kids are taught to "act" and be really articulate, but the story of being a kid is, 'you just drank a glass of milk and [he goes into a froggy voice] and now you sound like this, and you don't know how to speak.' So that was the pursuit of those videos. It needed to look like someone trying to form thoughts in real time. They rehearse, they have some bullets of what they want to say, but it's coming out, and it's the struggle of [the words] coming out. It's the distance between what she's saying, and what you can tell she's trying to say. That’s where the meaning lies.

It's a credit to the crew, to everybody on set, and to Elsie, of course that it was just an environment where something like that could happen. One of the monologues, the one where she talks about being nervous, every time I watch that, it looks like she is really just thinking of this. And I know that's the fifth take of a very "written" monologue. It was magic. It was really magical. I would turn to people at the monitors and go, "do you fucking see this?!" I really would. "Do you know what's happening?!" [laughs] Sorry, I'm not yelling at people, I'm just saying it. Like her scene under the desk with Aidan is one of those moments. It's like a two-minute take for her to navigate, and I'm going, "this is ... This is exceptional for anyone." I think what she does is exceptional for any actor. To portray thought, to portray the thought process behind very limited words is so hard. I'm just so impressed with her. 

Well, I think you're going to have a lot of company there. 

[On set] my job was that I was just the biggest Elsie Fisher fan in the world. That's how I directed. I was like, "I'm your biggest fan in the world, and because I'm your biggest fan, I want to get the shit I love." I'm just trying to just be a fan. How can I as a fan get the stuff I love? And that's how every choice was made. I just love shit, and I just wanted to get more of the shit that I thought was [wonderful]. 

Is there space in your brain to imagine if you did sort of a revised “Boyhood,” where you checked in with Kayla in her last week of high school, the last week of college, the last week of her Masters, what that might look like? 

Like “The Apu Trilogy”?

Yes, exactly.

No! I would be so open to it, but I have no idea [what it would look like], because [with this film] we really just wanted to capture the current moment without judgment. And I do believe we will be in a different place then. So I wouldn't want to think about anything. I would want say, 'you go live your life,’ let the culture play out for four years, and then in 2023 I sit down and go, "okay, now what's the culture like?" We wanted to approach 2018 freshly. Any ideas I had in 2013, I was reevaluating. The whole point [was and] would be to stay true to the current moment.

So I don't want to anticipate. I don't know what it's gonna be like for her in high school. I don't know if there's going to be a country around [when she’s in high school]. That's part of the world of this story too. This is not nostalgic. This is not about, like, "oh, and then she becomes a successful photographer," or whatever. We can't see past what she can see. We can only see this moment from her. So it would be the same thing then. I'm sure it was the same with “Boyhood,” where Linklater was just waiting to see, and I wanted to same thing. 

But part of the story was listening. Writing the story was actually listening to the culture, and to [that] generation, to the kids. So if I did, if I checked in again, I'd listen for three or four years, and then decide. 

Do you think you're mentally prepared for people to say "Gucci" to you for the next several years? Is that already happening? 

That was Elsie's! Elsie said that on set all the time. I didn't know what [it meant.] And then we [shot] those videos on the last few days, And I was like, "She's gotta have a sign-off or something," and then it was like, "Well, just give her 'Gucci.'" Elsie literally gets the last word of the film. I still don't know what it means.

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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