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Brigsby Bear’s creators on what inspired their film’s weird, critter-filled retro-future

The Saturday Night Live veterans’ sweet indie fantasy is one of the year’s best films.

Sony Picture Classics

The roster of names behind the indie film Brigsby Bear may give people the wrong impression. The comedians of The Lonely Island are credited as producers. So are Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who jumped from success with the comedies 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie to become producers of a wide variety of projects. And Brigsby Bear director Dave McCary and star Kyle Mooney are current Saturday Night Live fixtures (Mooney as a cast member, McCary as a writer-director) and half of YouTube’s GoodNeighbor comedy team. That’s a lot of comedy cred, and it makes it easy to assume Brigsby Bear is another goony SNL spinoff comedy, or something larger-than-life and confrontationally absurdist, like Lonely Island’s Popstar.

It isn’t. The film is stranger and sadder than its list of creators implies. Without giving too much away, since this is a film purposefully built around letting the audience discover the world along with the main character, Mooney stars as James, a young man growing up in a bunker, where he obsesses over the last TV show in existence. It’s a bizarre story called Brigsby Bear, about an animatronic bear (think Teddy Ruxpin, a clear and creepy inspiration) who fights a malevolent sun-being with the help of magical devices, twin sidekicks, complicated mathematical formulae, and aphorisms like “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!” Brigsby Bear is central to James’ world, and even to his relationships with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill, in a rare non-Star Wars role) and April (Jane Adams). There’s a lot more to the film, but it’s best to experience it as it unfolds.

I recently sat down with Mooney and McCary in Chicago to talk about the things we could discuss without spoiling the film: how they built James’ strange post-apocalyptic future, how building an immense YouTube fandom with stripped-down comedy videos let them test their storytelling abilities, and how they made Brigsby Bear into a hilarious story without losing any of the film’s drama.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This movie starts off in an amazing retro future. What went into conceptualizing and building it?

Dave McCary: We didn’t want people to necessarily know what time period it was, what planet they were on. But we did go through a ton of weird 1980s eccentric homes and bunkers for inspiration.

Kyle Mooney: In terms of conceptualizing, I wrote the film with Kevin Costello, and we knew we wanted the characters to be secluded, underground, or something like that. Then we developed the Ted character and started coming up with his history. I figured out that he was a toy designer and artist, a creative type. He and his wife could make this pretty out-there world, a very specific world.

DM: We talked about giving it a very low-rent Splash Mountain feel. If we’d had the funds and the time, it would have made for a much richer experience for him. But we couldn’t put all our eggs in that basket.

I also understand you’ve got a bit of an obsession with 1980s public-access educational TV, which helped shape the aesthetic here. Where’s that fascination come from?

KM: Well at a basic level, just this nostalgic connection. I want to get back to that feeling of being a child, back to the things that made me happy. Then there’s also this level where I love the line a lot of children’s shows from that era draw, where the happy-go-lucky and positive meets the creepy, weird, and psychedelic. But a lot of the stuff I appreciate is straight-to-video, and will never be put on DVD.

DM: The Holy Grail is finding stuff that’s not on the internet. So obscure, it hasn’t been mass-produced enough for someone to say, “Oh, this should be uploaded to YouTube.” Like, early on, we were most excited about Prayer Bear.

KM: Yeah, now there are Prayer Bear clips on YouTube, but when we found it, there weren’t. This is like a local Christian video. I think there are three volumes. The one I picked up at some thrift store was Time To Pray. It’s an animatronic bear who teaches a kid the right times to pray. And he loves spumoni ice cream. There’s something to be said about these pieces of media that might not ever be seen. Nobody’s trying to archive these.

DM: The religious stuff in particular has that next level of curiosity or intrigue for us. Some of these local-access worlds are just so psychedelic and colorful and bizarre already. But then you add this layer where a puppet is teaching you what to believe about existence and the meaning of life, and it’s just a very weird way to get through to a child.

So much of Brigsby Bear’s plot emerges from the way James has been trained by the specific aspects of the world where he grew up. Did you start with the character you wanted to portray and then design the world around him, or come up with the world and then consider what kind of person it would produce?

KM: We obviously wanted James to be sheltered. We knew Ted and April were teaching him specific things to protect him. And that meant they had the chance to create a history of the world as they see it. So that was the starting point, just coming from a perspective of “What is believable? What can we get away with telling this kid that would be magical and weird and surreal, but grounded enough that he wouldn’t totally question it?”

DM: In my head, they’ve implemented some fear-mongering throughout the show that keeps James on his toes, like “I should not get too far away from this zone I’m in, or some doomsday scenario is going to happen.”

KM: I went through a lot of thought-exercises when we were writing things associated with that specific part of the movie. How much does James read? Does he have access to Shakespeare, or something like that? And I’m not going to tell you! But there are a lot of things to think about, in terms of what he knows and doesn’t know yet.

The movie feels really smart about fandom, the way people latch onto the little specifics of their favorite things, and dig as deep as they can on them. Does that come from experience? Have you been exposed to a Saturday Night Live fandom with this approach?

KM: We’re doing a comedy tour right now, Dave and I, we’re doing some shows. We came up making Internet videos, and there’s a dedicated group of people who like our videos and quote them all the time, and use them as a way to communicate with their friends. But I grew up in a household that encouraged fandom. My mother is a Trekkie, and we’re from San Diego, so I was going to Comic-Con when I was like 7 years old.

DM: And your older brothers kept exposing you to new fads and comics. I was an obsessive sports fan growing up, and I missed out on a lot of these children’s shows and cartoons that Kyle grew up on. I think wrestling was the most fantastical thing I was exposed to. I’ve been fortunate to — later in life, it’s more fun watching these shows with some perspective, and seeing how silly some of it is. Kyle’s constantly exposing me and a number of friends to just how silly and stilted and bizarre a lot of classic kids’ shows really were. We didn’t realize it at the time — it just felt like “Oh, this is what television should be like.” But it’s fun to see how Kyle obsesses over children’s memorabilia. You have a pretty cool — what’s the McDonaldland playset from the 1980s called?

KM: I have a small collection that I’m building of Happy Meal toy displays.

Speaking of your YouTube fandom, you’ve talked about how film school wasn’t very useful, and you used YouTube as a school instead, because it’s a testing ground where you’re free to make mistakes. What kind of YouTube mistakes were useful learning opportunities for you?

DM: Well I guess from a vulnerability standpoint, putting yourself out there and putting out a video that is flawed and seeing reactions, or seeing the differences between how one video is popular and one video is not, and then analyzing, “Well, what did we do here that didn’t work?” I was pretty critical of our work from an early stage. I wanted to make sure we weren’t veering toward formula. We had been inspired by SNL from an early age, and we loved Mr. Show and Kids In The Hall. But it was really important to us to have this distinct voice. I would sometimes get too in my head, like, “Are we catering to our audience? Are we regurgitating too much? Are we not taking this concept to the next level?”

KM: There was also a moment in time where so many of our videos were low-fi. And then you made a conscious choice, “I want to start making some things that look good.”

DM: “We’re capable of making a more impressive-feeling video.” But then I shifted back and forth, in a constant state of mood-swings. “Lo-fi is what makes our things different. Why do we need to evolve into this?”

KM: But now, the stuff that we do for SNL, you can differentiate between, “This project should be shot this way, and this one should be shot that way.”

DM: Yeah, Kyle and I write together at SNL, and I direct those videos. But if we don’t get our script green-lit, I’ll be assigned to direct another writer’s videos. And it won’t be our comedic voice, but it’s a really good challenge, to constantly be taking other people’s visions, and proving not only to myself, but to the show that I can tackle different genres or styles.

But Brigsby Bear was really important to me, because I wanted to tackle something dramatic. That was my dream growing up. Once I got into film, I was never like, “I want to make comedies.” I had more of a dream for Kyle to be on a stage like SNL, because growing up, I was such a fan of his. And then I always wanted to make movies.

Sony Pictures Classics

The balance between drama and comedy in this film is so crucial to making it work. It’s a hilarious film, but it’s entirely deadpan about the humor. How did you arrive at that tone?

KM: Dave should get the credit for that. Kevin and I wrote the best script we could, and when we had the finished product, everybody looked at it and enjoyed it, but the consensus from everybody, especially Dave, was “To make this work, we need to play it as earnest as possible.” Hopefully the script is naturally funny. There are funny moments, but we didn’t want to push those. We wanted to play it out as if this stuff really happened.

DM: There’s a way we could have approached this, where we could have been much looser with the story, just riffing scene by scene on, “Okay, you’ve never even seen a tree!” We all just felt like, the more we reach for goofs and silly stuff, the more it’ll detract from people being engaged with James’ emotional journey.

Of all the things to be curious about, I’m wondering — what went into the gunner-foxes Ted shows James early in the film, outside their dome? How did you go about conceiving and designing them?

DM: Those were inspired by Splash Mountain.

KM: Those definitely weren’t in the first draft. Once we started figuring out Ted’s story, we came up with this notion that he’d designed something like a Teddy Ruxpin-style toy, and we knew he was capable of doing things like this. So what world would he create? Also, for me personally, there’s sort of a romance to it. Like, “Oh, I wish somebody would create a world like this for me.” But the gunner-fox specifically, and I don’t know that I’ve ever declared this… growing up, my oldest brother, Sean, had a stuffed teddy bear named Gunnar. We just liked putting these weird things together. Like, why wouldn’t Ted just call it a fox? He had to add some sort of fantastical element.

DM: I do see Kyle gravitating to worlds like that. He goes to Disneyland very often. He loves Chuck E. Cheese, and Clifton’s Cafeteria in L.A. Anything that’s critter-centric. Kyle loves critters.

KM: I do love critters. In fact, I am trying to open up a critter-based bar, if there are any investors out there.

DM: I said I’d go halfsies with you!