Back in April, director Bo Burnham and actor Elsie Fisher came to Atlanta to show their film Eighth Grade as the Closing Night presentation of the Atlanta Film Festival, and Shakefire had the chance to sit down with the both of them. The film follows Kayla, played by Fisher, as she finishes up her final week of eighth grade and struggles to find her own identity both online and in real life. It's a coming-of-age drama and comedy within the context of social media. Burnham and Fisher discuss the making of the film as well as the impact of social media and the challenges they faced.
Congratulations on the film! I absolutely loved it. What was your process in writing the script? The dialogue is so on point and down to earth. Obviously you’re not an eighth grade girl so how did you get in that mindset?
Bo Burnham: The initial thing was actually just watching videos of kids and just transcribing, word for word, what they were saying just to see if I could capture on the page what they were doing because I felt like when I watch real kids talk I was like, “If this were a performance it would be incredible. If this was a performance in a movie it would be the most layered and interesting thing I’ve seen because you see them start and stop and think and self-evaluate all in the span in a second.” So it was just can I capture that sorta staccato way that they speak. That, “so, umm, like, well, it’s not that cool. I’m sorry. Whatever.” That sorta stutter-stop thing. I for a while transcribed it, and it was feeling right, and then I started writing my own. Just writing an original verse and just talking about themselves. So that was the beginning. The beginning of the entire story was the way they talk, more than it was even in the structure of a scene.
One of my favorite moments of the film is between Kayla and her father around the fire towards the end. I’m curious to know how you wrote his character into the film and making him a single father, something we also don’t see often in film.
Burnham: It just felt right. Truthfully the actual reason is, when I look back on it, she didn’t have an older female presence when she was being written because it was just me. I feel like both of them. I feel like a young kid that anxious on the internet, and I feel like a guy that’s out of touch that’s looking at her going, “What can I do? I care about you but I have no idea what to do.” It gave me a way to voice my own disconnect from her. Truly, it’s mostly like my mother. My mother is who informed him as a character most. It was trying to be attentive and trying to portray a relationship that’s very loving and that there can be conflict in a relationship that is actually just all about even when a parent loves you so much and wants to take care of you. Even that can be a struggle. I think we’ve seen a lot of very fraught parent/child relationships on film. I wanted to show even a parent that loves the hell out of you and wants nothing but the best for you, it’s not all easy. The relationship is just a different type of hard.
What was it that attracted you to explore this specific period because we don’t really see eighth grade portrayed that often either?
Burnham: That was one of the reasons, the fact that I feel we’ve seen high school a lot and not this age. Yeah, I want to talk about the internet, and it feels like this the internet makes eighth graders of us all a little bit, but also, I don’t know, that age at this time seems to be engaging with the internet at such a pure soul level. It was just mind-blowing to me to think about. It’s the age that’s old enough to be engaging with the world, and yet young enough to be completely moldable by it. It’s the age that can engage the deepest of the internet while still being the most vulnerable to its effects. Or something like that.
Yeah, I get it.
Burnham: I don’t so…
Can you walk me through the stages of the creative process? At what point did you believe you had your script done? When did Elsie come on board?
Burnham: I wrote the first draft a while ago, like 2014 maybe. And I wrote it in two weeks, really, really quick. Then I sat with it for a while and updated it. But then the movie was greenlit probably seven or eight months before it was going, and then it was immediately like, “We have to start casting. The only thing that matters is who this kid is.” Do you remember when you got the call?
Elsie Fisher: Umm…
Burnham: Were you auditioning? Dad, do you remember? When did you get the role?
Fisher: After April, right?
Dominic Fisher: Yeah, I think it was May?
Burnham: Really!? That late? But the first audition was when?
D. Fisher: And there were four auditions.
Burnham: Yeah, and I never saw anyone more than once. But I tested her four or five times because I had to be sure. But I never saw, literally never met anyone more than once. I just had to be like, “I don’t know, but can she act...silently?” and then I’d do a whole test where she was just silent. Then I was like, “Can she be angry? Cause it’s a weird part.” But she passed the test.
Burnham: When she graduated eighth grade we started production, and then a week after we wrapped she was in freshman year. That’s where she is now.
What was it like for you, this being your big debut lead role?
Fisher: Yeah, it was really fun to do, that’s for sure. I’m glad I got to do this. Like you guys were saying, eighth grade isn’t really portrayed in media a lot, and I just got done with that before we were filming. I really relate to Kayla on a deep level where I haven’t related to a character more than that. It was nice to be able to do that.
Since you had just graduated from eighth grade were you ever giving Bo tips while on set on what Kayla would and wouldn’t do?
Fisher: I think there were some things. I can’t remember any off the top of my head. And it wouldn’t have been big stuff I don’t think but just small things.
Burnham: And I’d ask her more. I would be asking her all the time. It’s like the time capsule box is decorated with the things she likes.
Fisher: Yeah, there’s a lot of influences from me onto Kayla. Her whole room is decorated in stuff I like. She’s drawing at one point in the movie, and those are my actual drawing.
Burnham: Her face is your face.
Fisher: Yeah, kinda. Just a little bit.
What was your favorite scene to film?
Fisher: Personally it’s a tie between all the scenes in her room because for those days it was literally just me and the crew and that was super fun to do. But I also really enjoyed the pool stuff.
Burnham: The pool? That’s so awesome!
Fisher: Yeah, that whole house was just kinda cool. But it’s also the one I remember the most. It was very fun.
Burnham: That’s amazing. It’s so great because I was going into it so worried about that scene.
Fisher: Really? I mean you’re dealing with so many kids.
Burnham: You’re in a bathing suit, too. That’s fucking tough. That is not an easy thing to do. I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was young. I remember getting to that day in the pool scene like, “Do you want a towel?” and you were just hanging out. You weren’t feeling what Kayla was feeling there which is terrified and wanting to disappeared.
Fisher: And that was later in the filming.
Burnham: You knew all the kids by then.
Fisher: Yeah, like dude, after the first day on set. I was so anxious about this because I had never starred in something, and aside from just starring in this, this is a bigger project and I’m in so much of it. Yeah, I’m the main character, but I’m in like every frame which is so weird. I was so anxious about this and then I got on set and it all went away. I could trust everyone there. It was amazing.
As a general creative, do you feel comfortable stepping into these different ventures or is it always a little different, a little challenging for you?
Burnham: Oh it’s definitely challenging and different. Mostly it was because I never felt comfortable in the comedy thing, truly. I feel more comfortable in this than I did there. I feel more naturally suited to do this than I did that. I like writing and conceiving things. The world of touring and getting up on stage every night was not natural for me. I like to try to not really challenge myself as much as go wherever an idea takes me, but it all feels sort of the same world which is writing things and trying to make the things I write. This to me felt like the thing I think I really want to do. When I was doing it, it felt way more natural to me. I really hope I can do this for a while.
What do you think the impact social media has on growing up and the school atmosphere? Do you think it has made it more difficult?
Fisher: Yeah. I think it’s made everyone more socially awkward. Instead of actually interacting people are watching each other live and basing how they interact off that. And with texting there’s so much wiggle space for interpretation. You can text someone ‘hi’ and they could be like, “Oh why didn’t they say hi with an exclamation point? They hate me.” I think that definitely plays into it. And people are finding ways to waste their time by watching other people instead of doing stuff. They’re watching other people do stuff.
Burnham: Yeah, it’s confusing; I know.
It’s the character you are online versus the person you are in real life.
Fisher: Oh for sure. Everyone has their own persona. It’s so rare to find people who are genuine online.
Burnham: I would say is there anyone in your life that you like more online than you like in real life? Anyone? There are plenty of people that you like more in real life. I have plenty of people that I really like in real life and I hate them online. I literally have a text exchange with my friends who are just sending their tweets back and forth going, “What are they doing? They’re so embarrassing.” Never the reverse. Never the reverse where I meet someone in real life and I’m like, “Eww. Online you’re incredible and kind and sweet.” You know? I think it just presents the worst versions of ourselves to each other.
You know, this is a weird point that doesn’t really condense into anything, but we had a horse and buggy that got us to work in two hours. Then it was like let’s get a car; the Model T gets us to work in an hour. Oh, now a new car gets us to work in 20 minutes. That works for things with technology, making things better. That doesn’t work for social interaction, and yet were applying that same thing to it. Oh you can talk to five people a day? Now you can talk to 500 people a day. You can send one message or one letter to someone? Now you can send 5,000 messages. There’s no proof that that is better. People are applying that to the way we interact with each other. They’re applying the same acceleration/optimization thing to people socializing. There’s no proof that makes us happier or better. I think it makes us insane.
Fisher: There’s probably one proof that proves it raises depression rates or..
Burnham: I think younger people are more anxious now, and I think it’s absolutely because of the internet.
I love this tirade on social media.
Burnham: And it’s good, too. I think it can be good.
Fisher: It can be but most times no.
Burnham: There’s no mechanism to make it better. That’s the problem. It could be better.
Are we going to see a Twelfth Grade? I want to see a Richard Linklater Boyhood type thing with her character.
Burnham: Yeah, yeah, totally. I’d be up for that. Would you be up for twelfth, sixteenth grade, grade school?
Fisher: Oh for sure.
Burnham: But we got to give her time to live her life. That’s the thing with Boyhood. The kid was on a movie set every summer so then by the end he’s becoming a photographer and they’re like, “Well he became a photographer because the actor’s interest were in photography.” Yeah, because he’s going to a movie set every day. So the movie sorta influenced the story a little bit. So we gotta let her live her life a little bit before we get into that.
Do you have any ideas of where her story is going?
Burnham: I don’t, no, and that would be the point if it were to happen. The whole point is that I could never have seen right now coming three years ago. I think the whole point is trying to capture whatever the moment is right at the moment and not doing anything until then.
What do you hope audiences get out of the film?
Fisher: I think there are a lot of things that can be said. Some of my personal favorites are for people to know they’re not alone in their experiences, especially with this weird time. I thought I was. I’m like, “No one else is feeling this. Are you crazy?” Then I read the script and was like, “Everyone is feeling this.”
Burnham: That’s what I would say. Additionally, I hope adults can see themselves in her, too. But it is that. This feeling is not your own. It’s shared, and that’s actually a good thing. But also for kids to see themselves culturally and feel recognized, and for anyone that’s not 13 to see that kids with technology is scarier than you think and less scarier than you think because the kids are stronger and more resilient and more intelligent. Here’s is the main point I think. But I hope they feel. I just hope they’re feeling things, feeling anything. That’s what we hope the movie works on. I’d much rather have people leaving with their heart aching.