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Former Teen YouTuber Bo Burnham Makes A Movie About The Teen YouTubers No One Watches

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
Actress Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade. (Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24)
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By John Horn & Darby Maloney

Comedian Bo Burnham launched his comedy career as an early adopter on YouTube. He started posting videos in 2006, going viral when he was still a teen -- and now he's making a movie inspired by his own relationship with social media and the internet, Eighth Grade.

His most popular video (Warning: NSFW, so viewer/listener beware) has close to 30 million YouTube views and he has more than 200 million views overall. He used those early videos to build a career.

The movie's about Kayla, a 13-year-old who makes self-help videos from her bedroom -- but without the same success that Burnham had.

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Kayla's played by Elsie Fisher, a newcomer whose hyperreal performance gives viewers a peek at what social media-usage looks like from the point of view of a generation that's been exposed to it their whole lives. Fisher's transparency and Burnham's direction show how the growing pains of being 13 are intensified by a culture where your digital persona is just as important as your "real life" one -- maybe more important.

"I've always been interested in the YouTube videos that no one was watching."

Burnham spoke with KPCC's The Frame when Eighth Grade premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. We asked him about what the internet means right now, how that's shown in this movie -- and the scene everyone's going to be talking about. (Read highlights below or listen on The Frame podcast.)

Did you set out to make a movie about 8th graders or the internet?

Definitely the internet. I set out to make a story about how I was feeling.

When I wrote this story I was sort of coming to terms with the fact that I had anxiety, and I felt like my feelings were tied in some way to the internet, and I wanted to talk about it.

My initial instinct was OK, I have to write some big tandem narrative with 12 intersecting characters to get all these big ideas out. And then I stumbled on this voice and I was like... I mean, I can say everything I want and more through her.

The sort of peripheral problems I have with the internet, that exist around the core of my life -- which is that I have a job and I have to pay taxes -- for a kid, [those peripheral problems are] everything. The sort of things that we're navigating on the fringe of my life are the things I think kids really have to deal with.

Director Bo Burnham and actress Elsie Fisher on the set of Eighth Grade. (Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24)
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I've always been interested in the YouTube videos that no one was watching. I've always been interested in people on the internet that are expressing themselves and no one is paying attention to, because it's the sort of narrative of the internet.

We only ever talk about the people that go viral and that get paid attention to. But the majority of the internet are people that are calling out into a void and not getting an answer.

I was interested in young people vlogging about their own life. I watched hundreds and hundreds of videos, and not to be cruel to the boys, but on average, the boys of this age talked about XBox and the girls at this age talked about their souls. And I just think, for whatever reason, if it's cultural pressure or whatever, girls are just a little deeper at that age and asking deeper questions of themselves.

There's something that I think is particular to 8th grade that takes all of these issues and puts them under an unbelievable amount of pressure.

I always think it's like the most surreal social environment you are ever in at the most vulnerable time you ever are living. Part of the movie is trying to discover these things like we're aliens seeing it for the first time.

Actress Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade. (Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24)

Like a pool party -- why do we have these young people whose bodies are exploding in a pool of water? Like not clothed at all like they are in their normal lives.

Their situations are very, very surreal. There's 100 kids in an auditorium and one standing up at a podium trying to keep concentrated.

I realized I had an appreciation for teachers and all educators when I realized how chaotic school is. I saw the kids on set and I thought, Oh, if you all just decided, you could take this over, that cultural norms are just barely hanging on... it is a very chaotic and strange time.

That's what I talked about in terms of these feelings and worries being fringe in my life, but it's almost like a drug experience being that age, in terms of it being so sensory. Tastes are more vivid and sounds are louder and the world is bigger. That's what I wanted it to feel like

I didn't want it to be a story that was remembered or nostalgic. I didn't want it to be polluted with my own memory.

How did you make sure that this story felt authentic to Elsie, your lead actress?

I felt like it was almost irresponsible that we greenlit the movie before we found her. I told her every day:

Actress Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade. (Photo courtesy A24)

You know the truth of this more than anybody. My disconnect from you is twofold. I was never a 13-year-old girl, and I was never a 13-year-old right now. You are the only one on set that knows this. So you know the truth. This movie is coming to you, not the other way around.

So there was a long rehearsal process that was mostly for the script. Mostly to make sure that things sounded right. It was always the script's fault. So it was essential. What I was trying to capture was what she was in many ways.

How does social media affect a character like Kayla in a way that wouldn't be the case 20 years ago?

There's something about the internet and social media that I think forces kids to atomize themselves into... you have the you living your life, and then you have the you watching yourself walk through your life, you have the you anticipating the next moment, you have the you anticipating the reaction to the next moment. Watching people watch you and watching people watch you watch them.

There's a really, really disorienting feeling to being alive right now in general. It especially affects kids that are vulnerable to it and too young to even realize it.

I don't think any of us have processed just how strange it is to be our own storytellers. And not only to have to live our life, but to have to curate our lives.

I think it's interpreted by older generations as narcissism, but it isn't. It's self-involved, but in a really sad way that is not fun.

And it's a norm, culturally. You can't really opt out of this stuff, because then you're alone. It's the weird oxymoron of the internet, where it's overstimulating and numbing. It's hyper-connective and we are all super lonely.

Spoiler warning: We asked Bo about one of the key scenes of the movie, a scene that will stick with you. Be careful if you want to wait until you see the movie.

There are difficult scenes for audience members to watch, like a scene depicting a game of truth or dare. I'm curious how it was to direct that scene, and how it was for Elsie to act in that scene.

"When you actually feel the moment in real time with her, you realize how violating, how violent those moments are."

For that scene it was important for us to portray a type of situation that after the fact may not seem like a big deal to someone when described.

Oh what, he came into the backseat with you and touched your arm and asked you to take your shirt off, you said "no" and he stopped? What's the big deal?

But when you actually feel the moment in real time with her, you realize how violating, how violent those moments are. A moment that may not on paper qualify as whatever our definition of sexual assault is, is violating and horrific.

And I think they both approached it really well. And Daniel especially imbued Riley with a certain sensitivity and intelligence that we also wanted to portray. That the type of people with power that do this are not the ones that are very clearly predatory.

They're not just jocks. They can be the boy that presents themselves as sensitive. And he is sensitive and he is intelligent, and knows exactly what you're scared of and what you want to hear.

I'm very, very proud of the work those two young actors did, and I think it affects me when I see it, just how shrewdly they never stay on the same page with each other. I mean Daniel is constantly trying to keep her unsure and relaxed and pressuring her, but the moment she feels the pressure he's laughing it off and making it act like it's not happening.

And she's laughing it off, but also trying to be cool in front of this boy, while also realizing something else is happening. It's very difficult, and they do a beautiful job.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate quote from Burnham; he said "12 intersecting characters," not "1,200 secondary characters." LAist regrets the error .

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