By Laura Blum
It’s a mainstay of the screenwriting rulebook that a protagonist must undergo special change. But such rules are meant to be broken, and Brigsby Bear, the winsome first feature from Dave McCary, makes the case for non-conformity. That’s because James, the man-child at the center of the story, remains true to who he is while the surrounding characters embrace his quirks and trace the bolder transformative arc.
There’s a reason for James’ tenacity. We meet him in the last stretch of his bizarre coming of age with the couple (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who abducted him at birth. Holed up in a bunker, where he has lived ever since, the tender youth is fixated on a fantasy series called Brigsby Bear Adventures. It stars a talking toy bear -- think Teddy Ruxpin on growth hormones – and twin sisters (Kate Lyn Sheil) who battle a nefarious planetary being. James has never seen another show, nor has he encountered real humans besides his presumed mom and dad.
At least not until law enforcement storms the premises and James is reunited with his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins). Suddenly his world includes a sister (Ryan Simpkins), a social worker (Claire Danes, a detective (Greg Kinnear) and his first-ever friend, digital artist Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). It’s a lot to absorb.
But learning the truth about Brigsby delivers the biggest punch. James soon resolves to complete his adored bear’s exploits in a film. The project is just whack enough to attract a posse of fellow creatives. That James’ arrested development is what moves him forward supplies a delicious plot twist.
Thankfully, irony doesn’t extend to the tone of movie. Scripted by Kyle Mooney, who plays James, together with debut screenwriter Kevin Costello, it restores a gentler tradition of affability and guilelessness that’s largely absent from current productions. Snark? Cynicism? Brigsby Bear doesn’t go there. Instead, it earns its hipster cred by touting creativity, collaboration and compulsion. During a recent sit down in New York, thalo.com asked McCary about this unlikely innovation.
thalo.com: How did you arrive at Brigsby Bear’s sensibility? It manages to be deadpan, like your and Kyle’s Good Neighbor Comedy improv pieces and Saturday Night Live video sketches Inside SoCal and Miley SexTape. But at the same time, it’s unapologetically sweet and genuine.
Dave McCary: I always knew I wanted to tell the most sincere version of the story and not lean too heavily into the comedy. The expectation is that we would try to get as many laughs as possible. Having made comedic sketches for 10 years, I’ve naturally evolved to where I’m more interested in the human condition.
th: How did you influence the script?
DM: From day one I was reading the script with a dramatic eye. I was like, How can we play this like it’s a real national news story?
th: Thirty-five years after Teddy Ruxpin first hit toy shelves, a new version is due out this July. Coincidence? Or did you time your film’s release to that of the iconic bear?
DM: No. Didn’t know about it. There are so many childhood bears: Welcome to Pooh Corner; the live-action Winnie the Pooh; The Berenstain Bears; The Country Bears, this obscure Christian VHS series that Kyle found in a thrift shop, called The Adventures of Prayer Bear, to name a few. We had an obsession over the years in finding weird regional children’s shows.
th: Prayer Bear, huh?
DM: My father’s a minister, and I grew up on a lot of those types of shows. McGee and Me! was a popular Christian series that featured an imaginary friend who taught good values. I rebelled for the most part against organized religion, but I appreciated that my father preached good values and acceptance, though I was also fascinated by darkness. That was a facet of life I don’t think I was exposed to. I was always yearing to see the depths of emotional range of the human condition. It’s harder to receive that when the stuff your parents are curating for you is pretty soft.
th: Did you relate to the brainwashing theme?
DM: “Brianwashed” is probably too strong, but I connected with yearning for what’s out there. My parents let me go to public school. They let me watch pop culture, like Friends and Seinfeld. I wasn’t completely cut off form the world. It’s just that the darkest stuff -- the independent films that tackled the scarier parts of life -- my parents had a fear about me seeing that. There was an age when I wanted to see R-rated movies, but they had a fear that seeing a sex scene could be a gateway to me becoming some sex-crazed maniac, which was far-fetched. But they did do a great job of creating an environment that was full of great values. So I didn’t feel I was at risk of going off the deep end by being exposed to anything.
th: What interested you about the theme of male fragility?
DM: I feel like a vulnerable person, and I’ll always be drawn to vulnerable characters.
th: The Suncatcher villain in “Brigsy Bear’s Adventures” resembles the man in the moon from Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon. Was this intended as an homage?
DM: We definitely looked at A Trip to the Moon when we built the design for that character. It’s not so much about homage than that we wanted a sun-like villain. Even the Teletubbies had a sun baby. The question we were asking was, What would Ted derive from pop culture that would allow him to brainwash his kid into embracing a certain point of view? We were probably more inspired by daily vlogs and funny, insecure mannerisms of people in our lives and characters we grew up with than by any vintage classic.
th: What were some of the art sources for the film?
DM: My earliest memory of loving anything artistic was Shel Silverstein. His drawings and children’s poetry were minimalist and sweet and thoughtful. When I was 16 or 17 and first got into weed, that’s also when I first got exposed to independent films. I had never seen a non-blockbuster movie up until that point. I didn’t even know there were avant-garde films.
th: What was the first arthouse film that you saw?
DM: I remember the stretch of time when I saw things like Being John Malkovich and Adapation. They completely changed my life. Or Todd Solondz’s movie Welcome to the Dollhouse -- I had never seen a movie where a main character was going through constant hell. Anyone who grows up with insecurities can access something like that.
th: Did you source any particular film for Brigsby Bear?
DM: Hal Ashby’s Being There was a huge inspiration. The idea of surrounding a fish-out-of-water character with dramatic actors and not making the general tone overtly silly, that impressed me. Even though there’s obviously comedy in what Peter Sellars is doing, you’re still studying the reality of a fish-out-of-water experience instead of leaning into the jokiness of it.
th: Anything else?
DM: It’s a mixture of The Truman Show in the sense of everything being made for him. We also talked about Dogtooth, though that movie is more of an abstract expression of being abducted. We definitely didn’t go that far into the intensity of being abducted.
th: What are some of the visual choices you went for that make Brigsby Bear digestible?
DM: We wanted to utilize as much natural light as possible, and we didn’t want it to look too bright or broad. It’s easier to stay connected with the emotionality of a story when you believe it’s really happening. Christian Sprenger, our DP, is great at realism. In a lot of studio pictures, there can be a fear of showing darkness or pain in a scene without everything being vibrantly clear. But sometimes a conversation happens not to be the most exciting exchange, or a face isn’t seen in full view. So many of my favorite directors know how to make a scene feel honest, like Spike Jones or Hal Ashby or Paul Thomas Anderson. The moment you blast light into someone’s face, you’re in a heightened reality and the emotions start to feel less authentic. I will forever try to have an absence of overstylization.
th: Another departure from movie convention is that the main transformative arc happens not to the main character, but to those around him.
DM: It was fun to think of the story as a coming of age not only for James, but for everyone whose life he touches. Just seeing anyone in your life be so creatively inspired will rub off on the people around them. You only want to root for someone who believes so hard in whatever they’re passionate about.
th: Jame’s arc is that he embraces friends. Did you envision more for him?
DM: That’s the thing: from the beginning we see that he’s obsessed with his favorite childhood hero. And at the end of movie, he’s still obsessed with his favorite childhood hero.
th: Paradoxically, though, staying stuck is what allows him to develop -- socially.
DM: Yeah, and the development for the family is that they understand this. At first James’s birth parents are trying to keep him away from this television show because of what it represents to their history and to his history. But they’re doing it out of love. So the most villainesque thing that’s happening to this kid is that loving people in his life are lovingly trying to do what they think is best for him. Then they come to see that what’s best for him for them to embrace this passion that he has.
th: Not even (James’s male abductor) Ted is categorically evil. After all, he’s the one who tells James, “We have dreams and imaginations to help us escape, and no one can take that away from you, ever.”
DM: We thought it was so fascinating to have someone do such an awful thing, but also be sympathetic and loving. We wanted to make sure that our audience felt that these people did a terrible thing, but they did it out of love. And they truly believe that there’s something so dangerous out in the world that the positives of keeping this child isolated outweighed the negatives.
th: How did you build the kidnapper characters?
DM: The most important thing with these characters was not to make them heinous or despicable, but to ground them. Ted has some Jim Henson in him, but he also has this weird worldview and he abducted a child. How would that play out? What if he wanted to fulfill some of his creative passion because he’s an artistic guy, but he also used it to as tool to preach his point of view? -- just like these obscure Christian videos we were talking about. We tried to look at that as realistically as possible: What if a guy who was out there off the grid still wanted to do what’s right for his kid, but his version of right is so skewed?
th: What was the thinking behind casting Mark Richard Hamill? How much of a factor was it that he’s the orignal Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker?
DM: We wanted someone who had a peculiar sensibility and whom you don’t often get a chance to see in a role like this. We also wanted someone who had a past with voice acting. Mark does Joker in the animated Batman series, on top of other great voiceover work that he’s done. The movie has so much connective tissue to everyone’s childhood nostalgia, growing up with your favorite action hero or sports hero. Mark obviously represents the zeitgeist and is one of the few poster childs for fandom. It was an unbelievable experience to work with him. We were so grateful that he saw what we saw.
th: What was their original spark for the story?
DM: Kyle had the seed of the idea five years ago: What if a television show was made for only me by my parents? Around that time we were hired by SNL. Kevin Costello was our screenwriter friend from childhood. Kyle smartly said, While we’re at SNL let’s give him a three-page breakdown of the ideas. Kevin wrote a first draft while we were at SNL, and Kyle and he backed and forthed for a few years.
th: What do you most want people to take away from this film?
DM: Hopefully there are some general lessons about how to treat one another. Embracing someone’s oddities can really help that person evolve into a wonderful man or woman.
th: These days that’s a political statement.
DM: At Sundance, there were so many films that were tackling much more important current subjects. But afterwards I realized that in a way the movie connects with people politically in that it’s a good touchstone for how to treat one another.
th: The movie also champions DIY filmmaking, both in its message and in its production backstory. How has this creative ethos fueled your craft and career?
DM: I went to the Brooks Institute of Photography and dropped out two years in. I realized that everything you can learn in film school you can pretty much learn online or in YouTube tutorials or just by doing it yourself. Ten years earlier you couldn’t search: How can I troubleshoot this editing issue that I’m having? and get the answer immediately. But it was just hitting that point where every answer to any question about filmmaking was pretty readily accessible. I also came to realize that in the film industry no one cares if you went to school. They just want to see your work and your personality.
th: Would you recommend this approach over filmmaking school?
DM: I personally would, but I don’t want to deter people from doing film school.
Just going out and experimenting was so instrumental to our growth as filmmakers. You can’t really can’t get to the point of making good art till you make mistakes.
1) Kyle Mooney as James in Dave McCary’s “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
2) Kyle Mooney as James and Mark Hamill as Ted Mitchum in “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
3) Kate Lyn Shel as Arielle Smiles with Brigsby Bear in “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
4) Suncatcher in “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
5) (L-R) Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary on the set of “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.