'Eighth Grade' Director, Star Talk "Sexually Suggestive" Scenes, Casting "Real-Life Kids"

Arclight Hollywood's screening of Eighth Grade -Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham- H 2018
Courtesy of A24/Steve Cohn

More than 700 moviegoers turned out for the ratings-free private screening of Bo Burnham's directorial debut, starring Elsie Fisher, at the ArcLight Hollywood on Wednesday.

The MPAA has branded Eighth Grade with an R-rating, which prevents moviegoers under 17 from seeing it unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. But Aug. 8, A24, which produced and is releasing the film, organized dozens of private screenings across the country to allow those under 17 to see the flick without having to worry about the restrictive rating. Fifty-one theaters were bought out nationwide, including the ArcLight Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, which attracted about 770 moviegoers from across Southern California, to show writer-director Bo Burnham's directorial debut. 

After the L.A. screening, Burnham and lead actress Elsie Fisher appeared for an impromptu Q&A, where they took questions from the audience, mostly from the teenagers in the room.

Burnham started off the conversation by speaking about the research necessary to write the script. “They’re posting everything about themselves online," he said. "That’s the research I got to do. The impulse of the script was watching young people online talk about their lives. The boys talked about Fortnite and the girls talked about their souls. And we knew we were going to cast actual eighth-graders so I knew that as much as I could or couldn’t know, I knew I was going to be making a movie with real-life kids so it was just trying to empower the kids to have authorship over the story.”

Fisher remarked on how she felt navigating the sexually mature scenes in the film and the feelings she experienced when confronting these challenges. “I was really nervous about every scene — especially the scene after the car scene," she said. "That was the most stressful, running back up to my room, because it was physically stressful. But I was also nervous for it. It was such an intense scene to go about and I knew how to navigate most other things but it was just very emotionally charged and that’s not something I’ve really done before."

Burnham explained how “everything was a challenge” and how he ran his sets during filming when sexually suggestive scenes with Fisher were being shot. Everything was treated very sensitively," he said. "There are things that are obviously sensitive and stressful to go into but other ones that weren’t obvious I was going into sensitively. Scenes that are ostensibly funny in the movie I did not treat as funny. The banana scene, for example, I know it plays funny but on the day.... It’s a 13-year-old actor doing a sexually suggestive scene, so it was a closed set.”

Burnham commented that when these particular suggestive scenes were being shot, he would gather the crew outside of the set and warn them: “I know this seems funny on paper but this is not funny. You are not to joke about any of this. This is a kid being very vulnerable.”

Burnham, a 27-year-old male, also revealed why he was inspired to direct and write a film about a 13-year-old girl. "I did stand-up for a long time and I would talk about my feelings significantly and the anxiety I had on stage particular to my own experience as a 24-year-old male comedian with an audience," he said. "And then 14-year-old girls would come up to me after the show and say, 'I feel exactly how you do,' so there was a bridge I had to walk but it was built by them to me first. I felt understood personally by people like Kayla (Fisher’s character) before I presumed to understand Kayla.”

Burnham also spoke about how critical and important it is for moviegoers to connect with characters across gender lines. “I could see myself in her," he said. "I think that’s important for men in general. Not to just be able to understand the significant experiences of women but see themselves in women. See that part of what she’s going through is the particular experience of a young woman right now and another part is the human condition. An eighth-grader has access to that. Every great piece of art for me that I’m connected to in film, I tend to personally to movies that I don’t demographically align with; that’s the magic of it to me — that I can see myself in someone that is not on-the-surface me.”

Eighth Grade has grossed more than $7.5 million domestically to date.