Bo Burnham talks "Eighth Grade," mortifying middle school moments, and Lou Bega
You might know Bo Burnham from YouTube or his Netflix stand-up specials, but I know him as a fellow alum of Miles River Middle School in the small town of Hamilton, Massachusetts (go Generals!). I graduated some years before Bo, but when I interviewed him about his new film, Eighth Grade (which he wrote and directed, and which opens in theaters today), we reminisced about walking the same junior high halls and surviving to tell the tale. Don’t worry. I’ve spared you, reader, from all our inside baseball Miles River references.
Eighth Grade tells the story of 13-year-old Kayla during her final weeks of middle school. And while in a sense “nothing happens,” to me it felt like watching the equivalent of a blow ‘em up action movie in terms of how much feels like it’s happening. I was once a teenage girl, but even if you never were, you will still see yourself in Kayla (played by the incredible Elsie Fisher). Scrolling through her Instagram feed, filtering her photos into oblivion—she is alone but hyper-connected, and we are all Kayla.
I caught up with Bo over the phone (while I waited to be connected, Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” played), and we chatted about anxiety, tragic mid-2000s fashion trends (“so many pockets”), and the musical stylings of Lou Bega.
HelloGiggles: The film shows how, during adolescence, tiny moments can feel gigantic. What was a small, throwaway moment for you that at the time felt huge?
Bo Burnham: Oh that’s a great question. I remember one time in science class I broke a beaker, and that to me felt like such a [catastrophe] at the time. Just the sound of shattering glass in a classroom. I was so embarrassed, and I remember thinking that the beaker cost, like, $500 when it actually cost about $4. But it felt like this huge moment.
HG: You were around hundreds of middle schoolers for a chunk of time. What was the greatest unifier?
BB: Well it was more just talking to them like human beings, because they just want to have fun. They really just want to have fun and have a good time, so that’s what it was mostly about. But a pop culture unifier? It was pretty much just SpongeBob, that was the only overlap. I was sort of at the very beginning of SpongeBob’s popularity. And then of course, Harry Potter. We always have Harry Potter.
HG: Casting Kayla seems like it would be a tall order—to find someone that age who can capture that adolescent anxiety but who can also carry every scene. What was the number one quality were you looking for when casting her?
BB: I was looking for someone who could portray a shy kid pretending to be confident. Everyone else [we looked at] played it like a confident kid pretending to be shy.
HG: A scene that made my eyes well up was when Kayla’s in bed scrolling through her feed, because I saw myself entirely in her. When I’m scrolling through Instagram alone, I feel only half alone or two thirds alone. But I’m not, I’m entirely alone. What scene do you see yourself the most in Kayla?
BB: Oh, I’m so glad that scene made you feel that way. That’s really cool and it means a lot to me that it affected you that way. I think a lot of older people watching might not find that scene emotional necessarily—it’s her scrolling through her phone in bed—but for me it really was a very emotional scene. It’s the whole idea of being alone but also hyper-connected. I feel very connected to Kayla’s character, but the scene that I feel most connected to her is when she does karaoke at the pool party. Taking on confidence when you don’t necessarily have it is something I’ve experienced doing stand-up and so the karaoke scene I relate to the most. Although, I’ve never actually sang karaoke before. I can’t bring myself to do it. You don’t see what she’s singing in the film, but it’s Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl City’s “Good Time.” You know that song? [sings] “Whoa oh oh oh, whoa oh oh oh, It’s always a good time.”
HG: I do know that song. Speaking of music, what would have been the soundtrack to your middle school?
BB: I was sadly very into Lou Bega and I am probably the only person on earth who knows more than one Lou Bega song, not just “Mambo No 5.”
HG: Name one other Lou Bega song.
BB: Well there’s this other one that goes like, “I’ve got a girl in Paris, I’ve got a girl in Rome,” it’s just listing places instead of listing girl’s names. Lou Bega was very good at listing things.
HG: There’s no dance scene in the film. Our middle school had the Eighth Grade Dinner Dance. Do you remember yours?
BB: There actually was a dance scene in the film, but it got cut. You may eventually end up seeing it on an extended cut, so yes we did shoot a dance scene. Oh yeah, the Eighth Grade Dinner Dance! I actually don’t remember mine really. Maybe I didn’t go? I have no memory of it. But I do remember when my older brother came back from his Dinner Dance and he had kissed a girl. And I remember asking him, “Was it a peck or was it like Titanic?”
HG: Titanic as in a sinking ship? Or the movie?
BB: The movie. I don’t even think I had that point of reference at the time; if I said “Titanic,” I was definitely just talking about the movie.
HG: What did he say, peck or Titanic?
BB: Titanic. And I was like, “woah.”
HG: What was your fashion taste like in eighth grade? How has it evolved?
BB: I wore a lot of T-shirts over long-sleeved shirts. That was the look at the time. And actually it’s a trend that some 30-year old guys still wear now, which is a war crime. I wore a lot of Aéropostale. A lot of like, “Est. 1944,” big, chunky lettering on T-shirts. A lot of Gap. A lot of pockets, so many pockets. I had all of the pockets. My fashion didn’t really evolve until very recently. I think I just started caring for the first time four months ago.
HG: Middler schoolers get so much advice from adults. Do you have any advice for them?
BB: I would just listen to them instead of giving them advice or lecturing them. I would just listen to what they have to say and be there for them. Because yes, they’re going through middle school, but they’re also navigating the same shit we are as adults. They’re just human beings alive in this world.
HG: Our audience is millennial women. What do you hope they, or anyone really, takes away from this film?
BB: I hope anybody watching it feels something. Not necessarily taking anything away, but just seeing themselves in these characters and feeling something.
HG: If you could be doing anything today what would it be?
BB: Probably playing with my dog, which I’m driving on my way to do right now.
“Eighth Grade” opens in select theaters July 13th.