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Hyperconnected and Lonely: A Conversation with Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham on 'Eighth Grade'
Bo Burnham with Elsie Fisher on the set of "Eighth Grade," directed by Burnham.

Sitting in a swanky conference room shielded from the hubbub of the construction that marred the iconic facade of the Eliot Hotel, I kept wondering whether Bo Burnham was performing. The comedian was in a roundtable interview about his screenwriting and directorial debut, “Eighth Grade,” so a certain amount of performance was to be expected. A more extensive concern, however, is validated by the fact that Burnham, 27, has spent the majority of his life performing and talking about performance.

“Eighth Grade” demonstrates that this theme continues to dominate Burnham’s work. The film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who, like most eighth graders, is at once very average and incredibly special. With a backdrop of dramatic electronic music, which Burnham wanted to “make you feel what she’s feeling, which is intense,” Kayla struggles to make the best of the last week of a trying middle school experience. She has a YouTube channel, with an unspecified but likely tiny number of viewers, in which she doles out simple, innocent life advice that she rarely seems to follow herself.

In Fisher, Burnham found himself the perfect Kayla. Shy, kind, and always passionately real, she is what makes “Eighth Grade” as emotional and true-to-life as it is. For Burnham, her character was more of a discovery than a creation: “She was pretty there. Part of it was just, ‘I want what you’re doing to be in the movie. How can we do that?’” The key to his direction, Burnham said, was “giving her permission to fail on camera, and stay natural. When she came in, she was so alive and fresh and new and nervous and interesting, and [we] had to [figure out] how do we rehearse and prepare and still maintain the chaos that made this work.” Burnham clarified that it wasn’t just her newcomer status that made her the perfect fit for the role: “She’s just really good, too...and didn't have to be tricked. She just has an innate ability to be incredibly natural on camera. Every other kid I saw felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy, and she felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident, which is the whole role.”

Like Kayla, Burnham also got his start on YouTube, rising to prominence at a young age. But he deliberately wanted to distance himself from his protagonist. Burnham emphasized that he “didn’t want to make a nostalgic story. I like nostalgic movies about this age, but [the main character] being a girl was like, I couldn’t project my own experience onto her.” Indeed, one of the main reasons Burnham wanted to make a film was to explore the themes in which he’s interested without focusing on himself. “I was very tired of myself as a subject,” he said, later adding that he wanted to “talk about the internet with someone who doesn’t go viral, with someone who’s not noticed...talk about all the things—performing, anxiety—for people that don’t have an audience.” By the end of the film, Kayla diverges from Burnham’s own path, and is happier for it.

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More than just in Kayla’s videos, technology is ubiquitous throughout “Eighth Grade.” She is on her phone nearly constantly, and in several eminently relatable scenes, lies awake at night, her face haloed by the light of Instagram on her phone. The film strives to realistically depict how young people actually use technology. Burnham wanted to stay away from making the type of blunt, blanket statements about technology that litter mediocre modern movies. “I think sometimes when older filmmakers and other people try to integrate technology it’s seen as this big, outside thing, so they shoehorn it in and it like, very loudly announces itself. And to me, it just is part of my life. So, it’d be like asking, ‘Why’d you put shoes in your movie?’ Because people walk around. And I think you’ll see more of that as young people start to make stuff. You’ll see the internet integrated in a way that’s a little more subtle than a fucking Taco Bell commercial.”

Beyond that, Burnham wanted to show the paradoxical nature of our relationship with the internet and technology. “We’re hyperconnected and we’re lonely. We’re overstimulated and we’re numb… It’s not meant to be like, ‘Man the internet makes us lonely and awful. [Kayla] should throw her phone in the ocean and be happy.” Throughout the interview, Burnham made clear that he never wanted the film to be preachy on any subject. In discussing a scene in which a high school boy sexually harasses Kayla, he said, “It was trying to portray a certain type of thing that when described after the fact might not sound like a big deal. ‘What, he sat in the back seat, he touched your arm, you said no, what’s the big deal?’ It doesn’t need to go that far to be bad, to be violating, to be violent.” Still, he reiterated that “the movie itself is hopefully supposed to inspire thoughts like that rather than prescribe thoughts like that.”

Similarly, when talking about a scene in which Kayla’s school has a school shooter safety drill, he emphasized that he included the sequence simply for realism’s sake, rather than to make a political point. “I wrote that three years ago and the lockdown was in there, I didn’t think I was being political when I wrote it then, all of a sudden it’s political.” Burnham summed all this up by saying, “The hope is just to be honest with it, and portray the sort of background noise of [the characters’] life which is incredibly sexual and insane, and portray their inner life through that, which is a kid, navigating the world where things are exploding and the country’s on fire.” In regards to all these issues, he made it clear that “I’m not here to give a TED Talk.”

Talking about his post-”Eighth Grade” future, Burnham avoided specifics. “I try not to think of my career. Once this is out, I’ll be able to sit back and try to think of something else to do. I’d love to do another movie. I’d love to, love to want to do stand-up again, but I don’t want to right now… It’s just fun to work with other people.” Burnham has been on a hiatus from comedy since “Make Happy,” his most recent stand-up special, was released on Netflix in 2016. The end of that piece, notable for its thoughtfulness on anxiety and performance as much as its humor, shows Burnham walking out of a darkened room into a sunny, verdant yard, after asking both his audience and himself, “Are you happy?” The anxiety and depression that forced him out of comedy still are topics in his art, but not being center stage anymore seems to be doing Burnham some good.

In that conference room, Burnham seemed mostly relaxed. As someone who has seen his face countless times, being in the same small room as Burnham felt strange, as if for a moment we were bridging the gap between entertainer and audience that always pertains, often despite his best efforts. Towards the end of “Make Happy,” he brings the house lights up, and tells his crowd, among other things, “If you can live your life without an audience, do it.” So, sitting across from him, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he had managed to achieve this dream, and if that’s even possible for someone like him. Still, a consummate performer and entertainer, Burnham seems to have found some peace in his new role: director.

—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at ethan.reichsman@thecrimson.com.

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