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Eighth Grade’s Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher on tackling teenage anxiety

We slide into the DMs of the director and star of the year’s must-see middle school movie.

Nowhere does Jean-Paul Sartre’s old adage “Hell is other people” feel more appropriate than when you’re a teenager. Terminal embarrassment, parental friction – chaos reigns when you’re at ‘that age’. In his directorial debut Eighth Grade, comedian Bo Burnham explores the anxieties of adolescence through the eyes of 14-year-old Kayla Day, played to perfection by breakout star Elsie Fisher.

LWLies: Could you describe your real-life eighth grade experience in one word?

Bo Burnham: I would say ‘forgetful’. With the movie, I wasn’t trying to exorcise my experience – I wanted to write about the internet, I wanted to write about right now, and it wasn’t until we were making the movie that I realised, ‘Okay, my past is embedded in this somehow.’

Elsie Fisher: ‘Lonely’. I think eighth graders – and I know I definitely did – work very hard to be cool and be friends with people, and that can be difficult sometimes. You become self-aware at that age. I was never bullied, it was just trying to get people’s attention, be it good or bad. Everyone is so disconnected now. It could be that bullying went out of style, or that everyone’s on their phone now, or a plethora of things. But I just felt lonely more than anything.

Was there a process of learning on set and bringing experience of the actual kids into the story?

BB: That was the hope. In pre-production and writing we spent so much time trying to nail these kids’ experiences, and then when we actually had the kids there. We had to listen. It wasn’t about getting everything right and telling them, ‘I have made this completely honest vision, bend yourself to my story!’ Kids are so open and chaotic – part of it was capturing that spontaneity, but also letting the kids feel like they were participating and they had ownership over their things. When they’re engaged in that way I think they just given better performances.

EF: Right before Eighth Grade I was ready to quit acting because I wasn’t enjoying it, and I didn’t think I was good at it because I was having struggles with my speech. It was definitely easier on Eighth Grade because the script felt truer to who I was as a teenager, and I appreciated that.

There are a lot of contemporary pop culture references within the film.

BB: Some of them I don’t get! When that one kid was shouting ‘LeBron James’, I didn’t understand that. Kayla saying ‘Gucci’ was down to Elsie – she would actually say it on set. I didn’t know what it meant.

EF: Gucci was a nervous tic I had on set. I hadn’t worked on a movie in a long time, and this was my very first lead role, so I was very nervous. ‘Gucci’ was something I’d say in place of ‘cool’ or ‘okay’. So someone would say, ‘Do you want a water?’ and I’d say ‘Gucci!’ and they’d be like, ‘What are you?’ [laughs] So Bo started doing it a lot to embarrass me, and then it became an inside joke on set, then it escalated and became part of the movie.

The film wrestles with adolescent social anxiety, which is something that’s quite hard to capture on camera.

BB: I wanted to try and simulate Kayla’s experience of anxiety for the viewers. VR was an influence on the movie, particularly the pool party scene – there are some short films, especially horror shorts, which do it really well. The thing with social anxiety, for people that may not su er from it, it’s a very surreal experience that grafts itself onto normal low-stakes experiences and makes them really intense.

EF: I knew I had anxiety before we made the film, but I didn’t think anyone else struggled with it, or that other people did but didn’t feel it as much as me. So I spent a lot of time being reclusive because I was dealing with those problems. The film was a perfect way to express how I felt. I’d gone through eighth grade and all those struggles, and then relived them like a week later on set, like a very odd form of therapy.

How did your own experience of being online inform the film?

BB: I was this kid that came from the internet, and I always felt that was a pejorative thing. I tried to run away from it until I realised, ‘No, this place is scary and strange, but our struggles with it are deep and interesting.’ So I felt a responsibility to myself, like I needed to represent this thing and have my experience represented on screen. I think there are some people out there who only see this generation of teenagers as material for satire. They think it’s so ridiculous to be on your phone all day. We wanted no judgement – just to observe these kids, and not moralise them, or try to teach them. I wanted the kids to feel seen, and recognise their experience.

EF: Y’know, your experience is kind of universal in eighth grade. Even if you personally never go through eighth grade, you’re going to feel at some point in your life the exact same way someone has felt, and I think that’s really sweet, how universal these feelings of wanting to crawl into a hole and die are. I think it’s cool that my 11-year-old brother and my 80-year-old grandfather can both relate to it. Everyone has their own personal eighth grade.

Eighth Grade is released in UK cinemas 26 April. Read the LWLies Recommends review.

Published 24 Apr 2019

Tags: Bo Burnham Elsie Fisher

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