While Bo Burnham was filming his directorial debut “Eighth Grade” in Suffern, New York, last summer, he had an epiphany. He needed to craft a montage of his movie’s lead, middle-schooler Kayla, scrolling through various social media platforms. And he needed the soothing sounds of Enya to guide her way.
“I was thinking a lot about the score,” the 27-year-old comedian-turned-filmmaker explained during an interview at A24′s New York offices last month, his lanky khaki-covered legs hanging off the couch. “Then, during production, I thought, ‘What about Enya?’ I listened to ‘Orinoco Flow’ and was like, this song is so weird. This song is so much cooler and stranger than I remember it being, and it’s also very deep.”
Burnham decided the tune, with its repetitive hook (“sail away, sail away, sail away”), would make the sequence “feel religious, which was what I wanted it to feel like,” adding, “browsing the internet for [Kayla] is, like, spiritual.”
Snacking on pretzel nuggets, Burnham walked me through how he got the rights to the song, which, for most producers, can be something of a tedious process.
Burnham: I had to write a “Dear Enya” letter so that we could afford it. Yeah... writing a “Dear Enya” letter is very funny. I thought I was going to have to tie it to a salmon and put it in a river. Like how do you make contact with Enya? A smoke signal?
Me: Was it a humorous letter?
Burnham: Genuine. No, genuine. For example, the letter ended “sail away.” Truly, “sail away” were the last two words.
Me: Did she respond to you in letter form, too?
Me: You just magically got the OK?
Burnham: Yeah, yup. That’s all I needed.
So, “Orinico Flow” is featured in the entrancing montage, which shows a teenage Kayla ― the glow of her cellphone masking her pubescent face ― addictively scrolling, tapping and commenting on pictures, videos and posts from schoolmates.
(The tune also scores part of the movie’s two-minute trailer.)
It perfectly encapsulates the spiritual vibe Burnham was going for, while also managing to tug at grown-up millennial heartstrings as we watch a young woman try to come to grips with “being herself” in an adolescent, hormone-fueled, tech-obsessed world.
“Eighth Grade” ― again, Burnham’s first feature-length narrative film ― is a revelation. It follows sweet, misunderstood Kayla, played by the extraordinary 15-year-old Elsie Fisher, as she struggles through her final week of eighth grade, with the summer before high school just in reach. For the most part, the friendless protagonist lives a life behind her phone as she grapples with the age-old question: Where do I fit in? Her charming single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) tries to comfort his daughter, despite her relentless desire to push him away. You know, because he’s so not cool.
It’s early teenagehood at its finest ― face acne, social anxiety, deeply emotional music and all.
“I was feeling unsure about myself,” Burnham told me of the inspiration behind the film. “I was transitioning in some way and it felt like I didn’t know what was going on. I wanted to talk about what it felt like to be alive right now, and it just seemed to integrate with eighth grade well.”
Burnham considers that school year to be pivotal in terms of self-awareness, a time in your life when, as he described, “the lights have all of the sudden come on and you’re like, ‘Oh my God I need to fix this and this. I’m so embarrassing!’”
“That, for me, is the beginning of the thing you struggle with for the rest of your life,” he said. “You’re a person in a head trying to express yourself in a world full of other people. It’s sort of ground zero for all that stuff.”
The comedian, who hails from Massachusetts and got his big break as a teenage YouTube star, is struck by the candidness of young people online, particularly young women.
“The joke I say, which is true, is the boys [on YouTube] talk about Minecraft and the girls talk about their souls ― and I don’t know why. It’s probably half because girls are just actually maturing more quickly and half because culture asks way deeper questions of young women earlier than men,” Burnham said.
From the outset, Burnham knew he wanted his main character to be one of those girls who, viewers or not, would share her inner monologue with the internet. And he didn’t want Kayla’s performances to seem forced or too-perfect. Rather, he wanted them to feel natural, because most teens, despite what other movies might tell us, aren’t “little poet laureates.”
“Ten things are going on at once,” he said of the YouTube clips he studied. “You see [a girl] trying to express herself, trying to be something, having a vision of how this should sound in her head, saying it stub-like, reacting to that. Also, getting bored, being sidetracked. I felt the dynamic between what that is and her actual life would be an interesting story.”
“The experience of being young is not just the fact that the world is against you, but that your own mind is against you,” he added. “You’re reaching to even think at that point, and that’s something I relate to.”
Burnham realizes his movie might be a bit too self-reflective for the particular age group he’s presenting; actual eighth graders are unlikely to flock to the film. Those of us who grew up listening to Enya’s enigmatic lyrics are more probable audience members.
Ultimately, his goal is for “Eighth Grade” to allow an older set to relate to Kayla and other kids her age and not just wax poetic about their own long-lost childhoods. He created the movie with the intention of it being visceral rather than nostalgic.
“The hope was to clear your mind and see things as she sees them, as fresh and new,” he told me.
“I hope adults and parents see it, and I really just hope everyone can see themselves in Kayla. A 40-year-old man can see themselves in her,” he concluded, pretzels still in hand. “I just really set out to make a movie for me. I wanted to make a movie that I really want to watch, and that’s what I made.”
“Eighth Grade” hits theaters July 13.