As children, the “entire world” can be a lot of things. For some, it’s the universe — every solar system in the galaxy. For others, it’s the planet Earth. For a few, it’s the small town, city or village in which they grew up. And for one, it’s a hermetically sealed bunker in the middle of a Californian desert. That one person is James Pope (Kyle Mooney, “Saturday Night Live”), and the film “Brigsby Bear” is a touching story about his discovery of the world outside the bunker.
“Brigsby Bear,” which initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last February, was presented as the closing film of the Semaine de Critics (Critic’s Week) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. On a balmy afternoon in the famed French Rivera, the Daily had the opportunity to sit down with the film’s creators: longtime friends Kyle Mooney, Dave McCary (writer: “Saturday Night Live”) and Kevin Costello (writer: “Brigsby Bear”), along with Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Stuck in Love”), who plays Detective Vogel in the film. Speaking with Mooney, McCary and Costello, it is clear that the strong themes of friendship and dreaming present on-screen are even more prevalent off-screen. The heart of “Brigsby Bear,” from its inception to the finished product, lies in the unique magic that is, as McCary puts it, “the passion for creativity that is discovered… and friends coming together.”
Before being rescued from his (unknowing) captivity, there are a few things about which James is certain: he loves his parents (captors), Ted (Mark Hamill, “Star Wars”) and Clare (Claire Danes, “Homeland”) and “Brigsby Bear,” the children’s television show he watches each day, is the best show in the world. He is not only the show’s ultimate fan — he runs an online “Brigsby” forum, fantasizes about the female heroine Arielle Smiles (Katie Lyn Shell, “House of Cards”), discusses fan theories rabidly — but also, he is the show’s only fan. Out of captivity and in the real world, it comes to light that “Brigsby Bear” had been made exclusively for James. Every single week since he was kidnapped, captor Ted created an episode of the nostalgic, weird, laser-infused pedagogical nonsense that is the TV show and presented it.
There’s the crux of the film. In Mooney’s words, “Brigsby Bear” is a movie “about a kid who watches this TV show that nobody has ever seen.”
James’s discovery that he is the show’s only watcher sets him on a journey to “find out how his favorite show is going to end,” according to Costello. This journey — motivated by a simple, pure desire — serves as the catalyst that acclimates James into a world he never knew existed, fosters his passion for filmmaking and harnesses the power of friendship. On why he chose this journey for James, Mooney explained that, “what this story allows us — not only do we get to see the progression of James and his life (but also) starting in one world and breaking into an entirely new universe that’s totally mysterious.”
He added a second, more personal reason on why this story: “We (Mooney, Costello, McCary) do love all of these children’s TV shows and videos.” It’s true. The trio’s love for this type of TV and video dates back to their younger days, when Mooney exposed Costello and McCary to his “extensive VHS collection.” The collection, says McCary, has some “really obscure thrift store finds that (they’ve) in turn become big fans of.”
Stylistic and thematic aspects of these “obscure thrift store” videos are central to both the script and finished film. Each collaborator — Costello, Mooney and McCary — connected differently with these videos. For McCary, it was “a nostalgia there because there were just puppeted, infinite kid’s videos back then. But also, they’re just disturbing… telling a kid how they should live their life in that vulnerable of an age, and telling a kid what they should believe.” Watching James struggle between what he was raised to believe and what he has come to know is an interesting paradox — and in a way, a completely normal part of growing up. Not everyone is raised in a bunker, but everyone ultimately experiences disillusionment with the world they thought they knew.
It’s for this reason that the film “Brigsby Bear” is so honest and relatable, despite its rather unconventional circumstances. The bunker feels like a unique framing device for a genuine coming-of-age story. It would have been easy to make the film about a “fish-out-of-water” and spend the whole time putting James into wacky situations. It’s probably what was expected, given the history of the long-time collaborators. McCary and Mooney are founders of the L.A. sketch comedy group “Good Neighbor” and now work together on “Saturday Night Live.”
A “SNL” brand film garners different expectations than what this film is. Even Greg Kinnear admits that, when his agent first approached him about the script, he was hesitant. “Just knowing from SNL, I thought it would be more gaggy and broad.” After reading the script, however, what impressed him was how “inspired and incredibly unexpected” the story was. The sincerity shone through.
The trio knew, from day one, that this was the approach they wanted. “It was important for us to never reach for jokes or get too silly, even though we have a background in comedy and we work at SNL… I think the most interesting version of this story to us was the most grounded,” McCary notes.
The decision to find comedy in a grounded situation was wise. It is a sign of a well-trained improviser and comedian: They look to find “truth in comedy” instead of simply the easiest joke. It’s because the creators stayed true to their roots — be it longtime friendship, comedy, or obsessions with VHS videos — that “Brigsby Bear” is much more than an off-beat indie festival film.
At the end of the interview, McCary and Mooney reflect on the process.
“It was very meta and surreal when we were in the premiere of our film. We’re sitting there watching the film about friends who discovered filmmaking together put on the premiere of their film while we’re watching, as best friends, and they’re best friends…” began McCary.
Mooney interjects, “…and they’re hoping their film is received well while we’re sitting there hoping our film within a film within a film within a film is received well.”
All of this, thanks to a giant robotic bear named “Brigsby.”
Interview has been condensed and edited for this article