Though it was co-written by and stars Kyle Mooney, and was directed by Mooney’s long-time friend and SNL segment director Dave McCary, Brigsby Bear is about a million miles from your typical SNL star movie, and not just because it wasn’t produced by Lorne Michaels. Where those are performer driven, Brigsby is almost ruthlessly conceptual. Where those treat their scripts as jumping off points and go for the improv jokes, Brigsby constantly eschews them in favor of narrative, trading throwaway laughs for real feelings.
If I read that last sentence and hadn’t written it, I’d probably think it sounds terrible, which is why it feels like a risk. But Brigsby Bear is as inspiring as it is fun to watch, a thoroughly lovely film. It succeeds on a level we rarely see, and that’s probably because Kyle Mooney is such a rare performer. I went to college in San Diego, where Mooney and McCary grew up, and Mooney’s “Inside Socal”/”Socal Report” sketches, both pre and post-SNL, always struck me as incisive, accurate to an almost brutal degree. And yet Mooney always portrayed these troubled, inarticulate surf bros in such a way that they were, yes, comical buffoons, but largely good-natured ones who seemed like they could use a hug.
In a world where “give it more heart” has become a cliché, a mandate that frequently defangs what might otherwise be sharp comedy, Mooney has a singular facility for nuance that allows empathy and ridicule to coexist. He creates the kind of character that makes you say “ha, what a dumbass,” but as a term of endearment, the way you might say it to a close friend, or to yourself. His failed stand-up comedian character, Bruce Chandling, is another perfect example, a character who’s obnoxious (and painfully accurate), but where the joke is more that he needs a friend than that he’s a piece of shit.
That sensibility suffuses Brigsby Bear, which Mooney co-wrote with Kevin Costello. It takes a bizarro premise that feels like it could be the set up to either a broad, fish-out-of-water farce or a bizarro alty absurdist lark and turns it instead into a weirdly affecting love letter to making stuff with your friends. And it should be lost on no one that it was the product of Mooney, McCary, and Costello making stuff with their childhood friends.
I sat down with Mooney and McCary this week to figure out how (and why) they’d told a story about that most abused and exploited of phenomena — child-like wonder — and actually made it good.
All right. Why don’t you guys tell me when you first starting working together on this.
Dave: This or in general?
Kyle: Well, the movie, Dave & I had lived together for probably, what? Under a decade, close to a decade and I had the seed of the idea at some point, probably, six, seven years ago. Dave was always around and I was always talking about it. I ended up pitching it to our friend, Kevin Costello, the co-writer and he and I started scripting it in the spring of 2013. Dave came on board as a director about two years later when we had the final version of the script. But Dave and I have known each other since fourth, fifth grade and have been making stuff since… let’s say eighth grade?
Dave: Yeah. I think that’s fair.
In San Diego?
As someone who went to college in San Diego, I find the SoCal sketches brutally accurate but weirdly good natured. Like you want to give the characters a hug even as you’re making fun of them–
Kyle: Sure. That’s nice.
Does that reflect your feelings about the place?
Kyle: Totally. It’s sometimes funny to me to see, I hate to throw the term bro out there, but to see a SoCal bro who’s also a 45-year-old man with two kids. A flat-brimmed dad is one of my favorite things.
Dave: I think we also like the little moments of vulnerability that pierce through this tough exterior that I think a lot of these guys who aren’t accustomed to sharing their feelings or really expressing themselves, but you can tell it’s hidden somewhere and every once in a while just a little glimpse of it will come out, but then they’ll undercut it with, “You want to smoke?” Or–
What’s the ratio over there?
Dave: Yeah. Another thing about those characters is there’s not a lot of big, clear joke moments. The joke is more of the long game. That’s always been a fun part of it for us where we’re not searching for laughs or consistent laughs as much as just the overall experience.
That was going to be one of my questions about the movie — that it’s funny, but it seems very story first and you’re not going for a lot of the big punchline moments necessarily. Was that a philosophy you had as you were making it?
Dave: I think so.
Kyle: We felt the script had inherently humorous moments, and we were just so into the idea of this story we felt the best way to portray it was just to play everything as earnestly, honestly as possible and to not undermine the drama that exists within the movie.
Dave: I’ve said this a lot so I’m sorry, Kyle, but-
Kyle: [sighing] Here we go.
Dave: Here we go. I’ve always felt from the beginning, before we even went into production, that I would be more fulfilled to hear that audiences were tearing up or getting emotional, over laughing. The laughs never were nearly as important as people staying on the emotional journey of the character.
Were there other things that you’ve watched where you would wish that they would stay more focused instead of going for more jokes?
Dave: Other films?
Yeah, or TV, too.
Kyle: I don’t know that we would necessarily judge movies like they went too wacky with it, but the other version of this movie is Elf or something like that, a broader take on the fish out of water. I love those movies.
Were there ever hyperspecific SoCal parodies that were hard to sell on SNL because the show’s traditionally so New York focused?
Kyle: Generally, sometimes the audience won’t react to things that we feel are acutely accurate to the SoCal experience.
Dave: I think to that, accuracy oftentimes tends not to be that funny. It just tends to be like, well, this makes me uncomfortable how accurate this–
Kyle: My point is I think there’s a portion of audiences on the East Coast that don’t-
Dave: That don’t even know the reference.
Kyle: I’m trying to think if there’s anything that just couldn’t make … You’re asking if there’s something that-
If there was anything that didn’t quite translate because it was too San Diego specific?
Kyle: I would say just most of it. Because to me when they’re arguing about the salsa, “No, it’s just a kicker,” everything’s just so very accurate. There was a specific salsa that existed at a taco shop in LA when we lived there for 10 years, and I truly was so bummed when this salsa disappeared because it was the habanero salsa-
Dave: Yeah, it was like orange and it was extremely hot but it was the tastiest salsa we had ever tasted and then all of a sudden they just discontinued it.
Kyle: They discontinued it and then that place, Tarasco’s closed down. Sorry.
You guys started this, pre-SNL, writing this script?
I was going to ask if it was hard to get a movie made that wasn’t a recurring character. Does that even apply because you started it before?
Kyle: Obviously starting the movie and not having an idea that I was going to get hired by the show, it was just like, “Let’s make a movie, this is the story we’re going to tell.” If anything, it was more, I guess, a scenario where just being on the show gave me more value or leverage to help to get this movie made. But nobody was ever like, “We want you to do this broad thing.” I think everybody’s always been supportive of telling the story you wanted to tell, and it’s also not an SNL movie. Lorne’s not producing it.
Dave: If you read the script prior to us even pitching the tonal approach that we wanted to go after, the script in itself is pretty heartwarming. I think any smart producer or financier who reads the script, I think, would be on the same page as us is like, “Yeah, let’s not make this broad. There’s a very sweet story here. Let’s try to make it feel authentic and genuine.”
Doing it indie style and taking it to Sundance, was that always the plan or did you try to sell it to a studio beforehand?
Kyle: I think that was pretty much always the plan. I think given that it’s a strange movie in some ways and that I’m not a name star, I don’t think it would have made sense as a studio movie. I don’t think that-
Dave: You’re a name star to me.
Kyle: And I like you.
Dave: Okay it’s getting pathetic now.
Kyle: I think early on as we would pitch the idea to producers, I think everybody was onboard with let’s try to get this into a major festival, if possible, and then build it from there.
Dave: It’s also, just sidenote, that because we shot in Utah, it was really important for us to get it into Sundance because it was really special to have the opportunity for local cast and crew there.
Was there anything in particular that inspired the idea of this kid raised in isolation?
Kyle: I think about this a lot and I don’t know that I can like pinpoint a moment or thing. Kevin and I, the co-writer, did talk about that movie Dogtooth a little bit early on, but I think I initially was just struck with the idea of a guy who watches a TV show that’s made just for him. I don’t know where that came from but it just sort of appeared.
Dave: I have a theory of where it came from.
Kyle: Okay. Let’s hear it.
Dave: I’ve said this before. Kyle is a very accomplished thrift store bargain bin digger for these obscure children’s educational videos that are always … He strikes gold often or has over the last decade and oftentimes shares his favorite moments that are unintentionally funny or bizarre or psychedelic or whatever of these weird videos. There’s a lot of solitude in the experience that Kyle goes through of sifting through it, watching the work that it takes, and oftentimes, they’re duds and they’re not worth sharing with us. He has, over the years, spent so much time alone watching these obscure videos that probably no one in the world is watching anymore because they’re 30 years old and no parent is seeking these out to show their kids.
The theory is that, subconsciously, you’ve had that experience so much where you’re watching this bizarre show that is just for you an in that moment that maybe some of that seeped into your subconscious.
Where you remember a catchphrase that’s really funny to you then you realize that you’re the only one who’s seen that thing?
Dave: Sure, sure.
Kyle: I’m just going to say, no. I don’t think that could be it.
Another thing that I find similar between this and some of you guys’ earlier videos is that there isn’t really a villain. I mean everybody’s kind of sympathetic in their own way. Was that something that you do deliberately? Was that something you thought about while you were writing it?
Kyle: I don’t know how much we thought about it in terms of conceptualizing it but we certainly have noticed that. I don’t know. Do you have anything to say about the lack of villain?
Dave: I would say Sun Snatcher is a villain.
Kyle: He’s fake.
Kyle: Spoiler alert.
Do you find it liberating in some ways to write knowing that you’re not going to have to turn it around in front of a live audience? Do you write differently?
Kyle: Absolutely, yeah. Dave and I have talked about this a couple times, but the freedom to not have to do joke after joke and to just live in the drama and to just stretch it out, it makes for a more rewarding experience in a lot of ways.
Dave: We’ve also talked a little bit about how we’re just generally not as talented at coming up with-
Kyle: I’m not a joke writer, really, you know what I mean?
Dave: Yeah, coming up with jokes. There are people, and we’ve seen at our job at SNL, these incredible writers who are … It’s crazy how machine like they can just, every five seconds there’s a great joke that comes out.
Kyle: Also they way a situational comedy works, where every moment a character is saying something incredibly clever or something like that, people just don’t talk like that.
Dave: I think as an audience member you’re less invested in the story when you don’t feel like it’s real and the more you add characters speaking and joke speak, then you’re just like, “Well, now this doesn’t feel like it’s an honest story.”
I just tend to enjoy things more when the situation feels clever and entertaining while the characters themselves are inarticulate, and I think that’s another thing that I like going back to the SoCal sketches.
Who were your comedy heroes growing up and are there people that who are around now whose career you’re trying to emulate?
Kyle: I mean I think nobody that would be super unique. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live and so all-
Dave: All those casts.
Kyle: Over time, you obviously learn more about the history of comedy and your Andy Kaufmans and people like that who add a level of performance that is antithetical to typical comedy. I would say in recent memory the things that make me laugh the most are YouTube videos of kids just speaking directly to camera who have no audiences. This is maybe a cheap way to answer this question but I truly think I, and I would like to think Dave, get most laughs out of human interaction and observing people and just characters.
Dave: Also, you’d say Dave.
Kyle: Dave is one of my comedy heroes.
This movie hits all the traditional studio notes like, “Oh, give it more heart,” and it’s like, “A love letter to the creative process.” Do you worry you’re going to be bound by that with the next thing you make?
Dave: Hell, no.
Kyle: Really? Because you keep on saying like, “After this experience I want to do another movie with heart.”
I’d like to think we’re just always going to be whatever idea is interesting to us at the time we’re going to pursue. And then that’s kind of what we’ve always done. There have been moments in our history where maybe we’ve attempted to do something topical just in an effort to see if we can reach an audience that we wouldn’t normally, but I think we’ve pretty much always stuck true to like, “Let’s do this thing that’s making us laugh.”
Were you guys in the same class growing up?
Dave: We had some classes together-
Kyle: But we were always kind of-
Dave: In car pools.
Kyle: Class parallel or something. We grew up in a relatively small community.
Dave: We’d eat some lunch at Wangenheim together, too. Remember those fries, Cajun fries?
Kyle: Yes, I remember the Cajun fries.
Wait, where’s Wangenheim?
Kyle: Wangenheim’s near Mesa, if there are any Wildcats out there.
Dave: Throw up their hands up. We went to Miramar Ranch Elementary School together, then we went to Wangenheim and then we had to transfer schools to a brand new middle school called Marshall Middle School and then we went to Scripps Ranch High School together.
Kyle: For anyone who’s keeping tabs.
Dave: Cool. Please keep tabs.