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Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham on what most movies get wrong about the internet

“The internet is something like God, or some void that you’re calling out to.”

Eighth Grade
Elsie Fisher stars in Eighth Grade.
Linda Kallerus/A24
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The new coming-of-age comedy Eighth Grade is one of the surprise successes of the summer, turning a tiny story of a 13-year-old girl’s last week in the titular grade into a much larger tale of the universally awkward and cringeworthy experience of being an adolescent just trying to figure shit out. Its hero, young Kayla (played by the remarkable Elsie Fisher), deals with trying to launch her YouTube channel, with a crush that goes nowhere, and with her feelings of inadequacy when compared to more popular girls or older teens she sees on her Instagram every morning.

So here’s the part where I point out that it’s somewhat remarkable the film is the product of a man, writer-director Bo Burnham, who makes his feature film directorial debut with Eighth Grade.

Burnham launched his career as a teenager making funny videos on YouTube, but he’s gone on to be a hugely successful standup comedian, a director of standup specials, and an actor in numerous great movies and TV shows. But Eighth Grade marks him as an unusually empathetic and humanist director — and as perhaps the first filmmaker to really grapple with the internet not as a blessing or a scourge but as a simple fact of life.

When Burnham joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I was really fascinated to talk about how he approached creating the experience of consuming the internet cinematically. And Burnham challenged the years of received wisdom that shooting people looking at their phones was about the least cinematic thing one could put onscreen. He believes that for people of his generation and younger, the connection to the internet is deeply personal and emotional — and films about the internet should reflect that.

An excerpt of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Film Independent At The WGA Theater Presents Screening And Q&A Of ‘Eighth Grade’
Director Bo Burnham discusses his film Eighth Grade.
Araya Diaz/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

Looking at your phone, cinematically, is just not very interesting. How did you come up with ways to depict that reality without boring your audience?

Bo Burnham

I found it always cinematic. I didn’t really understand the phobia for it. It’s a light source! Barry Lyndon writing a letter by candlelight’s the most cinematic thing in the world, but a girl on her phone in the dark, which literally is the letter and the candle fused, [isn’t]? And now the cool light of the moon that’s outside the window for Barry Lyndon ... I don’t know why I’m harping on Barry Lyndon. It’s the warm orange glow of the candle over the letter, and the cool, cold light of the moon out the window. And now it’s the cool, cold light of the phone in your hand and the warm yellow light of your dad in the hallway.

For me, a character looking into a light source, practically, is exciting. Like, they’re looking into lights? That’s perfectly cinematic. I’ll be in bed with my girlfriend and look over at her on her phone in the dark — which, I’m not saying she’s uniquely on her phone in the dark, I just couldn’t see myself when I was on it. But it’s a surreal image, staring into that phone, and the look on your face — there’s nothing comparable to when you look at a phone.

So that was something we tested before we even had money for the movie. How do we film screens practically? We wanted to film them practically. For me, the stupid thing I hate is when people are tweeting in movies and the tweet shows up superimposed. That’s when it gets corny and weird to me. It’s the equivalent of somebody reading a newspaper and then the letters are typed out in front of them or something. A close-up of a shattered phone to me looks gorgeous, very interesting and cool.

There have been movies that have done it well. Social Network did it really well, but in a different way. He’s doing those very cold, still close-ups. Or even in one of the abstract trailers for that movie, I think to “Creep,” and you saw the close-ups of the pixelated images of profile pictures on a computer screen. You realize the significance of the pixelated image and what that means. And it also has something to do with digital filmmaking. We’re not using emulsion anymore. We really are just using little pixels. Is there a sort of pointillism equivalent for film in digital stuff next to the more watercolor-y way actual film stock behaves?

It was all cool and interesting to me and significant to me. I think probably it’s uncinematic to people that maybe don’t view it emotionally. Phones mean something to me.

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade A24

Todd VanDerWerff

I do think one of the things Eighth Grade does well is it captures through editing that feeling, too, like the quick-cut montages of Kayla hitting “like” on a bunch of Instagram photos and begging to be liked back, in some ways. Tell me about your approach to editing the online experience.

Bo Burnham

It’s defined by the restrictions of the phone. So the internet and what things are on a screen are quick-cut, nonlinear, discontinuous, and flat. A flat screen. That’s what they are. So part of the movie was trying to interbalance the real world with that and have the real world play against what would be the “cinematic language” of a phone, which would be, in theory, flat, so really long lenses and quick cuts.

So when we’re out in the world, we’re going wider and cutting less, so you feel like, “Oh, look at all of these moments that the internet would cut out. Or look at this shot that would be too long to post on an Instagram, because it’s over a minute long.”

That is sort of my issue with a lot of media that tries to tackle the internet. They try to tackle the internet on the internet’s terms, and it feels like big, flashy, quick-cutty, satirical stuff. To me, that’s just satirizing the internet on the internet’s terms, where it feels like, “We’re going to take down the internet by making a meme movie that’s really quick-cut and moving.” It’s not that that stuff can’t work, but I wanted to do a movie about the internet that I guess existed sort of in opposition to the aesthetics of the internet, which are silence and maybe a little bit more room to just sit in a moment.

That thing the movie’s trying to reconcile is, I think, a thing that we are forced to reconcile in our own lives, which is stressful. We have this hyper, hyper-paced — I’m holding up my phone — stimulative thing, and then our lives are not that. They’re really not that. And that’s hard for us. That’s why it’s so hard to be bored and not do things, especially if you’re a kid. How the hell do you sit through history class when you have the internet in your pocket? I have no idea. I could barely sit through [history class] with my chunky Nokia phone with, like, Snake on it. I could barely reconcile those two things.

Todd VanDerWerff

The internet, when you look at it in aggregate, feels overwhelming, and I think that’s what a lot of shows and movies try to do is tackle that overwhelmingness. But when you look at a single Instagram photo, a single tweet, a single Facebook post, that feels very approachable and human. It’s just that then you get hit with an onslaught of them. That’s an interesting dichotomy.

Bo Burnham

I think the audience can sort of accumulate those images in their own head, to know that she does this every morning, to know that she’s scrolling through this all the time. But the hope was just to look at the internet very granularly and emotionally and personally and subjectively, and not in this big, macro term of “cyberbullying” or [something].

The first rule was, it will be meaningful to me if she just doesn’t go viral. That’s the bar for me of what to do. [Laughs.] I want to make a movie about the internet where someone doesn’t go viral, because they always go viral.

And as someone that went viral, first of all, it’s not interesting. And second of all, it’s not the experience of the internet; 99.9 percent of the internet, people who express themselves on the internet are not being heard. And the internet is something like God, or some void that you’re calling out to, and it might be there and it might not. It might answer you. It might see you. And it might not. And going viral is like God answering, which is not interesting. That’s like the Old Testament.

I’m the oldest person that really grew up with the internet, so when you see people my age and younger that are going to start to be able to express themselves in film and other mediums, I think you’ll see the internet talked about more personally and emotionally.

For me, when I see it talked about, it’s like, “Oh, this is clearly talked about by someone who sees this as some other thing, and doesn’t see it as a part of their life.”

For so much more with Burnham, including his thoughts on understanding the teen girl experience and on how directing standup specials prepared him to direct a movie, check out the full episode. There’s also so much more about how the internet can be presented onscreen, including a chat about the aesthetics of YouTube.

To hear interviews with more fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.