Director Dave McCary has known rising star, writer, and current Saturday Night Live talent Kyle Mooney since the fourth grade, so it was perhaps natural and inevitable that the filmmaker would end up helming the performer’s first leading role in a big screen production, the offbeat dramedy Brigsby Bear (opening in Toronto and Vancouver this Friday). Rooted firmly in feelings of innocence, nostalgia, awkwardness, friendship, and understanding, Brigsby Bear is exactly the kind of film that could only be made by collaborators who feel a close kinship, and you’ll rarely find a director who will speak as lovingly and thoughtfully as McCary talks about Mooney.
McCary, who regularly works alongside Mooney as a writer and prolific director of digital shorts for Saturday Night Live, noticed from an early age that they shared a similar comedic sensibility. Years down the road Mooney and McCary would co-found the Good Neighbors sketch comedy troupe, a company that would be responsible for dozens of viral YouTube sensations and led to their employment on one of television’s most iconic weekly series. Following in the footsteps of fellow video-based sketch comedy artists The Lonely Island (who serve as mentors to McCary and company by working as producers on Brigsby Bear), the talented comedic alliance has been standing out on SNL for the past several years with a blend of previously established characters and original offbeat creations.
But nothing they have attempted on Saturday Night Live has been as ambitious and borderline melancholic as Brigsby Bear, McCary’s first feature as a director. Written by Mooney and debuting screenwriter Kevin Costello (another friend that McCary and his star have known since the seventh grade), Brigsby Bear tells the unusual, sometime surreal, silly, and poignant story of James Pope (played by Mooney). Twenty-something James has been raised by a pair of paranoid survivalists (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) on the arid outskirts of Utah. Unable to leave the couple’s hermetically sealed home, James’ only source of entertainment or external stimuli are VHS episodes of a long running kiddie series, “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” which is a bizarre cross between Doctor Who, Marxist propaganda, PBS educational series, The Wizard of Oz, Sid and Marty Krofft, and Teddy Ruxpin involving a giant talking animatronic bear and his twin sister assistants constantly trying to thwart the evil deeds of the nefarious Sunsnatcher. James is obsessed with his beloved show, as it remains his only connection to an outside world he’s unable to visit. James’ world is upended, however, when he learns that he was kidnapped as an infant, his birth parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) are well adjusted people, and that Brigsby never existed as a real show outside of the bunker. Unsure of what his life means anymore, James makes new friends in the outside world and sets about trying to give Brigsby’s story a proper, cathartic send-off.
We caught up with McCary over the phone from New York last week to talk about how Brigsby Bear is an unlikely story of a hero’s healing journey, Kyle Mooney’s ability to play oddballs with a degree of pathos and authenticity, working with comedic legends as producers, and just how much of the film’s “show within the movie” was thought out ahead of time.
You guys came up with this fascinating idea for a sort of hero’s journey, but I was wondering at what point when you were coming up with this outlandish story that you realized it would be a great jumping off point to be something that’s really sweet and therapeutic for the main character? The more I think about the film, the more I think of it as a film about recovering from an almost unthinkable trauma.
Dave McCary: First, I will say that I personally did not come up with a goddamned thing. (laughs) Kyle and Kevin really wrote the film, and it’s such a wonderful script that when you read it, you just feel all of those heartwarming, sweet, pure feelings. I read it two summers ago, but I knew that they had this idea about six years ago because Kyle and I were living together when he shared with me the seed of the idea that would become this film. That seed didn’t have all of the elements of this journey. It was simpler: “What if there was this children’s educational show that’s made just for me?” That was where it was started. Then the idea added the answer: “The show was made by my parents.” Then that gave way to the kidnapping angle. From there Kyle and Kevin realized that this was just the beginning of a movie and not the whole movie. They naturally found all of that through the process.
They were also definitely writing what they know, and they are both the sweetest people you could ever meet, so it just naturally flowed out of them to create this story about this outsider is being embraced so lovingly by all these new people in his life. The hero is making a movie that’s bringing all of these people together, and they want to give back to James what he has almost unwittingly given to them.
But to answer your question after that kind of tangential rant (laughs), I knew the moment that I read the script that there’s a catharsis to this journey that provides the closure that this character needs to heal and move on. There’s a scene specifically at the end of the movie between Kyle and Mark Hamill where when you read it on the page you just knew immediately that this moment had to be so powerful and strange to this kid after all he has gone through. But like you said, it’s therapeutic and nostalgic for him at that moment in time.
But yeah, that’s my long-winded way of saying, “I knew in the summer of 2015.” (laughs)
Kyle has this great ability to play unique and genuine characters like James or any of the recurring roles that you guys have created for Good Neighbors or on Saturday Night Live. He never really goes over the top in any of his performances, and he always seems to strive for the reality behind even the weirdest of roles. What do you think makes him so good at finding the humanity in sometimes offbeat characters and to portray these characters without a shred of irony, malice, or sarcasm?
Dave McCary: I have been Kyle’s biggest fan since the fifth or sixth grade, and I’ve just always known that he could anchor a film and access all the emotional beats that one needs to be a successful leading man. Over the course of working with him throughout the years, I’ve always known he could do drama really well, but we never really had a forum to do that. We just had a lot of really funny friends, so a lot of that stuff just came naturally. The comedy videos just kind of snowballed, and that sort of became our thing, and we never really got the chance or had a reason to show people that we could tell emotional stories and that Kyle was this great and well rounded performer.
Kyle and I over the years have always been more inspired by real life people that we’ve either grown up with, or that we’ve discovered randomly on YouTube; people who are being themselves, but who have clear vulnerabilities and insecurities that are presenting a version of themselves that’s not fully formed. We’ve always had a particular love for people who pretend to act more badass than they actually are. Everyone has that kind of insecurity at one point in their lives, and for us it’s just fun to draw emotion from real people with that kind of mindset instead of drawing inspiration from our favourite comedians or movies. Real people are just more interesting and complex.
Kyle does an incredible job at absorbing the subtleties and mannerisms of all the real people that he has been influenced by, and he does it with honesty. It’s honestly portraying the insecurities and purity of people without being tongue-in-cheek about it. There’s naturally something funny about someone presenting themselves as one type of person to the world, but their true self is kept closer to the chest. You don’t have to add jokes to that because that in and of itself is a joke that people – if they’re being honest with themselves – play all the time.
I think Kyle is just incredible at embodying this sense of uncomfortable oddball energy, and we always try to put ourselves in the shoes of these characters first. We always want to stay away from anything that might be mean or be used to get cheap laughs, and instead we want to find things that these characters would authentically do or say that might make people laugh or it might not. Whether they laugh or not, we hope that the viewer realizes that it all makes sense and it feels realistic for the character. From scene to scene and from character to character in this film, we were asking ourselves these kinds of questions. “Is this how this exchange would play out?” “Where does it feel like we’re forcing the comedy just to make people laugh, and how can we stay away from that to not derail the emotional journey?”
You guys have a dream team of producers working on this film with you: The Lonely Island guys and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Was it important for you guys to work with producers who would immediately understand the delicate tone of your material and be willing to help you fight to maintain this balance of comedy, sweetness, and sadness?
Dave McCary: You probably already know this from just working in this industry, but you know that before you shake hands with anyone you want to know that they understand your approach and vision when it comes to the tone of something, and hopefully they ensure to you that they won’t manipulate that tone or vision. You want them to believe in something as much as you do, and you want them to be supportive.
It was so special to have Lonely Island on board, in particular, because we grew up with these dudes, and we were the biggest fans of theirs before they even got to SNL We always looked up to their career paths. They’ve also gone through all of these same questions from making their movies, and they were really open and honest with us about things that they would have done differently, and the types of people they wished they had in their corner, or the kinds of concerns that they can only see now in hindsight. You can’t really ask for better mentors than that. Anything that would feel either uncomfortable or if we ever hit a snag where we felt like we didn’t know what we were doing, Jorma (Taccone) and Akiva (Schaffer), specifically, were always there to help us understand that these feelings and fears were natural.
Again, this is a bit of a tangent. (laughs) With Lord and Miller and Lonely Island, who are all so respected and such great teams to add to our team in getting this movie made, if they didn’t see what we saw in the script or if they wanted to do it for what we felt were the wrong reasons, then that would have been clear. We talked to them very extensively before moving forward, so it wasn’t just a case of working with people we were excited to work with, even though we definitely were excited to work with them. The same went with our financiers. We made a three minute “mood reel” with some music to show to them that really painted the picture we wanted to show and state in no uncertain terms that we didn’t want this to be broad. We just started by setting out and telling everyone that we weren’t going to make this movie if making it meant that it had to be broad. This isn’t the kind of film that needed a certain amount of jokes per minute, and we just weren’t interested in that.
Once everyone was on board, it made casting the film so much easier. I think without Lonely Island and without Lord and Miller, it would have been a lot harder for these incredible actors to take this risk on a film with a weird premise made by a first time director and starring a first time lead. Without the backing of such tenured and wonderful producers, we never could have gotten what we have now.
Considering that Brigsby Bear revolves around a fake television show that the main character has built his cultural identity around for the past 25 years, how much of that series did you guys plot out in advance to get a better feeling for James as a person and what his living situation must have been like?
Dave McCary: Honestly, Kevin would probably be the best person to ask about that. Kevin wrote out an actual “show bible” of what the show within the movie would be like. He knew at what point major plot points changed or when major characters were introduced. He knew basically everything that transpired over the 26 years that the show was produced. I know that he has a MUCH better idea what happened on that show than any of the rest of us. (laughs)
We all talked about it extensively, but we knew that the film in itself and not the show within the film was the most important aspect. We knew that the show was important, but we didn’t want to undercut the story by spending too much time on the show. Having said that, working on the show really was like this fun, cool group art project. Everyone was having so much fun pulling references and talking about their favourite childhood shows while coming up with Brigsby. We all loved the hand painted backdrops and the practical and animatronic effects. All of that was so much fun, but we knew we could have totally gone overboard and hurt the more important emotional elements of the film. We had to keep the audience on that emotional journey of our main character.
I think we just eventually said after plotting out the show and finding the characters that we would only give about two days of the production to do the show, and we would give the remaining twenty-one days of the shoot to the film. That felt like a good allocation to us. Whatever we could get done in two days was how good that show was going to be. (laughs) Of course, we would have loved to have spent three weeks on all the nuances of the show and make multiple full episodes for home video. (laughs) There are some things in there that I think we might want to tackle in the future, but as an independent feature, we don’t have a ton of money and we can’t be so precious with that stuff on the show.
Brigsby Bear opens at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas in Toronto and International Village in Vancouver on Friday, August 4, 2017. It expands to Montreal on August 18 and other Canadian cities throughout the summer.