Saturday Night Live‘s Kyle Mooney plays James, the ultimate outsider. Even though James is well into his twenties, he lives his life through Brigsby Bear, a children’s TV show his parents have created especially for him. When circumstances force Brigsby Bear to stop airing, James is lost—until he realizes a way to revive Brigsby Bear on his own terms. The story may sound far-fetched, but the film’s sweet vulnerability and authentic insights into friendship, loss, and family are very real and close at hand. Brigsby Bear is, simply, one of the most wonderful films ever. •Availability: Opens NYC and LA, 7/28, with national rollout to follow. Check local theater listings near you. •Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Comedy often veers into excess, where it gets stupid or nasty or unpleasant. Why is that, and how did you guys manage to avoid it?
KM: I don’t know that I could exactly say why, but there is a weird, bullyish nature to so much stuff out there. We’ve been making Internet videos for years, especially man-on-the-street videos. There are many man-on-the-street videos making fun of the person who’s being interviewed, but that never did anything for us. We like doing character-based stuff, showing how characters earnestly interact with the world around them. I would say that the funny part is more just them and how they perceive the world than how they’re treated or how they treat other people.
DM: We’ve always responded to the comedy in vulnerability over the comedy in crass sex-heavy or bodily functions, even though like anyone else we can still enjoy that stuff to a degree. But we’ve always been inspired by real people we’ve grown up with. The best description of the particular character trait we’re really influenced by is insecurity that we all either have or have had. Kyle and I discover it on YouTube in kids who are putting out their own little home shows. That insecurity shines through—these people are projecting a version of themselves, but you can kind of see through the armor, and you can sense that they’re not as confident as they come off or they’re not as badass as they appear. It’s all in mannerisms and subtleties, and I think Kyle’s talented at capturing those. It’s a really hard skill to teach, I imagine, but I think it comes very innately to Kyle, in the way that he’s absorbed influences over the years comedically, less from big-time comedians or performers and more from actual day-to-day human beings.
DT: Another thing you managed to achieve in this film is sweetness. Some people have called it earnestness, but for me the film is suffused with sweetness, which I think is really hard to achieve in comedy. Gene Wilder could be really sweet without being saccharine or silly. Adam Sandler tries, but I think he becomes embarrassed when he gets too sweet, so he swears or goes into some other absolutely irrelevant character thing.
DM: We always knew that the James character was very vulnerable, very passionate about his show. He has all these childlike tendencies—he’s just a very pure kid, and I think with purity comes a lack of cynicism. We just had Kyle playing this character in this situation as realistically as possible—what we imagined in our heads as the most realistic thing this kid could do and the people around him could do. It operated more out of love than out of looking for jokes or cynicism.
KM: I certainly like that people are walking away saying that and feeling that and thinking that. I definitely like the idea of a likable character and somebody you can relate to or feel for. I don’t know going into it how much I consciously thought that I wanted people to walk away from this movie saying this character is this way…I don’t know that I thought too much about it.
I want to be sweet to people around me and I hope they want to be sweet back. Sometimes the world around us makes us act in ways that unfortunately make it so that’s not always possible, but ideally we can all love one another and be cool with each other.
DT: When you see a dramatic film, its success doesn’t depend solely on the lead. If the lead is bad, the film can be saved by other things—cinematography, editing, etc. Of course the lead can contribute to a film’s success, but in a comedy, if the main comic sucks, nothing’s going to save that film. Do you think audiences expect more from a comic than from a dramatic actor?
KM: Certainly, if they’re going into the movie hoping for laughs and that person doesn’t deliver any of them. For this particular movie, we were just truly trying to do the story justice. Obviously I’m in every single scene, so a lot of the film is kind of carried by my performance, but again it was something I personally didn’t think too much about. I was just—and Dave pushed this a lot—playing it as real as possible. There’s inherent comedy within the script, so we said, “We don’t need to push it, we don’t need to play it too broadly, let’s just try to do the story as much justice as possible.”
DM: We were filming scene by scene, and we rarely ever asked ourselves the question, Is this the funniest version of this scene? Instead it was always, Is this the most authentic version, or the most genuine way that a scene like this would play out if this was a real story? We were trying to do the script justice as if it were a real-life account. Even knowing obviously that the conceit is pretty out there, it was just exciting to us to tackle it as if it were real life.
KM: But I know what you’re saying, Judy. Certainly when you go see a movie led by a comedian, it’s that comedian’s movie, and if they don’t bring it, either you just don’t like the movie or you think, ‘That person just doesn’t have what it takes.’ I believe it’s best to think on a movie-to-movie basis, because sometimes people bring it and sometimes they don’t. But I think all comedians are wonderful.
DT: Does the audience’s increased expectation for a comedic actor change the normal working relationship between an actor and a director?
DM: I don’t know if I’ve worked enough to answer your question, because this is our first movie. At Saturday Night Live, we make everything the funniest it can be, and everyone’s on the same page. With this particular movie, which is my only experience—Kyle’s been in a lot of movies as a supporting actor—I went with what my instinct was telling me about this particular script and about our relationship, which is a lifelong relationship. We already know how to work with each other, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint how this would compare to a different feature experience with a different lead actor.
DT: So you have the script, you have the director, you have the cast. What was the process of massaging that and getting it all to work together?
KM: I wrote the script with our friend Kevin Costello; Dave and I grew up together, and we went to middle school with Kevin. Everybody—the producers, the cast, Dave, myself—were all just on the same page. I think everybody liked the concept of the movie and appreciated that it was somewhat unique and maybe not totally formulaic or what they might normally be offered in terms of movies to act in. So the process was pretty smooth. Everybody was enthusiastic about telling this story in the best way possible, and I think they also appreciated the fact that there was a history between Dave and myself and our friend Kevin.
We shot in Utah. We’ve likened shooting the film to summer camp or something like that, because we just all hung out and had a good time. We were all in a place somewhat foreign to us, so when we were done shooting we would hang in the lobby of the hotel, have a beer, something like that, get some food—it was genuinely and generally just friendly. I think everybody truly wanted to do the best version of this movie.
DT: That really comes across on screen. Kyle, you wrote a great piece for the New York Times about your best friend Jason upstaging you at a talent show in the fourth grade. You wrote, “I’ve met a handful of Jason types. Performers who can take control of the audience, hold them in the palm of their hand, and make them scream. And I still get jealous. But I can also appreciate what they do—the work they put into it, the subtlety with which they move or speak, the charm, the confidence. And it inspires me. Jason made me want to perform better and work harder.” I get the idea of performing better and working harder in the context of playing an instrument or writing a novel, but what does it mean in terms of comedy?
KM: Coming up when we were in our twenties, and we were doing sketch shows or going to friends’ standup shows, we noticed that certain people got on the stage and the rapport with the audience was already there. They exuded a confidence in a way that was like they couldn’t do any wrong. They could almost say whatever they wanted to say and people would be on board. What I’m talking about in the New York Times piece is just my admiration for that and the idea of just not caring when you’re up there, when the nervousness of “how is this going to go” disappears and you’re kind of along for the ride. I think that is something a person can improve on.
DT: How do you improve on that?
KM: Getting on stage more and more and developing your unique sensibility. I can only speak for myself, but it took time for us to figure out what I’m good at, what my thing is. For me it’s playing these characters and losing myself in trying to figure out ways a character might speak or interact with the world around him or herself. It’s building and working at that.
DT: When you were starting out and basically didn’t know who you were as a comic, would you just try lots of different things?
KM: Certainly I did standup when we first started doing live comedy, and I was fine at it. I don’t think I was great…I just never really had the patience. Really good standups are there every single night doing multiple shows, going to open mics. That wasn’t me, and I also never felt totally comfortable as myself onstage, so I went further and further into taking on other personas and playing characters. Over time you hone that. If you watch our Internet videos, we did multiple videos, and over time you can see the character develop—nuances will develop, and we’ll get more specific, and sometimes even the comedy of the character will change, but it’s all just a process of perfecting….or trying to.
DT: Did you use other people as models? If so, who?
KM: Yes and no. As children we were into Saturday Night Live, we were into so many different comedians. A person like Fred Armisen, for instance—I’ve always admired how he can lose himself into so many different characters. We came up through the Internet; that was a relatively new thing. Before us there was The Lonely Island, who produced this movie. They set this template: you could make a bunch of Internet videos and then potentially start doing it for TV. But careerwise, there are so many different persons I admire I don’t know if there’s one specific one.
DT: Name three.
KM: An Albert Brooks, a Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Andy Kaufman.
DM: Rick Moranis, Richard Dreyfuss.
KM: Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman.
DT: Chevy Chase?
KM: Chevy Chase.
DT: Will Ferrell?
KM: Absolutely. I loved Will Ferrell. I don’t know if it’s Lorne Michaels or somebody else who said that your favorite SNL cast coincides with when you’re in middle school. That Will Ferrell cast was probably from seventh, eighth grade to our senior year of high school. It was fun to watch the trajectory of him being such a star on that show and then you started seeing him in movies. He was in Old School…I remember being a senior in high school when that came out, and you got to watch this career being birthed. It’s cool.
DT: Dave, I’m a big fan of Epic Rap Battles of History. Can you talk about how you moved the concept along?
DM: I was somewhat of a vessel for these two dudes, Pete and Lloyd’s comedic vision. They made these very fun songs and put in so many hours and so much love into the matchups. It really became larger than life in the YouTube world. I just happened to be working at the company that was producing them, and they linked me up with those guys. Pete and Lloyd hadn’t really made videos before, and I had. It was my day job to help young aspiring artists on YouTube try to make their ideas happen. I was just this director/editor for hire there. Pete sent me a song, and I said, “We can put you guys in front of a green screen and I’ll make a logo and it can be pretty simple.” Fast forward to three years later and they’ve made fifty of them and they have a crazy subscriber base and they made a lot of money for that company. But for me, week to week, they would approach me and say, “Here’s the new song” or “Here’s the matchup and here’s what we were thinking,” and I’d say, “Let’s do it.” It was a job. They’re wonderful people, it was fun to do those, but I don’t want to take credit; creatively they were the ones coming up with all the jokes, and the whole idea was their baby. I would try to be helpful and share visual ideas, but it was pretty straightforward. They made really fun and accessible stuff, and I could help.
DT: I could be totally off base with this, or I could be spot on, but when I was thinking about Brigsby Bear, it suddenly hit me that it felt a lot like Mary Poppins.
DM: In what way?
DT: There’s the whole family-that-doesn’t-get-the-kid thing. Also the Mary Poppins figure is a little like Kyle’s character in the sense that there’s this magical thing going on but there’s also this darkness behind the story. She’s a witch.
KM: I can’t say that we were thinking about Mary Poppins specifically, though I am a Disneyphile. Are you referring to the film or the book?
DT: The film.
KM: In the course of the past year or two there have been many late nights when I’d be in somewhat of a stupor and throw on my Pinocchio VHS or something like that, and I’m sure I visited Disneyland ten times over the course of producing this movie, so I certainly saw a woman dressed up as Mary Poppins walking around the park over the course of this movie. The general sense of magic and imagination is something that I think one could certainly argue is there and something that was being thought about
DM: It’s very fun for us that journalists and friends and family have told us about so many different things from their past that came to mind; we’ve heard hundreds of different titles of television shows or movies that they thought inspired us, some of which were totally on point and some of which we hadn’t thought of but are completely valid and cool.
KM: It’s kind of like everybody has their own Brigsby Bear, their own TV show or movie or whatever it is they grew up with. What’s fun for me now is that I get a chance to watch and dissect the ones I’m not aware of. Weirdly you’ll throw some of these on, and you’ll say, “Whoa, that is pretty similar to what we made, like in an eerie way.”
DT: Talk about Good Neighbor and how it influenced what you do now.
KM: I went to college with Beck Bennett, who’s on SNL, and our friend Nick Rutherford, and we did improv and sketch comedy together. By the end of it we had built a rapport, and I think audiences liked what we did. Dave was always around contributing ideas and helping put our ideas onto video. When I finished college, we said, “Let’s pursue this,” so we went all into the world of making videos for the Internet. We tried to do live shows as well, and that’s kind of where we cut our teeth.
DM: It felt like a gym for filmmaking, because no one’s really holding you accountable for technical issues or if the lighting is bad or the sound’s not great. We learned as we went, and any time we hit a roadblock in terms of the technical side, I would just read on the Internet how to fix it or learn what type of crew member I would need to get a specific type of look.
KM: The process of making Brigsby Bear wasn’t far off from what we were doing then. Even in this movie we stole shots, and at times it was just as rugged an experience as when we were in our twenties just trying to make a video for the Internet, though this time we had some more money and more people involved.
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