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Bo Turnham Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham on Eighth Grade

Comedian, musician, actor and writer Bo Burnham talks with College News about the upcoming release of his directorial debut Eighth Grade, anxiety and life as a comedian.

College News: Let’s talk about your directorial debut, Eighth Grade. What has the response been so far?

Bo Burnham: The response has been really lovely so far. We’ve only shown it at a few festivals, but it feels like it’s connecting with people which is very, very nice and relieving.

CN: Eighth Grade centres around shy 13-year-old Kayla. You have spoken often about the character being the vessel with which to voice your own thoughts and feelings on the world. Were there any challenges you faced when it came to writing her character and how did your initial character ideas evolve as you wrote the film?

BB: The challenge was always trying to capture this voice authentically. My disconnect from her was two-fold: I was never a 13 year-old girl, and I was never 13 years old right now. And I knew both of those things lent themselves to a specific experience that I couldn’t fully understand. And the answer was just to research—and Generation Z is very easy to research. They post literally everything about themselves in real time online. As far as the ideas evolving, it all evolved once Elsie Fisher [actress who stars as Kayla in Eighth Grade] got involved—I told her every day that I wanted this movie to come to her and not the other way around. Once real kids got involved I deferred to them for the sort of nuts and bolts “truth” of the thing.

CN: When conceptualizing and writing the screenplay for Eighth Grade, what themes and topics were you keen on portraying through the characters and the plot?

BB: I wanted to talk about the internet and about anxiety. I have struggled with anxiety a lot in my life and have felt that my anxiety has deep ties to the internet in some way. And this story felt like the best way to explore it. I think the internet makes eighth graders out of us all.

CN: There is a pivotal, sexually awkward scene during the film that sees Kayla apologise to older character Riley for not being intimate with him. Was this scene written with the current political/social climate and #MeToo movement that’s currently engulfing Hollywood in mind?

BB: Definitely not. This was written two years ago and shot last summer—but I’m happy that people see that scene as in alignment with the values and concerns of the #MeToo movement—as I think it’s a vital and insanely overdue public conversation. And we still have a long way to go, especially with young people, in educating them on consent and sexual behaviour.

CN: You have had an extensive and thriving career as a comedian. How would you describe your comedic style?

BB: Trying very, very hard. Effortful!

 “I have struggled with anxiety a lot in my life and have felt that my anxiety has deep ties to the internet in some way”—Bo Burnham

CN: A common reaction that comedians and comediennes receive is backlash and criticism for using un-PC language or satirising socially sensitive topics. Has there been a particularly standout moment where this has happened to you? How do you deal with that kind of backlash personally?

BB: Oh sure I’ve dealt with backlash for things I said, especially when I was younger, 17 or 18 years old just trying to say the most offensive things because that’s what I thought comedy was. I tend to only look back on that stuff cringing at myself, not at the people objecting to it. I feel like comedians get to express themselves all the time, so they shouldn’t start complaining when the audience wants to express back.

CN: Can you tell our readers about how you got your break in the industry and how your career evolved into the realm of film and television?

BB: [I] started posting videos on YouTube and those sort of took off. And then it was just a sort of long, weird journey of performing stand up everywhere and quietly writing scripts in my free time. And then when it felt like I had gotten enough momentum in the comedy world to justify getting a small budget for a movie, I dropped stand up and started working on this movie. And here we are! And death next, I think!

CN: Writing is very much central to your career having written for your own comedy performances, television shows and now film. Can you tell us a little bit about the writing process for you? How do your ideas emerge and manifest into full-rounded projects?

BB: Honestly, they are often not full-rounded until the very end—if they get there at all! The initial point for me, usually, it just reading books or watching movies and just getting excited about things I like. And then trying to daydream and find any sort of ledge I can grab onto to start climbing towards something. My ideas usually start very specifically with an image or a scene or a moment—not with a THEME or some BIG SWEEPING IDEA. I like to start from a moment or image that I really love and then work outward. Because it’s really the moments that I’m going to be working on, and it’s the moments that people will experience, so if a moment can’t work out the gate, it feels not worth the time. That may make no sense.

CN: What three key pieces of advice would you give to budding young comedians, actors and writers that you wish you had been given yourself when you were starting out?

BB: I would say relax and enjoy it. I do believe that the best part of the creative process is available to everyone—just doing it. Just starting the process of picturing things and making things and seeing how they turn out and editing and making yourself better. Just start and jump in and don’t worry if you suck out the gate. This is what I try to remind myself of all the time. Just focus on what you can control which is your work and your ability to get better by your own standards. Just do the work and enjoy it. The whole reason to do creative things is to be able to do something interesting and enjoyable and the interest and enjoyment is available right away!

CN: Do you have any new and exciting projects on the horizon for 2018 and early 2019 that our readers should keep an eye out for?

BB: Just Eighth Grade. Hopefully in the next few months I’ll bang my head against a wall and something will fall out. But I’m only seeing tumbleweeds at the moment. Help!

> Watch Eighth Grade at cinemas from July 2018.

Further reading: Summer Blockbusters 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Be warned: Major spoilers ahead!

To review Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) is to convey what violent grief truly means. Unless you have the artistic talents of Frances McDormand—the leading actress and protagonist of the movie—this is no easy feat. However, the headstrong messages that echo throughout the narrative scream out and refuse to be ignored—a notion that has evidently been felt by the vast majority of the movie’s attendees.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was written, produced and directed by Martin McDonagh—the charismatic and somewhat polarizing playwright-turned-filmmaker. McDonagh was raised in south London and his parents were working class Irish immigrants. His writing strongly reflects his diverse upbringing. During his early career, McDonagh dazzled the London stage with his writing, with several of his plays showing simultaneously. But the bright lights of the movie theatre were beckoning and the writer/director went on to create In Bruges (2008), a film generally regarded as a triumph. He more recently directed Seven Psychopaths (2012), which didn’t quite manage to garner the same positive response. Several critics have said that Three Billboards is McDonagh’s best film to date and is McDormand’s most poignant performance since her appearance in Fargo back in 1996.

The inspiration 

McDonagh was apparently inspired to write the dark and emotionally raw tale after travelling “somewhere down in the Georgia, Florida, Alabama corner.” The screenwriter/director saw three billboards in passing that referred to an unsolved crime in the local neighborhood. “The rage that put a bunch of billboards like that up was palpable and stayed with me,” McDonagh said. Unable to get the image out of his mind, he pondered on what could have sparked such anguish. “[…] Once I decided, in my head, that it was a mother, everything fell into place,” he remarked.

The plot

 And so, the opening scenes of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri begin. Without a word being spoken, the dank hopelessness of Ebbing, Missouri’s (a fictional place in the southern Unites States) backward community is brought into view. As the not-so-subtle name suggests, this is a town where society seems to be receding. McDormand storms onto the screen as Mildred Hayes: a fiery divorcée and mother whose young daughter was raped and killed seven months prior. As the result of their inaction and incompetence, Hayes wages war on the local police department—armed with a bandana and a tongue so sharp it could cut you to shreds.

As Hayes rides into town, she is accompanied by the soft twang of a western-esque score from Carter Burwell, who incidentally worked with McDonagh previously on In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Hayes rents a trio of broken down hoardings on the outskirts of town, brandishing them with a message to the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Hayes’ intention is to shame and spur the officers into action and, in doing so, shine a light on the corruption that is rife within the town’s police department. The embodiment of everything that is wrong with the law system is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a man whose skull-cracking tendencies make him volatile and dangerous. Even in the first moments of our introduction to him, we become aware of his vindictive, racist and homophobic inclinations. We are also made aware that Dixon has recently been involved in a racist assault, although the audience are never fully given the gritty details.

As the tale of Hayes’ struggle unfolds, we come to realise that prejudice is not only engrained within the police, but also within the majority of the townsfolk. Chief Willoughby’s loyal followers remain impassive to his shortcomings, leaving Hayes to defend her cause alone to the very end. It is only the addition of a few unforeseeable events that bring any glimpse of closure for the character.

While there is a darkness that clouds the entire film, it is interlaced with a distinctive thread of satire. In McDonagh’s signature style, he manages to play comedy against violence. At several points—whether it be through Hayes’ prickly sarcasm or Dixon’s bumbling incapability to do the simplest of tasks—the audience are forced to stifle a laugh. Each joke has an unsettling undercurrent, a dark subtext that makes us wonder why we are laughing at all. McDonagh’s knack for making audiences question themselves shines through and is perhaps what makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri such an interesting watch.

One of the most fascinating elements of Three Billboards—whether intentional or not—is that there is no mention of the time in which the story is set. There is no assurance as to whether these circumstances are happening today or, perhaps, a decade ago. While the difference seems insignificant, one could argue that it matters. The narrative gives no real mention of social media, for example, or any other signifier of modern-day culture. And yet, the story could conceivably be set in the here-and-now. Could it be that this was McDonagh’s intention all along? Was this a ploy to have us contemplate the abundance of discrimination that remains in today’s society?

Each of the three main actors give stellar performances, in fact McDonagh admitted that he wrote the characters of Hayes and Dixon with McDormand and Rockwell in mind. However, it is McDormand who steals the show. Her knack for complete naturalism and her depiction of raw emotion makes for an enthralling experience.

The critical response

While Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has largely been applauded for its unique approach, not all reviews have been positive. A number of very important issues are raised in the movie. But, while the matter of race is brought into the story early on, it soon falls to the sideline. Concepts of racism are there but never shown outright. Could this be seen as a copout (pardon the pun)? The same goes for the central character, Dixon. We are indirectly informed of his racist attack on another town member, but by the end of the film we start to feel a tiny shred of sympathy for him. This directional choice is extremely problematic. Humanizing somebody, whose actions cannot be described as anything apart than evil, smells very much like validation. Perhaps, rather than wanting to change our view of this character, we are instead supposed to realise that everybody (even the most vile of people), have a trace of humanity within them.

The movie’s initial release in the Unites States and Canada led to a gross profit of approximately $45.3 million. Since its release in the UK and elsewhere in January 2018, the worldwide total has reached $100.9 million.

McDonagh’s fierce, tragic comedy tugs on the heartstrings; its twists and turns often make us question who and what the real focus of this film really is. Our film review in short: don’t miss it.