Comedian turned filmmaker Bo Burnham relives 'Eighth Grade'
The writer and director comes of age with one of the summer's most talked about movies
"Eighth Grade" has been a long time coming for Bo Burnham.
The 27-year-old makes his writing and directing debut with the buzzed-about film, which follows the anxiety-inducing travails of an eighth-grader (played by Elsie Fisher) in modern-day America. It opens Friday in area theaters.
But Burnham is no stranger to showbiz, or to young audiences. He unknowingly launched his career at age 16 when he became one of the original YouTube stars after he uploaded a video of himself performing a parody song to the then-fledgling video sharing site.
"In 2006, I'd written a funny song, and I could show it to my brother by posting it online," says Burnham, in his dressing room at the Michigan Theater following a late-May screening of "Eighth Grade" as part of the Cinetopia Film Festival. "In 2006, there was no paradigm for virality, it just wasn't a thing. And then it started happening, and it was very strange."
The Boston-bred Burnham posted 12 videos to YouTube over three years, far from the flood of daily content that today's YouTube superstars share with their audiences. But it was enough to launch him into a stand-up career, and three days before his 18th birthday he taped a half-hour special for Comedy Central, becoming the youngest comedian to have his own special on the network.
He skipped college to work on his stand-up career, and he toured the country and eventually released four comedy albums. When he was 18, he met Judd Apatow, who cast him in a small role in 2009's "Funny People."
In 2013, Burnham created and starred in "Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous," a comedy series for MTV that lasted a season, but even then he worried he was experiencing too much, too soon.
"I'd always had a fear in the back of my mind, when I was young, that I was too young to be getting this big. And I worried that if something hit for me when I was too young, it was going to be a problem I'd have to dig myself out of," says Burnham, whose early material includes the KKK parody song "Klan Kookout" and the high school commentary "H-O-A-R."
"I got an audience before I had developed my act. I knew that just because I had an audience didn't mean I was worthy of it yet."
Now, the 6-foot, 5-inch Burnham feels like he's matured and is worthy of a crowd. Had he made a movie at 21, he knows he'd be hiding from it today.
"I can't even imagine what it would have been like," says Burnham, running his fingers through his messy-ish head of hair. "I look at my act when I was 21, and I think of the movie version of that act, and all of that is to say I'm so glad that this is the first movie that I've made."
"Eighth Grade" was shot in the summer of 2017 in Suffern, New York, about an hour northwest of Manhattan.
Its lead character, Kayla, deals with the everyday trauma of adolescence, as well as the pressures of social media. Having come from the world of YouTube, Burnham understands the world of social media, but he says the prevalence of Snapchat and Instagram and other social media networks place a whole new level of stress on today's youth.
"To need to have your inner life validated by everyone else all the time is scary," Burnham says. "To feel watched all the time is weird. And to think that the job of your life is not your immediate, actual, lived present moment happiness, but instead cultivating and performing a version of yourself that other people validate? Kids have always wanted validation from other people, they're always worried about being cool and being perceived as cool. It's just that on steroids."
Burnham says his personal eighth-grade experience wasn't especially difficult — "my anxiety didn't start until later in life," he says — but his goal with "Eighth Grade" is to make audiences relate to the universality of teenage awkwardness.
And those audiences aren't necessarily meant to be eighth-graders.
"If I was in eighth grade and there was a movie called 'Eighth Grade,' I'd be like, '(expletive) you, how dare you?'" he says. "Eighth-graders don't think they have any problems. Eighth grade isn't described as tough until you're out of it."
Rated R for language and some sexual material
Running time: 94 minutes
Read Adam Graham's review in Friday's On Screen section in The Detroit News.
"I'm not really a fan of the more written versions of kids," "Eighth Grade" writer and director Bo Burnham says, "it just doesn't resonate with me as much."
Here are five youth-oriented films that did leave a lasting mark on him:
"Fat Girl": Director Catherine Breillat "makes the experience so intense, you feel the psychic weight of being that girl," Burnham says of this 2001 French film.
"Old Enough": This 1984 drama, written and directed by Marisa Silver, is about kids in New York, "and they look like kids and they feel like kids and they're all running around and being goofy," Burnham says.
"Welcome to the Dollhouse": "It's very mean," Burnham says of Todd Solondz' 1995 art house film, "but it gets how insane childhood is."
"George Washington": David Gordon Green's 2000 drama "speaks in the way kids speak and think," Burnham says. "The thoughts aren't totally coherent, you can hear them trying to sound like something and failing to. And that's where all the meaning comes for me."
"Goonies": The 1985 adventure about pirate treasure and a group of friends "just feels like real kids," Burnham says.