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GFF19: Eighth Grade and Q&A with Bo Burnham

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On Thursday 28 Feb, a packed Glasgow Film Festival audience was treated to the Scottish premiere of former YouTube star Bo Burnham’s feature film debut, Eighth Grade. Burnham wrote and directed the film, which follows 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) through her final week of middle school, her struggles with anxiety, and her forays into motivational vlogging. Bo – fresh from winning the Independent Spirit award for Best First Screenplay – attended the screening, and sat down for a Q&A with film writer Kate Muir afterwards to answer some of the Glasgow audience’s burning questions.

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Kate opened the discussion, asking why upon moving behind the camera he had chosen to focus on a 13-year-old girl. “It just seemed like a natural next step,” he quipped as the audience laughed. He had some more insightful responses to this too – moving on to describe a desire to work with people, to spend less time talking about himself. In fact, according to Burnham, one of the major benefits of writing about a teenage girl was that he could explore his own anxiety without projecting his own life experience onto her. 

Then, there was the advantage of the wealth of emotional online material from young girls, which inspired Kayla’s vlogs. As Bo observed, “I watched hundreds of videos of young kids talking online… the boys tended to talk about video games, the girls tended to talk about their souls”. These videos helped him make a film that explored the highly specific experience of being young now, without nostalgia. 

Finally, Bo talked about his own anxiety about performance, and specifically being onstage. The girls whose vlogs he watched, and the young girls who approached him after shows, seemed to share his fears in a way that his peers didn’t – as Bo put it, “I felt understood by people like Kayla”. 

Having comprehensively answered Kate’s question, he joked, “Is five enough answers for you?”

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On the subject of the film’s naturalistic dialogue, Bo says he transcribed YouTube videos to capture the “weird staccato” sound of how young girls spoke online, unlike their counterparts in cinema. Rehearsing with Elsie helped maintain this tone – he noted that, “Whenever it sounded wrong it was the script’s fault”.

Kate brought up the representation of acne next, pointing out that Fisher’s spots are visible throughout the film. “How we represent kids in the media is criminal,” Bo replied. He suggested that the character of Kayla feels the pressure to look a certain way from films and media, and said that he wanted to explore kids’ fear that, “The movie of my life sucks”.

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The GFF volunteers were on hand with roving microphones, and the audience had plenty of questions for the first time screenwriter.

Firstly, someone asked Burnham how he found the transition from the medium of stand-up comedy to screenwriting. His response was self-aware, as he said that he didn’t want to speak with authority after making one film, but suggested that, “Making things prepares you to make things”.  

Next up, a young man raised his hand to tell the filmmaker that he never cried, but this “nearly” made him shed a tear. Bo shrugged, and quipped, “That was just sort of a dark personal confession,” following up with “I can so clearly picture your father” to a roar of audience laughter. 

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The following question was about the young lead, Elsie Fisher. Burnham said he first saw her being interviewed online, but didn’t realise how perfect she was until she entered the audition room – “The lights turned on when she entered and then turned off when she left”. According to Burnham, Elsie understood that “shyness is wanting to speak,” and that the character of Kayla is trying, not recoiling from the world. 

Finally, an audience member asked if he would be interested in directing other writers’ work. He wouldn’t, but said that he would write for other directors, musing that, “Even on set when I’m directing I feel like I’m mostly being a writer”.

In the final moments, Bo gave a shout out to Eighth Grade’s composer Anna Meredith, a Scottish talent who unfortunately couldn’t make the screening – “She is the subconscious and the heart and soul of the film”. At this, the audience gave an appreciative round of applause for the homegrown talent’s brilliant soundtrack. 

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And with that, the Q&A drew to a close. Everyone went home with Kayla’s life advice ringing in their ears, fully aware that they had seen something extraordinary.  

Eighth Grade will receive its UK release in April 2019. 


At Glasgow Film Festival, we pride ourselves on being a festival that loves the movies and loves our audience. GFF19 is your festival - so talk to us and let us know what you're up to! Were you at Eighth Grade? Are you coming to the live recording of The Empire Podcast featuring Sir Michael Palin? Or are you attending the GFF19 closing gala and UK premiere of Beats?

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