Comedian and YouTube star will attend screenings Tuesday and Wednesday of his acclaimed directorial debut
For his debut feature “Eighth Grade,” writer-director and comedian Bo Burnham chronicles the life of a modern middle-school girl who makes videos and posts them on YouTube, the same website Burnham used to launch his career.
In a phone interview with the Herald-Tribune before visiting Sarasota Film Festival with “Eighth Grade,” the 27-year-old Burnham said the internet is a different place today than in 2006 when he started his YouTube channel, which currently has more than 224 million views.
“The way I managed the internet at the time in 2006 and ‘07, it was sort of like make the little thing, put it out and see what people think about it,” Burnham said. “There’s been a shift obviously in the last five years where it’s like now you really present your life and yourself on the internet, as opposed to present something you’ve made.”
“Eighth Grade” will screen Tuesday and Wednesday at Sarasota Film Festival as a centerpiece film, with Burnham attending both screenings. The film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she weathers her last week of middle school in the social media era. The movie is scheduled to begin its national theatrical release July 13 by “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird” distributor A24 following its acclaimed Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.
Burnham had been looking for a way to write about today’s internet and his anxiety. He initially thought he might make a larger story with intersecting characters before ending up on the idea of an eighth-grade girl.
“I just sort of stumbled on it and found that it was the best way to talk about what I wanted to talk about,” Burnham said. “The sort of experience of living with the internet I think is felt most personally and viscerally by that demographic.”
Burnham wanted the movie to feel raw in a way similar to “Fat Girl” director Catherine Breillat’s work. “Eighth Grade” has also garnered comparisons to “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Solondz’s film about a struggling middle-school girl, though Burnham said that movie was “a little meaner” than what he wanted to make.
One challenge for Burnham was finding a young actress to play the introverted Kayla. He found her in Fisher, who was previously best known for voicing Agnes in the first two “Despicable Me” films.
“It is about a kid that is naturally pretty shy and the issue is the natural disposition of a lot of young actors is not that,” Burnham said. “I wanted it to feel like a shy kid pretending to be confident, not a confident kid pretending to be shy.”
When he was a teen, Burnham began posting videos of him playing comedic songs on keyboard and guitar to YouTube, where they went viral. He signed to Comedy Central Records in 2008, starting a successful career as a stand-up comic.
Burnham began directing with his own comedy specials, 2013’s “What” and 2016’s “Make Happy,” as well as Chris Rock’s comeback special “Tamborine” and Jerrod Carmichael’s “8." Those experiences helped Burnham when he made his first feature.
“I think there’s a simplicity to stand-up specials that I tried to translate into this in some sort of way,” Burnham said. “When you’re making stand-up specials, it’s not really a director’s medium, you’re really trying to serve the person onstage and serve whatever they do, and it was sort of similar in this. I wanted the movie to come to the kids and not the other way around.”
Before “Eighth Grade,” Burnham appeared in another Sundance sensation last year in “The Big Sick,” the romantic comedy that earned husband-and-wife screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon an Oscar nomination. Burnham plays a comedian peer of Nanjiani, which he is in real life.
“Kumail has been a friend of mine for a while, and Emily as well, and I’m so, so happy for them,” Burnham said. “I had no idea filming for two weeks two years ago that it would get to the point it did."
Before his surprise success in comedy, Burnham planned on pursuing a career in acting and theater. Directing and working with actors on “Eighth Grade” felt like a return to that earlier ambition.
“Even as a director, if I have a strength, it is my strength of loving acting and loving actors and loving the craft and process of acting,” Burnham said. “What else do you watch when you’re watching a movie other than the performances and the people, really?”