Lately, Dave McCary has taken an interest in watching old “Saved by the Bell” episodes, though having internalized the plots and the acting tics of Mark Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Amber Thiessen long ago, his attention has drifted towards the background actors who appear to have taken their own initiative in creating scenarios for themselves that can never be heard but result in wildly intriguing new layers to the show he tuned into as a kid. Still, his interest in dissecting such shows pales in comparison to his best friend Kyle Mooney, who continues to scour thrift stores for tapes of obscure children’s shows to add to his considerable VHS collection when he’s not making memories for a new generation on “Saturday Night Live,” often in the digital shorts that McCary directs.
While the fixation on moral-heavy (and usually production-poor) TV from their youth in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s could be interpreted as arrested development to some, McCary and Mooney have instead found it to be a source of endless inspiration, with Mooney long locating the perfect intersections of good intentions and questionable execution to become a foundational element of their work together. With Mooney’s classmates at USC, Beck Bennett and Nick Rutherford, they formed the sketch video troupe Good Neighbor, where a wicked sense of humor was tempered with a genuine sense of sincerity towards the often misguided heroes at the center, a quality that’s carried over brilliantly into “Brigsby Bear,” their feature debut.
Originating from the idea that someone could feel as if a TV show was made exclusively for them, “Brigsby Bear” follows Mooney as James, a man preoccupied with the title teddy whose adventures in space have provided life lessons that perhaps seeped in a little too deep over the 736 episodes he’s seen since birth, leading him to make a movie when he runs out of fresh episodes of the program. At first, laboring to recreate the magic of what he’d seen growing up seems like a desperate attempt by James to extend his adolescence into his thirties, but thanks to McCary, Mooney and co-writer Kevin Costello’s deft touch and well as a canny twist that shouldn’t be spoiled, the production becomes transformative for James as he finds a community in the makeshift crew for his film and can suddenly see his own potential beyond mimicking what he’s already seen.
For Mooney and McCary, who have known each other since they were 10, the celebration of the creative process is in many ways autobiographical, channeling the energy they put in throughout the years into when they’d first covertly doodle rollercoasters together during services at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in San Diego, where McCary’s father is a pastor, to the hip-hop group they started in high school and ultimately the Good Neighbor videos that would bring them to the attention of “Saturday Night Live,” into James’ experience, who retains the purity of what he loves about creating things as his ability to make them more sophisticated continues to grow. Indeed, “Brigsby Bear” is a culmination of Mooney and McCary perfecting their voice and their craft, unlocking a tonally unique film that is brutally funny at times, bittersweet at others and entirely surprising at every turn. As the film makes its way into theaters, McCary spoke about how he and Mooney gravitated towards different sides of filmmaking to become perfect collaborators for each other, getting to work with their idols Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone of The Lonely Island, who produced “Brigsby Bear,” and the power of storytelling, for good and bad.
Did you always gravitate more towards directing?
Yeah, in high school, I really decided I would like to make movies. Kyle was in a high school improv group, doing plays and developing his theatrical skills. We just knew he was the funniest kid. Our friends were [always] like, “This guy is so special and has such an incredible voice.” It was just kismet that I happened to be the filmmaker friend and he made all these great comedian friends and YouTube had just come out. We love film and making videos and there’s a platform for us to get our videos across the world through the internet, so [we thought] let’s just do it. The Lonely Island were idols of ours and when they got hired by SNL, that was so inspiring to us. We just kind of followed and I was very fortunate to have these great actors and writers. We have fun working together.
Not necessarily this movie, but at what point do you and Kyle talk about making a movie?
I don’t know if we ever explicitly had the conversation, but I think we always just knew that was the endgame. And every year, we were focused on the moment like right now, we’re making videos. We eventually want to get a sketch show to ourselves — we pitched a number of shows and got a Comedy Central pilot presentation before we were hired by SNL. But it was [all going towards] knowing eventually we’ll be able to make a film. For years, I don’t think felt like we were at that point in our lives to go after it, but we knew eventually one of us would get a finished script done. Shortly before we got hired by SNL four years ago, Kyle had this great idea and he reached out to our screenwriting buddy Kevin Costello, who was in LA and was the one guy we knew that had written a full script — both Kyle and I had never done that — and Kyle gave it to Kevin, and then he and Kyle would go back and forth throughout the year, and then it started to become more of a reality. As they got closer, I started to realize okay, we’re going to make a movie pretty soon, and it really was around our first or second year of SNL where we knew we’re going to go after making a film. But my dream of making a movie personally started probably in high school when I really discovered a passion for storytelling.
During that time when Kyle and Kevin are writing Brigsby Bear, were you actually involved or did it arrive for you as a complete script?
Kyle had the idea five or six years ago and I lived with him, so he told me about it and I was like, “That sounds awesome.” But he went on to develop it by himself. I was working on something myself that never panned out, but because we have such a good friendship and we’ve been collaborators for so long, I knew if he ever finished this script, there would be a good chance I would direct it. He and Kevin sent it to me when they felt a good first draft was done and I just fell in love with it. I made it clear to them, “Of course, I want to do this. Let’s see if we can talk the financial people into taking a risk on a first-time filmmaker.” But I didn’t want this movie to not get made because I was attached to it. It would’ve been unfortunate and demoralizing if we couldn’t have gotten it made because the financiers didn’t want to take a risk on a first-time director, but I think they saw how important it was to Kyle to have me involved and I had enough short films to show at SNL that they trusted [me].
One of the things that’s been distinctive about even your online videos is how connected the style of the camerawork is to the point of view of the characters – it becomes an extension of their personality. With “Brigsby Bear,” you seem to have it both ways – it’s cinematic in a way that reflects the very big imagination of the lead character, but also well beyond his means. Did that make it a little trickier to find a way in visually?
It’s really hard to intellectualize, but you just feel out what is the most interesting presentation of these characters. Do you do high production quality and make it about the character within the scene? Or do you create a style that accommodates how lo-fi the character would put this together? We’re always pushing towards authenticity in any stories or jokes or characters that we do. [For] a number of characters that Kyle’s come up with, I’ve always looked at it as there’s not a lot of people making videos that are made by the characters in the video, so it was just trying to come up with what is honest for [what] the character’s capability is. If I’m a high schooler making a video about “Vote for Me for Class President,” it’s not going to look great. The lighting’s going to be bad, the sound’s going to be bad and then that will in turn be more believable to the audience and make it feel more nostalgic because we all remember that time when we saw a friend’s video and it looked super shitty. But we’ve always loved nostalgia and aesthetics that are a little janky, so I just love tapping into that. It feels more genuine.
You also show how warped that nostalgia can be, however – not only in “Brigsby Bear,” where James is unhealthily obsessed with this children’s show, but I can think of the “Wing” sketch on SNL, where it’s like a subversive “Full House” episode.
Well, it’s like a bad dream. If you go back and watch those shows, the way that people talk to each other, it’s so stilted and simplified that it’s almost psychedelic. We’ve always been drawn to the oddity of a lot of the things that we consumed as kids. When you rewatch those as adults, with a really fresh perspective on what it takes to make a television show and how to direct actors or how things are written, it’s so funny that those shows are written and performed by professional entertainers, yet they’re talking to each other on camera like aliens. So it’s just really funny to us to recreate that aesthetic and that tone. With a video like the chicken wing thing, it’s so silly that a sitcom would get dramatic over the last chicken wing and we’re inspired to take the essence of those shows and add even more absurdity to it. We’ll always have a voice that goes after things that are super-bizarre. Part of the risk of that also is you end up alienating audiences that want things that are more digestible and we’ve just never had the skillset of being able to cater to wide audiences…[laughs]
But there are smaller, more intense fans, to be sure.
But this film, we feel comfortable that if we can convince people to just come to the theater, I think a pretty wide demographic can appreciate it.
How did Jorma Taccone, a producer on the film, come to direct the film within a film “Hockey High”?
That was a situation where it was just so helpful to have Jorma, truly an idol of mine, [on set]. We grew up watching his videos [with the Lonely Island] and they were so helpful in getting this film made and really mentored us through the process. When we got into production, we realized “Oof, we’re so strapped for time and resources” and towards the end of the shoot, we had two final days to get all of the Brigsby TV show, plus all that Hockey High stuff. We had this warehouse where our production facilities were and we were shooting all of the Brigsby stuff and right outside the warehouse is where we shot Hockey High, and we reached out to Jorma and said it would be amazing if we could do these simultaneously. We just trust Jorma and Akiva and Andy so much that we could give them that scene and they knew that we wanted a “Mighty Ducks” ripoff that felt like a family comedy and [Jorma] just knocked it out of the park.
You’ve said before that you had planned to shoot in Los Angeles, yet it turned out to be blessing in disguise when you ended up in Utah where there was not only all those wonderful outdoor locations, but a real communal spirit that built up around the film shooting in Utah. Do you feel it bled into the film?
That was a blessing that we had so many Good Neighbor fans in Utah, so whenever we needed to fill a theater or an exterior shot that needed a bunch of extras, we didn’t have the money to hire that many extras to make a scene look that realistic, and [it was] the power of just Kyle on social media, tweeting out, “Hey Utah, we’re trying to do this house party scene for our movie. If you want to be involved, reach out to us.” We’d get like a hundred e-mails from people who’d want to help out. It was never a financial thing. And those scenes would have felt a lot less realistic without them being filled up so much. It was very special. It’s one of those things that brings people together because these are all people who have been fans of our stuff over the years and just want to see us succeed and see us get our voice out there on a bigger scale. We were so grateful.
“Brigsby Bear” opens on July 28th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and in New York at the Sunshine Cinema.