I had a feeling I’d like Brigsby Bear.
As a comedy fan, how could I not? I’ve been a fan of director Dave McCary and writer/actor Kyle Mooney since their days in Good Neighbor, the sketch comedy group they co-founded in 2007. And with superstar comedy group The Lonely Island and directing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) producing, I was pretty sure I was about to see the next generation’s Hot Rod (which I believe is very high praise).
But after catching the film at Sundance, I was so head-over-heels with its surprisingly dramatic tone and outlandish humor that I instantly made McCary my pick for MovieMaker’s list of Sundance Film Festival 2017 Breakthroughs. Here’s the rub, though: It’s a tough movie to talk about without giving away the ingenious plot. So when people have asked me why they should see it, I usually just say, “It’s a movie that’ll make you wanna make movies”.
At it’s core, Brigsby Bear is a story about friendship, family and nostalgia, and a flat-out love letter to filmmaking that—though the large cast includes Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, Jane Adams and Kate Lyn Sheil—could only be borne of its creators’ lifelong partnership. Whether you know Mooney and McCary from Saturday Night Live or Good Neighbor, they’ve actually been working together since middle school.
“[Watching the movie,] you can see the joy of filmmaking on screen and the joy of a community coming together to make something and experience it, but that’s also happening while the camera is rolling. It’s happening on set,” Mooney told me about making Brigsby. “And that’s something Dave and I have experienced now for a decade, making videos together. Knowing each other so long, there’s just a general trust.”
I spoke to McCary about making the jump from SNL to his first feature, balancing tone, working with animatronics, and what you learn from collaborating with your best friend.
Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I came to know you, as most people did, through your sketch work. Was feature filmmaking what you always wanted to do?
Dave McCary (DM): Yeah. My dream was never comedy or SNL necessarily. I definitely had dreams of Kyle being on SNL, but I always saw my path to making films and television leaning a bit more on the dramatic side—although obviously I love comedy. I sort of just fell into this in a very fortunate way: I had such funny friends, and I was their like one filmmaker friend. Youtube had just come out. We could make silly videos and get them seen. But, yeah, making sketch comedy over this last decade has been such a pivot from the original goal, which was to get into features. I’ve always felt that Kyle and Beck [Bennett, Good Neighbor member] were such great dramatic actors, but we’ve never had the forum to showcase that. So it was just such a blessing that Kyle and our other buddy Kevin Costello wrote such a heartwarming film.
MM: It’s hard not to see the parallels: The Lonely Island carved this path of going from the internet and Channel 101 [Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab’s monthly short film series] to SNL, to their first feature with Hot Rod, and Good Neighbor more or less followed that same path.
DM: I don’t know if The Lonely Island experienced [the same thing as us] because at SNL—at the time they were starting to make videos there—they weren’t huge sets. They were more run and gun. As time went on for Lonely Island post-Hot Rod, they started to do much bigger productions on the show.
MM: So those bigger SNL sets paved the way for you to be a little more prepared for a feature?
DM: Yeah. Once we got to SNL Lorne Michaels [SNL creator and producer] was fully on board with these pre-tapes and he wanted them to look great, and he’d put a lot of resources into those short films. For four years I’ve made, maybe, 80 digital shorts, and that was a real valuable experience going into the film. I think if I hadn’t had all that set experience, I’d be a little in over my head.
MM: When did you start shooting Brigsby Bear? I imagine you had to work around your and Kyle’s SNL schedule.
DM: The fortunate thing about SNL is that it’s 21 episodes in a 52-week year, so you have 31 weeks off a year. It’s kind of like a teacher’s schedule, where you get the summers off and you get a good three-week winter break and a spring break. So every time we had a week or two break throughout the season, we’d just schedule, like, “Oh, we’ll go to LA and audition some of those kid roles and do some design passes with the creature shop who’s working on the animatronic.” It was just nonstop. Whenever SNL ended, we knew we had to jump into pre-production with the movie. And then knowing that over the course of the summer, when we’d have the entire three months off, that was when we’d really dig in. We had five weeks of pre-production in Utah and five weeks of shooting.
MM: Talk about working with the production design and costume design team. I’m so curious about the Brigsby head [a costume that the character wears] and how the animatronics of that worked.
DM: We knew from the beginning that we wanted to put a lot of resources into the head specifically, studying any live-action or animatronic suits that we could find on the internet—Kyle has a pretty extensive VHS collection. We truly sent as many links and images as we could possibly find to the creature shop Stoopid Buddy Stoodios. They work a lot in walk-around suits and animatronics. We just trusted them immediately. They really got it. They’d send us a design—they’d be like, “This is one direction you could go with the bear,” like the sizing or the facial features or how small the eyes are or how big. We’d just keeping fine-tuning and fine-tuning until we were like, “OK, this feels right.”
MM: And how does it work on set?
DM: Ben Bayouth, who is one of the main dudes over there, rigged a remote control that has four different nobs that control the eyebrows, eyelids, eye movement and mouth. So we’d mic him, and he’d perform the scratch track of the audio of the bear. And while he’s performing, he’s jostling the controls. He just got so great at it and so intuitive with it; it was really a joy to watch. It was one of the special moments on set seeing a true professional, a young guy who cares about getting it right. And there’s a guy inside who also has an earpiece, since you can’t see very well outside of it. So [Ben’s] just like, “All right, Frank, turn left a little bit or lift your head up a little bit.” He’s whispering that to him while performing Brigsby.
MM: One of my favorite things about the movie is it doesn’t look like a comedy, if that makes sense. Talk about working with your DP.
DM: Yeah, we just wanted it to feel like a drama. Inherently, there’s comedy in the script and that, hopefully, just comes through naturally; we don’t try to force it. Visually, we definitely didn’t want it to be super bright and unrealistic. We didn’t want heavy stylization. We just wanted to kind of lean into the realism of the script. As surreal as the concept is, we always thought that this would be the most interesting film if this was a super surreal concept that was played as sincerely as possible. We looked at movies such as Fish Tank or Dogtooth or Being There. Those films are just trying to capture reality, and once you blast light at characters, it just starts to feel unrealistic.
MM: Do you storyboard at all? Or do you guys just get to a set and figure it out?
DM: We storyboarded the Brigsby TV show stuff, but no, we didn’t really storyboard the film. We did a lot of work getting on location and talking it out and scouting and pre-production. We really walked through every shot and wrote stuff down. But ultimately, I like freestyling. We know our set-up. We know our lighting scheme. We know our scene and the emotional space that everyone is in during the scene. I like feeling a little free to make adjustments in the moment. So I try to not put too many restrictions like, “OK, it has to be this shot.” We kind of find it when we’re there.
MM: What’s the first thing you do when you step on set?
DM: The first thing is, we do a walkthrough with the blocking for the actors, and then the actors take a break, and then me and Christian [Sprenger, DP] know that we have 20 minutes or so to say, “OK, we have this set-up and this set-up, and if we have time, we can do this set-up.” And then when the actors come in, we go for it. But really, the very first thing I’d do in the morning on my way to set was listen to a score and get myself in the headspace—like Carter Burwell’s Being John Malkovich score. Because we always knew that we wanted it to feel orchestral or a little melancholy. I really just wanted to enter the set in the headspace of what I thought the musical tone would be. Because if you put more whimsical music to our visuals or our script, it immediately becomes a different film. Music is so, so important. That always helps me. Sometimes I’d just put it in my headphones while we’re on set just to remind myself of the vibe we’re looking for.