Mark Hamill Brigsby Bear
Cast: Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Andy Samberg, Claire Danes
Director: Dave McCary
Running Time: 97 minutes
Synopsis: Childhood is when impressionable minds open widest to the mesmerizing power of entertainment. Nearly everyone can recall connecting with a show so completely it feels like a magical world created just for you.
But what if it actually was?
Superfan James is obsessed with the clever if quaintly goofy kids' show Brigsby Bear to the point of religiosity. A bright, sensitive young adult still living at home, he 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 an understatement.
One dramatic night, James' insular world is upended. Through the disorienting but sporadically hilarious transition to a new life that follows, Brigsby remains James' security blanket and, upon learning the series has been cancelled, he adopts the old adage that the show must go on. Family members and authority figures fret over James' fixation, but by becoming Brigsby Bear's new creator instead of just a viewer in the dark, he finally accesses all the meaningful connections his life has lacked. By telling his story, James repairs it " producing in the process an inventively offbeat and profoundly uplifting love letter to the redemptive power of creativity.
Release Date: September 21st, 2017
About The Production
'I am an incredibly nostalgic person," declares Kyle Mooney " and the Saturday Night Live cast member has the vintage VHS collection to prove it.
Spanning obscure oddities and popular children's classics from the -80s and -90s, this eclectic and still-growing stockpile, culled largely from dusty thrift shop shelves, 'brings me back to an innocent time when I was truly happy and would just be lost in my imagination and the characters and universes on screen."
Something in the alchemy of that innocent spirit and those grainy VHS aesthetics triggered a spark. 'I don't really know where ideas come from," Brigsby Bear's star and co-writer insists, 'but this concept kind of blossomed from my vision of a kid obsessed with a TV show made by his parents that no one else has ever seen."
Since the dawn of language, adults have been telling stories to children. Whether beside a flickering nighttime fire a thousand years ago or through a flickering television screen on Saturday mornings, the cycle of life has included roughly the same process of maturity. As we grow up, we grow out of the limitless possibilities in our childhood imagination to inevitably realize that stories " whether Aesop's fables or Star Wars " are just the inventions of people. We disengage.
There is an exception, though: that stubborn breed known as artists. And in that allegorical regard, the peculiar journey of James, Brigsby Bear's protagonist, is just a heightened expression of something far more universal.
'Kyle is deeply into weird, never-before-seen VHS stuff and old kids shows, and I am as well," says director Dave McCary, not only a co-founder of Mooney's breakout sketch comedy group Good Neighbor and his current colleague at SNL, but also his best friend since 4th grade. ('We were rival class clowns in 5th grade," Mooney relays, 'then at some point in middle school he sacrificed the spotlight to me and decided he wanted to be behind the camera.")
'I think we all grew up obsessing over pop culture and searching for something greater than ourselves in that obsession," adds Brigsby Bear's co-writer Kevin Costello, who initially befriended Mooney and Dave McCary when he transferred to their school in 7th grade. 'I've never felt such a profound connection to a character. I saw so much of my experience and point of view in James. What he wants is so simple, but says so much about the nature of art and identity." And friendship. There are a number of longstanding friendships at the core of this project, but Dave McCary relays that his close bond with Mooney was 'probably the most special part of this collaboration." At SNL, Dave McCary has directed about 70 'Digital Shorts" over the last four years, and before that countless YouTube clips with Mooney and the rest of the Good Neighbor sketch group, including performers Beck Bennett and Nick Rutherford, who also joined Brigsby Bear as actors.
'Creatively, Kyle Mooney and I kind of found our voice together through literally twenty years of making music and videos with each other, so reaching what felt like the pinnacle of that partnership with this project was really exciting and heartwarming."
While the core creative team's roots extend all the way back to middle school in San Diego, Brigsby Bear really started to take shape in 2013 in Los Angeles. 'I pitched Kevin the idea in the spring," says Kyle Mooney, 'and I think by about the summer of 2015 we had a completed draft we both felt good about."
'Kyle Mooney and I met for lunch at Greenblatt's Deli that March," recalls Kevin Costello 'and I remember immediately responding to the world of this outsider-art children's show, thinking how much fun that could be. Then he sent me the beginnings of a story treatment, and it struck me in this very personal, emotional way I wasn't expecting at all."
Says Kyle Mooney: 'Kevin Costello was able to take what was just the seed of an idea and pump it out to something much bigger and more real and more dynamic. He's a natural storyteller with a good mind for all of the important story and character things that I just gloss over in my head. The idea of writing a screenplay was incredibly daunting to me. If it wasn't for Kevin Costello's consistent work on the project over the course of three years we never would have completed a decent screenplay, or a movie to call our own."
Kevin Costello, meanwhile, was guided and inspired by Kyle Mooney's ability to embody James in the room, improvising ideas and dialog at length. 'When Kyle Mooney and I were together working on a scene, he could slip into character and try stuff out, or find things spontaneously, which was great. There are challenges to that kind of stop-and-go pace, but whenever we were able to be in the same room working on it, there was so much fun and enthusiasm, and I always looked forward to it."
'Then, when I would go off and take passes and explore on my own," Kevin Costello continues, 'the guiding principal was always to keep things simple and clear and emotionally grounded, so we could then go back and play around with the delivery and specificity."
As a director, Dave McCary knew well 'all the steps of falling in love with filmmaking and working with friends" that James experiences in the story. 'I dropped out of film school two years in and I was just more interested in figuring it out by myself. Luckily, YouTube was just kind of hitting the ground running and tutorials would surface on pretty much anything. If ever I had a snag in editing or with a camera I could always learn it from the Internet, and I realised how much a waste of money film school was."
So while Dave McCary's journey to self-produced video success with Good Neighbor was not as extreme or challenged as James' path, some fairly close parallels in DIY drive and determination still stand out. On that level, Brigsby Bear is a tribute to the YouTube generation, those motivated millennials who, emancipated by accessible technology and social media platforms, have charged bravely into being active content creators instead of just passive consumers. Determined to turn their reasonably polished script into a feature film, Kyle Mooney, Kevin Costello, and Dave McCary reached out to production companies, mindful that such unconventional material coupled with a first-time feature director could be a hard sell. Fortunately, two highly accomplished, uniquely sympathetic sets of admirers responded favorably right off the bat.
'Lonely Island had already paved the way for YouTube sketch comedy success," explains Dave McCary. 'We were big fans of theirs and had watched them succeed as they created a following on the Internet, got discovered by SNL, and then thrived on SNL. That path both inspired and validated our ambition to make these shitty little videos," he says, self-effacingly. It was certainly a turning point for Good Neighbor when Lonely Island came across some of their online clips and struck up a friendship. Even better, 'they were really helpful in spreading the word about our comedy at SNL," notes Kyle Mooney. Now having made their mark in feature films, the Lonely Island team were once again generously holding the door open like big brothers.
'Akiva was on set the first week, and it was so comforting having an established director around to look after us," Kyle Mooney relays. 'Jorma came through to direct the Hockey High movie within a movie, and Andy was so fun on set when we did his scenes. They were all super helpful in post as well, completely supportive of what we were doing and making sure our voice was heard and protected throughout the process."
There are certainly special qualities in Brigsby Bear that likely would not have survived a traditional Hollywood development process. 'And it's definitely very special that one of our first inspirations, the Lonely Island dudes, ended up being so instrumental in getting this movie made and mentoring us through that process," Dave McCary insists.
'They really took us under their wing," agrees Kevin Costello. 'They helped and encouraged us every step of the way, flying out to set, sitting in the editing room and generally being super cool and fun buddies to hang with and learn from."
Lonely Island brought the film to 3311 Productions, who came on board to finance and produce the project with them. 'Given their vast knowledge of the independent filmmaking process and business, having 3311 sign on gave us a valuable partner and, alongside YL Pictures, it was really special to have such incredible support and positive energy from our financiers," notes Dave McCary.
At the same time the Lonely Island trio relayed interest in producing, another powerhouse creative team stepped up. Arguably, there is no one hotter in Hollywood at this moment than Phil Lord and Chris Miller. As directors, the veteran TV scribes scored big with 21 Jump Street and are currently helming the Untitled Han Solo Movie. But writing and directing The Lego Movie not only gave them a colossal, franchise-launching smash, it demonstrated that they too have a special affinity for playful childhood nostalgia as creative subject matter. (Their latest TV project, the decidedly He-Man-esque Son of Zorn, only underscores the point.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their background, Phil Lord and Chris Miller were especially helpful in polishing plot points. 'They know story so well, it was clutch hearing their thoughts," praises Mooney. 'They contributed a lot to getting the script exactly where it needed to be."
'They were about to head to the UK to get started on Han Solo," says Costello, 'but were still able to get very hands-on with these extensive, amazing, deep-read notes along the way that really helped us out."
Coming under the wings of Lonely Island and Lord Miller brought relationships to the table that helped attract a stellar cast despite Brigsby Bear's modest budget and tight shooting schedule. And there was probably no casting challenge more difficult, or important, to get exactly right than James' father, Ted.
As Dave McCary notes: 'It's a complicated role and we felt that character's presence called for being both warm and odd in very specific ways. So, to say the very least, getting Mark Hamill was a total coup. He does an amazing job of portraying this eccentric man who has put a child through an indefensible ordeal while at the same time showing the audience that somewhere in his complicated, flawed core, he's not a bad person."
'And, of course, because the film has a lot to do with obsessive fandom, I think Mark inherently felt a connection to the story that must have added to his performance."
Mooney also cannot praise Hamill enough. 'Not only is Mark Hamill incredibly warm and awesomely talented, but having him be a part of Brigsby Bear brought the whole project to another plane. The movie is about fandom and nostalgia, and who better to have involved than someone who represents those two notions so hugely in pop culture?"
Mark Hamill may remain chiefly beloved as Luke Skywalker, one of the most iconic roles in cinema history (to which he is making a highly-anticipated return later this year) " but the veteran actor has also demonstrated stellar stage chops on Broadway, in The Elephant Man most notably, and established himself as a major voiceover talent in cartoons, TV, movies, and video games. Mastery of the latter skill set was key to Brigsby Bear, putting him over the top as the perfect Ted.
Reading the script, Mark Hamill found himself instantly taken. 'If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage," as he says during a recent break from his busy Star Wars promotional schedule. 'And I was so intrigued because the story was virtually uncategorisable." After appreciating its genredefying originality, however, Hamill's second reaction to the material, he readily confesses, was apprehension.
'I thought it was just incredibly bold on their part to try and pull this off, but I also thought, -I'm not that sure I could effectively contribute to the piece as a whole.' I mean, it was scary," he laughs, adding that he briefly coveted Greg Kinnear's role. Delivering the empathy required to balance out Ted's, well, dark side seemed daunting. 'Again, it was just cowardice on my part. I thought, -Well, maybe this is a Purple Cow movie, which is my term for movies I'd rather see than be in," Mark Hamill explains, referencing " and quickly reciting " Gelett Burgess' famed nonsense poem.
But Brisby Bear was under his skin. 'After I read it, I kept thinking about it. It haunted me." Mark Hamill recognised that he was being lured by the challenge of 'something that you've never done before than can play to your hidden strengths. That and the fact that they obviously valued my voice over character work won me over."
'And it was a great opportunity to work with Jane Adams (April). I adore this woman and have for years. She's just the perfect partner " inventive and spontaneous and always in the moment."
Also delivering pitch-perfect performances that grounded Brigsby Bear in emotional authenticity are Matt Walsh (Greg Pope), Michaela Watkins (Louise Pope), Claire Danes (Emily), Jorge Lendeborg (Spencer), Kate Lyn Sheil (Arielle Smiles), and Greg Kinnear as the exceptionally big-hearted and obliging Detective Vogel, who ultimately finds his own way back to the joys of creative expression that adulthood superseded.
'Greg Kinnear always had thoughtful notes and ideas," says Kyle Mooney, 'and he taught me a lot about acting just by observing him in our scenes." Agrees Dave McCary: 'Greg Kinnear was just so impressive. Not only is he funny, he always elevates his scenes by finding some physicality that makes every moment more realistic."
And for Dave McCary, realism was key. 'When Dave McCary and I first met," recalls cinematographer Christian Sprenger, 'the first thing I asked him was to explain his vision for the film's tone. Dave McCary quickly answered that the perfect tonal reference was Hal Ashby's Being There. Not only did I instantly understand his intentions, this became a guiding light for every decision along the way."
Indeed, like Being There's protagonist Chauncey Gardiner, James is a sheltered innocent who 'likes to watch" thrust abruptly into a world he's not entirely prepared to handle. Kyle Mooney also similarly had to restrain the broader comedic chops for which he's known in order to imbue James with a relatable emotional authenticity " a revelatory achievement worthy of comparison to Peter Seller's unforgettable performance. The key difference, of course, is that James finds himself suddenly needing more than just to watch. He needs to create.
In terms of shaping his performance, Kyle Mooney extends a lot of credit to Dave McCary. 'Again, Dave McCary pushed hard for realism. There would be times when I would maybe go for the laugh in a way that felt inhuman to him or to the story. So whenever I was pushing too much comedy in a moment he always reeled me back."
'We've made so many things throughout the years together that we pretty much can speak in shorthand," Kyle Mooney continues. 'I've worked with a handful of people in my short career, but because Dave McCary and I know each other so well, he knows exactly what I'm capable of and can push me in whatever direction necessary to get my best performance."
Says Mark Hamill: 'If Kyle Mooney wasn't able to navigate the intricacies of the central role, none of it would work. And that's why I was so impressed, because I don't think he makes a single false move. Ten minutes in, he had me. I just think the world of what Kyle Mooney accomplished. His performance was monumental, really a tour de force for him."
The provocative Academy Award-nominated Greek film Dogtooth made a strong impression on Kyle Mooney, and he readily acknowledges a debt to its bold originality and deeply unsettling premise. However, he and the Brigsby Bear team purposefully took their story in a different direction. Unlike Dogtooth, Brigsby Bear doesn't have a cynical bone in its body. Whatever Sundance audiences went in expecting " whether broad comedy from popular SNL stars, detached experimental weirdness from veteran YouTube creators, or some combination thereof " they were swept away by Brigsby Bear's moving sincerity and oversized heart.
'Yes, this is a bizarre concept," acknowledges Dave McCary, 'but if we're going to play it as realistically as possible, how would all these situations feel?" As director, his guiding principle was to ground every detail and moment, no matter how outlandish, in honest emotions. From there, it was about building to a plausible redemption. 'James was dealt a very specific and scary situation, unbeknownst to him," says Kyle Mooney. 'But his love for Brigsby carries him through. And he makes friends because of that."
Also outshining the film's darker elements was the sheer immersive joy of all the nostalgia. For the filmmakers, here was a chance to dive deep into the past while creating something novel. That prospect resonated immediately with both production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly and cinematographer Christian Sprenger who, in a sense, were challenged with the task of devising two distinct productions simultaneously: the movie itself and the quasi-homemade Brigsby Bear episodes within it.
'During the first meeting I had with Dave McCary, Kyle Mooney, and Kevin Costello, we bonded over Kyle Mooney's extensive collection of esoteric VHS tapes," remembers Tonner-Connolly. 'I'm also an obsessive collector of VHS, the rarer the better. To me, there's something very tactile and somewhat mysterious about VHS. To know that Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney felt the same way, and that their own love of obscure VHS fed into Brigsby told me a lot about who they were and where they wanted to go with the project. I was hooked."
'The first conversations Dave and I had concerning our approach to the film were about creating these two different worlds," notes Christian Sprenger, who is also the DP on FX's hit series Atlanta. 'We really bonded over the concept of wanting to achieve as realistic and period-specific an 80's TV show as possible, which we would then juxtapose against the elegant and cinematic world of the rest of the film. This concept really became the impetus for all of our creative decisions going forward. James' story needed to feel believable and relatable. So I chose to shoot using very elegant and clean optics. I also took a very realistic approach to lighting and only used camera movement when it was fully motivated by the story or the blocking."
'One of the bigger-picture nice things about making a feature film in comparison with sketch comedy at SNL," explains Dave McCary, 'is we have such a quick turnaround at SNL, where you get your script Wednesday night, pre-produce Thursday, shoot Friday, edit Saturday, and then it's on television that night. And I've only known that turnaround for the last four years. Prior to that it was just making these YouTube videos. So I really liked the preparation, the time that we had to really dig in."
Relays Sprengler: 'Dave McCary and I spent the better part of seven weeks looking for the perfect places to film, connecting every minute aspect of Ted's TV show and James' movie, and really designing the flow of our visual storytelling."
Just getting the look of the film's titular bear down took production designer Tonner-Connolly weeks. 'At one point, I had five different illustrators in five different cities trying to draw Brigsby Bear in a way we felt was right. They would draw Brigsbys all day, send me their work, and I would give them all revisions for the next day. It was so much about the individual illustration style and discovering something that was fully formed but still rough around the edges."
'At the same time," he continues, 'we were creating a mythology for the Brigsby universe. Talking with Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney, we divided the show into three distinct stylistic periods " early Brigsby, mid Brigsby, late Brigsby " and found references for what each period would look like."
Viewers of a certain age will no doubt recognize that Kyle Mooney was particularly inspired by Ken Forsse, 'the father of animatronic toys." A veteran of Walt Disney and Sid & Marty Krofft productions, Forsse went on to invent 'The Original Animated Storytelling Toy" Teddy Ruxpin, the nation's best-selling toy in 1985 and 1986.
As journalist Anne Kenderdine noted in The Washington Post after Forsse's passing in 2014: Two decades before smartphones and tablets absorbed Americans with virtual social interaction, the plush bear Teddy Ruxpin arrived in 1985 for $70 as a portable, huggable pal that warbled songs such as 'My Friend" and 'Come Dream With Me." The toy, which moved in sync with the stories and songs on cassette tapes played in its back… spurred an animated TV series and triggered a flurry of animatronic imitators before the phenomenon ran its course.
Irresistibly cute to many, maybe just slightly creepy to some, Teddy Ruxpin and his stories made a deep impression on a generation. One particular detail worth noting is that, the year of his debut, Teddy Ruxpin was named the 'Offical Spokesbear for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children."
'We wanted to create this 1980's children's show -in camera'," explains Sprenger. 'So we took the idea of -practical effects' and applied it to the entire Brigsby Bear TV show. The idea was to have the final product feel like something you found on an old VHS tape at a thrift store. There was a clear opportunity to capture the audience's attention through their nostalgia for children's broadcasting by perfectly referencing the look and feel of that time period."
'We made so many lists and breakdowns of Brigsby episodes, characters, props, music cues, etc., that I remember in one meeting Kyle Mooney said something about the origin of the Wizzles and one of us immediately corrected him on the name of one of their rulers," Tonner-Connolly says with a laugh. 'We all started cracking up, because it suddenly became clear we were hilariously deep into this absurd, fully-formed world."
When it finally all came together on set, Kyle Mooney, for one, was knocked out. 'Seeing James' bedroom filled with Brigsby bear paraphernalia was pretty special. That was one of those things that I always visualised when we were writing those bunker scenes and it was rad to see it come to life."
'One of my favorite moments of the shoot was seeing Mark Hamill and Kyle Mooney act inside the dome we had built in the desert," says Tonner-Connolly. Getting this particular set just right was key to making James' strange circumstance believable. 'We talked to everyone about this dome. At one point, we even had the Polish company that did the dome for The Martian offering to send us one as part of a product placement agreement. But we eventually decided to build it ourselves, out in the middle of the desert, about two hours from Salt Lake City, for maximum creative control and flexibility."
'In prep, that desert bunker was probably the set that myself, Dave McCary, Kyle Mooney, and Brandon TonnerConnoly spent the most energy refining," notes Sprenger. 'It was ultimately comprised of several sets, built in multiple locations, and it took countless hours of shot-listing and storyboarding to meld it all together."
'That bunker was this house that was fully frozen in time, circa 1978 or something," says Kyle Mooney. 'I truly don't think we could have imagined something more fitting or perfect for the movie."
'And the night we shot the dome, there happened to be a full moon that rose right behind it," remembers Brandon Tonner-Connolly. 'Our DP, Christian Sprenger, did an amazing job of lighting this crazy geodesic plexiglass dome. So there we were in the desert with the dome, the full moon, and Mark Hamill. It was incredible."
Though they had more resources at their disposal than James did, Brigsby Bear's cast and crew still had to operate under a tight budget and schedule. Without embracing the scrappy DIY spirit and energy of their story, making all the pieces fit would have been difficult if not impossible. Dave McCary focused on keeping morale high. 'Because Dave McCary and I have this deep bond and share a very similar sense of humor, we have a lot of fun with each other during breaks and downtime." 'We'd have a beer with everyone at our hotel after most shoot days," says Kyle Mooney. 'Sometimes we'd sing karaoke in my hotel room with the Apple TV setup."
'I usually ended up with my pants off in those situations."
Kyle Mooney particularly enjoyed bonding with the younger cast members. 'I felt a strong connection to the -kids' in part because, in the movie, James is this man-child trying to make friends with high schoolers, so it fed nicely into my performance that off-set I could be a man-child trying to be cool with the actors playing those high schoolers. It was a lot of fun getting in touch with my inner nineteen-year-old and trying to be hip."
'I hope that this film leaves audiences with the notion that creating and sharing art can connect people of different cultures and backgrounds, that art can unite a community, and that it's okay to be different," says Christian Sprengler. 'In fact, those who are different tend to be the most interesting people around! James' story is really that of overcoming adversity by embracing who you are as a person " being genuinely you."
'Brigsby is principally about the power of art to connect us and to help us understand one another, but it's also about how stories can help us make sense of a chaotic world or come to terms with a trauma, and reshape it, literally rewiring our brains to take ownership over our experience," reflects Kevin Costello. 'I think we all feel very connected to who we were and what we valued as children, and that inspiration and passion is what drove us to where we are today." Says Kyle Mooney: 'I hope audiences realize that Brigsby Bear was made with love by people who are friends in real life and, just like James, we all wanted to create something special for people. And hopefully people who see the movie will walk away with a love for filmmaking and get inspired to go out there and make something of their own."
Dave McCary also sees a larger contemporaneous message within Brigsby. 'I think it's definitely a dark time in our world, and this film is filled with characters who are sweet and positive and helpful, leading by example. It's a movie that doesn't have any explicit political messages necessarily, but I think the ideas we tried to put across are all about how to be kind, empathetic, sincere, and not judge people by their past. We focused on all these general principles and values that I think are important to have out there in cinema right now."
Then there is the level on which Brigsby Bear works as a modern parable about artists in general: take a little childhood trauma, add some craft and collaborators, then render it all into a means of transcendence. With any luck, what you create might live on to touch and inspire others.
And, if not, you still lived a fuller life by making the effort.
Says Kyle Mooney: 'James' excitement for creating this piece of art is infectious. Even though his new family at first doesn't love the idea of supporting what they see as a symbol of a dark past, eventually everyone comes on board with his creative endeavors and what makes him happy." 'To me, it was unexpectedly emotional," adds Mark Hamill. 'I think it's very uplifting and reassuring. It's good to be yourself and believe in something. The film is telling people that you can march to a different drummer and that drummer is every bit as valid as the more conventional drummers that the mainstream march to."
Brigsby Bear concludes with an anxious James finally sharing his completed effort with an audience. He's so overwrought about the possibility that they might reject what he's poured himself into that he paces the theater lobby like a nervous father outside the delivery room. 'That was Dave and I sitting next to each other during our Sundance premiere at the Eccles Theatre," says Mooney. And so a meta circle was completed: life imitating the art that was imitating life " to rapturous applause.
Meanwhile, for all its larger themes and charms, another layer of Brigsby Bear is simply an impressionistic self-portrait. 'Ultimately, I wrote a lot of myself into James," Kyle Mooney professes. 'I was obsessive about cartoons and action figures growing up, so I pulled from that." 'Never been abducted though," he clarifies with a smile.
Release Date: September 21st, 2017