In a candid conversation during this year’s Vulture Festival L.A., Bo Burnham gave the audience a snapshot of his approach to crafting the screenplay for his debut feature, Eighth Grade.
The comedian cum writer-director, who is riding off the momentum of multiple Gotham and Independent Spirit Award nominations for his A24 hit, had grown bored with how young people were portrayed in media, so he went to great lengths to avoid writing his characters as hyper-articulate or confidently in-command of their own narrative.
“A lot of media opens with a young kid making a video or doing voice-over, and they have this ability to speak in way that’s suspiciously similar to a screenwriter’s ability to speak,” he said. “Awkwardness has been commodified, so it was important to me that these kids weren’t perfectly presentable or aware of their awkwardness or emulate the characters they’ve seen represented in other movies.”
Eighth Grade, which follows eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates the anxiety and alienation of both the middle school and online experience, is about the chasm between the person we present to the public and our private selves. Burnham — who rose to fame making musical-comedy videos on YouTube —went to great lengths to capture that push-pull young people battle as they struggle to find their voice. He spent hours watching videos of young girls directly addressing the camera with existential titles like ‘Who Am I?’ and transcribing them word for word, including the um’s, uh’s, and nervous stutters.
“How do you write someone who can’t talk? How do you dress someone who can’t dress? How do you interior design for someone who has no sense of interior design?” Burnham asked, rhetorically. “I wasn’t on set going like, ‘You missed an um to Elsie or to any of the actors. Writing it like that was really just giving them permission to be inarticulate.”