Nothing is more profound than life in school, so it’s easy to understand why it features so much in cinema.
And this is forever immortalised in classics such as The Breakfast Club. It is no mean feat, as many films have tried and failed, to capture even part of the John Hughes magic.
Bo Burnham bucks this trend in Eighth Grade, a film which he writes and directs that gives a powerful insight into the angst of adolescence. Its popularity is clear in the awards it has won to date and it proved to be a hit at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival with both screenings selling out. You can read our glowing review from 2018 Sundance London here.
We catch up with the stand-up comic to talk about the film and more.
HeyUGuys: Congrats on Eighth Grade. You made Alfonso Cuarón cry! What’s it like to get that reaction and praise?
Amazing. He is a legend! We’ve run into each other a few times and he is just incredible. All you want is for the film to mean something and connect with people.
Have you been able to pick his brain and get some directing tips?
I mean, his stuff is so masterful it feels unattainable. I’d probably ask someone closer to my level before I go to him for tips [laughs].
What was the last film that made you cry?
It’s weird. Roma was actually the last film that made me cry [laughs]!
How was that whole experience for you stepping behind the camera for Eighth Grade?
I was desperate to collaborate with people. Stand-up for a long time you are kind of isolated. I was really looking forward to working with other people and working on something that didn’t have my face in it.
It allowed me to see the project much more clearly because I wasn’t involved in it in front of the camera where I can never really enjoy something I am in in any pure sense.
Let’s talk about Elsie Fisher – what a performance! Did you have an instant feeling during her audition she was the right person for the part?
Almost immediately knew that it was going to be her. We did audition a lot of kids after her but it was just to prove to myself she was the right choice.
She was just immediately correct and alive in a way the other kids weren’t and she understood the character sort of very intimately. Elsie understands shyness in a way other kids don’t and understands anxiety personally and is able to translate that into a film which is very hard.
It’s like she’s improvising and just playing herself. She is a technical talented actress.
That first date scene is nothing short of very touching. Can you remember your first date and what was it like?
Ehh… when I was young it was like group stuff. So you’d be with a girl but with a bunch of friends, just sitting around and watching a football game.
My first date date, I don’t remember. It probably wasn’t good. My first kiss was after Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2001 in a room full of 40 kids!
How much of your own personal experience of middle-school did you draw upon?
Not a lot at all. I didn’t really want to make a movie about my past experience. It being a girl in Eighth Grade is one reason so I wouldn’t project my own experience.
There’s a lot more of my present experience that is in it. I am sure a lot of myself got into the film.
What was middle-school like for you?
It was alright, it wasn’t too bad for me. My anxiety didn’t start to flare up until I was 15/16.
When I was 13, I was an idiot that was happy and eating dirt. I was just a 13 year-old boy with no awareness of anything.
You’ve spoke about trying to portray the small issues that feel like life or death to someone at that age. Are there any from your own experience you can laugh at now?
I was so stressed about grades, which was stupid. I remember doing plays felt like nothing was more high-stakes than that. Recording a Netflix special was not as nerve racking as performing for my parents and their friends in like ‘Honk the Musical’ in seventh grade.
I think it is beautiful, it’s good to feel intense feelings. I wish I took things as seriously as I did back then.
For you what is it about this time in our lives that keep filmmakers going back to it?
I think it is because it was a good time.
We like to think of ourselves when we were 16/17, we don’t like to think back to when we were 13. I’d love to be 17 again and would never want to be 13 again!
We really do block out when we were 13 and constantly look back to when we were 17 and miss it.
That’s one reason why I wanted to do the film, I felt it is an un-represented time that I think a lot of people bury so thought it would be fun to exhume it.
There’s been a few comparisons to John Hughes and his films…
It’s great, I love his films. I think what John Hughes did was he took kids seriously and their problems seriously on their terms.
We were hearing after The Breakfast Club people were like “why are you treating this like Vietnam? It’s a bunch of kids who are upset, who gives a shit!?” He took them seriously on their own terms.
And didn’t judge them from the point of view of an adults problem. You are feeling this and you are legitimate.
I think that we try to do that as well in Eighth Grade.
Was it a pinch yourself moment when you won Outstanding Original Screenplay for Eighth Grade at the Writers Guild Awards (WGA)?
Yeah, it was wild. It was very surreal. It is wonderful to get that stuff, especially for a small film. Stuff like that gets people to watch the movie which is all we really care about.
It felt like it took you a while to get to the stage from all the way at the back…
No one expected us to win [laughs]. They put us in the loser section!
A part of what you talk about in the film is how online personas differ from real life. As a stand-up comic is that something you found easy to tap into because who you are on stage isn’t necessarily who you are in real life?
Yeah for sure. I think a lot of us have that disconnect. It used to be just people in the entertainment industry. But now everyone has a version of themselves they cultivate and present to the world.
And a version they know they are in their own heart and their own head.
I think it is what it means to be alive now, and not a specific experience. I thought it was specific to me until I started talking about it and then an audience sort of related to it.
I realised this experience was not specific to me, it’s sort of universal.
That’s why I wanted to tell the story, talk about that dynamic through not as a comedian with an audience but through an average girl just living her life.
You shared a great moment with Garry Shandling on The Green Room a few years ago – what did that whole experience mean to you?
He was great and we had a relationship after that. Garry was just a really wonderful, thoughtful, nice, kind person. It was just really great. It was just a connection between two people.
That is what was special about Garry.
A lot of the people, the good people you meet, that could be a hero of yours very quickly present themselves as people and that sort of thing fades away and you are just having a conversation with someone.
Garry was someone like that, he put you at ease so quickly. He didn’t take me under his wing but saw me as an equal which I wasn’t. But he gave me that gift.
I try to pass that on to people younger than me.
That is so wonderful from someone you respect and look up to looks you in the eye and treats you on the same level as you. That is very empowering and beautiful and Garry did that for me and I tried to do that with the young actors in Eighth Grade.
There’s been talk about a high-school film you are working on – what can you tell us about that?
Maybe…I don’t know if that is happening or not. It might have been reported on a little too early.
I am not sure if it is happening.
What else do you have in the pipeline?
Just returning to writing really and think of new stuff. Would love to get back to stand-up and get back on the road!
Eighth Grade is in cinemas on April 26th and you can read our review here.