Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler, and you’re listening to OnWriting: A Podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and everything in between.
Caroline Waxler: In this episode of OnWriting, I’m joined by WGAE Indie Film Caucus director Jenna Bond. Today, we’re speaking with Bo Burnham, writer and director of Eighth Grade. The film is a nominee for Best Original Screenplay at the 2019 Writers Guild Awards. Bo’s film debut focuses on the last week of middle school for Kayla Day, a girl with a specific approach to navigating her real life and social media.
Caroline Waxler: Let’s say hello to Bo. Hey Bo, so great of you to join us and thank you. I saw Eighth Grade again the other night, I absolutely loved it.
Bo Burnham: I appreciate it, thank you.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah. It was just fantastic. And … wanted to just dive right in and wanted to get from you why and how did you decide to write a movie about eighth grade specifically?
Bo Burnham: The initial impulse definitely wasn’t to write about eighth grade. I was just trying to write about, initially, the internet and sort of my experience of just what it sort of felt like to be alive now. It was a pretty wide net at first and I thought I was going to write some big tandem narrative thing with a bunch of intersecting characters to possibly capture what I thought the current moment felt like and then sort of stumbled on this voice of this girl and really quickly realized that I could say everything I wanted through her but I did sort of back into eighth grade, it certainly wasn’t the initial impulse. It was somehow finding this voice of this girl and then stumbling into this world. But in the back of my mind, I had always had an interest in middle school in terms of just feeling like it was really under represented in film, that I’d seen so much high school and not a lot of middle school when for me, most of the most traumatic visceral sweating moments were always then.
Caroline Waxler: Yes. It’s such a pivotal time.
Bo Burnham: Yeah. I mean, for me, these transitions already happen by the time you get to high school, especially now, the kids are so blasé and are over it in a lot of ways, by the time they’re 16 and 17 they’ve seen everything, it feels like. It feels like this coming of age even though I don’t love that term, that moment is younger and younger, recently.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely.
Jenna Bond: I work in an indie caucus and so I went in, to start, a little bit further into the conversation about the script. I was wondering, how would you talk about what it was like to start the script and what was that first relationship with getting into the story and then how did that evolve once you were shifting to think about production and directing it?
Bo Burnham: Yeah, so initially, I was in a bad place in my life where I wasn’t really enjoying work at all and was bummed out and so my initial relationship with the script was really I just wanted to write to enjoy the process of writing again, I just wanted to enjoy writing, so I really wrote not thinking of anything practical or of making a feasible, sellable script. I just wanted to enjoy writing, so I just jumped in and just started writing scenes of this kid and I really just enjoyed it. So I didn’t even think of a structure, I didn’t even think of a film, I just wrote a bunch of scenes that I’d wanna see, without thinking of necessarily connecting them, just tried to write only things I wanted to write and would enjoy being within.
Jenna Bond: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bo Burnham: So it was like, “Okay, throw her into a pool party, throw her into the mall”, all these things. And then once I had about 60 pages of that, I helicoptered over and said, “Okay, what’s the story here and how do these things connect?” And I felt like there was a direction implicit in the scenes but I just started to order them and actually write them. And that process was pretty quick, that was probably only a couple weeks. I usually do not work that fast at all, but for some reason, this one just came pretty quickly. And then, in those last 40 pages that then made the movie into a feature, I was then thinking practically. I definitely knew I wanted to direct it and so I was just trying to make it not incredibly expensive. But I actually didn’t know a lot about production so if I had known more about production, I probably wouldn’t have had a moving car anywhere in that script, you know? But the real inception of the script was actually, and it’s something I’m trying to rediscover now, it was just not really thinking practically and just enjoying writing.
Caroline Waxler: What was going on with you at the time, you said it was a rough time, what projects were you working on?
Jenna Bond: And what year was that?
Bo Burnham: This was early 2014 and I had just got finished with the Stand Up Special, I did stand up comedy and I was starting to have panic attacks on stage, I just was really hating stand up at the time, it was really rough for me and I just wasn’t enjoying it. And I had just gotten done with this MTV show I had made, which I had loved but it got canceled even before it came out and I was dying for a pure experience that I could just enjoy. So I was really going to these coffee shops to write every day, not trying to plan for the future because I think that’s a problem I certainly struggle with, and I think a lot of other creative people struggle with is that to realize that the thing we love about it is actually available to us right away and we don’t need to stow away our enjoyment for the day when this thing finally becomes successful.
Bo Burnham: Because I had gotten to that point on some things and realized that I didn’t feel what I thought I’d feel when I got there, so I was just sort of like, “Today, today I’m gonna go to the coffee shop and write and enjoy what I’m writing. I’m gonna just try to write something that I have fun writing.” That was really helpful and I think it was not coincidentally productive and this stuff was meaningful because of that, because I wasn’t scheming, trying to figure out what would sell or what would make a good movie. I was just actually writing what I liked.
Jenna Bond: What was the first morsel of the story that came to you? What was the first thing that felt like you were recognizing your written voice again?
Bo Burnham: The first scene was her, Kayla in the car with her dad, going to the mall just saying, “Stop looking like that” and I’m going, “Like what?”, or whatever. And I didn’t know where they were going necessarily, I just recognized the dynamic, I felt like I understood these two people, trying to communicate but them simultaneously, it was really her videos. Because I had just been on my own really fascinated with young people online expressing themselves to no audience, kids giving 10-minute monologues about their life, vlog format on their webcam, in their poorly lit bedroom. So that was a huge part of what really launched, it was something that may appear structural in the movie, like these videos and these voice-overs are actually kind of the meat. It’s not that these video voice-overs are there to support the story, it’s almost that the story is there to support the voice-overs, these vlogs.
Jenna Bond: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s interesting. So how did you choose the vlogs that were included in the movie and those particular topics?
Bo Burnham: It could almost be anything. I could have picked a million topics. She’s made probably 100 or 200 of these videos and I think all of them are valid and the videos are valid hugely for these kids in their depth and their banality, you know, one video is called, “What do I believe?” And the next video is called, “Are Lunchables good?”, or whatever. So part of it was trying not to overthink it and just allow it to be whatever it needed to be for that moment. The videos themselves are pretty important tent poles in terms of the moments of the film.
Bo Burnham: They’re being yourself, putting yourself out there, how to be confident and then her sort of, “Oh yeah”, getting older and then the one where she gives up but … yeah, I don’t know, it’s probably a question of why she chose to talk about those things. It’s just a really convenient way for me to capture a snapshot of what she’s thinking in that moment. And not only what she’s thinking, but how and why it’s more complicated than a diary. It’s not just what she’s thinking, it’s how she’s choosing to present herself to the world.
Jenna Bond: So was there a difference in how you looked at that when you’re alone writing and then can you talk to things you realized you had to correct once you had your star in mind and cast and locations, that made you think about how you had that first draft and then, what you did in the production drafts? I was part of the last generation of attending school without any social media and I’m in a phase where I’m conscious of how I’ve evolved as a person. And I don’t think I could have done it with an audience of any kind and so, I mean, I was attracted to the way in which that was answered, but also in the way in which it shows that no matter what we grow through, that universality of formulating oneself. I don’t know, maybe it’s this simple technique of the juxtaposition of the videos and the life moments, but was there a difference in how you perceived it coming together in your mind versus when you’re actually shooting?
Bo Burnham: Yeah, a lot of that particular juxtaposition was mostly found in post-production, of figuring out how these things would overlay with certain scenes. And one of the voice-over videos actually didn’t exist in the script or on the shooting days and we actually found it in post-production. Just a small example of, when she walks up to the pool party house, that used to not have a video overlaying it and then we added a video, so it was actually a very convenient story device to be able to utilize in post-production because it could just be tagged in pretty easily and relatively cheaply. All we had to do is get a laptop and the cheap background. We did one day of re-shoots on this movie and it cost $30 because it was just getting-
Jenna Bond: That much.
Bo Burnham: It was just getting the background and I shot it at my house on my laptop with Elsie there, in her, like … yeah, I mean, everything had to bend to the reality of what was happening on the day, especially with the kids. The script was explicitly just trying to approximate what kids actually were going to be like, so the kids were always the final authority on that. And the script was always just trying to do justice to their reality. But when you’re actually on the day with them actually there, to not listen to them is to subvert and go against the entire principle of the script and what it’s trying to service. And that’s a thing that I had to keep reminding myself, is to go and be pretty silly too. I spent so much time writing, trying to approximate what a real kid would sound like and do and behave like and then try to force kids into exactly what that is, despite the way they actually are on the day.
Bo Burnham: But for the most part, it was pretty much … there weren’t large differences other than the, of course, immense differences of, you know, every room is different than you think it’s gonna look like. We got to do some rehearsals with the actors. Those initial thoughts of what the script were in your mind in complete isolation have started to melt away and blend with what’s actually happening.
Caroline Waxler: I mean, the actors in this movie were just amazing. How much were you involved in casting?
Bo Burnham: I was pretty heavily involved. I read with all the kids. I would test with all the kids and that’s really important the me. And I was playing Dad when we auditioned all the Kaylas. I was playing Kayla when we auditioned everyone else. And it was a way for me to just see that once we cast Elsie, I could do an approximate version of her performance to know that other kids could exist on the some level as her without her actually being there and taking away the spontaneity of what it would be like for them to meet on set. So that was what happened is that I would rehearse with Elsie separately and the kids separately, pretending to be each other so that we could then get to the set on the day and then, they would be in a scene together for the first time but they kind of rehearsed it together. So it was just a weird way of controlling something that would have to feel brand new.
Bo Burnham: And that was definitely one of my favorite parts of the whole process. It’s just having young actors come in and working with them. They’re very exciting and especially young actors, they walk into auditions and they’re very nervous and terrified, as they should be, as I was as a young actor going into auditions, so I tried to create the type of room I wish I had been in when I was in that age.
Caroline Waxler: I mean, you have such a deep bench of experience at making YouTube videos from such a young age, how much of that did you take with you when you made this movie?
Bo Burnham: In 2006, when I was making videos, the internet didn’t ask as deep questions of you and I think what I was doing on the internet is very different than what Kayla’s doing on the internet. I was making little skits with little funny songs that I wrote and she really is presenting herself. I don’t think I could have handled such a “truthful” performance online, but I relate much more to her now in terms of the depth of what the internet and the public world asks from me in certain way. I think I’m much more doing what Kayla does in her videos right now than I did when I was 16. Right now giving an interview is much more-
Caroline Waxler: Oh, got it.
Bo Burnham: … how I relate to Kayla than I do then. Because of course, part of Kayla’s experience is very much being young and being in eighth grade, but that isn’t how I related to her, I related to her currently. I have very little conscious interest in my eighth grade experience. I’m sure a lot of it got into the movie on its own but I much more relate to her now. And that’s what I talk about with Elsie, I would never say, “All right, well, when I was in eighth grade, I felt this way” and “Don’t worry, when you get older, you’re gonna feel …” We would much more relate on an eye to eye level and we tried to make the film that way, where it didn’t feel like older people looking back on an experience with authority but people within an experience looking out from their current position.
Jenna Bond: And just within a few seconds of watching throughout Carmichael’s 8, I was excited just be the perspective and the pacing. I don’t see parallels in this project but you fold a journey in which you’ve awaken to yourself as an artist. And through that journey, you’ve reached a level where you’re able to access peers who approach their craft the way that you do. I’ve happened to see Chris Rock when he was directing Amy Schumer’s special and I’m wondering, having worked on Tambourine and other things that you’ve enjoyed learning from working with people who care about craft as much as you do, and if that impacted your approach the writing. And you also co-starred in The Big Sick and that was also a film acclaimed for its writing and I’m wondering if it’s also working with Emily and Kumail, was there a companionship that opened up your approach to your writing, are there things that you really enjoyed learning from all these different folks that you will be associated with in your career? If you could speak to that a little bit.
Bo Burnham: Yeah, well, Chris is inspiring just because he’s someone that’s so far beyond having anything left to prove and yet he’s still working like his best work is coming, which I think it actually is coming, so that’s very inspiring to see someone that’s just already so accomplished still working incredibly hard. And Jerrod I’d been friends with for a while and I just love him and truly just deeply love him and that’s all that special really is in a way is just him doing his thing and me loving him.
Jenna Bond: Good ingredients. What do you love about him, what about him sparks a sense of yourself or are you excited about for him?
Bo Burnham: Oh, I mean, just personally, I actually just do love him as a friend and then what he tried to do as a director with Stand Up Special, which it’s not really a director’s medium, of course it’s a comedian’s medium. My job is just to try to create the feeling I get when I watch these people. That’s what I’m trying to do, it’s just try to do justice to what is already happening. Not try to change it, just try to service it. So for Jerrod, there’s something very aggressively, almost violently casual about him.
Jenna Bond: I like that phrasing.
Bo Burnham: It’s sort of elliptical and grounded and yet kind of aloof, it’s sort of polar stuff pulling at Jerrod’s thing, so that’s why it’s … You know, we have the audience dressed in black tie and then Jerrod shows up in a fuck you denim jacket and then it’s like … We shot it at the Masonic temple of the Freemasons. And then Chris Rock, I mean, there’s almost no way to describe why he’s amazing other than “It’s Chris Rock, oh my god, it’s Chris Rock”, you know? So we just try to get something more intimate there and try to get something a little more personal and there’s two distinct halves to that special where he’s delivering exactly what you want from Chris, for the first half and then he’s going somewhere he’s never went before. So it was a subtle shift that had to happen over the course of that and to be able to collaborate with people like that and to call them peers is unbelievable and might not even be correct. I don’t know if Chris Rock is my peer, but yeah, it’s really inspiring and meaningful.
Bo Burnham: I mean, working on The Big Sick was wonderful, work with Kumail and Emily and Michael Showalter and Aidy Bryant, who I became friends with on the shoot. But there’s something very simple about it website you actually, for me, when I’m actually within it, when it’s going great, it’s not like, “Oh, my god, here we are, a couple of geniuses rocketing towards immortality.” You know, it feels the same way it felt like when I was sophomore year of high school, working on a play with my friends in theater class. It just had really good feeling of collaborating with people and both working towards something. There’s something very amazing when people care about something. And the enemy to everything the me is apathy. The best place you can be is on a set where maybe tensions are running high just because there’s a conflict of passion because multiple people are passionate about their own thing.
Bo Burnham: And that was really my entire job as a director on set, I realized, was just to have infectious passion, have infectious focus, just make other people want to care about this movie. So that’s what I learned, I feel like, is you learn just how good that feels to be within something with someone else. Yeah. And then maybe after the fact, you go like, “Man, that was so cool. I got to work with Chris Rock.” But in the moment, that space shuttle’s hurdling towards Earth and you’re just frantically pressing buttons together and making sure, trying to land the thing.
Caroline Waxler: Do you have any collaborations planned in the next year or two with any of the folks you’ve worked with?
Bo Burnham: Not with any of the people I worked with. Jerrod and I are trying to produce some other specials for other stand ups, I might direct another stand up special coming up soon. It’s an enjoyable thing for me and it’s a good change of pace and it’s really much more to just service the people who I’m passionate about. There’s a comedian or someone that I really love and I go like, I couldn’t stand to see their special poorly made. And all it really takes is just someone that care about them. Stand up specials rarely have anyone that cares about them.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s interesting. So what did you bring to the stand up specials that you thought hadn’t been brought the stand up specials in the past?
Bo Burnham: Well, one is I felt like as a stand up, I really did understand what was happening up there and I wasn’t just trying to capture it. There’s certain ways that stand up specials are made which is they’re kind of made in one way, which is they’re made the same way that an award show is made or Conan Live from the Chicago Theater. If a late show tapes in a theater, that should be its own aesthetic, that should be well-lit and glossy and slick and that could maybe service some comedians, but a real thing about comedians is that it’s being pulled in real time out of a room. And that you don’t need to edit it so much. So a lot of the choices we make, and it’s a team that’s making these specials, me and my producer, Chris [Store 00:19:52] and my DPM, Andrew Wade, who also shot Eighth Grade.
Bo Burnham: It’s really about the decisions we don’t make, which is the lights we turn off, with the cuts and the edits that we remove. It’s all about just letting it breathe and letting the performers perform. I just think so much of the production of Stand Up Special was jobs flying around for no reason and audience light for no reason. It pulls away from the actual miracle that’s happening, which is someone is standing on stage and is putting on a show that doesn’t really need to be edited. You can actually just watch it. If you look at the old specials of the ’70s and the ’80s, you’ll see that it’s much more simplified. So our references, Jonathan [Demme 00:20:33]’s concert films and all that sort of stuff, which is always looking to the performer first.
Caroline Waxler: I thought in Eighth Grade, it was almost as though you were watching two performers, in what you’re saying, kind of on their own but yet coming together.
Bo Burnham: Exactly. And that is what I love and that’s what I’m all that I’m trying to go, is to watch people be is very interesting to me. It’s so much more interesting to me than the pyrotechnics of film. Just for me. And so the medium is only just trying to service those moments where you can watch a person be something. So I think you’re totally right, I think that definitely is a through line between the two.
Caroline Waxler: I mean, it could have used a few more explosions, but …
Bo Burnham: Yeah They were different types of interior explosions.
Caroline Waxler: For part two.
Jenna Bond: So I guess, to wind down to final questions, I wanna know what was the most satisfying scene for you, and what you’re in this part where people have their perspective of what they love about the film, what was the most satisfying for you to look back at what you put together in terms of hindsight? And then finally, I’d like to know what, in terms of stand up, in terms of music, in terms of other film and television projects, what do you love looking at, what are you raving about right now?
Bo Burnham: I don’t know what’s resonating with people, I definitely like that people seemed to enjoy the pool party. That was the set piece of the movie in my mind, so I’m happy that that was effective, but the scene that just particularly I like is just her singing karaoke, which is not actually that significant to other people but that’s a good little microcosm for just what the movie is trying to do, which is take a really stupid, banal, almost pathetic moment and make it feel like something bigger than it is. Or make it feel exactly as big as it is, which is very big.
Caroline Waxler: It transmitted bravery to me.
Bo Burnham: Yeah. And that’s how it should feel. That was the hope is you take this pathetic accomplishment and make it feel like she’s slaying a dragon. That’s the scene that feels meaningful to me personally. That is what anxiety feels like and what any sort of victory feels like as well.
Bo Burnham: There’s so many things. I do think it was an incredible batch of movies this year I like, with The Favorite and First Reformed-
Caroline Waxler: Wow, yeah.
Bo Burnham: … and Roma. I will say the thing I rave about is First Man, I think First Man is-
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Bo Burnham: I don’t know, I think it’s a masterpiece. I mean, it’s getting praise but I think we’re gonna look back in seven years and be like, “Why weren’t we talking about First Man?” And I love Damien’s movies, but I think this is his best one by far. I think it’s an incredible accomplishment. I watched it like five times.
Caroline Waxler: I just wanna say, before we wrap, your two actors were phenomenal. Long time fan of Josh Hamilton and now I’m very excited to follow Elsie’s career. It’s so brilliant.
Bo Burnham: Oh yeah, yeah. I’m a long time fan of Josh too, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: All right, well, this has been fantastic, I’m excited to go watch Eighth Grade yet again, it was terrific.
Bo Burnham: Great.
Jenna Bond: Yeah, thank you so much. I’m happy that you have the space to create because the things that you create are specific and valuable so hope you feel encouraged and we’re looking forward to the next thing.
Bo Burnham: I appreciate. Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music by Stockboard Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org and follow the Guild on social medical at @wgaeast. And if you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in. Write on.