There were a lot of film innovators in 2018, in front of and behind the camera. That long list includes first-time actors such as Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”), Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma”), and the ensemble in the Chloe Zhao-directed “The Rider.” There were also many first-time filmmakers, including Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”), Aneesh Chaganty (“Searching”) and Lukas Dhont (“Girl”).
The list of groundbreakers also includes Bo Burnham (A24’s “Eighth Grade”) and Nadine Labaki (Sony Classics’ Oscar-nominated “Capernaum”). He’s an innovator because he transferred from standup performer to filmmaker; she took her directing talent a new direction, shaping the script with her first-time actors, shooting chronologically.
Burnham started as a YouTube sensation at age 16. A dozen years later, he won the DGA award for best first film, and “Eighth Grade” is nominated for four Indie Spirit Awards.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who ran around with the family camera, making movies,” he says. “Theater was my first love, and I dragged everything I learned there into standup: sound elements, staging, lighting.
“After 10 years of comedy, I wanted to try something new. As I started to film my standup specials, I realized I had been pointing toward filmmaking all along.
“I gave myself a crash course in filmmaking and I talked to A24, back when they were just distributing. Three years later, A24 began producing and a producer sent the script to Scott Rudin.
“I was able to make a transition because of luck, but I worked hard to justify it; I didn’t take it for granted, I didn’t think it should happen. Just because I had this other career, that didn’t mean I could make a seamless transition.”
As the old joke goes, dying is hard but comedy is harder. “When I was doing standup and was floundering, I was alone onstage,” Burnham says. “But with film, I was never alone. It felt incredibly supportive, and oddly, less stressful.”
After two narrative films, Labaki pushed herself in a new direction with “Capernaum,” casting only non-actors and shooting chronologically.
The film centers on a Lebanese boy accused of a violent crime after his 11-year-old sister is sold into marriage.
“After seeing thousands of children on the street, suffering, this film felt like a responsibility for me, a duty,” Labaki says. “It’s about real struggles, and I needed to work with those who are having that struggle — and not impose my imagination. I’m not entitled to imagine a story, with an actor who would ‘become’ someone else.
“From the beginning, we all knew it was a challenge, but I was very confident this is the way to do it.”
It took four years of research, and six months to film, as they accommodated the first-time performers and sometimes did up to 40 takes. Labaki and her collaborators kept rewriting the script, “to adapt to their personality, their rhythm, to navigate reality to this fiction.”
In one key scene, young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) fights his parents in a stairway as they are dragging his sister off to her new life.
“This was the most difficult scene, emotionally and physically; we shot the scene for several days, but I wasn’t happy,” says the filmmaker. “So we went back and shot it three months later. The actors were more immersed in the scene.”
The process was “very draining,” she says, but the participants have been overwhelmed by the reaction, including honors at Cannes and the Oscar nomination, she says. “This film was important to them, because they felt they were no longer invisible, that they were being heard. It took a film for them to be appreciated by the world.”