Dave McCary's indie breakout “Brigsby Bear” is a tale about the wonder of storytelling, and the relationship we develop with a narrative and its characters that is wholly unique to us. In the case of this original screenplay by Kevin Costello and “Saturday Night Live” writer/performer Kyle Mooney, a man named James (Mooney) learns that the galactic space bear TV show he has been obsessed with all of his life has been made only for him by the 'parents' (Jane Adams and Mark Hamill) who kidnapped him when he was young. When James is brought back to his true family (his parents, played by Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh, his sister played by Ryan Simpkins), the story adds beautiful layers of arrested development and life after trauma, in which his super geek/man-child learns to connect with family and friends, and discovers that he can tell his own “Brigsby Bear” story.
As the film navigates such delicate emotional territory, it recalls an existential crisis in a Charlie Kaufman movie, the craftiness of a Michel Gondry project, the actorly precision of “Being There,” the goofiness of “Mac & Me,” while receiving a boost from the likes of Phil Lord, Chris Miller and "Saturday Night Live" troupe The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone). Filled with a heart that matches one of a “Toy Story” movie, “Brigsby Bear” is universally nostalgic for the times when you discovered storytelling, or learned that there’s more to it than just what’s on the screen.
Mooney and McCary have grown into the business together, taking their childhood friendship to YouTube when making videos along with Beck Bennett and Nick Rutherford for the comedy group Good Neighbor. When Mooney was picked (along with Bennett) to join the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 2013, McCary came with them and has since directed various segments, many of them featuring Mooney and based on their interest in character-based comedy and image of media (like this parody of reality TV, featuring Chris Pine). McCary makes his directorial debut with “Brigsby Bear” while Mooney has a breakout role, the latter appearing in every scene of this movie with his best comic creation yet.
RogerEbert.com spoke with McCary and Mooney about their debut film, the way they kept it sincere, how YouTube and hangovers led them to experimenting with character and performance, the way "Saturday Night Live" prepared them to make an indie feature with their friends and more.
I was at the world premiere of “Brigsby Bear” that Monday at the Sundance Film Festival, and I just remember getting completely caught up in this movie within the span of about one minute. It was pretty magical, and exciting as it was your big film debut.
KYLE MOONEY: There’s obviously that scene in the movie where James is watching his own movie, or not watching it.
DAVE MCCARY: We were prepared to do the same thing.
KM: Yeah, we made it to the seats.
DC: We asked for aisle seats, just in case it was going awry. We both were nervous and then in the first five or ten minutes you could feel people start to engage and laugh at some jokes, and then it eased the attention. I made the mistake of getting to Sundance three days prior, so I just had 72 hours to fear a really bad scenario. But that was a pretty magical scenario. Once we got to the end of the film, it was insane.
KM: The movie can be slightly difficult to read because there’s … the opening stuff is so out there, it’s mysterious.
DC: You don’t really know the tone of the movie.
KM: I feel like it takes 10 or 15 minutes before people can read into the movie and are like, “Oh, OK I can react this way to it.”
As people start to read into it, sincerity is a crucial factor for the drama and comedy of this story. When it came to constructing “Brigsby Bear,” was it a challenging value to maintain?
KM: I feel like everybody liked the script, and Kevin Costello who co-wrote it with me, and when Dave came on board as a director, I think everybody, and Dave especially, thought that there’s inherent comedy but there’s also obviously drama and heart. Let’s just play this as earnestly and as honestly as possible. There’s no need to force this stuff.
DC: And from the very early stages I had some scores in my head that already set the tone for me, I wanted it to feel melancholy. And we were just trying to stay away from it feeling broad at all. It wasn’t important to us to have a ton of jokes per minute, we didn’t feel like that would service the emotional journey of the character. We were always very afraid of the more silly it gets, the less realistic you think that this story is.
And it’s dealing with this dark story, and your character’s progression into the world. Was that tricky, Kyle, especially with your performance, to create that inner logic of what he does and does not know?
KM: You know, I’ve done similar things in characters. That part of it wasn’t super difficult, Dave and I have always been drawn to those people who exist, in like middle school or high school, who just don’t know what they’re talking about, but act as if they do. That stuff kind of comes naturally to me. The difficult stuff is just like trying to play a character who has been abducted [laughs], you know what I mean? Dealing with the world is still foreign to me.
DC: Playing a kid who has been abducted but didn’t feel like he was in danger and had love for his abductors. It’s such a unique circumstance that he’s in that it didn’t feel as heavy as some of the more extreme, intense, real-life abductions out there.
And there’s a lot of hope.
DC: Yeah, they put him in an environment that’s seemingly creative, and he didn’t seem like he was miserable. He was definitely yearning for what was out there, like we all are, dreaming of our visions of grandeur. He knows from his first experience that he likes fitting in, just the fact that your first exchange with Spencer, I’m having a conversation this feels good, I’ll do whatever I have to do just to maintain that experience, the character is a quick learner.
KM: I feel like those scenes in the party when he’s learning to interact and learning to have fun, those scenes are really fun to me, and joyful because it does feel good when you’re getting along with people.
There’s a big sense of discovery in the movie, where it takes a viewer back to really seeing their first movie, or learning that you can create movies too, for example. This film is heavily nostalgic while curiously not having to reference a lot of pop culture.
DC: I think the really special part about the film to us and to our relationship is that we really fell in love with filmmaking together, as best friends and figured out our voice over the years through making mistakes and trial and error and internet videos and stuff. It is a very meta experience, both making the movie and watching it, just because it really is a story about how fun it is to be creative with a pal, on top of a number of other themes like letting go and being able to move on.
You guys have an unusual and curious YouTube background where aside from the skits on Good Neighbor, you started doing character work, in single or multiple takes. Did you guys develop more interest in character or performance? It’s an interesting change that seems to be playing out here in “Brigsby Bear.”
KM: There is a kind of formal answer to that, which is that we were working underneath a YouTube company or studio that kind of managed YouTube artists but they kind of encouraged everyone to have their own YouTube channel. So we had a Good Neighbor channel and so then they were like, “You need to have a Kyle channel.” And that became an opportunity for Dave and I to explore characters that were in essence just sketches, just ideas. And mess around with them.
DC: And the way we operate at bars is just very riff heavy, sometimes. We’ll write down something if there’s a scene or a character that you discover while being drunk one night, but it’s really fun to have the ability to, with those videos that don’t have high production value it’s just me talking to Kyle behind the camera. We can wake up hungover one day and be like, “You know, just for an hour, I’m gonna film you and just talk to you in that character, and we’ll see if we can find a structure.” We could see and watch that footage one day and be like, “We’ve got nothing.”
KM: Or watch it and be like, now we know what it is, let’s reshoot it.
DC: Or be like, now we know what it is, it will work better in an actual scene in a sketch and not us interacting. We were always so malleable in whatever we were exploring. And we were so, especially Kyle who has exposed me to to a lot of great obscure YouTube videos, we were just obsessed with real people and their mannerisms. And like Kyle was saying, people who like to put on fronts that they are more confident than they really are, or bad-ass.
KM: We really love the kids who are in middle-America who are doing their best attempts at a vlog, and they’ve just seen popular YouTubers do this, and they only have like an audience of 10 people, but they still act like, “Hey guys, sorry I haven’t made a video in a while.” No one really cares.
DC: These regurgitations of their favorite YouTubers. I think everyone wants that validation of “people want to hear what I have to say” and I think a lot of Kyle’s characters feel like people feel like they have to say.
That reminds me of your character Alex, the really short, perverse middle-schooler who’s a polarizing comedy recommendation, to say the least.
KM: He’s kind of a cultish figure [laughs].
DC: Your mom hated that character.
KM: But what I do love about Alex, is that Alex was borne out of … there was a moment in time when Verne Troyer and Joe C., from Kid Rock's group. And maybe Verne wasn’t as bad about this, but I feel like Joe C. definitely did it, but it was like, “I may be little, but down here I’m massive.” It’s like OK!
DC: And the way that you would speak about women and genitalia, it’s so crude and disgusting. I think at the time it made us laugh so much that it was like, “Why is this kid so gross? Why is he saying the most offensive, why is he speaking about women like this?” And I think if you watch it with that lens you’ll think, this is not good or funny, and I think there are other people who appreciate that we took a swing towards it.
KM: A 15-year-old talks like that.
That’s the truth of it, and like with “Brigsby Bear,” there’s always a truth to the character. And it seems so crucial, especially when dealing with a tone that’s about abduction and hope, and with its “Being There” vibes.
DC: That was a big reference.
KM: And I think that’s a credit to Dave. Dave has always pushed being as honest to the character and the situation as possible.
That’s going to get you far, man.
DC: We’ve talked about career paths, and I get so nervous about doing anything broad in general. It doesn’t give me the same joy as storytelling and when you really believe that this character could be a real life person. I just don’t like filming scenes where it’s like, that’s not how people talk. People aren’t saying a joke every five seconds. And it’s tough at "SNL," where the challenge is often how many laughs can we elicit here? Which is really not my skill set, especially as a writer, and Kyle writes more than I do. But I really like our experimental, performance and monologue videos, where there’s barely jokes in the video, where it’s almost a joke in itself that the monologue is even being recorded. After doing this movie too, I’m getting even more interested in going that route of exploring more emotional films, though I like comedy and will always be working in our understanding of how to put together a fun joke. But it’s always fun when you can build ten minutes of the most realistic situation and then make a joke.
When it came to finding the right balance for this movie, was it about pulling the jokes back, or adding the jokes? Like the scene where James finds out who created “Brigsby Bear,” where it’s funny that he’s so excited, but such a sad moment for the rest of the family. Did you have to tackle it with a lot of precision?
DC: It was all in the script.
KM: Yeah, we pretty much agreed what the tone would be early on. There would definitely be times on set where Dave would pull me back, where I would be playing something too broadly. But then, certainly there are moments in the production process, where people would be like, “It doesn’t need to be funny, but let’s add some funny parts to it.”
DC: We also had the luxury of … Kyle’s great at giving you range for your edits. You can go, “What’s the goofier read on this?” just in case for some reason we find in the edit that it’s more interesting to have Kyle go a little more ham. Not that we really used much of that in the edit, but it is nice. We have such a shorthand where I can be like, “Kyle give me level three, level five, level ten.”
KM: You don’t want to see level ten! [Kyle does an Ace Ventura impression]
Does working on something like SNL, where Dave is shooting and cutting fast and Kyle is acting live with an ensemble, help make collaborating with people on a feature movie much easier?
DC: I would have been way over my head without that experience I think. The sets on SNL have a much bigger scope, I’ve worked with much bigger crews than what we did on this feature. And it was a more relieving experience to have a more intimate crew that felt a little closer to our Youtube days sometimes. And a group of us out in Utah where we only knew each other, and it felt like summer camp. We just had time to be more precious in every stage of production, with really putting together references and production elements for a scene that you would never at "SNL" have the time to be that meticulous and to research that much. You have a day to scout and get all of your props and costumes, and a day to shoot ,and a day to edit, and we’re putting a rough cut on live television every week.
KM: Sometimes it is either Dave or myself just kind of being like, "Well, let’s just do it. Well, we gotta do it." [laughs] But in terms of the movie, it was a nice experience to be able to take our time and explore a character in a longer format.
DC: And all the art, we worked so hard to make an environment so specific and interesting and homemade or whatever it is. It’s something that you can’t as a viewer, with our videos on SNL, it’s not something that would scream out to you, "Oh they didn’t spend enough time putting together that set. But often times I look at those videos and I’m like, man that set was so basic." [laughs]
KM: I will say, one contribution of what that show has helped me figure out … emotionally you get to experience so many things in that show, you have such dramatic highs and lows. I feel like it just sets you up where you’re making a movie and you can deal with any emotion.