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‘Brigsby Bear’: How Two Childhood Best Friends Sold Their Love Letter to Cinema to Sony Pictures Classics

Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary never dreamed they'd make a movie — let alone one that would debut at Sundance and sell to Sony Pictures Classics.

director Dave McCary, Beck Bennett, Michaela Watkins, Kyle Mooney, Jorge Londeborg Jr., Ryan Simpkins, Kate Lyn Sheil and Kevin Costello

Director Dave McCary, Beck Bennett, Michaela Watkins, Kyle Mooney, Jorge Londeborg Jr., Ryan Simpkins, Kate Lyn Sheil and Kevin Costello

Daniel Bergeron

Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary are well aware that keeping secrets in Hollywood can be a futile endeavor, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to keep too much information about their comedy “Brigsby Bear” from leaking to potential moviegoers. Armed with a deliberately thin official synopsis and a gleefully weird set of trailers, the filmmakers are eager for audiences to see their film without knowing too much beforehand, instead experiencing the special charms of “Brigsby Bear” with as little prejudice as possible.

It’s a pretty big ask for a movie that debuted over six months ago. It’s also part of the reason why the first-time filmmakers are so high on their distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, which made it clear from their first meeting that they were all-in on the childhood best friends’ big vision — even if it meant keeping mum on some of its most inventive twists. But it’s no spoiler to say that “Brigsby Bear” is a love letter to cinema, the power of nostalgia, and an endearing story about how people come together to create something magical. For star and writer Mooney and director McCary, it’s a perfect vehicle for their sensibilities, but it also provides a sweet peek inside their decades-long friendship.

“Saturday Night Live” regular Mooney co-wrote the film with Kevin Costello (another long-time pal, the trio first met in middle school in San Diego), casting himself as James, a lovable outcast who expertly blends weirdness with a disarming charm, the kind of character familiar to fans of his work on “Saturday Night Live.”

When we first meet James, he’s defined by his adoration for the long-running children’s show “Brigsby Bear,” a mash-up of kiddo TV classics that’s part detective show, part life lesson-delivery service, and just quirky enough to feel like something you’d watch as a kid on a lazy Saturday morning. But this “Brigsby Bear” isn’t actually familiar, because it’s a fake show (the hows and whys? that’s the secret). Eventually, James is forced to confront that reality, and it inspires him to do something kind of crazy: film his own movie version of it.

During their early years in San Diego, McCary and Mooney never dreamed of becoming comedians, though they did dabble in performing together, mostly through amusingly earnest hip hop jams. When they arrived in Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California (together, of course), Hollywood suddenly didn’t seem so far away, and neither did a comedy career. That changed when they turned their attention to improv and sketch comedy.

“Brigsby Bear”

“Growing up in San Diego, being an actor or something like that doesn’t feel super-realistic,” Mooney said. “But then, going to school there and being in LA and seeing kids respond to the material we were doing, it kind of felt like, ‘Maybe this can happen.'”

In 2007, they formed the sketch comedy group Good Neighbor alongside Beck Bennett and Nick Rutherford. The group earned a stellar rep around LA’s comedy scene, churning out amusing videos that showed off their brand of sweet, but kind of strange comedy. While they never made a pact to stick together, they soon realized it was the right thing for them.

“I think when you work enough on your doing freelance stuff on other films, you start to feel what it feels like to work with people who are not totally on the same page as you,” McCary said. “You’re not as much collaborating with them. It makes you miss that feeling of when everyone’s really on the same page and you have a little bit more control of what that final product is.”

After graduating, McCary turned his attention to editing gigs, while Mooney landed small roles in both TV and film. Still, working together was always what felt best to them.

“Every time we would work together, we’d tend to be proud of the thing that we put out,” McCary said. “We would really be behind it. When you just consistently feel what that feels like and know that it stems from the work you’re doing with your friends, then I think it’s just building in your subconscious, ‘Oh, that’s probably the route I want to go in.'”

Mooney and McCary also saw that sentiment reflected by others who had come before them, including Jimmy Kimmel, who took to the guys after they produced a handful of short videos for his “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

“At one point, Jimmy pulled us aside,” Mooney remembered. “He said something to the effect of, ‘You guys have a thing here, and the industry might try to pull you apart or encourage you to work independently, but stick with it. Stick together.'”

They heard the same thing from another group of comedians who had been pals since childhood, The Lonely Island. The former “SNL” trio — including Jorma Taccone, Andy Samberg, and Akiva Schaffer — are all credited producers on “Brigsby Bear,” a continuation of the long-standing relationship between the two groups, one initially formed while Good Neighbor was still trying to make it in LA. Their paths crossed often — Taccone directed an episode of “Parks and Recreation” that Mooney appeared on, he knew Bennett though a series of AT&T commercials they’d worked on together, and so on — and the trio were big fans from the start.

“Their stuff is so inspired and funny and weird and precise,” Taccone said. “We definitely try to go to bat for them as much as possible, so when it came time to recommend people to kind of replace us in a way on the show, they were the first – and only – that we recommended.” In 2013, Bennett and Mooney joined “SNL” as performers, with McCary coming on board the long-running NBC series as a director (Rutherford was hired as a writer the following year, and is the only one of the foursome to no longer work on “SNL”).

The two groups remained close, and when Mooney and Costello completed an early version of the script, Mooney was eager to show it them. Taccone immediately took to the material, and he also recognized the value of the Good Neighbor team making it together (Bennett has a supporting role in the film).

“I had one, I can just say, fairly drunken evening with Dave, Kyle, and Beck after one of their shows,” Taccone said with a laugh. “I was just adamantly yelling at them that they needed to make a movie together, and this was a huge opportunity, and they needed to use their summers and try to make a movie together. That was the first moment of just me screaming my weird opinions about what they needed to do.”

Mooney and McCary make no bones about the kind of doors the “SNL” name opened for them, especially when it came to casting their film with a number of big names, including Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, and Greg Kinnear. The pair consistently heard from their cast that “Brigsby” provided something special and unique that they were eager to see – Mooney remembered that, early on, Hamill was adamant he wanted to see the movie, though the duo couldn’t quite tell if he wanted to be in it. It worked out, especially after Mooney and McCary assured the actor that his prickly character would be treated with respect.

Kyle Mooney in Brigsby Bear

“Brigsby Bear”

Courtesy of Sundance

Made on a small budget — they won’t share the exact figure, but it’s fair to say that it’s far less than the $5 million price tag SPC paid for it in January — and with a cadre of dedicated producers, the film was shot in Utah in the summer of 2016 during the guys’ vacation from “SNL.”

While it wasn’t Mooney’s original intention to write a movie that’s as much about friendship as it is about the creative process – sound familiar? – “Brigsby Bear” eventually came to reflect Mooney and McCary’s own experiences in a charming way. “Towards the end of the scripting process, but definitely during the shooting of it, it felt like, ‘Oh, we’re mirroring our own experiences,'” Mooney said. “When were shooting scenes of the characters in the movie shooting scenes, it was like, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been doing for the past decade.'”

McCary added, “It was the energy that we were hoping to recreate of how it felt for us when we were just scrambling around, stealing shots at locations that we obviously didn’t have permits at, just making due with whatever we had, and not having money.”

The film was accepted into Sundance in late 2016, after McCary had hammered away at an edit while also pulling long hours at “SNL.” (He’s eager to not ever repeat that process, though he is happy with the results.) It bowed at the Eccles Theatre on the first Monday of the festival. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up three days later. While McCary, Mooney, and their other producers were more than happy to get attention from the specialty arm of Sony Pictures, known for auteur-driven cinema, they had one demand.

“When we sat down with Sony Pictures Classics, day one, before they bought the film, I remembered telling them, ‘In a perfect world, no one knows anything past the first 15 minutes,'” McCary said. “We knew that was a big swing. It was kind of a romantic idea to us that an audience could truly be in the dark with the James character as he’s going through this adventure.” SPC went for it.

“You could say it’s a risk, but it was a risk that I think everyone was willing to take,” Taccone said. “It’s such a cool experience to experience it for the first time. I know, having shown it to people who haven’t known the twist, how exciting it is to see them light up with the recognition of what’s happening.”

Mooney added, “We’ve had multiple people come up to us and tell us, ‘I went in knowing nothing, and I want to encourage other people to do the same, because there were turns I wasn’t expecting.'”

Mooney and McCary admitted that it was a bit of a sweetener that SPC went for their slightly wild idea, but that it also spoke to the larger sense that the distributor was on their same wavelength and ready to support the film at every turn. The real surprise was that SPC didn’t want them to change a thing.

“We didn’t want to position this in the world as a broad comedy,” McCary said. “I’ve always wanted to lean into the sincerity of the film. And they liked that idea, and they showed so much passion for the movie. They didn’t want us to change a thing about it.” The edit that hits release is the same one that bowed at Sundance. They know that’s a rarity.

While both Mooney and McCary are clear that they are still eager to work on projects independently, they do seem particularly enthused by what they’ve managed to build together. When asked about future projects, the pair started playfully bandying about ideas, from buddy comedies to anything that doesn’t require a period setting. Mostly, they just want to keep doing their thing. Together, if possible.

“I think we’re down to do whatever,” Mooney said. McCary nodded.

“Brigsby Bear” opens in theaters on Friday, July 28.

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