By Iain Blair
When Emmy-nominated writer and director Dave McCary, co-founder of the LA-based sketch comedy group Good Neighbor and in his fourth season at Saturday Night Live, decided to make his feature film debut, he picked the whimsical, heartfelt and charming comedy Brigsby Bear as the ideal project. It’s easy to see why. It has an imaginative, eccentric premise that ultimately pays off big time emotionally.
The story starts with a young man named James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the script) who lives in an isolated desert bunker with his parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who, we learn, kidnapped him when he was a baby. To keep James engaged, and to ensure he learns important life lessons, fake dad Ted creates a fake TV show just for James, called The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, which stars Ted in a fake bear suit.
Superfan James is obsessed with the clever if quaintly goofy kids’ show. After all, the bright, sensitive young adult still living at home has grown up with this fantasy series, and the program has grown with him as well — getting more complex over the years. But to say James’ intensely protective parents have kept their son a bit sheltered is a huge understatement, and reality inevitably invades their sanctuary.
One dramatic night, James’ insular world is upended when the police arrive and haul James and his “parents” off into the real one. After arresting Ted and April, a cop (Greg Kinnear) reunites James with his biological parents, and his new world and reality demands a major adjustment — especially when he realizes that his hero Brigsby Bear is pure fiction.
I recently talked to McCary, who began his career making shorts and then directing some 75 “digital shorts” over the last four years at SNL (along with countless YouTube clips with Mooney and the rest of the Good Neighbor sketch group), about making the film and his love of post.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
The most honest version of this very unique story. I wanted it to be emotional and sincere, and we knew that with a story like this, there’d be big comedic moments, but we never wanted to lean too much on them. We wanted audiences to stay with the earnestness of James and the film. So, more of a dramatic film than anything we’ve ever done.
Is it true you dropped out of film school and are largely self-taught?
I didn’t enjoy it very much and I did drop out; I had no interest in learning about all the minutia of every department. In terms of being self-taught, I guess I always felt it was more important to just do it while learning as you went, and making videos and shorts was kind of like my film school. So I learned a lot that way and by putting stuff on the Internet and having to deal with your vulnerability and people commenting on your stuff. And at SNL I’ve had a lot of experience with the shorts. So unlike a lot of first-time directors, I’ve been doing about three films’ worth of shorts.
Plus you have a bunch of very experienced directors and producers who worked on this.
Exactly, we had Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the Lego Movie guys who also did the 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs franchises, as well as the Lonely Island guys — Andy Samberg and the others — who did stuff like Dick in a Box at SNL, and they all mentored us through the whole process. They loved our vision and voice, and we always felt protected.
You have an amazing cast, including Claire Danes and Mark Hamill. Were you shocked they all came on board?
Not shocked, but very happy such big names wanted to be a part of it. I knew the script was so special, just on the page, because of the great writing, and I felt people would respond — and they did. Pretty much everyone we approached was very positive. Then doing SNL and dealing with big name guests helps you deal with it too. No one is coddled or put on a pedestal. It was fun and everyone stayed loose and knew exactly what our approach was.
You shot this on location in Salt Lake City. How tough was it?
It was just 23 days, so that was tough, and we were on a very tight budget. But we had five weeks of preproduction, and we were pretty organized.
Where did you post, and do you like the post process?
We did it all in New York at Light Iron since I was juggling SNL at the same time. I love post, going through all the material and shaping it, and I love working on all the sound and music in particular.
Can you talk about working for the first time with editor Jacob Craycroft, who’s cut over 20 films including Robert Altman’s swan song, A Prairie Home Companion. Was he on the set?
No, the turnaround was so crazy he began cutting scenes before we finished the shoot, so we sent him stuff and then we sat down together once I got back to New York for about four months. The big challenge was making sure we had the right tone throughout — which was crucial — and picking our spots for the comedy.
The goal was to keep the audience invested in James’ emotional journey, and every time you get too silly it takes away from the realism and the emotional aspects. It all had to be believable. I think the broad comedy version of this film just felt tired — the old fish-out-of-water comedy, so reliant on all the jokes. But I wanted this to be more a story about friendship, closure, nostalgia and falling in love with filmmaking.
Although it’s obviously not an effects-driven film, you must have needed some VFX?
Yes, and they were mostly done by my friend Andrew Sherman, a very accomplished VFX dude, and he tackled most of it. Then we had some help on a few meticulous shots — like the TV screens and so on — by Visual Creatures in LA.
How important is sound and music to you?
It’s one of my favorite parts of post, especially music, and going back and forth with composer David Wingo who’s so brilliant and who really got the tone perfectly. I didn’t want it to sound too whimsical. It’s a quirky film that needed the dramatic moments to be serviced with a sophisticated score, and he wrote this beautiful theme and constantly surprised us with beautiful pieces. I also love working on sound. I could mix forever. I always think there can be improvements, so you have to pick your priorities. Again, the goal was always realism. What sounds correct? So we did the least amount of manipulation.
How important was the DI to you?
To be honest, I just trusted DP Christian Sprenger and the team at Light Iron and colorist Ian Vertovec. They all did a great job with the look. I was very happy. Nothing ever turns out the exact way you originally picture it, and the film gradually evolved, but it ended up the way I hoped for the most part.
I’m reading scripts and trying to find that next special project. I’m also currently working on an untitled TV show that we hope to sell. I definitely want to direct more movies. After 10 years of directing shorts, I’m kind of sick of them.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.