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Bo Burnham on ‘Eighth Grade’ and Capturing the Essence of Middle School

The first-time feature film director joined ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’ to discuss his forthcoming movie and the process behind it

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At just 27 years old, Bo Burnham has already had a long career. From theater to stand-up comedy to directing specials for the likes of Chris Rock and Jerrod Carmichael, he’s made an impact across entertainment. Now he’s taking it even further with Friday’s release of his first feature film, Eighth Grade, which tells the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old navigating her last week of middle school. This week, Burnham joined Bill Simmons and his daughter, Zoe, on The Bill Simmons Podcast to discuss how he got into directing, finding the perfect actress to play the lead role, and the process behind creating the movie.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

On Directing His First Film

Bill Simmons: So what made you decide to direct a movie? And why are you good at directing a movie? … The movie’s very well directed.

Bo Burnham: Well, I was doing stand-up for a long time. I did theater growing up, and I loved that. And I was trying to drag all the things I loved about theater into stand-up. And then I directed my own specials, and I directed a couple of other people’s specials. It was just—I wanted to work with other people again. I was very tired of my own head and my own voice, so that’s why I wanted to do it. And I felt like, if I’m gonna direct a movie for the first time, I should choose a subject that I could talk about as well about as anybody—which felt like kids and the internet.

Simmons: But it was eighth-grade girls, though.

Burnham: Yeah—I watched hundreds of videos of kids your age, Zoe, talking about themselves, talking about their lives. The boys tended to talk about Minecraft, and the girls tended to talk about their souls, so it was like, “OK, it’s probably gonna be a story about girls.” They just run slightly deeper. The boys’ story would be like 90 minutes of Fortnite references.

Zoe Simmons: Oh, 100 percent.

Burnham: I think girls run a little deeper at [Zoe’s] age. But also, culturally, I think we’re just asking deeper questions of girls a lot earlier.

Bill Simmons: They’re certainly more interesting than seventh- and eighth-grade boys, who are basically just dumbasses.

Burnham: I mean, they’re just boars. They’re just like blocks of wood. They still want to eat dirt. They still actually want to just get down there and have a handful of dirt in their mouth.

Simmons: Fortnite’s been great for them—they’re just all trapped in rooms. And then Zoe and her friends are having these deep conversations.

Zoe Simmons: Yeah, we’ll be sitting in a corner at recess talking about life, and they’ll be like attacking each other with multiple balls of different sizes and types and playing games where they’re hurting each other.

Burnham: You know, that is life though. Boys, it’s just war. ...

Bill Simmons: So you started studying all these different clips, and then [Kayla, the main character] fell into place from different things you saw?

Burnham: Basically, yeah. A lot of movies about this age feel—and I like movies that are nostalgic, but I didn’t want to make one that was nostalgic. I feel like when you try to project your own memory, it’s different. I think the way we remember that time is different than the way it is, so [with the character] being a girl, I couldn’t project my own experience onto it. I had to approach it like it was something I didn’t know. I tried to make a movie like, “OK, I’m making a movie about World War II and I know nothing about it—I just have to research it, and I’m using actual veterans, so that’s good.” You know, like actual kids.

And that was the thing, to just bring real kids into the movie and just let them author it. Not literally—I mean, I wrote the script—but just author the moments themselves. And tell me when shit was lame and when shit didn’t make sense. All of our messages in the script were originally on Facebook, and then the actor that plays the main part read it and said, “No one uses Facebook anymore.” That girl says that line in the movie to her mom, because I was that lame person who thought Facebook was a relevant thing. But the actor read it and was like, “Is this about my aunt? Why is she using Facebook?”

Creating Kayla and Finding Elsie Fisher

Zoe Simmons: I like this movie a lot because every movie that I watch, there are aspects that I can connect to, but this movie I could really connect to because I understand everything that’s happening. Other movies, it’s like they’re showing parts of what happens in middle school, but older people write about middle schoolers and they don’t really understand middle schoolers as well. … They write about middle schoolers as if they’re fifth graders, and into that type of stuff, when it’s more advanced than that, I guess.

Bill Simmons: You’re more thoughtful.

Burnham: Yeah, it’s so funny, I wasn’t even—weirdly, it’s so great to hear—I wasn’t trying to write a movie for you guys, for middle schoolers, for eighth graders. You know? I was really weirdly trying to write a movie about myself, and I just felt like [the main character]. I felt like I understood her and ... I hope kids your age can see it. I mean it’s true, it is R-rated, but hopefully if the R-rating encourages parents or whatever to bring their kids, that’d be great.

Bill Simmons: It seemed fine except there was one scene when she’s getting the ride home [from an older boy] and all the parents in the room were like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” We had to pause it, and we decided just to fast-forward a minute and a half. But I think that scene—nothing’s too bad.

Burnham: And it resolves itself in a way that I think is good for kids to see—it doesn’t go anywhere like where you’re worried it’s going to go. But also it hopefully portrays a situation that kids face and, hopefully, illuminates how to navigate it. Because what is so terrifying about that scene, really, is that those conversations are not had with kids. Those things aren’t represented. This sort of like “health ed” that you have is very —it’s all about anatomy, and it’s not really about how power and relationships actually work. And hopefully, the boys can see that too and understand a little bit more about what’s happening in those situations. But yeah, I’m so glad to hear that. That’s so nice. ...

Simmons: So, the actress that you found [Elsie Fisher], where did you find her and how different is she than the character?

Burnham: I found a clip of her online being interviewed on some weird brown carpet event at a rec center, talking about cupcakes or something. And she was just very alive and exciting. We brought her in to read—every other kid that read for the part felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy, and she felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident, which is what [the part] is. What it means to be a little in your head. What it means to be shy isn’t to not talk, it’s actually to want to talk every moment and not be able to. So she feels anxiety, and she has similarities with the character. But also she’s giving a very technical performance.

I was worried that I was going to have to make like Babe or Homeward Bound— movies with animals—where I was worried that I was going to have to trick these kids into making a movie, and they would have no idea what we were doing. It wasn’t the case at all. Like in the pool party scene, she’s looking completely terrified. We’re yelling cut, and [then] she’s jumping in the pool having a good time. So, it wasn’t weird. I was worried ... because I didn’t think any young actors could do what I was asking of them, and it was totally not the case.