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Interview: Kyle Mooney on Brigsby Bear, SNL, and Trump the Troll

Mooney talked to us about nostalgia, VHS collecting, and getting trolled by Donald Trump.

Interview: Kyle Mooney on Brigsby Bear, SNL, and Trump the Troll
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Kyle Mooney would probably fail to impress at a party, but he’ll have you laughing while in line at the bathroom. He might riff on bad roommates, privileged metal heads, and his own awkwardness. Mooney has steadily built a reputation for his takes on all-too-familiar characters that wouldn’t feel out of place outside your local mall. He first rose to fame online with the Los Angeles-based comedy group Good Neighbor and later joined Saturday Night Live in 2013. Since then, his geeky taste and relatably ill-at-ease demeanor have made him a rising star on the late-night program.

As the writer and lead actor of Brigsby Bear, Mooney continues to push his humor about awkwardness but with an eye toward the sentimental. Filtered through a nostalgic lens, it centers on naïve James Pope (Mooney), who grew up isolated from the world, and with little more than lo-fi videotapes of the namesake children’s show. After a dramatic rupture with the world of his childhood, he’s forced to not only adjust to a life he didn’t even know existed, but also come to terms with the one that he’s lost. Determined to do his passion for Brigsby the bear justice, James embarks on a heartwarming quest that pays equal tribute to outmoded technology and the joys of nerdiness.

I joined Mooney at his hotel earlier this week to talk about nostalgia, VHS collecting, and getting trolled by Donald Trump.

Did you find it difficult making the jump to a feature film?

Yes and no. I’m working with the people I’ve worked with for the past decade so there’s a level of comfort. I think the tough thing, in theory, was building a character that the audience wants to see for a longer period of time, which I guess is pretty broad. You know, building an arc and not just trying to make each scene, like, its own sketch, to make the funniest scene, but to think in the long term from beginning to end and think how the character builds.

Character work seems to be one of your strong suits. What went into making James? He’s different than a lot of characters you’ve done before.

The same things that go into any other character that I would think about or construct, which is maybe pulling from my own life and nuances of persons I see or interact with walking around, or persons we went to middle or high school with. With this one it was kind of specific because I spent two years writing the movie with our friend Kevin [Costello], so I kind of got to develop the character over that course of time, while we were writing it. And that was nice for me, because by the time we got to shooting, I had pretty much done most of the work just through riffing when we were coming up with scenes. The tricky thing or the thing to think about with James was that we wanted the performance to be as honest and as earnest as possible, so sometimes I had to dial back on what my comedic instincts might tell me to do.

There’s a lot of love in this character. Do you see yourself in him at all?

Absolutely, oh yeah. I’m obsessive, and I’m an incredibly nostalgic person to this day. I was a nostalgic person as a child for things that existed years before. It’s, like, I was a nostalgic seven-year-old because I had older brothers and all their figurines were handed down to me and it already had a strong connection to me. I think I certainly identify with some of the outsiderness of James. You know, walking into a party and not knowing what to do or how to interact with people.

You bring up nostalgia and nostalgia is interesting because it’s bittersweet. On the one hand, you love looking back, and on the other it’s gone.

Yeah, it’s never the same.

How did you try and translate that experience into the movie?

We tried to do, within the Brigsby universe, within the movie, we tried to do our best version of what that show would be. I have a big VHS collection of kids’ movies and TV shows from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we just tried to replicate them as much as we could, while making it this new thing that hadn’t existed. That’s kind of one thing I love. I don’t know exactly, this is somewhat of an abstract thought, but I go to these thrift stores and buy these videos and you’ll see some kids shows, something like a Christian kids video, or something like that. I’ll have never seen it, and yet there’s a weird familiarity to it. And it does something for me nostalgically, though I never experienced it. I don’t know if it’s the colors or the way it was shot, or just the fact that so many things made in a similar time just shared different elements and aspects. We just tried to do justice to that period of TV and film.

I think it’s also interesting that you mention watching something old for the first and it feeling familiar, because James goes through that a little. He discovers for the first time plot devices or good-versus-evil themes.

He’s the original fan of Brigsby bear, you know what I mean? So in a weird way, he’s dissecting it in a way that nobody else seemingly ever has and is kind of coming up with what art or narrative is or what critique is or something.

Can you go into more detail about the VHS collection you have? What sort of stuff do you like to put in it?

Like I said, it’s a lot of children’s stuff from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I particularly like things that were produced with a low budget, most likely and probably for a localized community, maybe something that didn’t make it’s way out of…

Dubuque?

Exactly, Dubuque. Cleveland, I don’t know. Maybe there are only, like, 200 copies of it. But I love that stuff and I love it for a lot of reasons. One reason is just because it feels like there’s so much love that goes into the production of these videos and they’re truly doing their best. It almost feels like they’re trying to fool a child into thinking that it’s very professional. There’s so much charm to that and the efforts to try and be a Jim Henson without having the means to be a Jim Henson. So it’s a lot of stuff like that. That’s probably the stuff I love the most. And then I’ll buy videos based on covers that I remember from going to the video store as a kid because it will evoke something inside of me. I really love the stuff that won’t ever be on DVD and won’t be streamable and in theory there might be only, like, 50 people who ever saw it.

You’re part of a select group.

Yeah, but I’m now getting into getting autographs for all my videos, because working at SNL I kind of have access to persons who actually—I got Michael Keaton to sign a copy of Beetlejuice, stuff like that.

That’s pretty cool. We talked about these super tiny communities, but there’s one huge star in the movie, Mark Hamill.

[Whispers] Oh yeah!

Whose idea was that? I thought it was brilliant.

Yeah, that was just a tough role to cast. We knew we wanted it to be somebody who you wouldn’t think of immediately and it also had to be somebody who could do voices. He’s a prolific voice actor, and at some point, Dave [McCary] and I were just kind of stumped as to who could play that Ted role and I thought, “What about Mark Hamill? He does voices!” And we brought up a YouTube video of him where he’s at a press junket and he’s just talking as himself and then he breaks into the Joker voice and it’s, like, “That’s it!” One of the last scenes in the movie is him breaking into the Brigsby voice and so it just felt right. And yeah, obviously he works on multiple levels because he represents nostalgia and fandom.

It’s also a funny thing for Luke Skywalker, who didn’t know who his real father was, to now be a fake father.

Yeah, there are weird kind of little, unintentional Easter eggs that we kind of discover all the time. Somebody else pointed out that the name of the bad guy is Sun Snatcher.

That wasn’t intentional?!

I don’t think so.

I totally thought that was a pun.

I don’t know if I was the one who came up with the name. It was originally gonna be Sun Stealer, which I guess also would have worked. So maybe somebody else got it, but I don’t think I realized that until after the fact.

That’s so funny because I loved those little jokes. No offense.

No, from this point on I’m just taking credit for it.

I wanna shift gears a little to SNL. This was a huge season for you guys, one of the best in decades. It was controversial and political. What was it like being a part of that?

It was pretty intense. It was crazy. It’s cool to be a part of something that felt culturally pretty important. But it’s also a lot of work, as you can imagine. Every week there’d be something new. And even when we would try to prepare the show on Friday, something would go down and then you’d kind of have to address whatever that was. But it was exciting. I remember when Melissa McCarthy did her first Sean Spicer [impression]. I was on the floor because I had a bit role in that sketch, and it felt very special in the moment. So that was probably the most remarkable thing for me personally, being able to witness it from the inside and see kind of how much it meant to people.

Given how you got your start on the Internet, I’m sure you’re used to trolls. How does it feel that your president is one of them?

It’s weird. It’s so strange. He was really into tweeting about the show for a while and then he kind of just petered off. But it’s a strange thing to wake up in the morning and to go on to your computer and to see that the president of the United States is talking shit about your job.

Every creative these days has some opinion or thought on how they need to respond to the president. What’s your point of view on it?

There are so many people out there who can articulate this situation way better than me that I would rather them do it because they’re smarter and more analytical about it. My thing is just to kind of continue to do what I’ve always done. With this movie for instance, we just wanted to make, hopefully, some form of escapism or something like that. Where people could just kind of not think about some of the insane things that are happening around us.

The movie is a comedy with very intense emotional parts. What was it like making the shift to a more serious attitude? How did you prepare for that?

Dave just really pushed the earnestness and the honesty and so we kind of knew going into it that that was the goal. And he would kind of tell you that he was more excited about the idea of people tearing up than laughing. But I just truly tried to do the character and story justice and it was work at times and, you know, I had to do my best to get there emotionally.

You made this with your friends. It was a group venture. What was it like working on this with them for so long? Were there fights?

It’s not different than fighting with a sibling. I imagine it’s not different than being in a band. You know there are moments where we really piss each other off and probably talk shit about each other behind each other’s back, but there’s genuine love there and you know that even if we had a bad two hours of shooting, and even if I’m cranky or Dave’s cranky, at the end of the day it’s gonna end up being all good and we’re gonna go back there tomorrow and it’s gonna be a reset. And I think part of that is because we’ve been through all those things so many things that you kind of know it’s gonna blow over.

How did you come up with the film’s geodesic dome and all those props?

Kevin and I wrote and imagined what we could, but so much of that is credit to Dave and our cinematographer and our production designer. I think one of the things I imagine excited Dave about the movie was the fact that we did kind of imagine this pretty specific world that required a lot of art and did require a lot of design. And I think it just kind of made for a more dynamic movie and also a more challenging one. But I think we all just kind of really fell in love with the notion of creating that weird world. It’s almost like, when you watch it, if you don’t know anything about the movie you could be thinking: “What is this is? Is this a sci-fi movie? What’s happening?” And also creating all of the Brigsby bear paraphernalia, like all the toys and the posters, even the show itself. That was one of the most exciting elements of this process was just kind of coming up with this world.

It was so much fun to just look at all the little stuff.

There’s stuff I still pick up on when I watch the movie. Like the opening, when we first see James’s bedroom, he’s got shelves of VHS cassettes…

Those weren’t yours were they?

No, no. But every now and again, I’ll catch the name of an episode on the spine of a video that I didn’t notice before and that’s always fun. Like all of these kind of episodes of Brigsby that we never get to see.

The film is about being a fan. Do you have a personal favorite fandom?

I’ve always been into so many things. I was into Star Wars and He-Man and Thundercats and Transformers. Dave and I were really into Saved by the Bell and baseball cards. There were so many different things. Music, I was super into the Beatles and like underground hip-hop.

I read the article about being a guitar player, or failed guitar player.

There’s still time! I would say most recently, I’m really into Disney stuff now. I go to Disneyland a lot.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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