'Brigsby Bear': Making Stupid Little Videos Led to a $5 Million Sundance Deal
Director Dave McCary and co-writers Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello have never let a dumb idea slow them down.
There's a scene in Brigsby Bear where Kyle Mooney's familiarly awkward protagonist, James, finds himself hunched over the toilet of a dirty cineplex bathroom. Scores of people have come to witness the premiere of his first feature film, also titled Brigsby Bear, but for a man who's spent the majority of his life held hostage underground, the moment has proven too much.
It may have been a long and arduous journey just to find himself hovering over a toilet bowl, but in surrounding himself with the people he loved and pursuing (quite literally) the only thing he knew how to do, James had finally found his own unique way to communicate with the outside world. A friend, Spence, walks into the bathroom and asks him what he's doing there.
"What if they don't like it?" James asks.
"Who cares?" Spence replies.
Such is the philosophy of director Dave McCary, co-writer Kevin Costello, and Kyle Mooney—a trio that has been taking stupid ideas and making them into movies since they were in the seventh grade.
In a strangely metaphysical moment, the founders of the Good Neighbor sketch comedy group found themselves living out the exact circumstances of their movie's character. A large audience had gathered at Sundance to witness the world premiere of their first feature film, Brigsby Bear, only to react with rapturous joy and a standing ovation at the end. (We do not, however, have confirmation on whether there was puke involved.)
No Film School sat down with McCary and Costello in Park City, where their film sold to Sony Pictures Classics for $5 million, to discuss the journey each of them took to get here. From silly YouTube sketches to Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts to full-length features, their process is a great model for collaborative filmmaking.
"I truly didn’t know what I was doing. I just went online and read the tutorials and figured it out."
No Film School: The message in your film is one that definitely resonates with our audience: go out there and do as much as you can with whatever resources you have. How did that practice help you get to the point you’re at today?
Dave McCary: My whole experience in discovering film and how to do this crazy business has been not thinking about the industry and really just thinking about how my friends and I can make shit that’s gonna make us laugh.
NFS: You guys have all been friends since childhood, correct?
McCary: Kyle [Mooney's] (who’s co-writer with Kevin and stars in the film) dad bought us a camera that we had picked out. We were super poor, and his dad had some cash.
NFS: What kind of camera was it?
McCary: It was a Panasonic DVX 100-B. I shot almost every Good Neighbor video on that, until close to the very end when we did a few where we actually got a DP. But I truly didn’t know what I was doing. I just went online and read the tutorials and figured it out.
"I dropped out [of film school]. Such a fuckin' waste of money."
I went to film school. I’m not even gonna say where I went, but I dropped out. Such a fuckin’ waste of money. It was around that time I realized YouTube was such a clear place to just practice and make mistakes. We just did it and that was the best thing we could’ve done. We were definitely feeding off the energy of, “Let's just be silly, have fun, and learn how to do this.” There [are] a number of videos we made that I am just mortified still exist on the internet, but I'm so grateful that we had the chance to fuck up so that now we can hopefully not fuck up our movies.
NFS: If you were to count back from when you first got that camera, how long have you guys been making videos?
McCary: That camera we first got back in 2005, so 12 years ago.
NFS: What was the collaboration like on those videos as far as writing, directing, and acting? Did you all wear different hats or were there relegated duties?
McCary: It was very collaborative with the Good Neighbor guys, conceptually. Kyle and Nick Rutherford were the key writing guys in the group. They were clearly the best at setting up the structure for sketches and then I was really just their only filmmaker friend. I grew up with Kyle. When he was going to USC, I would visit him on the weekends because I was only an hour away at film school. While I was there, I fell in love with his friends. They were all so funny, and I was the one guy that kind of knew how to use a camera.
Editing was the first thing that I learned to do well. I was really good at Final Cut. I would direct, but we were all kind of directing each other. Again, it was super, super collaborative. I would direct the technical aspect of things on top of us all being very open about like, "Oh, this performance would work if it went this way." But it was never me making the final call on stuff because we were such a unit.
Then they would walk away once the editing happened. It’s a miserable process, so I understand why they wouldn’t want to be involved. They would just wait for me to present them with a cut and then they'd give me notes if they had them or anything. They were so trusting. We figured it out.
NFS: And then they could go off and spend time creating the next idea for a sketch.
McCary: Yeah, exactly.
NFS: So, how did that process carry over into your first feature?
McCary: Again, super collaborative. A much bigger situation and a lot more cogs in the machine. I’m a big proponent of collaboration and I know there’s a lot of filmmakers out there that are such geniuses, but really need to be hands on in every single aspect. I like that to a certain degree, but I also like the idea of finding someone who I think is brilliant.
"Make those mistakes and know you’re going to make shitty videos."
For instance, our DP, Christian Sprenger, who was recommended to us by one of our producers. He did Atlanta, Last Man on Earth, and Baskets. I loved his use of natural light and I just trusted him so much. It was so different than me shooting our shitty videos on a DVX, not knowing anything, and, A) hating using lights, B) not knowing any of the terminology. Truly, I am still hearing terms and I’m. like, pretending.
NFS: Fake it 'till you make it.
McCary: It really was a lot of faking it 'till I made it, not to say that I’ve made anything.
Costello: Look around, D!
McCary: It really is just letting go of control and trusting the writers. I want them to be part of the conversation in so many decisions because we are the best we can be when we’re all talking about it and having a conversation. Not one asshole, going, “It's going to be my way or fuck you guys.”
NFS: The look of the film is so much different than your typical SNL movie. I know you’ve been directing digital shorts for SNL. As a fan of the Good Neighbor sketches, the framework that SNL provides you with isn’t the most conducive to your type of humor. With this feature, you were given the opportunity to fully prove your vision?
McCary: Yeah, you’re 100% right. I mean, SNL is its own very distinct challenge, but I’m so grateful for that challenge. We have to learn how to make things more accessible because we know our voice can be too weird and alienating for people. Kevin is actually really brilliant at harnessing the oddity that is our voice and also making it understandable to a wider audience. Which is really not something we’re great at. We’re not good at making everybody like our stuff.
NFS: Kevin, I know you left the group for a while. What was the transition like coming back for you?
McCary: Well, let me clarify: Kevin was not a part of Good Neighbor.
Costello: I did hold the boom mic.
McCary: Kevin was our screenwriter friend who we knew from middle school, but we only had a year or two of friendship in seventh and eighth grade.
Costello: I mean, it was a pretty good friendship, though. We’re talking Six Flags.
McCary: Oh yeah, I remember going over to his house to watch some Limp Bizkit videos.
Costello: Yeah, we still do that.
McCary: We love the Faith cover.
Costello: Yeah, it was just an edgier version of the original song, you know?
McCary: So, when we were really thinking about features and Kyle specifically had this great idea, Kevin was the one guy we knew who has put together long form scripts. Plus, we just loved him as a person.
Costello: I’d been working professionally for a couple years prior to that and just being friends with these guys, I felt like I knew the exact tone and I felt very comfortable writing towards Kyle’s voice. They already had such a voice and brand. I wanted to find that, but also make it our own distinct feel. I think it straddles that line pretty well.
"You have to trust that desire to get it out there and make it. Even though there’s no clear path towards where it’s going to lead, following that passion is the only thing you can do."
NFS: When did the initial idea for Brigsby Bear come into place?
McCary: I remember Kyle talking about it maybe like six years ago. He had this idea of a weird children’s show and him being the only person who’d ever seen it, but it wasn’t fully fleshed out.
Costello: He pitched me a document that was about two pages, introducing the concept and then what happens after. Everything else we had to build out from there. But I felt like he had such a strong understanding of who this character was that as soon as I read it I was like, "I have to do this." At the time, you guys weren’t even on SNL yet when we first started talking about this. Kyle and I were like, “Well, maybe we'll Kickstart it.” It feels crazy how long ago that was.
McCary: It was really helpful how patient we were, I think. You guys could’ve tried to rush and put it out.
Costello: I had assignments that I had to do and these guys had their job with their first season on SNL. Whenever there was a week free or a week off, Kyle and I were able to get together. He would fly back to LA, which was great, crash in my guest room, and we would just write all day. We definitely took our time with it and did a couple drafts. Once we started showing it to people, it didn’t feel like long after that that we got our producers on board.
McCary: Yeah, people were so responsive so quickly once the script got out. The Lonely Island, who we were kind of buddies with and always wanted to work with but didn’t know too well, responded to it so wonderfully. Next, Lord Miller responded to it wonderfully. And then they liked each other, and we were just like, "Let’s all do it together."
Costello: We were so lucky.
"It was a dream come true creatively."
NFS: It does seem like the perfect production team to put on a movie like this.
Costello: It was a dream come true creatively for us, too. Having worked in the studio system, things operate a certain way there, with a certain opacity. You don’t really know why decisions are being made creatively or if there are other things behind creative notes you get. But here, it was just so supportive. They really empowered us to make our movie and were so helpful creatively. It was definitely the most freeing, best experience I’ve had writing anything.
NFS: So we’ve hit on taking your time with a script to fully flesh it out and make sure you’re ready to do it. At the same time, we’ve talked about getting out and doing as much as you can, video-wise. Based on your experience, if you had one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers, what would it be?
McCary: It goes back to just doing whatever you can to make something. Make those mistakes and know you’re going to make shitty videos. I mean, now that phones pretty much have high enough quality to the point you can create an entire movie with them, no one is not able to do this. If you really want it, just do it. Everyone fucking says this; this is the worst advice. Is there something more poignant I can say?
Costello: No, no, I think you’re right. I think that making art for its own sake can often feel crazy or insane or, "Why am I doing this?" I feel like we’ve all been in that place with the stuff we’ve made. You have to have something to say. You have to trust that desire to get it out there and that desire to make it. Even though there’s no clear path towards where it’s going to end up or where it's going to lead, just following that passion is the only thing you can do. At the time we started writing Brigsby, it wasn’t like, "Oh yeah, we’re going to ride this ship all the way to party town." It was just something that I knew that I loved, so I made it a priority.
McCary: I’ve got another cliche: Don’t give up!
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.