Oddballs on the Rise: Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary on SNL and 'Brigsby Bear'
SNL star and writer Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary discuss the jump from live TV to making their first feature film, Brigsby Bear.
Best friends Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary have found their calling. On Saturday Night Live, Mooney has been proving himself to be one of the show’s most reliable, inventive onscreen talents, while McCary writes his material behind the cameras. Their success on TV gave them the opportunity to bring their brand of odd, nuanced humor to the big screen with Brigsby Bear, a comedy full of surprises, particularly for those familiar with the duo’s previous work.
Directed by McCary and inspired by Mooney’s fascination with obscure cultural nuggets from the ‘80s and ‘90s, the film follows James (Mooney), a man who was kidnapped as a child and raised in a secret bunker by a hermetic couple (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). James’ life’s passion is a weekly TV show called Brigsby Bear (in the vein of Barney, The Teletubbies, Teddy Ruxpin and the like), but when the nature of his reality gets turned inside out, he endeavors to share the beauty of Brigsby to a larger audience than ever before.
Off-kilter, idiosyncratic, and startlingly moving, Brigsby Bear speaks to a generation of young people who find friendship with others who share their unconventional obsessions. In a sit-down interview in San Francisco, Mooney and McCary speak to PopMatters about the virtue of going into Brigsby Bear knowing as little as possible, the film’s universal themes, the richness of James as a character, the high-pressure atmosphere of SNL, and more.
I went into the film cold, knowing virtually nothing about it except that you two made it. Being familiar with your work, which is mostly humor-based, I was surprised at how heartfelt the movie is.
Kyle: That is the best way to watch this movie.
Dave: It’s unfortunate that it’s not realistic that you can get people to come to a movie theater not knowing anything about the movie. That’s the nature of the beast. You’ve got to find a way to show as much intrigue in your trailer as possible, and sometimes that gives away a lot of plot points. We made a very concerted effort to misdirect in the trailers and show the excitement and joy of the movie while still maintaining some sort of confusion as to what is exactly going on here.
I think, when we first meet James, you have a certain impression of him as a strange person. But he grows on you, and by the end of the film, I found him to be a perfectly sweet person.
Kyle: He’s a nice guy.
Dave: He just cares about his one favorite thing, and it’s inspiring that he has a dream and he’s dead set on achieving it. He’s absorbing and learning from people in his new life and utilizing people’s skill sets while also finding a love of friendship. It’s hard to dislike him, though I’m sure we’ll find there are people out there who dislike him.
Did the film turn out the way you envisioned it at its inception, or did it go through major changes?
Kyle: The movie you see onscreen is pretty close to the last draft of the script. When the initial seed of the idea came to me, there was the possibility it could have been darker than it is. But throughout the scripting process, the movie naturally turned out to be [less dark and more hopeful]. I think the film is pretty close to what we intended.
Dave: In the edit, we stripped away some things that we felt wouldn’t be necessary. There were a few more hallucinations where James sees and hears Brigsby throughout the course of his journey in the real world, but we felt it wasn’t necessary to break the reality of his journey.
Kyle: When you said you were surprised at how the movie turned out because you know our work... that’s something we’ve heard a lot. People are generally excited by the idea that it’s a sweet movie. When we had the first few rough cuts, I felt that same thing. We’re not creating some cinematic masterpiece, but we have this nice little movie that can bring people enjoyment and is unique and weird in its own way.
I think most people would expect this character to be ridiculous, but by the end of the movie, I don’t think he’s worthy of ridicule at all. He’s very relatable to a lot of people, I think, in that he’s unabashedly passionate about something that isn’t regarded as conventional or socially acceptable.
Kyle: That was a goal from the beginning. If this story were real, I, Kyle Mooney, would be fascinated by the fact that there is a TV show made by this kid. I’d want to see that. I think a lot of people in James’ world are genuinely intrigued by him. They want to know a lot about him. His enthusiasm is infectious.
People are so connected these days. Fifteen, 20 years ago, if you had a niche hobby or passion, you were an outcast. But social media and the omnipresence of the internet have made it so that someone with a niche hobby can find every other person on earth who shares their passion. James is a proxy for those people in a way.
Kyle: It’s so nice to meet somebody who knows about that specific thing that you thought you were the only person who knew about. For two decades, I had been thinking about this commercial. It was an advertisement for cookies, and the pitch for the cookies was that each cookie was bitten by a cartoon bear or something. So you’d buy the cookies at the store and they’d have these little bites in them. I’d been obsessed with this commercial forever and couldn’t find any information on it, but I found a person who was aware of it, and it was nice to know that I could share that with somebody.
What is James’ greatest hope? What is his greatest fear?
Dave: His fear is that he’d lose Brigsby forever. It’s clear that all he wants in this world is for his hero to continue to be a part of his life. At first, his passion is to watch all of Brigsby Bear. But when his world changes and he discovers his love for filmmaking, his hope is to finish the story himself.
Kyle: I would imagine a lot of people feel like they want to fit in. But you should still be entitled to your obsessions. People want to be liked, and it’s about opening up to people who might not be into the same thing as you.
Dave: He doesn’t want Brigsby to himself. He wants to share it with the world. He’s excited by the fact that there are other people watching.
Kyle, I imagine that as a comedian you’re often misunderstood in social situations. Like, you’ll say something seriously but everyone around you takes it as a joke. I’ve spoken to some of your SNL castmates and found that almost all of you experience this.
Kyle: Yes. It goes both ways. When I’m trying to be serious sometimes, people won’t take me seriously and think I’m doing a bit. But there are other times when I’ll be doing a full-on bit and people will take me seriously.
Dave: As his best friend, our mutual friends tend to come to me when they’re worried that Kyle doesn’t like them. There have been fifty to one hundred people over twenty years who have come up to me and said, “What’s up with Kyle? I think he hates me.” I’ll have to explain that Kyle’s messing with them or playing around.
Kyle: I don’t think I’m constantly doing bits that are negative or offending anyone. Sometimes socializing can be boring to me.
Dave: Kyle is a very honest person who will not put on a front like maybe someone like myself would. Even if I’m not having the best time in a social situation, I’ll force a smile.
Kyle: I feel like this is painting a picture of me that I walk into a party and I’m like, “I don’t like this!”
Dave: I can see you in a circle of friends, not engaging in something, and then people go, “I don’t think Kyle’s into us.”
Kyle: Maybe they’re right. [laughs]
After meeting you and a few of your SNL castmates and watching your work on the show, I get the sense that your generation of cast members is particularly hungry. I know that every season’s cast tries to do a great job, but I feel a higher sense of urgency with you guys to put on the best show possible every week. It feels competitive.
Kyle: Speaking for myself, I always want to be doing my best work and don’t want to be lazy with anything. At this point, there’s an understanding of what the SNL machine is. Everybody’s going to have a limited amount of time there, and it’s about taking advantage of your time in the best way you can.
Dave: I think we’ve always felt like our voice on the show is a little bit more specific and sometimes too subtle for the broad audiences that watch that show regularly. We’re very fortunate that [the higher ups] let us do some weirder stuff. Sometimes they even know that some skits won’t make the final episodes, but they’ll put the resources behind us and take the risk to let us try the stuff out. We have very different ideas than a lot of the stuff that ends up on the show. Sometimes it ends up to our advantage, and often times it doesn’t and it alienates audiences.
I’m definitely hungry [about Brigsby Bear], where we’re making something long-form that resonates with audiences on an emotional level. We can take advantage of how interested we are in telling stories about real, honest, sincere characters. It’s a lot harder to do that in three minutes [on SNL]. We have an hour and a half to be very precious about James’ journey. Going through the process of making this movie, it’s become clear that this is what I’m meant to be doing. SNL has helped get me to this point.
Did the skills you acquired while working at SNL transfer naturally to filmmaking?
Dave: Definitely. The challenge of the show and turning things around so quickly week to week builds this threshold for anxiety and doing things under the gun. When you go into pre-production on a movie, you can spend weeks and even months working on the nuances of the animatronics on the bear head. If we were to write a sketch about an animatronic bear on SNL, we’d have to come up with every aspect of the suit within 24 hours. That’s going to affect the quality of that product because we can’t fine-tune. Going into making a feature film has been such a relief because we’re knowledgeable about handling ourselves in high-pressure situations.
I imagine this movie will be very successful in the long run. When it hits streaming services, I’m sure people will be telling their friends about it and its popularity will build steadily for a long time. Do you predict that as well?
Kyle: We want as many people to see it as possible. Early on, we felt like the movie would have a cultish following or appreciation.
Dave: We like that the movie isn’t so technology reliant that it would feel out of touch in ten years. We wanted to create something that was relatively timeless. It’s not so stuck in a specific era that you can’t understand it years from now.