There have been all sorts of ways for people to be entertained by Bo Burnham over the past decade. Movie audiences could see him in small roles in “Funny People,” “American Virgin,” and “The Big Sick.” Comedy fans might have caught his standup routines at live club appearances or on his Comedy Central and Netflix specials. Early on his raucously humorous original songs — which he sang while accompanying himself on piano or guitar — were racking up countless YouTube hits. Last winter he tried on a new hat by directing Chris Rock in a standup special for Netflix.
Now Burnham, 27, is fusing parts of his past together to forge a new path of creativity for himself and for his appreciative fans. He’s written and directed the feature film “Eighth Grade,” an insightful, funny, and touching peek into the life of a Kayla, a 13-year-old girl (played by Elsie Fisher) who’s having a little trouble finding herself and her place in the world. Burnham spoke about the film and his career while visiting Boston, not far from his hometown of Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Q: You’re doing so many different things at once right now. Any idea where all of these interests actually started?
A: I did theater while growing up, and in my freshman year of high school I started teaching myself piano. Then I began writing songs, and when I was 16, I started posting them online to show my brother, and that kind of blew up, and I had this whole other life sort of happening.
Q: What about comedy and movies?
A: I loved George Carlin first, then it was Steve Martin, especially when I saw the stuff he was doing in the early-’70s. I felt that was something a little more in my wheelhouse because he was a little sillier and more theatrical and he used props. That was something I wanted to do: A big show that had a bunch of moving parts to it. With movies it was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when I was 14 or 15. I’d never seen anything so alive and spontaneous on camera before. Those group therapy sessions have such incredible, controlled, structured chaos to them.
Q: “Eighth Grade” shows Kayla and the kids around her pretty much addicted to the Internet. You had your first successes through posting your own performances. But what was your relationship with the Internet like before that? How did you initially get sucked in to it?
A: Instant messaging was the thing when I was in eighth grade. There was also Myspace and LiveJournal. It was all basic stuff, like have a little Website with your picture and your interests and your friends. But for kids now it’s Instagram and Twitter, where they go, “What do you look like? What do you think? What do you look like? What do you think?” I think for me it was more fun. It feels much deeper now.
Q: How long has the idea for “Eighth Grade” been kicking around?
A: I wrote the script three years ago. I did the first draft in just a couple of weeks, then I was trying to sell it for a while.
Q: Is the finished film pretty close to that first draft?
A: Yes, it is. But a few apps were switched out to keep it current.
Q: You are a boy. How come you wrote the lead part for a girl?
A: I don’t know. It just felt right. I did question it, but one reason is that I didn’t want to make a nostalgic story. I didn’t want to do MY story. I wanted to do something current. And it being a girl sort of buffered me from being able to project my own experience. I had to approach this freshly, and sort of defer to (the characters), because I didn’t know what Kayla had been through, and, you know, the girls run deeper than the boys. I watched hundreds of videos of kids talking about themselves online. The boys talked about video games, and the girls talked about their souls. So, it had to be a girl.
Q: Elsie Fisher’s performance is amazing, and feels so real. What sort of casting call went out for Kayla?
A: I just wanted a girl at the end of eighth grade who posts videos, who’s trying to be something she might not totally be. We probably saw a couple hundred kids of that age, but Elsie was the only one who had callbacks. Every other kid felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy, but she felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident, which is the whole role.
Q: You’ve said in previous interviews that every word in the film was scripted? Really? No improv at all?
A: There were little pieces of improv here and there. Some of the stuff with the high school kids in the mall was improvised, some of the date at the end of the film, but for the most part it really isn’t. People might think it is because of the way Kayla speaks. But it was mostly my written words along with little hiccups, little mistakes by the actors, and the whole point was to integrate all of that.
“Eight Grade” opens on July 20.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.