‘Brigsby Bear’ Is a Heartfelt and Humorous Celebration of Friendship and Filmmaking
“Whimsical” and “imaginative” may not be words one would expect to describe a film about a kidnapping victim, but hardly anything is what one expects in the world of “Brigsby Bear.” The dramedy follows James (Kyle Mooney), a young man who has spent the first 25 years or so of his life living in a bunker with only his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), for company. James has a gift for math, but his real passion in life is “Brigsby Bear,” a show within a show that features a talking bear who saves the world and imparts valuable wisdom. In a bedroom that looks like something out of “Stranger Things,” James uses an outdated desktop to communicate with fellow “Brigsby Bear” fans and discuss theories. The whole bunker has the look of a Wes Anderson film, complete with playful-looking foxes that can only be viewed from a glass bubble created by Ted, who we later learn is a toy inventor.
James’ world comes tumbling down after the FBI invade his home and he learns not only is the outside air not poisonous as he was taught to believe, but also that his strange but loving parents kidnapped him as a baby. Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) returns him to his biological family, parents Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins) and teen sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Similar to Ellie Kemper’s character on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” James finds himself navigating a complex new world as a millennial who is basically emotionally and socially still a teenager. Unlike Kimmy, however, only one thing really excites James: movies. Pre-rescue, the only moving image he ever saw was of Brigsby, but a trip to the local multiplex with his dad opens up a whole new world for him. After his therapist (Claire Danes) reveals that “Brigsby Bear” was created by Ted exclusively for him, James becomes obsessed with making a Brigsby film, a project that will help him find closure. Assisting him with this ambitious endeavor are some new friends he meets through Aubrey, including cool kid Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). Detective Vogel also helps him out by procuring props and videos that were confiscated as evidence, as his duties as a man of the law hilariously conflict with his desire to be a part of James’ film, so infectious is the younger man’s enthusiasm.
“Brigsby Bear” is not just a celebration of creativity, but of friendship. So it’s fitting that Mooney should make the film with his own pals, including director Dave McCary, whom he has known since the age of ten. After years of doing improv and making viral videos together, their efforts paid off in 2013 when they were both hired by “Saturday Night Live,” Mooney as a performer/writer and McCary as a writer/director.
Mooney and McCary recently opened up to “Entertainment Voice” about their journey in making their first feature together. McCary discussed the importance of creativity. “We definitely drew from our experience of falling in love with filmmaking together. We’re very meticulous, precious people with our videos. I think with anyone, regardless of how much you like the comedy or the story of someone who’s a creator or a filmmaker, if you see how much love they put into what they do, it’s so much more charming than when you can sense the laziness of someone…”
Some of the most touching scenes in the film involve the socially awkward James realizing that he has found true friendship with Spencer and others, forged in no small part to “Brigsby Bear,” a show that his peers have come to love and appreciate after Spencer uploads videos onto YouTube. Art imitates life here, as Mooney explains how a shared love of creative works cemented his and McCary’s friendship when they were young boys in San Diego years before they ever picked up a camera. “Maybe [Dave and I] didn’t become creative together until we were in middle school or high school, but [creativity] has been a constant through-line and a way to relate to one another, and also the love of other people being creative had been something to share between us, whether it’s music or movies or TV shows from when we were kids, it has just been a way to add that extra layer to a friendship that’s not just, ‘Hey, man, I’ll see you at the party.’”
What really makes “Brigsby Bear” is Mooney’s performance, as he plays the endearingly awkward James with so much heart. While much humor comes from James’ eccentricities and difficulties in picking up on social cues, it was important to Mooney and McCary that he not be an object of ridicule. “There is a theme in this movie of accepting outsiderness, so why make him a joke?” Explained Mooney. “With this character, him experiencing the world around him, there’s going to be inherent comedy, so we don’t need to poke fun.”
An example of a scene that could have been played for laughs but came out oddly touching involves James tracking down the actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) Ted had employed for years to play Brigsby’s twin sidekicks. Mooney lets his vulnerability come through as he convinces the young woman, who is a diner waitress in real life, to be a part of his film before making a confession.
McCary spoke on his and Mooney’s own outsider status and how it shaped “Brigsby Bear.” “I think we’ve also been very fortunate to be embraced by our friends and families throughout the course of our aspiring filmmaker journey. Our voice has always been a little off and not totally accessible to wide audiences, but we’ve felt so much love from people and support in going after our more bizarre characters and ideas. Even though we are on ‘SNL,’ which is this big institution, we’ve been kind of validated in that way, we do feel that we are somewhat separate from the show. The main audience for the show doesn’t love our stuff necessarily, but internally, all of our friends and the higher-ups at the show have embraced us and supported us so much. I think that kind of feeling that we felt throughout our lives comes across in the movie.”
Although they are entirely different animals in a lot of ways, to Mooney, writing a screenplay isn’t dramatically different from penning sketch. “I would like to think that most sketches we write, there are usually character-driven, and when you’re writing something from the standpoint of a particular character, one thing that is so important to us, I feel, is just to be as honest and true to that character as you can and to not allow him or her to say something that would seem out of character, or to just go for a joke in a way that person would not really speak, and I definitely feel like I took that to the experience of writing a screenplay… The added thing is now we have to add a bunch more characters and a story.”
McCary explained how it’s less about the jokes per minute and more about the long game when it comes to their writing, a style that is more conducive to screenwriting. “That doesn’t work as much on a format like ‘SNL,’ because that’s not what the audience goes to that show to see, while in film, you have the luxury that people want to be drawn into the story and the emotional journey, and the honesty of that adventure…”
Part of the filmmaking process involves cutting scenes out for the sake of pacing, and this can be particularly hard when it comes to comedy. McCary and Mooney revealed that they had to get rid of one of their funniest scenes in post, but it was worth it in the end. Recalled McCary, “That was not tough to lift, because it was so clear that the momentum of the film was hurt by that scene, and even if it was a funny scene, it did the story a disservice because immediately you are not feeling the realism that up to that point we felt that we had somewhat achieved, and then you get to this scene that is the most silly.”
Added Mooney, “I love taking stuff out. Anytime I can cut something- I’m constantly thinking speed, and am just like, ‘Let’s get through this. I don’t want to watch this anymore.’ I’m not too precious about that stuff. Sometimes somebody will suggest a moment to get rid of, and I’m like, ‘Nooo,’ but I’m usually pretty good about not caring.”
Part of what makes “Brigsby Bear” such a special film is the look, and a big part of that is thanks to the bear himself. “It’s so heavy. It’s an $80,000 head,” said McCary of the intricate Brigsby head that was created by an amazing team of prop masters. “[There’s a] rigged remote control that operates the eyebrows, eyelids, eyes and mouth. It’s so uncomfortable for whoever is wearing it because you can’t see out of it. We had to use a stunt head [for scenes in which he is] running around.”
“Brigsby Bear” opens July 28 in Los Angeles and New York with a nationwide release to follow.