How They Did It: Casting Unknowns Was Key to Finding the Laughs and Lived-In Feel of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade

Before I directed my first film, Eighth Grade, I had heard that 90 percent of directing is casting.

I’m sure there are other directors who weigh things differently than I do, but having just finished the film, I’d now say that estimate is low. Casting is nearly everything.

Having said that, there is a large group of brilliant, creative people who, having worked on this film and made it what it is, would want to slap me in my stupid face for saying that. And they should. And I will take the slaps with grace, and then clarify myself: The work that we off-screen people do is important and vital but, ultimately, secondary to the work of the actors—SLAP! I deserved that. The percentage thing is kind of gross. Ninety percent? How about the foundation? The cast is the foundation of a film. If the actor on-screen, the living, breathing, person, isn’t doing her job or isn’t believable as the person she is pretending to be—then all of the other work of a film—even if it’s great work—collapses.

For Eighth Grade, the casting called for young, unknown actors. I’ve never quite understood the term “unknown actor.” Or rather, I’ve never understood the stigma surrounding the idea, the implication that an “unknown actor” is of less value than a “known actor.” Commercially? Sure, the term makes sense. But creatively it’s just the opposite. In fact, it’s the known actor who presents the most dangerous creative pitfalls. Will the audience, despite everything they know about the known actor, lose themselves in her performance? Will they see the character and not the person they’ve seen interviewed on talk shows? Will they, in the moment, really think her name is Joanna and not Meryl?

To so many great known actors’ credit, many audiences do lose themselves in their performances, and their known-ness is overcome. But it is something to overcome. The unknown actor, on the other hand, appears on-screen to the audience in the ideal way—fresh, new, and for the first time. It is the job of the actor to disappear, to be unknown to the audience in the moment of their performance. One should aspire to be an unknown actor just as one aspires to be an unseen boom operator.

For eight years, Fisher became a familiar voice as Agnes in the Despicable Me films. After Eighth Grade, she’ll be a familiar face. Photograph by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24

The thought of unknown actors was thrilling to me, and since there are hardly any known 13-year-old actors, it was never really a choice. We could’ve cast known actors by having older actors play younger, but it was important to me that our actors were of the age of the characters. Oftentimes, when older teen actors play younger characters, one can sense the distance—not just physically, but emotionally. I didn’t want it to feel like actors looking back on their past experience, but like they were looking out from within their current experience.

The center of the movie is Kayla, an eighth grade girl. She is in every scene of the film. Much of the movie is about Kayla’s ability, or lack of ability, to articulate herself, and I wanted a performance that felt genuinely inarticulate. “Um”s, “like”s, “you know”s, the strange, stuttery, staccato manner in which young people speak about themselves and their experience—the way in which their words fail them. Through the long audition process, I discovered a strange disconnect between the way most young actors are and the way they act. Young actors would walk into the room, and they would be alive, vivid, interesting, thoughtful, nervous, and self-conscious, and then the moment they read a scene, they would snap into this hyper-affected, simplified version of themselves. Everything became obvious, surface, monochromatic.

Until we found Elsie Fisher. Elsie, who plays Kayla in our film, was the only one who could maintain that natural, adolescent chaos within the confines of a scene. Her ability to do that is still a mystery to me and something totally her own, and my work over the course of the film was only to maintain an environment in which she could perform freely—to lose control and risk failing in pursuit of something honest. It’s the weird oxymoronic thing about making a film: to so carefully plan, organize, and budget all in the hopes of then, on the day, capturing something spontaneous. That spontaneity was on her to deliver, and she did it day after day. I tried to attend to her and support her as best I could. I learned a lot from Elsie, and the early rehearsals were as much for me as they were for her. I took an inventory of what worked, what didn’t, where she was pulling from, and under what circumstances she felt most natural and comfortable, because I would have to build a world of young actors around her, many of which were first-timers who had never been on a set before. Could they maintain the level of realism and naturalism established by Elsie?

Stuck in the middle with YouTube: Like Burnham, who first found career success as a YouTuber, shy middle-schooler Kayla (Fisher) makes videos to find her voice in Eighth Grade.

The answer very quickly became “Yes.” It turns out a generation of kids that have spent their entire lives filming themselves are actually quite comfortable on camera. They just needed to be given permission to be themselves. They would show up nervous, worried that they were going to mess up or do something wrong, but I quickly assured them that this movie is coming to them and not the other way around. You guys know what it means to be in eighth grade at this moment, not me. So show me. I defer to you.

During preproduction, I spent Saturdays going to the open extras casting calls and meeting each kid that came in one at a time. This was not to size them up or pick and choose, but rather just to have them feel comfortable with me so when they arrived on set they weren’t completely lost and terrified.

The final cast was a wide range of kids, all unknown, some trained actors, most not. If Eighth Grade succeeds in any way, it is because of the work they did. I can babble on all day about performances, but the day-to-day reality of directing unknowns is very simple: Be there for them when they need direction and get out of their way when they don’t. What a relief it was to find that the daunting prospect of working with young, unknown actors could be avoided by simply getting to know them. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2018 issue. Eighth Grade opens in theaters July 13, 2018, courtesy of A24. Featured image courtesy of Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24.

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