Bo Burnham: 'I'd love to get back to live performing, but I'd have to figure out what I'd say next'

Bo Burnham: 'I'd love to get back to live performing, but I'd have to figure out what I'd say next'

Acclaimed US stand-up tells us why the world of film is a better fit for his current ideas

It can be a lonely experience being up on a stage by yourself, even if adulation is coming at you in waves from audiences, night after night. Massachusetts-born comic Bo Burnham gained that love from both the public and critics with boldly experimental live shows such as Words Words Words and What, after stepping out of the bedroom from where he'd become an internet sensation with videos he himself dubbed as 'pubescent musical comedy'.

Proving that he could well be the next big multi-disciplinary thing, his debut feature film, Eighth Grade, has already scooped prizes from the American Film Institute, the Writers Guild of America, the Independent Spirit Awards and Sundance. His move away from comedy (the movie has a few moments of levity but it's overall a pretty bleak affair) and into film has arrived through various reasons. 'I'd love to get back to live performing, but I'd have to figure out what I'd say next,' Burnham says while in Scotland for the recent Glasgow Film Festival where Eighth Grade had two showings. 'I went into films because I was desperate to collaborate with people. I was tired of myself as a subject, I didn't like only looking to myself to express through myself about myself, so that's why I wanted to do a film. Collaboration was the great strength of the process for me.'

There are plenty who will look at Eighth Grade and seek clues about Bo Burnham's adolescent years, but he is reticent to draw too many parallels himself. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a lonely early teen who takes to her bedroom to record and upload films of herself (messages of inspiration rather than that 'pubescent musical comedy'). She lives and struggles to communicate with her single-parent father (sorry, Bo lived in what is generally known as a steady home with two parents and two older siblings) while making friends and pursuing people for romance is constantly anxiety-inducing (well, both Bo and Kayla were voted 'most quiet' at school).

While hundreds of people applied for the role of Kayla, Burnham says that the film only started to make sense when Fisher came in to audition. 'She was the best by far, there was never really a second choice,' he insists. 'She understood the character like no one else did. She made it become active; everybody else played her shy and quiet and cowering in a corridor, while Elsie played her as trying to speak but not able to. And she was also able to bring all the complexities of what it means to be a kid to a scene; a lot of kids shut off everything about themselves in order to act. She was able to keep all that stuff on, which is incredibly impressive for an actor of any age, let alone a child.'

Featuring a soundtrack by Anna Meredith ('she writes bold, exciting, invigorating electronic music which was perfect for this'), the film is highly contemporary and embedded deep in the social-media age while also retaining a timeless quality (we've all been 13-year-olds struggling to cope, right?).

'When people try to tell modern stories where there are no phones, it feels like they're neutering the context and it feels very vague and untrue,' Burnham says. 'Whether or not in 20 years' time people are using Snapchat, they'll still understand what she's doing and why she's doing it. When I watch The Breakfast Club, I'm not going, "oh man, they're playing cassettes, I can't process this!" I do think the only way to connect with people is to be incredibly specific.'

Eighth Grade is on selected release from Fri 26 Apr.

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Eighth Grade

  • 5 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 34min
  • Directed by: Bo Burnham
  • Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson

Kayla (Fisher) is an awkward teenager in her last week of grade school, who posts would-be inspirational vlogs while lacking confidence in daily life. Fisher is superb as the anxious, heroic Kayla and it’s a humane and sometimes hilarious debut from comedian-turned-filmmaker Burnham.

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