Saturday Night Live is one of the best launching pads for any performer looking to “make it.” For many writers and performers who found post-SNL success, the notion of even landing an audition on the show seemed like a long-shot. Kyle Mooney has been an SNL cast member since 2013, and the idea that he’s a cast member remains foreign to him. “It’s still crazy to me that I’m on that show,” Mooney says. But the UCB alum has been churning out solid work on the show since being hired, most notably with the video shorts he’s created alongside his fellow Good Neighbor members.
Mooney’s characters tend to possess a dark undertone or sadness in them (see oft-rejected comedian Bruce Chandling) and in his new film, Brigsby Bear, the swing toward melancholy blends wonderfully with its comedy. Co-written by Mooney and Kevin Costello, the movie tells the story of James Pope, a man who’s spent his entire life watching and studying a children’s television made entirely for him, and it manages to cleverly mine comedy out of its serious subject matter.
I sat down with Mooney to discuss the arduous process of making the film and submitting it to Sundance, how he envisioned his career while studying film at USC, and the unexpected difficulties of working at SNL.
Did producing so many short films with Good Neighbor and SNL prepare you well for Brigsby Bear?
Yeah. I mean, there’s certainly things you can’t ever totally prepare for. In this movie I’m very fortunate that Dave McCary, who directed it, has directed all of the Good Neighbor shorts and directs shorts at SNL. I grew up with him so we have a rapport on set and our own kind of shorthand. That made the transition easier. I think the tough thing was now we’re dealing with a bigger chunk of cash and so many more moving parts and so many more human beings involved, whereas if we make an internet video, if it fails, we’re okay. But you want people to see the movie. There’s just an added pressure to the whole thing, I think.
I’ve heard other writers say something similar – that they like doing independent projects because they can have more control. Is there less control when there’s a bigger budget?
Everybody was pretty cool about following our voice and concepts and what we wanted to do with it. Yeah, it’s different than just waking up on a Sunday and being like, “Oh we should make a video with that thing we were talking about.” But because it’s our thing and it’s not like I’m acting in somebody else’s movie or something like that, it wasn’t insanely far off.
Was there a certain amount of research that went into how someone like James would acclimate himself to a normal life after growing up the way he did?
I don’t want to say I did an insane amount of research, but I feel like I did what was enough to figure out who this person was and how they would acclimate with the world around them. I co-wrote it with my friend Kevin Costello so I got to build the character in the writing process and improvise my way through it, and we would write down whatever we came up with.
I imagine figuring out how much James knew about general culture could have been tough in the writing process.
Well, there was certainly a lot of discussion over what [James] had been exposed to or not exposed to and we would have a conversation about – for instance, we learn over the course of the movie that he does lessons or studies with his family. We know there’s an element of math or something like that. But what would they be teaching him in terms of history? Is George Washington a figure that exists? There’d be a lot of hypothetical questions like that.
Your characters tend to possess some tragic undertones. How did you approach injecting humor into a film centered around someone who experienced a pretty dark childhood?
When I pitched the concept to Kevin and he helped me write it, we really liked the idea and it felt unique to us. One thing we said throughout the process and when Dave came on board to direct was, “If this happened in real life it would be insane. I would want to see this TV show that these people made because it’s like outsider art or like folk art.” I think the thought was always like, “We’ve got to play everything as earnest as possible to make this feel as real as possible, like this thing actually happened.”
In terms of the seriousness of it and that emotional under-layer, that was just all like, “Who is this person really? What would this situation be like? How would people interact with him and how would he interact with the world around him?” In terms of injecting comedy into it, I think one of the hopes was that this script hopefully naturally had these funny moments and by putting a character like James in these situations there’s natural comedy. The hope and idea was like, “Let’s not force that stuff too much, and if it’s funny on the page, in theory, just play it out how it would play.”
How did this compare to creating a short for SNL, where I imagine it’s harder to submit more serious pieces?
It was nice. But also we’ve put videos like that up at SNL and they will die at a dress audience because there’s not clear jokes or it takes a long time to get to the joke. It’s refreshing to move at your own pace and to build a world and build a concept that has humor in it, but you don’t need to be scoring every second.
When you attended USC did you plan on doing something like this in your career?
I studied film studies at USC. At that time I was doing improv and sketch comedy on campus with Good Neighbor, basically. And that kind of became the thing I was passionate about. We would do an improv show every week and a sketch show at the end of every semester. By the end of college we started making videos and putting them online, and the hope was to get our own TV show. I’m sure I romanticized the idea of being in movies or making a movie, but that immediate goal in that era was like, “It would be so cool to have our own TV show.” And at that time, probably like 2007ish, there were a lot of sketch groups, like Human Giant, who made internet shorts and had their own TV series on MTV. Lonely Island had an internet following that in essence brought them to SNL. The other thing I was thinking about doing was just getting commercial work, just wanting to survive as an actor.
How does the idea of being on SNL compare with actually performing on the show? How does the idea of making a movie compare with actually shooting one?
With SNL, it’s such an iconic institution. Throughout my 20s or maybe even in middle school or high school, it never felt like a real thing. It felt so distant and I never imagined I could do that. But when you’re doing comedy, all of a sudden you start to hear of somebody who’s so many degrees away from you who is auditioning for the show. So it started to become more of a reality. It’s still crazy to me that I’m on that show. Now it’s common knowledge, but as a child I wouldn’t have known that it was as much work as it is. Watching Will Ferrell back in the day, it seemed like that guy was having so much fun. At that point in my life I didn’t know what was happening behind the curtain.
In terms of the movie, I don’t think there was a glass-shattering moment, because we’ve kind of been building towards it and I’ve now had so much experience on set so I kind of have an idea of how it works. Dave and I have been making videos for so long. It felt like more just like an extension. We tried to do the same thing we’ve always done. The tough thing, that Dave would tell you, is just that the shooting process was so fun, we had a great time, we were in Utah and we all got to hang out with one another, but cutting it and the post-production and turning it around in time to get it into Sundance was the most hectic and crazy part about it.
Why did you choose to film in Utah?
We chose Utah because it had the necessary geography. We needed a desert and we needed some sort of residential, suburban area, community. Also because they gave us a tax break. It turned out to be perfect because I feel like, in retrospect, had we shot in LA or something people could have easily gotten distracted, whereas this was more of a summer camp atmosphere. Nobody knows anybody in Utah, so the focus was making the movie, and when we had time off we’d hang with each other.
What made the process of entering Sundance hectic?
When you’re making an independent feature there are so many difficult stages. One, just writing the script is difficult on its own. Then when you get it to a place where you’re happy with it, great – but then you need to find persons who are willing to produce it, who like the script. When that happens, awesome. But then you have to find money and that’s a whole other step, and then you have to find the cast. If everything goes right you eventually get to produce it, which again is such an awesome milestone, to be able to make your own movie. But then after you finally produce the movie – which is something we’ve been working towards for like a decade or however long it is – then you have to get it into a film festival. So it’s kind never-ending and somewhat daunting. Then when it’s at the film festival it has to be received well and then ultimately get purchased. It was awesome to be part of Sundance and truly surreal and a dream, but it’s a tough thing with these small movies because if they don’t get into a festival like that, what happens to them?
How often, when pitching ideas to producers or studios, do those concepts actually come to fruition?
Throughout the existence of Good Neighbor we would take general meetings all the time. We’d have a good meeting and we’d riff with the executive and it’d be fun and it usually ends with [them saying], “Well, we’ll think about you for the next thing we have or if you got any ideas please send them our way, here’s my email.” Oftentimes nothing ever comes from that. With that being said, a lot of those times we never took the initiative to write a script and give it to them. This was a scenario where Kevin and I wrote a script and ultimately made a movie, so it’s not impossible if you just do it. Not to say it’ll work out for everybody, but there is something to be said about just kind of going forward and doing it.
I’ve often been told, “Don’t wait for someone to say yes, make your thing and pursue that because you’ll enjoy it more.”
That’s for sure where we came from. We just made internet videos. Writing a screenplay is daunting for sure, but I think that Hollywood needs them, so if you can manage to do that there’s certainly a value within it.
Brigsby Bear premieres in select theaters today.