By Kate Erbland
Bo Burnham: Hey. Thanks for being here. Thanks for being here, Kate.
Kate Erbland: Thank you for being here, recent Gotham Award winner.
BB: Mmm. Yes.
BB: That’s what it’s about.
KE: The awards, the love, that’s it.
BB: It’s very cool to be here screening at Metrograph, and this is the original digital file. I don’t know. Digital filmmaking is not as romantic.
KE: Bo, you’ve been working and you’ve been famous for… You know, an amount of time.
BB: That’s news to a lot of people in the room who didn’t hear of me before tonight.
KE: At one point did you decide, “I want to make a film”?
BB: I don’t know, I mean, I came up doing theater. I mean, I didn’t “came up,” I was just in high school and middle school, I wasn’t really going through the ranks. But I came up through the ages of my life doing theater, and that’s sort of how I fell in love with, you know, the arts and things, and then I sort of fell into the world of stand-up and started doing that, and just was really… I wasn’t a crazy movie person growing up as much as I was just a crazy acting kid, I felt like. As I was doing stand-up, I was just really tired of not being to collaborate with people, and then over the course of doing stand-up, I really fell in love with film, and specifically with screenwriting, and then eventually thought I’d like to talk about something without my face and without me saying it, and so that was the answer to that. But yeah, I don’t know. It was really this specific movie, this was the idea that made me want to get into it.
KE: Talk to me about where this idea came from. You have a really intense connection to this material that I love hearing you talk about it.
BB: There’s a few ways to talk about it. I wanted to talk about the internet, for sure. I wanted to talk about young people. I didn’t feel like either were being talked about correctly. I felt the internet was being talked about from an arm’s length by people who didn’t really live with it—and really, the subjective experience of living on the internet I wasn’t really seeing portrayed. I was more seeing this sort of scare tactics of, you know, the internet as horror or sort of, like, satire. You know, movies about the internet moving at the speed of the internet rather than movies about the internet that really show the way the internet integrates into our normal life, which I think is actually the phenomenon of living with it.
But also, truly, the real thing is I started to have panic attacks on stage, I started late in life—23 for me—it’s pretty late to come to terms with the fact that you have anxiety. I really wanted to write about my own anxiety, and I was talking about having panic attacks on stage in front of a theater of however many people, and I would think, “This is only going to be relatable to 25-year-old male comedians. Like, who’s gonna get this?” And 14-year-old girls would come up to me afterwards and say, “I feel exactly like you do.” And I’d go, “What?” It made no sense to me. I realized that the specific insane psychic pressure of being a C-list 24-year-old celebrity is only comparable to being any 13-year-old girl in America.
But really, that stresses I experienced…the sort of dissociative feeling that whatever quasi-celebrity gives you, which I think has been democratized and given to an entire generation— which is, “Yes, you are you, but you are also the proper-noun version of yourself. There’s another ‘you’ that you’re sort of interfacing with the whole time and you have to perform yourself and you have to maintain your own life and also curate this weird meta-version of your own life.” This feeling, which is what a panic attack is, which is floating behind yourself, is what it means to live on the internet. You don’t just live an experience. You float outside yourself and you watch yourself live that experience.
Kids nowadays are planning their future to look back on it. It’s very, very strange. So, I wanted to talk about that. There’s a lot of ways. I was never a 13-year-old girl and I was never a 13-year-old in 2018 and both of those things are very, very specific. I mean, that’s the beauty of something like… just being able to write is to recognize yourself in someone who maybe isn’t circumstantially the same as you.
KE: But it is funny because you got your first taste of notoriety from the internet. So, in a sense, you grew up on the internet in a way that 13-year-old, 14-year-olds have done, which is still terrifying for me to say and think about it. I feel like there’s a connection there.
BB: Yes, yes. But again, I really—and Elsie [Fisher] could attest to this if she were here—I didn’t think about being 13. I didn’t think of my eighth grade experience at all. Me in eighth grade, it wasn’t that formative. I don’t even really remember it. I just remember thinking: my anxiety makes me feel like I’m 13. Being in America right now—it feels like America is going through a kind of eighth grade moment, you know? I just saw her Kayla’s experience as a good portrait of—as a subject, I’m not saying I did as good a portrait—but as a subject as good a portrait of what it means to be alive right now as anything I’ve seen. I’m sure there’s stuff from my past that’s in there, but I was really trying to explore my present feeling. If I was being very honest about my present feeling, I was feeling helpless and swimming in things and drowning and that’s what that age is. I mean, who knows what’s going on? What is going on? I have no idea, and 13-year-olds sort of outwardly have no idea, so it’s kind of a good way to explore the current moment, I think.
"I realized that the specific insane psychic pressure of being a C-list 24-year-old celebrity is only comparable to being any 13-year-old girl in America."
KE: What concerns did you have being a grown-up man telling this kind of story? I mean, I think you did a very good job with it, I think a lot of people agree with me, but what was it like when you decided you were going to make a story about a 13-year-old girl, and how are you the person who can help tell that story?
BB: Sure. It would be easier to ask, “What weren’t my concerns about myself?” I was very aware of what I was doing. I was like, “Oh shit, is this what I’m writing about?” But, you know, I knew that I would cast real eighth graders and I would let them author it, and it was really just me hopefully being a barrier to everything that would infringe upon their truth. Just letting them sort of speak for themselves and giving them enough structure so it feels… Because the content that they make online is so incredible and alive, but if you string together all their Musical.ly clips, it’s not going to work as a feature-length clip, you know what I mean? So, I’ll impose a little bit of structure and things, but I really do think the truth of the movie is theirs and spoken by them.
And all of my fear of not being able to connect to her specifically, which I had—God, so many answers to this—were obliterated when I met Elsie, which was like, “Oh, we’re the same person. I am so much more similar to you than 98% of men my own age,” and that’s truthful. The balance to be struck now, which is an interesting question that people are thinking about and talking about and I don’t quite know the answer to, the needle to thread is, and what I tried to be aware of, was can you recognize that there is a specific lived-in experience of this film, specifically of young women, that I cannot know fundamentally, which I think is true, but also for men, and men in the arts, to recognize themselves in women and not just other them in a sense of… I never sat down and thought, “Okay, imagine if this was happening to my daughter or my sister or my mother.” I hate that shit. I hate that men are like forced to see women through that prism as opposed to like, “Imagine if it was happening to you.” So, to be respectful ultimately of what I couldn’t know, but then also to trust that I could recognize myself, because the movies that have meant the most to me, the movies I have most personally resonated with, are movies that I don’t demographically align with.
KE: Talk to me about finding Elsie. I know you looked for Kayla for a very long time and you met a long of great actresses, but then, you know, there’s Elsie.
BB: Yeah, and she was—I mean, she was the second person in the room, but she was the first person on my initial email to Allison Jones, our casting director, where I was like, “I really think this person might be it.” I found a little clip of her online being interviewed on some weird thing talking about, like, brownies or something, and she was just immediately arresting and real and alive. I didn’t know if she could—how much control she had over what she was to be able to put it in a film. It ends up she has all of the control, truly. People think the film is improvised, I can show you nine takes of the opening monologue where she stumbles in the same place. But yeah, she walked into the room and it was just, like, the lights were on. I mean, the movie was—and I met a lot of young actors who were fabulous, wonderful young actors––but everyone else who read it felt like they were a confident kid pretending to be shy, and she felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident, which is what it actually is. She understood what shyness was deeply. Because shyness isn’t cowering in a corner and not wanting to speak, shyness is wanting to speak at every moment and not being able to. It’s the classic actor thing of, “Don’t play the obstacle,” you know what I mean? “Don’t try not to speak. Try to put yourself out there at every moment.” So, she took a character that could be seen as very passive and blank and imbued her with a lot of truth and meaning.
I remember showing my girlfriend Elsie’s audition and her saying, like, “This is the first time… This is the first time I’m hearing the words.” When Elsie spoke, you just understood what she was saying, and it was all just so meaningful, and to be able to bring all of yourself into a role is so incredible, I think. She carried the whole thing. She was the lighthouse for the whole film. Every department, everyone, we all just looked at her and were like, “This is the bar for the realism in the movie and the truth of the movie.”
KE: This was a huge collaborative effort between the two of you. What were some of the specific things you and Elsie worked on together?
BB: Um, everything. There’s little funny things where it was, like, I had written all of her DMs on Facebook, and she read the script and was like, “No one uses Facebook anymore.” So, I put that in the script, and I didn’t put that in the scene. She read it and was like, “Is this about my aunt?” Really every moment is authored by her, and what we did is, we rehearsed with Josh [Hamilton]. I rehearsed with her and Josh because that was something that had to feel familiar, but then the rest of the movie, we rehearsed together. I would just be all the parts, and she would be her, and we would just—that was just to figure out what was feeling right and what made sense and to feel like, for her, that I was in the scenes with her, and if anything ever sounded wrong or didn’t feel right, it was always the script’s fault. Like, we always knew that was what needed to change. But, yeah, just everything. She would collaborate without having to actively say things.
KE: There is a scene in the film that a lot of people have been talking about, which is that scene in the car. It’s really so beautifully played because it’s so honest. Can you talk a little bit about that scene?
BB: Yeah, um… It’s interesting. It’s obviously a very intense scene and very loaded. Honestly, in making it, it wasn’t as particularly loaded as it appears in the film. Not to say that it wasn’t treated carefully, it’s just that other stuff was as well. Like, the banana scene, which plays funny or whatever, that was not treated funny on the day. It’s like a kid doing something sexually suggestive on a set full of adults. That was a closed set. Before we did that scene, I took the crew outside and was like, “I know this appears funny on paper. You are not to make any jokes about this. This is an incredibly vulnerable position this kid’s being in.” A kid in a one-piece bathing suit walking in. You know what I mean? You have kids in bathing suits when you’re filming. You have to be very conscious of things the entire time. So, we tried to treat everything very sensitively.
But that scene in particular in the movie… A lot of the movie is trying to do it, but I think it’s the real high-stakes version of it, which is trying to legitimize the subjective experience of something that maybe on paper seems very small. You can picture her—and this really was in the news recently, you know, with [Christine] Blasey Ford and everything—you can picture her, saying that experience 10 years later and being like, “What, he sat in the back seat with you and he touched your arm and you said, ‘No,’ and he stopped? Like, nothing happened.” But when you sit with her in the moment, you realize it doesn’t have to be anywhere near on-paper criminal to be incredibly violating and incredibly emotionally violent.
And it’s owed to the young actors for making that feel so real. And to Daniel [Zolghadri], too. Daniel really doesn’t get enough credit because I think he does such a nice job of… You know, that kid could have been played as some sort of bro-y, typical, like, PSA-type of backwards baseball cap, or whatever, the thing you’ve seen. He imbues him with a lot of humanity, where you see, like, he’s a sensitive kid. He may have been like Kayla, he really understands her, and it isn’t always just the kid you fear. Maybe it’s the sensitive, quiet kid who really understands you and is wielding that very understanding against you in every moment because he knows exactly what you’re worried about and exactly what you fear. So, yeah, but um… They just did really—both of them just did really beautiful, beautiful work. But on the day, it’s just being very, very communicative. Talking to Elsie and Daniel, and Elsie’s father who’s there—but Elsie knew what she was doing and knew what the scene would mean, and the purpose of it, and what it would hopefully mean for young people—boys, girls, and especially boys—to watch that scene, hopefully.
KE: It’s not because of that scene, but because I believe it’s just one use of the F-word that the movie was rated R.
BB: Yeah, it’s weird. I think, like… Eli [Bush] knows this. Like, we couldn’t say “nudes” or something… There’s a lot of crazy stuff. Like the shooting drill is fine. I mean, I don’t care, honestly, we got a good run. Way more people saw it than I thought, so I’m not kicking my can. But uh, yeah, I believe that it’s the job of society to create a world that is PG-13 for kids to live in. I would love kids to live in a world that is appropriate for their age. The point is where do you—they’re going to see this. They’re going to see way worse than this movie. They’re going to see sex and violence and all that stuff. How do you want them to see it? This is a choice. We can be puritanical about it and pretend—or you can lock your kids in the—uh, don’t do that. My point is, where do you want to see it? Do you want them to see it on the Internet, by themselves, free of context? Or do you want to see it in a film that hopefully puts it a little bit in emotional context for it?
And that’s actually part of that backseat scene that’s so fucked up for me in reexamining sort of my education was like, “Oh, I learned about condoms, I learned about fallopian tubes. I learned nothing about consent, about how to actually navigate a situation?” We teach kids how to put on a condom, which is step fucking 22 and 23 and nothing about how to get there. So, that’s important. But really, that’s, like, ridiculous. It’s cause it’s too awkward. It’s, like, no, we should have, like, mock hook-ups in classrooms. You should! Like, you actually should. It’s super awkward, but, like, that’s the terrifying part of that scene is that you feel like she’s learning—she’s being presented with new information and being forced to process it and respond to it in real time with her well-being at stake. But yeah, uh… My movie being rated R is not one of the top problems of today. And the kids will find it. As much as I love movie theaters, there’s something very beautiful about a kid downloading this on their computer and watching it alone at night, you know, in their bed by themself. I like that. This is one movie where I’m like, “Yeah, you can watch it on your iPhone. It kind of adds to it thematically.”
KE:Obviously, you came to the film with a lot of love and affection for these kids, but what kind of surprised you about this generation when you were making the movie?
BB: Well, the realization that they’re in on the joke. Like, you’re in on the joke of being 13. And I remembered that. When I saw them, like, “Oh, right.” Like, when you’re 13, you’re like, [mocking voice] “I’m 13!” You know your mind is mashed potatoes and your body is exploding. You know it and it’s actually kind of funny to you. So, that was cool. They’re way more—that’s the terrifying part of being 13, is your self-awareness is flicked on like a light switch, and you just go, like, “I’ve been this the whole time? Like, oh my God. What do I do?” But, yeah, they’re just funny and cool and fun. I mean, the unsurprising thing was that, like, a generation of kids that self-documents is very comfortable on camera. When we had a camera there, to them, it was just another camera in the room, and there’s all their cameras in their pockets, so they didn’t really care. The extras were, like, bored, which was perfect, that’s all you can hope for, because nothing’s worse than excited, engaged extras walking in a hallway on the last week of school when they should be bored out of their mind. But, yeah, the kids were just… I mean, no incidents. Two extras were caught making out and that was all that happened.
KE: This is your first film. What surprised you about directing? What was that like for you to get on set and you’re in charge of all these people?
BB: Oh. Hmm. Yeah, I dunno. It was great. I loved it. I really did. I mean, that’s the real answer. I was, like, I loved it. [Pause.] No, no, okay, I got to give more of an answer. I just had tons of fun. It truly was the best. Yeah, it’s like a struggle and so hard and impossible and… But, you know, smaller movie, you know, kids. We had nine-hour days because the labor laws, for children. They had to get back to the mines. But, it was just… I don’t know, you’re just lifted up by everyone. That really is the truth. I had so many incredible people around me working on it… And Elsie just got it immediately and I could trust her the entire time. So, it was so incredible to be on set and to be able to… Because she was such a reliable performer, I could attend to everything around her, so I could trust that she’s going to come out of that sliding door, walk into the pool, carrying herself perfectly to ground this scene so I can worry about staging the background and paying attention to the other kids, so that was so, so valuable. But yeah, it was all just surprising. You’re hoping everything’s surprising you all the time, you know, in a good way because then it feels alive. And she just is. All the kids are. You can never predict what a kid is going to do. You know what I mean? You just get them all in an auditorium and I’m like, “Someone yell some shit,” and some kid’s like, “Lebron James!” and I’m like, “What?” … It’s the, uh, what do you call it? The oxymoron or whatever of filmmaking: you budget and schedule and plan to show up on the day and capture something spontaneous.