American comic Bo Burnham tells Alistair Harkness why he chose the coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old girl for his feature directorial debut – and why Scot Anna Meredith was the perfect choice to create the score
It’s easy to forget that American stand-up comic turned filmmaker Bo Burnham was a teenager when his career took off just over a decade ago. One of the first genuine YouTube superstars, he used the then-nascent social media platform to bypass all the traditional cultural gatekeepers and build a massive audience for his post-modern, musical-inflected routines. Album deals, comedy specials and the mentorship of Judd Apatow duly followed, and Burnham even celebrated the end of his teenage years in Edinburgh with an award-winning show at the Fringe. “I think I turned 20 when I was there,” smiles the now 28-year-old when we meet ahead of the Glasgow Film Festival premiere of his directorial debut, Eighth Grade.
Though Burnham had been doing live stuff for a while before making his Edinburgh debut, the Fringe did, he says, help him feel legitimised as a comedian. “No mechanism exists in America for taking comedy seriously. There’s no reviewing system; comedy isn’t really seen as an art form, so it was really wonderful at the Fringe to feel that people were taking my work as seriously as I was.” Still, it took him a few more years to realise that the online world from whence his act had sprung was the world and he’d actually been legitimate the whole time. “I don’t need to, say, make a movie in order to be real. The internet is not some starting place for people to then make ‘real stuff’ and work with a studio or a television channel. Internet content is as legitimate as anything else if it wants to be.”
Nevertheless, make a movie Burnham has – although Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age film about an insecure 13-year-old vlogger called Kayla who is trying to navigate through her final year of middle school, certainly speaks to the social-media-inspired tension that exists between the image we project of ourselves online and the way we function in our day-to-day interactions.
He says: “I’m very interested in performance and how performance – because of social media – has trickled down to every aspect of our lives. Where is the real you, and which you is legitimate? We’re not just faking online and real in real life. We’re faking in real life all the time.”
That’s one of the reasons he wanted to focus the story on a 13-year-old girl. “With 13-year-old girls, that’s the time when this type of performance is as high-stakes as it will ever be and as transparent as it will ever be. Your self-awareness is being turned on like a lightswitch. You’re like, ‘Holy shit! I’ve been this the entire time?’ And you’re desperately trying to sew the parachute while you’re falling. It’s just the time where all those things that [eventually] become more subterranean are all a bit more on the surface. It’s very pyrotechnic when you form yourself.”
Mixed metaphors aside, this notion of adolescence as a desperate act of self-preservation, self-reinvention and self-actualisation is an astute one that the film explores in funny, sensitive and deeply empathetic ways, whether it’s the mortification of attending a wealthy classmate’s pool party in an ill-fitting bathing costume, dealing with an overprotective father as he skulks round the same mall you’re hanging out in with your new friends, or negotiating a first terrible sexual encounter – a scene so delicately handled it should become mandatory viewing in sex education classes precisely because it doesn’t feel preachy or didactic, just awkward and truthful.
“If it’s honest and true, there will hopefully be things to learn from it,” says Burnham, who was determined not to make something that felt like a public service announcement.
One reason that particular scene, and the film in general, never does feel like that is because Burnham worked hard to become fluent in his protagonist’s voice by watching and transcribing hundreds of videos of YouTube vloggers. “It just made sense to me,” he says. “I understood the way they tried and failed to articulate themselves.”
The film’s other not-so-secret weapon is star Elsie Fisher, an experienced child actor who also has an unvarnished quality that helps makes Kayla easily relatable. “She understood what shyness was,” says Burnham. “Shyness is not cowering in a corner not wanting to speak; shyness is trying to speak and not being able to. She was also just able to bring the chaos of herself to a scene, whereas a lot of kid actors take all the stuff that makes them interesting and kind of simplify it, which is what they’re taught to do.”
Amplifying that sense of chaos is the score by Anna Meredith, whose music already has the quality of an avant-garde school band, especially Nautilus, the opening track of her 2016 Scottish Album of the Year winner Varmints, which the film uses over the aforementioned pool party scene. Burnham had been struggling for a while to find the right music for the movie, but when he stumbled across her work, it was obvious she should score it.
“I just wanted music that felt visceral and was going to synch the audience’s heart rate with Kayla’s. Sometimes music for young adult stories can be very cutesy. But Kayla’s story isn’t cute to her. It’s supposed to sound like a 13-year-old girl’s head, which is a very colourful, loud and dramatic place and that’s just kind of the music that Anna writes.”
Ironically, all the work that has gone into representing the experiences of a 13-year-old so authentically has resulted in the British Board of Film Classification deeming it unsuitable for the very people it’s about, slapping it with a 15 certificate for “harsh language and sexual references”.
“I understand the impulse to try and protect kids from what we think is inappropriate for them,” sighs Burnham, “but we should probably focus on trying to protect them from the reality of it rather than the depiction of that reality.”
Still, he doesn’t seem all that worried. “When I was 13, I saw any movie I wanted to see. The box-office might suffer, but they’ll see it.”
Eighth Grade is in cinemas from 26 April