Fall 2019


Auspicious Debutants

Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde trade war stories on making their first features, both coming-of-age sagas, and drawing on their own experience as actors to guide their young casts

Directors Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde filming their debut feature films, Eighth Grade and Booksmart. (Photos: (L-R) Everett; Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures)

Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde share at least two things in common: They both hail from acting, and they both probed the teen mindset with coming-of-age movies that marked their feature directorial debuts: Burnham with last year's Eighth Grade, which earned him the DGA Award for First-Time Feature Film; and Wilde with this year's critically acclaimed Booksmart. While their approaches differ in tone and style—Wilde's film is more in the tradition of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but told from an acutely intelligent female perspective, while Burnham's work achieves a level of naturalism that's almost voyeuristic—the filmmakers reveled in collaborating with young, eager casts that were key in establishing the authenticity they desired. –Steve Chagollan

Burnham with Eighth Grade lead Elsie Fisher. (Photo: Everett)

Olivia Wilde: It is such a fun thing to have something out there that makes people happy. I think there's sort of a cliché of people's first movies being like kind of heavy and intense. People assume that you will start out of the gate with something super-pretentious, to put it bluntly. And I think we both made life-affirming movies.

Bo Burnham: I spent 10 years being pretentious without making movies, so I have the worst, most pretentious stuff that I made for a long time. So I didn't feel like it was the first thing I made.

OW: Yeah, I think in terms of having really been making things for 10 years (as an actress) and then people acknowledging your first attempt at your own film… [there's] the back-handed compliment of it's better than they assumed it will be.

BB: I'll take passive-aggressive compliments over…

OW: Absolutely. Knowing there were a million strengths I did not have but [also] knowing I was excited to work with actors, and young actors. And you and I both got to do that, which is such an amazing, fun luxury: to work with fresh, unjaded, curious actors who are just so truly happy to be there. What better way to start out as a director?

BB: I would always say that kids are naturally in the place that adult actors need a four-hour ice bath and Uta Hagen exercises to get to. They're just so open and ready to play and be creative. You're obviously a hundred times more of a substantial actor than I am, but I always considered myself coming from the world of acting. That was my first passion as a kid, that's what I enjoyed doing. The movie that [made me fall] in love with movies was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest because it was the first time I felt like film acting is exciting in a way that's different from theater acting. On the few film and television sets I've stepped on to, [I remember] just being really disheartened, going like, "Oh, acting seems to be so little a part of what's going on right now…"

OW: Yes. Exactly.

BB: The actors are acting for like 10 minutes a day and everyone's setting up shit for nine hours. And going into [Eighth Grade], I just wanted to make an environment where the actors and the acting are the center of the experience. It's like when I watch a movie, what the fuck else am I watching? I would so much rather watch a well-acted, poorly shot movie than a well-shot, poorly acted movie, a hundred times over.

OW: So true. I describe film sets as construction sites. And actors are led onto this chaotic construction site and there's awkward requests to hold the work for a second so acting can happen. And it feels like they're being inconvenienced, and it's kind of embarrassing. And then it's like, "Can we just get this done as quickly as possible so people can go back to work or go to eat lunch?" And the more challenging the moment that you're trying to create, the more embarrassing it feels, because these people are now anxious to get this over with. And it's not the fault of the crew, it's the fault of the system. The paradigm has been set in such a way that acting has fallen lower and lower on the hierarchy of priorities. And I think it's because efficiency became the paramount goal.
But also, there's this odd separation between actors and crew, and I've never understood how it would lead to better performances. It's this awkward thing of, in extreme cases, "They're coming in now, so everyone sort of avert your eyes and be quiet and don't interact with them." I think that's one of the elements that lead to that awkwardness on the set and makes it so completely impossible for actors to do their jobs. We really worked hard to counteract that on Booksmart. And I feel like it was really the most joyful part of it for me was to create the environment I always wanted as an actor.

BB: Well, it shows how comfortable the kids are, and to feel that you have been in that position. And what you're saying is totally right, which is it should feel like more of an equal. But I also think the actors are doing something that no one else is doing, because making a movie is planning and scheduling to then get something spontaneous. The spontaneity falls completely on the actors' shoulders. So, their comfort is paramount to me, and it's probably easier for us to get a crew to be endeared to young, wide-eyed, kind children.

OW: I guess the benefit to having worked as an actor is truly empathizing with the cast. I felt very much connected to my lead character in a very personal, kind of linear way. But your ability to empathize with a female character, a young woman, and do all sorts of emotional acrobatics to [get there], blows me away.

BB: That's very kind. There were story elements that you could tackle really well that I didn't attempt to tackle. (Eighth Grade) in some sense affords (lead character Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher) some physical privacy because I felt like that was just not my story to tell.
I felt it was sort of a two-handed thing: On the one hand, I felt very much like I was telling a story of a young woman's experience that I don't have access to. And then on the other hand, the movie to me was about a lot about her anxiety and the anxiety I share with my mother and my sister and not my brother and my father. I had all these fears about, "Could I do this, could I understand this person?" And then when I met Elsie, it was like, "Oh, we're the same person." We really do actually understand each other. And the way we talked to each other wasn't even like, "When I was your age…" We would just talk about it. "OK, when you feel nervous in a situation, what do you do? And how do you deal with these feelings?" The trick at the end was I'm not even telling the story of myself as a kid. She is me now. I was doing stand-up comedy having panic attacks on stage. Walking out on stage felt like walking into a pool party with a one-piece green bathing suit.

OW: I love that ability to zoom out and create this kind of universal experience. Your film was about anxiety; it's not about being a young woman. And I think that's why it can be enjoyed by all genders, all ages. And I think it's such an important point to make because both of our films can be unfairly categorized as not YA (young adult), but kind of teen comedy drama. Yours is more dramatic. I dreaded when people would minimize the story I felt that our actors told in this patronizing way and relegating them to this realm of teen angst or teen comedy. I'm a 36-year-old person, and I feel like this is a story that feels as resonant to me now as it did at 17.

BB: The thing I was super impressed with by [your] movie, apart from a lot of things, is it really feels like how kids talk and not ventriloquized, whatever the verb is, like youth speak. Because it's so funny to watch movies [where it sounds] like some 40-year-old writer searched Buzzfeed for 20 minutes. And it felt to me like the young actors [in Booksmart] were very empowered and there was a feeling that the film itself, in its language, deferred to the kids. Just tell me how you did it; I don't want to guess.

OW: Well, I think you know because I have a feeling it's sort of the same process. But I really did want to hand it over to them and make sure authenticity was paramount. Even in casting, when I would sit next to the outrageously outstanding (casting director) Allison Jones, she and I would sit there, meeting hundreds of kids. We really had the incredible luxury to cast whoever we wanted in Booksmart. Meeting all these young people and immediately knowing that the script would be different for each of them, whomever got the role. So, I enjoyed being able to cast not based on who's matching what's on the page, but who's essence is so interesting.

BB: Yeah, it totally feels like that. Because like watching (actress) Billie Lourd, how could you possibly have that on the page before meeting that person?

OW: It was sort of like I had suggestions for each of them and then let them run with it. So for Billie's audition, I said, "You know, this is sort of a—Courtney Love in high school, like a biter. We all knew someone who's the biter. And she was like, "Oh God, like a hundred percent." And she was so funny. She was like, "I used to go on family vacations with Courtney Love." So I was like, "Oh, that's an entirely different perspective" and probably much more accurate than the weird generalization I was making about a wild woman. Part of the process was being able to see the movie remold itself to the cast. And know that the movie itself wasn't born until they came on board.

BB: We had a weird process where we didn't really do that. Your movie is so fun and wide and exciting and like a romp and sad and funny and triumphant. And there was a part of ours—at least in starting—that was almost like The Revenant or something. There was a weird thing with Elsie where I never gave her the script. I let her read it once and I let her dad read it. With her and seeing these high school kids, I didn't want them to really do the scene at all until they were on the day shooting it. Because the movie's so much about these shockingly new experiences for her.

OW: That's like closer almost to a Swanbergian, mumblecore process. The idea of the organic discovery of moments during the day rather than a rehearsed, established [approach], allowing your cast to really find it in an authentically fresh way. It's such a wonderful process.

BB: Of course, the two of us are dealing with two very different ages where a lot changes. And something that I love about your movie is, by the time they're juniors and seniors, even though they can still be relegated to the outside and can still feel like outsiders, the girls really have developed a core sense of themselves. There is a deep confidence within both girls, a dynamic that had to feel familiar in the same way I'm sure (actors) Beanie (Feldstein) and Kaitlyn (Dever) had to hang out for months and become best friends.

OW: They did. And how lucky am I that they immediately fell in love with one another. And they asked me if they could live together. Which was the greatest moment of my life. I was like, "Sure. I think we can make that happen," furiously texting the producers under the table saying, "I need them to live together, this is gold." I really wanted them to have that kind of nuanced, layered, slightly battered texture to a friendship that is so hard to fake because I think romantic chemistry is much easier to fake than platonic. It's why I maintain that casting is truly everything—

BB: Oh, everything.

OW: My first job in this business was casting assistant for Mali Finn. She did everything from James Cameron movies to David Gordon Green movies. And working in that environment really allowed me to understand the significance of that part of the process.

BB: The work you've done as an actor shows in your film, like it's absolutely translating like every film you did, every performance you've done, every director you've worked with, every set you've been on. It shows in your work.

OW: I really appreciate that. I feel like my experience working with actor/directors has been really awesome, because I see how they were formed by all their good and bad experiences. I remember working for Jon Favreau when we did Cowboys & Aliens. Jon was so eloquent about the process of creating and maintaining a tone. I remember him giving notes to the background actors a moment before a scene [was being filmed], and I had never seen that before. That is just a small example of something that I thought pointed to his experience as an actor and someone who had done background work. I remember the moment I just tried to channel Favreau one day on set, going over when we had our biggest group of background actors who I knew would be with us for the rest of the movie.

BB: They're not just furniture, you know what I mean? In our movies, both take place at the end of the year. The way kids are in school at the end of the year is not the way an extra is on a set, which is excited and engaged and trying to look active, you know what I mean?

OW: I had good experiences of people like Favreau teaching me about the importance of providing contexts to background actors, and so many more lessons. And then I also observed directors missing opportunities to create a set more conducive to great work from every department.

BB: Yes, yes.

OW: I would never disregard the importance of a cohesive but really intimate relationship with the AD, with the DP, with the production designer. I see people fooling themselves by not trusting those department heads as real partners, and not being willing to truly share the field, widen the brain trust, and to just allow yourself to delegate in an effective way.

BB: Yes, yes.

OW: I really learned that from Ron Howard. We were making Rush, and I remember he rehearsed a scene and blocked the scene, and he had obviously thought very clearly about it. He gave specific blocking notes to Chris Hemsworth and I, and we were rehearsing and Anthony Dod Mantle, the DP, said, "Ron, you know, if you flip it all around and do it in a completely different physical place within the set, it will be much better for the light." Ron was like, "That sounds interesting, let's try it." I [thought], "Oh, my God, please remember always to do that." I always say, "Let's just try it." Of course, there are times on the set where you must be definitive and decisive. But I think the thing most bad directors get wrong is not giving in to trusting and valuing the brain trust.

BB: That's incredibly smart and well put and I think that's totally right. There's this scene in my movie where [Elsie's character] writes this letter to the popular girl and she is giving this letter to her thanking her for the party, and our props person, Erica Severson, came up and said, "This is what I made in middle school." And it was those little folded footballs, and that was as meaningful as anything in the film to me.

Wilde with Booksmart co-star Beanie Feldstein. (Photo: Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures)

Tonal and Stylistic Approach

OW: On Booksmart, I knew that in order to [achieve] some of the more out-of-the-box magical realism that I really was eager to play with, we would have to ground the rest of the tone to earn that. I was inspired by so many movies, but The Big Lebowski just continued to be my North Star, which everyone was always surprised by, when there are so many incredible generational anthems in the high school comedy genre. But Lebowski was added to the mix for me in terms of that exact balance of tone.
I felt I could I create a tone that is kind of intensified, hyper-real in the way that the emotional experience of being adolescent at that stage felt to me—colors feel brighter, emotions run hotter, everything is intense because it feels so high stakes. How to visually represent that and tonally push it was the exciting part of the process for me, and I thought we can use music in an emotionally aggressive way.
There was definitely a moment in the edit when I was like, "Oh, Jesus, this is hard." I really lost my mind for a moment there, and I'm curious if you ever had that experience because your tone felt tight and intentional. Please just lie and say you did, just so I feel better.

BB: The tone to me weirdly in my movie was all basically from watching these blogs of kids online. Watching kids online speak to camera about their own lives and, to me, the way they spoke about their own lives was so different than the way I had seen kids speak in movies. Why do these kids speak suspiciously similar to screenwriters? I think one of the worst things about writing is that it's written by writers.
So, really, the movie was tonally always the first three minutes of it, her monologue, just saying how to be herself. But I had things I was terrified of. I felt like the movie was falling apart. I was definitely ready to be crucified as a guy telling this story. I was so worried about that, and I would understand where people were coming from because the movie gets dark and gets into sticky situations. But yeah, the tone is really Elsie. It's her, not me. I didn't do anything. She did everything.

OW: I do think it's a difficult thing and, again, we keep talking about it like lightning won't strike twice, but the creation of that authenticity is so dependent on so many things working.

BB: When I was watching your film—the hookup in the bathroom—it was really incredible to feel something so physically intimate in a movie with young people that I didn't feel completely uncomfortable with.

OW: That scene felt like the culmination of my entire career and the reason I needed to try to direct. I remember saying to everyone this is what a closed set means, to be able to create the safest, most warm environment. There is no nudity, but it is definitely intimate, and it was this moment of feeling the desire to protect them. [It's important] to tell young women it is not a diva request to ask for a truly closed set. But the quiet is as essential. Scott Robertson, my 1st AD, had literally done The Revenant, so anytime anything was mildly uncomfortable or inconvenient, I would say, like, "Yeah, but it's not The Revenant, right?" And he was like, "Yeah."

Leaning on Vets for Support

BB: Is it true that you'll be directing a film that you will be in?

OW: Yes, it is true. (The film is called Don't Worry Darling.) I am petrified. And the whole time we made Booksmart, I thought this is fantastic. I never want to act in my movies. This is a decision I have made, and it's final. And now here I am going into the second one with the intention to be in it, which is maybe something I'm doing to just have that experience, to know that I've tried it.
The last couple years I have overcome a major fear. I did a play on Broadway; I've never done that. And then I directed a movie. Then I felt like, "OK, what the fuck else can I do?" So, I think acting in my own film is the next great fear. I have been speaking to directors who have done it quite a lot, and they really enjoy it. Like I just did this Clint Eastwood movie (The Ballad of Richard Jewell), and I was talking to Clint about it every day and I just wanted to steal as many of his thoughts as possible. And so, yeah, he was like, "You can direct. Don't forget the ability to direct from within the scene."

BB: I mean everyone (on Eighth Grade) was more experienced than me. I didn't know what I was doing. Dan Taggatz was our 1st AD. He's like a young dude who also had a daughter around Elsie's age. And Vic Coram, our 2nd AD, and [2nd 2nd AD] Evelyn [Fogleman]. I always want to work with hungry, passionate people, because I'm not flipping semi-trucks on a highway yet. My DP, Andrew Wehde, he had shot my Spanish specials with me and never shot a feature film. Our production designer, Sam Lisenco—you know, everyone was great, but it kind of felt a little like summer camp in a way.

Joining the DGA

OW: It was the greatest moment opening the envelope and seeing the DGA card last year when I got it. It had Nora Ephron on there and I openly wept. I was so excited and happy, and it is a profound honor. I remember getting my SAG card and feeling like that was a certain thing, a sense of pride, or at least like a sense of inclusion. [But] the DGA card experience was very different for me. There is a sense of feeling really lucky to be in the community of directors, and specifically women. The numbers are still low but that will soon change. I felt I got to be a part of that change.

BB: I live right down the street from [the DGA headquarters in L.A.]. I watched Moonlight in that theater and then sobbed in the vitamin aisle of the Rite Aid down the street. But really, I feel a little stupid in it. Maybe this will wear off at some point, but I just feel deeply like a fraud and like I've snuck into a place that I'm sort of not allowed in.
It's like incredibly flattering. It just really is nice to be in a community of like-minded people.


Two prominent directors from shared experience discuss craft, approach, collaboration and the state of the business, with DGA Quarterly as a fly on the wall.
More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly is the Conversations issue, featuring discussions about filmmaking history and craft between directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Pamela Fryman and Mark Cendrowski, Kasi Lemmons and Ed Zwick and Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde.