Phoenix Film Critics were invited to sit down with Eighth Grade writer-director Bo Burnham following the Phoenix Film Festival sold-out screening of his coming-of-age comedy in April. The film is now in Phoenix theaters and other markets.
I’ve the seen the opening five minutes of writer – director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade three times and it never gets old. I didn’t have the level of technology that is present today and middle school represented my most challenging years, even though I look back on it fondly, It’s where I started to discover movies and, more importantly books. To an extent, we are all Kayla: we want to be liked, we want to be acknowledged and amongst the popularity contest, we get lost in our own shuffle, though that popularity contest has changed.
Eighth Grade closed the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival to a sold out crowd on April 15th. Mr. Burnham was present to host a Q&A following the film and met with a group of Phoenix film critics for a chat about his film.
The first question centered around Kayla as a character, “Your film is from an eight-grade girl’s perspective. How did you find this character?”
Mr. Burnham was quick to respond, “I wanted to write about the Internet. So I wrote a ton of stuff with all these different characters, stumbled upon Kayla and I found that I could say everything (that) I wanted through her.” He went on to say that “it was not a conscious decision to write about an eighth-grade girl.”
Mr. Burnham acknowledged his gender bias in writing about a young female teenager, saying “I (am) violently-aware that I (am) a man. Truly. So I proceeded with caution, but I mean, it just felt natural to me.”
He goes on to mention that on the Internet, “we all act like eighth graders, so it makes a lot of sense that a movie about the Internet would be about an eighth grader. I think eighth graders are the only ones being themselves on the Internet. We’re all being more immature versions of ourselves (but) then I watched hundreds of videos of kids: Boys talked about Minecraft and girls talked about their souls.” About girls, Mr. Burnham mentions, “At that age, at least, the girls run severely more deep and interesting. I think girls – for whatever reason . . . cultural pressures, whatever – are sort of forced to see themselves in that narrative a lot earlier than boys.”
In preparation for the film, Mr. Burnham goes on to mention, “Boys. I don’t even know what they are thinking about at that age. I met lot of them and I still don’t know what they are thinking about. The girls can actually have adult conversations and can actually talk. They seem like young adults who are very, very thoughtful, and the boys are just like, ya know.”
A fellow critic observed that there is a scene in a mall food court about half way through the film. There Kayla meets an older classmate’s friends, but through the course of their conversation, they dismiss her because she is a few years younger, a different generation in a way. Generations seem to have wide swaths of years, but do you think they are shrinking these days [due] to technology?
“I do. It feels like it! My girlfriend is 12 years old than me, and we feel closer than people four years younger than me. I got Facebook when I was 16 or 17 and had a little sense of myself before social media. I would’ve been very different if I had Facebook (during) my freshman year of high school only three years earlier.” He goes on to say, “These sort of paradigm-shifting things are happening (all the time). It used to be that we had the printing press and then Model-T and then now . . . There was a whole decade of people who listened to The Beatles. Now the culture turns over so, so quickly, so we even remember before 2017? When was Obama president? Like 12 years ago? The generations are getting shorter, because time is getting wider, or something.” This comment spoke to me because I have always related, even when I was in eighth grade to people many more years my senior.
To his point, another critic posed a question about culture in Eighth Grade, saying that it feels like it changes from year to year and that references that are “in” now will be “out” one year from now. Mr. Burnham had a smile on his face as he answered. “Yea, culture ages like milk. It’s why a lot of movies are nostalgic and set in other time periods, because people hate the current moment. They think that we don’t even have a culture. I think it may be right in a sense, that our culture is just recycling other images. Like a weird dishwasher spin cycle of retro stuff, which is sad and strange.”
“Retro is kind of “in” right now,” replied the critic.
“Yeas, but what were the Aughts? We know what the 90’s were. We know what the 80’s were. What were the Aughts? Were they something? What (is) now Do we have a name this decade? I don’t know. It’s a weird moment. To be a kid in it is just wild.
Another critic posed an interesting question, asking Mr. Burnham if he would want to live in a time before technology. “No, no. I don’t think so. I’d probably be happier. I definitely wouldn’t want to write about another time. I’m interested about this time. It’s an interesting time to be alive and to be American and to be in the culture.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “Yea, I’d probably like to be in another time and go back to cassette players and half the country not hating the other half of the country. That’s fine.”
I had the opportunity to present the next question, or more of a statement. I mentioned that this was Mr. Burnham’s “John Hughes moment” because Eighth Grade captures what it’s like to be a kid in the moment. Mr. Burnham was appreciative of the comment, “Hughes is a good reference in a sense, because he captured – at the time – something very true. The crux of the struggle of being a teen in the 1980’s was” how do you fit into the ecosystem of the class? How do you feel (about) your parents and your family? He captured it so well, that (filmmakers) have just recycled with different cultural decorations in different decades, but I don’t think it’s the core issue that kids are dealing with (today).”
“So you can have them dealing with being a jock or an emo kid with a cellphone, but for me, the struggle with being a kid now is interior. They would prefer a swirly to the own internal oblivion. If you notice in the movie, Kayla doesn’t get bullied. She just gets ignored. She doesn’t receive other kids’ attention and they are giving or withholding it to each other. Dispassionate attention is the sort of currency that goes around.”
He goes one, offering a sense of longing for a past time, “We’re almost wishing for the days of high school hierarchy, parents who hated us and yelled at us, and we slammed the door in their faces. Now, we are these fragile, little ego-people in our own heads and our parent are looking at us like, “Are you okay?” There are a bunch of kids on their phones, hyperconnected and super-lonely. Overstimulated and completely numb, and I think that extends to adults too. I think the bigger American problem is there’s no sense of community. Even the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, and the dorks. That is a community. So, the breakdown of that is sad, in a way.”
I responded by talking about a specific character moment. “It’s interesting that you make that point. As much as she was ignored by her peers, her dad ignores her. There’s that scene right after the mall, I think, where she’s in bed, her dad is checking on her and the way you framed that, shot, there’s a tremendous gulf between them that you capture beautifully, bringing the character full circle when she wants to set her time capsule on fire. That to me is an important distinction in her character.” Mr. Burnham appreciated the comment.
Another critic proffered a thought on Kayla’s relationship with her father, and this might be a spoiler if you haven’t seen Eighth Grade yet. “Kayla and her father have a good relationship, even though she is more wrapped up with school, trying to make friends and focused on her phone. What if her dad started dating? Would she fight for attention or continue to pull back?”
Mr. Burnham laughed at the thought, “That’s hilarious. I don’t know. There are only five days in the life of this movie. That’s a whole other movie. So much of the story is about the tiny things in Kayla’s life that are huge to her. We are going really deep into five days, but at the end of the “day”, you don’t know her completely. There are things that Kayla and her dad only know, and things that only she knows.”
A critic mentioned that “every little event in school is a huge moment or struggle for Kayla, it seems.” Mr. Burnham quickly responded, “Exactly. I think that’s why kids relate to Harry Potter. They actually don’t see Harry Potter films as escapist. They see those movies as realistic. Could we make a movie that has a high stakes-feeling like those Young Adult films, but the actual stakes pretty low? For Kayla, walking to the pool party is like walking into some giant, hellish cave or something. So that was the hope: to balance or synch the heartrates of Kayla and the audience.”
Because of Kayla’s age, there are sections of the film that feel like a horror film, another critic noted. He went on to ask if Mr. Burnham had any scary movies in the back of his mind when showing the horrors of eighth grade and the pressures that come with it. Mr. Burnham politely pushed the question aside, “I wasn’t going for that, but I was just trying to be honest. I’m interested in cringe as a high form of empathy. To cringe with something is to feel it. Eighth grade is horrifying. Truly, it is horrifying and I’m that the movie feels like that at times.”
Another critic asked if social media was a conduit for the anxiety that kids feel today. “It’s more just innovation works in a lot of areas. “Oh it took an hour to get to work on a horse. Now it takes half an hour in your Model-T. Now it takes 10 minutes in your Ford Focus. Good, innovate!” To innovate socially, there’s no reason that’s good. That’s where I think the anxiety comes from. There is a mechanism that encourages it. High speed information is cool. High speed communication and relationships is crazy. No one is questioning the social benefits of being connected through social media.”
There were a number of things that teenagers do throughout the movie like the eyelid flip or the markers; was this a collaborative effort or was it something you came up with? There cerating things, but I asked the extras and the crew if they had any special talents like being double jointed. I met every extra and I wouid ask them if they had any special talents. “I have eczema.” I wanted to find something that was natural to the actor, embracing them and not having something specific in mind.”
I ended the discussion with a second comment about Kayla’s progression. “You spoke a moment ago about making the film bigger and larger than life because life is scary enough. You opened the film with her You Tube video giving life advice, which is a bold choice because you get to see her intimately. We don’t know that she hasn’t had all of these experiences until she finds her time capsule. It’s a bold choice to open the film because we get to see her intimately with in the frame of a video. Like a comedian, unless the audience is laughing at you; it’s reflexive. With a video, you don’t know how your audience is reacting unless you get a ‘like’. You start us out in her own world, you gradually build to the time capsule and like a birthday, this was her ‘reset’. Like the image of the Phoenix, the fire engulfing her time capsule is in flames and then she records a new video to watch when she is a senior.”
Mr. Burnham steps in, “Did I make a Phoenix . . . .Oh, the image of a Phoenix!” We laughed.
“She starts anew and I think that’s an important progression for her character. She’s giving advice and she doesn’t know if she’s making a difference. This speaks to social aspect fears as a director and a writer, it was a bold choice to start the film out.”
“Thank you. We actually captured them from a Mac Book and had to downrez the videos, but it’s downrezed in a way as if she compressed it. Videos from a laptop are so good. We’re making a movie about a girl who makes movies. The crux of the pressure is about someone that thinks the movie of her life sucks. She wishes she sounded like the girls who doing voice overs. You want to be better than yourself.”
“And yet she’s the most confident character in the movie.” Mr. Burnham agreed, “the character on the screen.”
With that, our conversation came to a close. I felt like the film, coupled with the conversation reminded me of me when I was that age. Mr. Burnham hits on so many points that, no matter what generation, we all feel alone at some point. Now, we’re just inside our own little bubbles. Mr. Burnham is insightful, and full of wisdom. Electric Bento would like to extend their thanks to A24 and Mr. Burnham for his time.
Eighth Grade expands to Phoenix and other markets this weekend. It opened in L. A. and New York City last weekend and will gradually continue its expansion over the coming weeks.
Eighth Grade is rated R by the MPAA.