After breaking out with their sketch comedy group Good Neighbor, Kyle Mooney and director/editor Dave McCray joined Saturday Night Live and helped create some of the most esoteric, pop culture-savvy parodies on the show in recent years. Anyone familiar with their work on SNL will recognize the same guiding hand behind their first feature film Brigsby Bear, the story of a boy (played by Mooney) who was abducted as a child then raised by kidnappers (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) who created an elaborate children's show just for him. It's one part Room, one part Be Kind Rewind, and one part homage to painstakingly-crafted '80s children's TV shows.
We talked to Mooney about the genesis for the project; what references they were drawing from to create the world of Brigsby Bear; the importance of playing the story straight and sincere; and what the last season of SNL was like behind the scenes.
What was the genesis for this movie? Let's see. It was a few years ago... if I were to put a number on it, I would guess 2011. I started to have this concept of a kid who's obsessed with a TV show and he's the only person who's seen it and it's made by people in his life. And also, generally speaking, I'm really into children's entertainment from the '80s and '90s, so that played a role in developing that world. But I pitched the idea to my friend and co-writer Kevin Costello in the spring of '13. And then I got hired by SNL not long after and then we basically were back and forth writing the whole thing.
So much of the movie feels, at times, like a love letter to intense fandoms and to embracing your obsessions. Were you drawing from something in your real life? Yeah. I am generally a nostalgic person and super into the pop culture that I grew up on—I've got a framed ALF poster above my bed and a Mickey Mouse poster, and I've got this big VHS collection. I was a kid who was just super into things and I feel like every few months, I would get obsessed with something new, you know what I mean? And at first, it was maybe Transformers or He-Man and then would become yo-yos or baseball cards. There was always something that I would get really into and fully invest myself in.
Is there any negative side to investing heavily in nostalgia? The tough thing for me, and I'm speaking only as myself, is just that sometimes there are references that nobody else knows, and so you can't share that joy. Or also, people just aren't as into it as you are, so it doesn't have that same emotional quality or resonance. It's interesting. In this movie, for instance, the director, Dave McCary, I've worked with for a long time—I grew up with him, he and I have been best friends since sixth grade or something like that. But, he's not the same as me...we were both into baseball cards at the same time, but everything else, he's not super into. But I think he can appreciate the fact that I was really into these cartoons and TV shows and movies and stuff.
Were there any pop culture references in particular that you drew from for Brigsby Bear the show? We truly threw everything in we could find. We were constantly sending YouTube references to our art people and our cinematographer. One thing that we kept on going back to was there's this live-action Teddy Ruxpin special from the mid-'80s, that served as, in essence, a pilot for a show that never became a thing because it was too expensive. They did end up having an animated Teddy Ruxpin series, but that was something else.
There were a couple Disney channel shows back in the day I watched a lot, like Welcome to Pooh Corner, which was like a live-action Winnie the Pooh show, and another one called Dumbo's Circus and all kind of similar technology to what Brigsby is, where it's like a person in a costume and an animatronic face.
I also saw some shades of Teletubbies in there...especially with the Sunsnatcher. That was in there for sure. Didn't they have a baby in the sun, is that what it was And when we trying to figure out what that character looked like, Sunsnatcher, I definitely grabbed some Teletubby jpegs.
What was it like getting Mark Hamill to play a giant, evil sun? The role that Mark Hamill plays, Ted, is a very specific character and it kind of requires an eccentric and somebody who can also seem like a genius and we always wanted somebody who you just wouldn't think of or expect. And I feel like Mark is so closely tied to Luke Skywalker that you forget about him doing other things. It's fun to see him do something else. With that being said, there's also this fun layer: the main character, James is obsessed with Brigsby Bear, and assumes, "Who isn't?" Mark adds this layer, because there are so many superfans of Star Wars, who isn't a fan of that? But he was also perfect for it because he obviously is an accomplished voice actor. That was a big thing for casting was figuring out who could do something like that.
We only get so many glimpses of the actual Brigsby videos in the movie, but they were often, for me, one of the funniest things in the film. Especially because they had these completely bizarre morals and lessons like, "Curiosity is an unnatural emotion." How thoroughly did you plan out or write out the Brigsby universe? James makes so many quick, dense references to it. Kevin, my co-writer, did a pretty good job of building that world, and so we had a very basic bible of what the show was. But, that was one of the fun things about creating that universe— that show, in theory, has been on for 20 years or something like that. It started out very rudimentary and then becomes much more elaborate with these storylines, so it was fun just coming up with that jargon. Alien species and stuff. It's like coming up with our own Star Wars characters or something like that.
One of the things that most struck me about the film was the tone. To some degree, the film feels like an extension of some of the work you've done on SNL, like the Full House parodies. But this struck me as far more dramatic and sincere, with moments of deep melancholy. I felt myself pretty moved by some things that were happening in a way that I didn't ever expect to get out of it. What were you aiming for in terms of balancing the tones of the film, and were you worried about people bringing in certain ideas about you because of your work on SNL? Well, thank you. I think an important thing for us throughout the process—this is Dave's first movie as a director, this is my first movie as a writer and star—we really wanted everything to be as earnest as possible.
We love broad comedy, certainly, but we felt like we had this fun, different idea. Just the premise of the movie alone is something that always felt like, well if this really happened in real life, this would be a really fascinating story and it would be something that I, Kyle Mooney, would be intrigued by. I would want to see this TV show that this guy made, and I think we just wanted to do all of that justice. And Dave, to his credit, really pushed for us trying to play everything as straight as possible when we could and maintaining that tone.
But that's been one of the special things for us: that people come away from it saying something like, "Oh, it's different than I expected. It's sweeter. It's heartwarming." So, I love that. And also, hopefully, for me as a creator or artist, this serves an example of me not wanting to put myself in any boxes, like I only want to do sketch comedy or parodies or something like that.
Yeah, the sincerity definitely comes across. There's also a deep well of empathy for James from just about everyone in the film. For a story that's dealing, at its core, with child kidnapping, that's a story beat where you're walking a really fine tight rope. But most of the adults in the film, even the "bad" guys, are pretty understanding of what James is going through. The therapist played by Claire Danes, even the high schoolers—these are like the sweetest high schoolers I've ever seen. Yeah, in terms of the high schoolers, I feel like you get a taste of the idea that there could be some people in that world who would be cruel to James, but I think we were operating under the idea that James' story is fascinating and cool and obviously dark, and most people would respond the way we would. There would probably be people out there that want to say, "Whoa man, that's crazy," and want to be there for that type of person. And we also, in James' world at the beginning of the movie [with his fake parents], we wanted to make those characters likable too, because James loves that world. There's not necessarily a full-on bad guy, per se.
Which is a really interesting, different kind of way of approaching this kind of story. Considering there's now a long legacy of comedians jumping from SNL to feature films, were there any pitfalls that you were trying to avoid with your first film? Well, generally, I'll say I'm happy that it was our thing. I feel like maybe a couple years down the line, I could have gotten cast in something that I didn't have much say over what it was going to be and that could have been the nail in the coffin, you know what I mean? But there are so many people from that show who have done fun first movies. I think of Billy Madison, I love that movie, or Tommy Boy, something like that. Or Wayne's World. Those are all great.
What has the atmosphere at SNL been like during this last politically charged season compared to your first couple years there? It was intense this past year. The difficult thing as a writer or performer is just that, because there's so much happening in the world, a lot of the real estate of the show is dedicated to that. But, generally, I think everybody was on board and felt like there was the opportunity to do interesting things and to be a voice for something important. And every week, there was something new.
Yeah. Were you worried at all about a Trump burnout? Me, personally? Yeah. I mean, yes and no. I don't know.
I know it's a complex subject around SNL these days. I love the runner with you and Leslie Jones all season. Was that something you guys had written together? Well, we're actually together, so.
Oh, I see. So it's more... It was more just a pure documentary of our lives.
I just read an article somewhere that said she has a secret boyfriend. So I apologize if I've outed you. [Laughs] I don't know. Sometimes we live on separate coasts, so I don't know exactly what she's up to all the time or who she's seeing. But the sketch was just a fun idea. I enjoy working with her and anytime I felt like we were together it just felt like a weird pairing and a fun pairing, so yeah. I think for the first one, Dave and I pitched her the idea of doing something like that and then she helped out and obviously we draw from our real lives.
And everything you guys do together. Yes.
I thought it was especially cool because I can't think of too many runners like that throughout a whole season. Once in a while you'll have some continuing bits going on throughout an episode, but to be woven into the background of a lot of different random sketches like this was, that seemed fresh to me. It opened a door to more possibilities of places you could go with the show. Certainly, yeah, that's what made it so enjoyable is being able to hint at these small things. Just being able to insert it randomly was really fun. As an audience member, I can imagine myself being fascinated by the goings on of the cast and behind the scenes, even if it gets surreal in nature.
Is SNL a gig you could see yourself doing for a long time? I don't know. I love it right now. I enjoy everybody there. I think they're some of the funniest people around. But, I truly don't think too much into [the future]. For the sake of this project, it's like...we'll see how this goes. I have no idea what the turnout of this movie will be.
Brigsby Bear is in select theaters on July 28th