(Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)
Bo Burnham is a true success story of the modern digital media age. He was only 16 years old when a couple videos of him singing in his bedroom quickly went viral and shot him to internet stardom back in late 2006. He continued to gain a fanbase as he released more original songs over the next couple of years and eventually found further success as a stand-up comedian, incorporating his music into his act. Since then, Burnham has released four comedy albums, appeared in a number of feature films, produced several stand-up specials, and even helped develop a sitcom for MTV.
This week, however, marks a new milestone for Burnham, as he makes his feature film debut as writer and director with Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age comedy-drama about a socially awkward 13-year-old girl (Elsie Fisher) trying to survive her last week in middle school. The film premiered earlier this year at Sundance to rave reviews, and it’s currently Certified Fresh at 98%. Burnham spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about his Five Favorite Films, then talked about how he rose to fame, why he wanted to make Eighth Grade, and what he’s looking to do next.
First, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was very important to me. I probably saw that when I was 12 or 13. I really loved acting, and it was the first thing I had ever seen, it felt like, on film where acting just felt alive in a way that I had never seen before. I couldn’t believe how free and chaotic and amazing and human it all felt. Those therapy scenes are just so incredible and special. To be able to have a scene of 15 people where no one is taking you out of it and everyone just seems very vivid. It was scary to me how alive it was but very, very exciting. It just felt like, what an incredible thing it would be to be a part of that.
You were already interested in acting by that age.
Yeah. I was interested, yeah. But not film; I had only done theater. I was really interested in theater. It was the first thing that made me go, “Oh, wow. Film acting is very cool.” I’m not the first to watch movies and get excited, but I don’t know, theater is very collaborative and it’s about sort of working with a bunch of people. It just hit all the notes for me too. Also, I hadn’t seen any films, really, outside of what a 10- or 11-year-old is supposed to watch. Still, it’s absolutely incredible. Just one of the best versions of that.
That’s a pretty intense movie for any 10- or 11-year-old to watch.
Yeah, but I think it’s intense being a 10- or 11-year-old, you know? It’s funny — for the movie, my movie, it was an influence in terms of that vibe of the ward, of the hospital, was a little bit of the vibe of what we’re trying to go for in the middle school. Just in terms of, how do you do what Milos does in that movie, such controlled chaos? It’s something that feels so out of control, and yet it’s a scene that has a beginning, a middle, and end, and it escalates. It’s incredibly impressive.
George Washington, probably, David Gordon Green’s first movie. That was one that I probably saw right before I started, or was it… I can’t remember — it might have been right before I wrote this film. I had never really seen kids articulated in the way that it felt like kids actually thought. It wasn’t imbuing the kids with a sort of ability to articulate themselves that was beyond them.
There’s that amazing monologue when one of the boys is sitting on the floor of a bathroom and he’s looking up, and he’s saying, “I want to be an inventor. I want to make stuff,” and he’s giving this monologue about his wants and his needs, but they’re so through the prism of a young mind. You can tell the speeches he’s heard that he thinks he might be making, but in that dishonesty it’s so honest. He’s reaching for things beyond himself, and you feel that he doesn’t have the faculties to get there, and that’s just so honest of what that time is. You can feel that he really gave a lot of this sort of articulated authorship over to the kid and that really shows. It’s like, “Oh, this is actually how kids speak.”
A lot of these are acting. A Woman under the Influence. I just think Gena Rowlands is absolutely incredible, and the sort of vibe of that movie. You can just feel the closeness of the actors and the crew and the people making the film. Again, it’s so incredibly alive and spontaneous, and that sort of weird, intimate, long-lens voyeuristic stuff and their fights, it’s just absolutely incredible. Also, just long takes of allowing actors to be, and to not cut out the white noise of superfluous action that doesn’t necessarily contribute to the plot. The purpose and the heart of the movie is stated over and over again in every tiny action, in every little thing they do, in every smile Peter Falk gives to her or look she gives to him. The messiness of it is just absolutely incredible, and that dinner scene with them all together is just stunning.
Yeah, and I’m not surprised that it’s two great actors. It should be, hopefully. It feels like a really strong… like required viewing for any actor is that movie. But it’s also a director’s film. You can tell the intimacy that Cassavetes created in that film, in terms of how comfortable people are in front of the camera. That is, for me, the first job of the director, is to attend to the actors.
A recent one would be Raw, the Julia Ducournau film. I love that film. I had sort of finished my movie so… Or no, I hadn’t finished it — maybe I was just about to shoot my movie — but I watched it three times in theaters. I can’t believe that’s a debut. It only feels like seasoned masters are able to really manipulate an audience, beat to beat, to really feel like you are being so perfectly manipulated, and you’re just in the hands of someone who has complete control of you. It’s just unbelievable to have out of the gate.
But also, she does an incredible — and it’s something I was trying to do in my movie — she is able to just really ground all of her stylized sequences really perfectly in the felt naturalism of the movie, and she does it in such incredibly sly ways that are so, so smart. Like, you know — spoiler — the finger eating scene. The fact that the beginning of that scene is all about them waxing. Like, the waxing is an incredible way to ground the physical reality of their bodies in something we can all relate to, in terms of, you know, none of us have ever eaten a finger, but we all know the feeling of hair being pulled out. It’s a really relatable and yet traumatic pain that we’re seeing and thinking about. It’s similar in the way that the animals are put in in the beginning. Because the bodies are treated so real and so relatably, then when this surreal stuff starts happening, it feels so goddamn real. She’s just eating half of a finger and people were traumatized by it. You know, it’s actually not that gory of a movie. It’s not that extreme of a movie, but she slyly grounds it in realism.
And then there’s just these beautiful images over the whole thing. It’s such an economic use of set pieces. The blue paint and the yellow paint, and getting together and turning green. Even her under the covers, that feels like a set piece. She’s so economic with her use of action and framing, and it was something I really wanted to try to do. I felt like I didn’t have a good reference for “How am I going to integrate the stylized sequences I have in my mind into this natural world?” Then when I saw her movie, I’m like, “Oh man, this is exactly what I want to do.”
She just has a really incredible eye for what is significant, and all the set pieces are just very muscular. Knowing the set pieces are made from simple clean action that is understood with iconic, and icons are simple. To know that things that are iconic are often very, very simple.
I would probably say À ma soeur!, the Catherine Breillat film. If you could put that title instead of Fat Girl. I’m just kidding. I don’t really like saying my movie is related to that. I do think Catherine Breillat is brilliant and her movies have so much psychological weight to them. Those two sisters, they’re just, like, titanic, in terms of the conflict between them. The sexual scene with the boy is one of the most charged, terrifying, strange, impossible-to-describe scenes ever, that long take. The sort of depth of… Anaïs? The main girl? Just the depth of her look, how significant her neutral look and gaze is. Her stare is one of the best stares ever. And I stole the swimsuit from that movie and put it in my movie. I just completely stole the lime green one-piece and put it in my movie.
I just love Catherine Breillat. I just think she’s incredibly smart. It’s very exciting, and it’s a sign of a really incredible director to show how much tension and tone can be wrought out of a scene of a younger sister staring out of her covers at her older sister from the bed across the room. It’s kind of incredible how powerful and charged that movie feels before it becomes insane at the end. To me, the brutality and shock of the ending, I was feeling throughout the entire movie. It’s just crazy when it shows up literally.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: I have to confess, I was not expecting such an eclectic list from you.
Bo Burnham: Was that a f—ed up list? Is it like a pretentious thing? I can always change…
RT: No, not at all. I’m just a bit surprised, but it’s a fantastic list. Has film always been a big thing for you?
Burnham: Not really, no. It wasn’t until I was 18, 19 that I even started really watching movies in any kind of serious way. I loved acting. I loved theater. That was my first love, and then I was going to go off to school for experimental theater, you know, and do that. It’s not like I was interested in lacrosse or whatever, and then all of a sudden I picked up film. I feel like even though I wasn’t watching film, I was learning things that would eventually lead me to film. I feel like, if I have any strength as director, it’s from all the time I spent in theater working with actors and collaborating with actors. Yeah, it was sort of late in life for me.
Some of my favorite filmmakers are people that tend to… maybe haven’t been filmmakers, and then jump into it or something. Like, I love Steve McQueen. I mean, he was making film but not narratives. I wasn’t a kid growing up with movie posters on his wall, necessarily. I sort of stumbled into it and realized, “Oh, weirdly, I’ve been circling this this whole time. I actually think all of my interests are contained within this thing.” I definitely have catch-up to do, I feel. You know, people are like, “You haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia?” and I’m like, “Oh s–t.”
RT: It’s also a little surprising that Eighth Grade came from you, because while your comedy style is clever, it’s also brash, cheeky, and sometimes controversial. What made you decide to tackle more grounded material like this?
Burnham: I kind of fell into a world of doing stand-up and the tools available to you as a standup, or for me in terms of what my shows were, was sort of irony and cynicism and being clever and overwriting things and making things very precise. I was sort of hungry to drop that stuff and collaborate with somebody and not use those tools, and try to capture something more human and spontaneous, and get back to what I loved about theater, which was something less knowable and not really speaking from authority, but instead jumping in something and flailing around, and trying to describe it from the inside, you know? I was sort of tired of going around talking about what I had figured out. I was more interested in exploring things I was struggling with.
RT: Part of Elsie Fisher’s character Kayla’s story in the film involves trying to become a YouTube personality in her own right, and of course, you know something about that yourself. Looking back now, is this anything at all like the path you imagined yourself taking to get where you are?
Burnham: No, I mean, in 2006, when I was 16, yeah, sure, I probably wanted to be famous, too. I mean, who doesn’t want attention all the time to some degree? I hoped to be making things. That was the hope, just to be able to make things. I didn’t know that I’d stumble in on this. You know, I thought I wanted to be an actor. I thought I wanted to be a theater actor, and then I avoided that, and I did stand-up, and then I tried to drag everything I loved about theater into stand-up, and then I hit a brick wall with that and realized all the things that I like could be contained here.
Even though I didn’t really expect to be making a film in this way, the actual things I’m doing, which is working with actors and writing and staging things, that is what I wanted to do when I was 14, 15. I ended up staging stuff and doing that for my stand-up, but just craving working with other people, rather than try to return to a black box and put up a play. Also, during this I was just concurrently falling in love with screenwriting and, in filming my own specials and directing some other people’s specials, really falling in love with the medium and what it can do and also, watching movies. It feels like a solid 10 years of interest in this.
RT: As a 27-year-old man, how did you get into the mindset of a 13-year-old girl? Part of this film’s appeal is that it feels so genuine, and I’m wondering how you accomplished that.
Burnham: If you want to research these kids, they’re posting everything about themselves online, so it’s pretty easy. The other thing is to just believe that you can, to believe that her thoughts are just as interesting and deep and fraught as yours, and that it isn’t just, “How am I possibly going to understand what she’s thinking?” It’s like, “No, she’s a human, too, that’s struggling with her own things and is self-aware and is worried and has all of your fears.” Her circumstance is different but she’s still a person with a beating heart. Also, knowing that I’m going to actually be able to have an actual 13-year-old girl there, performing. I’m not writing a novel, so it really was letting her lead and letting her embody the part.
RT: Did Elsie get some input on that?
Burnham: Not specifically in terms of script or words, but she’s offering every moment by just being. It’s really just trying to get her to be comfortable enough to express herself. I didn’t do it. She did. She did it all. I just kind of laid a structure for her to perform in. She’s the one that is delivering the actual meaning of the movie, even if she’s not writing it. The words are dead until she says them.
RT: Were there any specific coming-of-age movies you took inspiration from for Eighth Grade?
Burnham: Welcome to the Dollhouse, I like. I find it a little mean, but tonally it captures how weird kids are, which I like. There’s this great movie called Old Enough by Marisa Silver that’s really lovely. Yeah, George Washington, Fish Tank. Billy Madison. I think Billy Madison gets school very right. First grade has never been more accurately portrayed since Billy Madison.
RT: Now that you’ve finished your first narrative feature, and you’ve mentioned that you’ve fallen in love with screenwriting, can we expect more? Is there something different you’re looking to try next?
Burnham: No, no. I’m not trying to try stuff just to try it. I hope to write. Well, I have been writing stuff, but I hope to make things. I’m not trying to be like, “Then I’m going to bake cakes,” or whatever. I have a whole lifetime of getting better at this, I’m saying. If I’m lucky enough to do it, I know there’s so much work ahead. Hopefully I can find something that makes sense and find people to pay for it. That’s the unfortunate thing about being a director: Your passion requires millions of other people’s dollars.
Eighth Grade opens in limited release this Friday, July 13.