“Brigsby Bear” is a smudgy valentine of a film. SNL writer/star Kyle Mooney plays James, who discovers in his 20’s that he was kidnapped as an infant and raised in a completely isolated environment, told by his “parents” that the world has been contaminated and he can never go outside. He has never seen another person, and he spends most of his time watching a cheesy children’s television show called “Brigsby Bear,” which he thinks is hugely popular. But it turns out it was created just for him by his “father,” Ted (”Star Wars” legend Mark Hamill). As he is returned to birth parents and learns about the world for the first time, James discovers that the best way to make sense of his strange new life is with the help of friends and the story of Brigsby.
In an interview, Mooney and director Dave McCary, friends since their fifth grade days as class clowns in San Diego, talked about creating a believable children’s fantasy show and why the actor who played Luke Skywalker was just right as the brilliant, loving, felonious kidnapper.
You clearly had a lot of fun creating a parallel entertainment universe, not just the “Brigsby Bear” show but also the fake multiplex movies for the scene where your character goes to the theater.
KM: I think we’ve always loved those fictional-like movies or products on TV shows or movies that you can tell they are like making an effort. We grew up watching “Saved By The Bell” and there was an episode where they referenced the Beach Buddies but it was clear they were referring to The Beach Boys. Coming up with that stuff is always fun. Just movies that you think could exist but clearly don’t, like the “Hockey High” movie
One of the posters I believe is “Once Upon a Crime” which seems like that must be a movie but we were able to get the rights. I don’t know how that one slipped through the cracks.
You mentioned “Saved by the Bell.” What other vintage shows informed the aesthetic of the Brigsby show?
KM: One big one we kept going back to was Teddy Ruxpin. He had a cassette in his back.
DM: It was mostly a cartoon but...
KM: They made a live-action special in like the early 80’s/mid 80’s, and it was a video we kept passing back and forth to one another as kind of a visual reference. Also another show was this Disney Channel show I watched as a kid that was kind of a live action Winnie the Pooh show called “Welcome To Pooh Corner.” But generally we were kind of both into 80’s and 90’s children’s television. I’ve got a really massive VHS collection, mostly of stuff like that. We particularly like the kind of low production value, low-budget children's stuff that is probably released straight to video and maybe only like 200 people even own these cassettes or at one point in time did.
DM: And oftentimes the Christian-made videos, the faith-based videos are particularly peculiar, a little more strange because it’s not only children's show but it’s also preaching an agenda which is I think an inspiration for the agenda that is being preached to Kyle’s character.
Mark Hamill is so terrific in the movie, a very different role for such a well-known star. How did that come about?
DM: We were very fortunate to put together a package of producers before even going to cast. We got the Lonely Island which is Andy Samberg’s group, with Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. They were buddies of ours prior to us working at “Saturday Night Live” and they responded really well. Kyle and our buddy Kevin wrote a really unique script and they were friends of each other and they both liked the script and they were like “Let’s team up and put our names behind this.” So we had the package of Kyle and myself at SNL and then these reputable production companies. Then we went out to financiers. Once we got the money locked up we could really go out to cast with our package. Also there was a loose connection — Mark Hamill’s daughter knows one of our producers.
KM: But it was tough, that role specifically is a difficult role to cast. Because obviously the character is a weirdo but also a genius. He’s arguably a bad guy but you want him to be likable. I feel like it’s fun to see him do something other than Luke Skywalker. And then there is that layer of the fact that Luke Skywalker is in this movie about fandom and nostalgia. And he’s done voice acting, That was one of things that made that role so difficult to cast. It was just like: I'm sure we could find an actor to play that part but then can they do a silly voice?
DM: Yeah, can they switch to it so effortlessly? Mark Hamill was just right.
Your character often hesitates for a moment before saying something and I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what he's thinking?
KM: He’s also just not incredibly socially acclimated.
DM: Part of it could be that the character is kind of processing and then regurgitating things that he has heard because oftentimes you’re repeating the young kids’ expressions.
KM: I feel like we've always kind of been obsessed this notion of faking it and trying to be cool and trying to be as confident as possible when clearly you’re not. Maybe at times in my life I’ve been that human being.
DM: We all have
KM: I think I was that person two hours ago
You met as kids and you’ve said you were class clowns. What did you do to get kids to laugh in 5th grade?
KM: I would do a weird character named Eskimo. It was just basically I would put the hood of my jacket over my head and do some dumb voice; apparently it was a hit. I’m sure if we had videos today it would be incredibly cringe worthy.
DM: I also remember Kyle as an accomplished artist. He would draw characters and then put a profile.
KM: With a speech bubble with this massive monologue and then usually like kids at our school to or in our periphery, my silent judgment.
DM: In high school we did one video for a class that was kind of a parody of a MTV show that was popular at the time called “Fanatic.” We did it for the Odysseus for advanced English class but we actually at the time, we were creatively more into music and we formed a band and we put together an album. We would sell it for like five dollars to people around school but that was our first big creative project together. We didn’t really start making videos together until we were eighteen or nineteen. And then in college, YouTube had just come out we were just inspired to start making videos. Kyle had made a number of very funny and talented friends in his USC improv group and then I was the one filmmaker friend around. It was kind of like this perfect storm like we should make videos and we should put them online; we developed a decent internet following over the years and then fast forward seven or eight years later we got discovered.
One of the things that is so intriguing about the movie is how rich and complicated and detailed the world of Brigsby is.
KM: I think one of the most fun parts of the process was creating this mythology. I always like to think of it in terms of like this show being produced for approximately 20 years or something like that. When Ted first started producing it was probably incredibly rudimentary and simple. And then over time the stories get more elaborate, more characters are introduced, and different planets. So it was really fun coming up with that stuff. Kevin Costello, my co-writer, made a point of creating a Bible of everything that is that the Brigsby universe; keeping straight that pseudo-Star Wars-esque, Tolkien-esque jargon.
It is so endearing that the people in the movie don’t laugh at the Brigsby show. They like it.
KM: We always operated and we just kind of always thought that if this was a true story, if this happened today right now and you became aware of this TV show that was associated with this pretty dark thing, I would definitely want to see it would definitely be intrigued. It is fascinating, I think
DM: It is also important to us that the film in general isn’t too silly. We didn’t want the show to be so overly goofyfied where it wouldn’t feel realistic that people would say, “Oh, there was a lot of time and a lot of thought have been put into this show.” it needed to feel authentically like, “Oh this is something that is special.” I think the more it leans into the comedy like “Look how bad and dumb this is,” then I think that as an audience watching the movie, you don’t believe that this would truly be embraced in the way that it is.
The movie keeps surprising you all the way through. I think the biggest surprise to me was how sweet it is, that incredible love letter to friendship and to being creative with your friends.
DM: Thank you so much. That mirrors our experience and our experience with a number of the people involved in the film we’ve been working with for over a decade. Kevin who is the co-writer we met in the seventh grade. Really it feels like such a film that we all experience we’re all kind of brothers to a degree
KYLE: Yeah, totally and like those scenes of the kids making a movie together in the kind of woodsy area, that was not far off from us making this movie last summer.
DM: Around that time when we were filming the explosion we did a little sneaking around to pick up some of that environment when the kids are all walking through the woods. I really like the magic of running around and taking some risks and not being where you should be and stealthy stuff. There is a lot of connective tissue between that experience and over the years us making internet videos, the dangers that we would get in. We’d like to try to mimic that experience of how much fun we have every time we make a movie, I would hope that it never gets too out of control. We want to maintain somewhat of the childlike energy that we have.