Permission can often be a barrier for aspiring creators looking to break into an industry. We tend to think approval from an authority or years attaining degrees are necessary components to finding success, but in Dave McCary’s case, he didn’t wait for the go-ahead. Instead the director learned by doing. Working with his Good Neighbor co-founders Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and Nick Rutherford, McCary directed widely popular YouTube videos that helped land the comedy group jobs making weekly shorts on Saturday Night Live.
“I don’t need to spend money on school when I can just do it myself,” McCary said in a recent interview. “I have pretty much everything I need with a camera and some funny friends.” McCary spent two years in film school, dropped out, and found himself doing exactly that, filming with Mooney and attaining skills with help from YouTube tutorials and sneaking into the USC media labs.
McCary recently directed Mooney and the rest of the Good Neighbor team in Brigsby Bear, a film written by Mooney about an adult whose entire life was devoted to a children’s show created specifically for him.
I spoke with McCary about accidentally landing a career in comedy, SNL’s tight deadlines, and why he thinks some of the first films he made with Mooney will never be seen again.
You dropped out of film school after recognizing that making movies could be more productive than being in a classroom. What made you come to that realization?
Well, everyone’s situation is so circumstantial. I definitely don’t want to be a voice of discouragement for people who want that type of experience, because some people do learn better in an environment that is structured and with professors who are educated teachers and scholars. That can be really helpful to people to learn in that way. I think I’m just a little, for a lack of a better word, primal in how I operate in all aspects of life.
With filmmaking in general, I have never absorbed the traditional knowledge of film history or filmmaking. It has always been just pick up the camera and go figure it out. If there’s something I don’t know, I’ll either look it up and get the answer that way or I’ll ask someone or try to get a couple of people to help out with the process. I don’t think it’s that complicated. Art in general can be very complicated and intricate if you want it to be, but the way I look at everything that I’ve done, even for this movie, I’m trying to tell these stories or play out these scenes or sketches pretty unstylized. I like realism a lot.
I’m more interested in characters and nuances of those characters and stories and emotions and just general humanity. I’m so fortunate to have Kyle who will bring me a general idea for a character or a full-fledged script or just a riff on a character idea that he has. In my head I go like, “Oh my God, we can do that tomorrow over here at this thing and I’ll call this buddy and maybe he can help out with carrying a boom” or whatever. I like how it’s like, “We can just do this now.” We don’t have to overthink it or add all these production elements and get permits for places. I just like the romantic feeling of “Let’s just figure it out now.” We did that a lot when we were starting to make videos.
You had the same process with this movie?
A little bit, yeah. And then I have line producers and department heads that sometimes can reel me back into reality when it’s a situation that isn’t that easy. Sometimes even when we’re location scouting and our line producer’s like, “They won’t let us shoot in this part of this prison, we have to shoot outside. So we’re going to have to build some little outdoor prison area.” I’m like, “Are you sure we can’t just find a day…can I just go in and ask. Let me talk to them.” I can be annoying to a degree because I always think that there’s a way. Oftentimes I can be wrong, but there are situations like that where I will press.
When you’d make films for Good Neighbor how did you deal with people telling you not to film in certain locations?
Always steal it. We did a video called “Outrageous Fun” where it’s on a dock. We had no permits to shoot there. We didn’t ask permission. We were just like, “Let’s just do it quickly because someone eventually is going to kick us out of here.” And sure enough, we were there for like two and a half hours, and we were packing up and leaving when we see someone come down like, “Hey you guys can’t be shooting here!” And we’re like, “Oh okay we’ll head out then!” But we had already filmed everything. The general rule is: Do it until it’s a problem.
In terms of creative control, how does it compare with each project?
With Good Neighbor, because we’re our own bosses, there were no deadlines to put out videos. No one was forcing us. We were doing it for free. The only thing that was driving us was that maybe we’d develop more of an audience and maybe we’d finally get seen by someone in a position to give us real jobs in television and film so we can do this truly for a living because [Bennett, Mooney, and Rutherford] were all auditioning and I was doing freelance camera work or editing.
We’re generally lazy. I think whenever I or Kyle or Beck or Nick would have a burst of creative energy, if I felt that wave that I was pretty adamant about like, “I’ve got to take advantage of this now, because in two days or even in 24 hours I may not feel this much excitement to get this done now. Or I may not have it as clear in my head as I do in this very moment.”
With SNL it’s very structured. I’ll usually make a video every week. Wednesday night it gets picked. Thursday is pre-production, location scouting. Friday we shoot it. Saturday we edit it. It goes out Saturday night. That’s every week. You kind of just fall into the consistency of that, which is valuable because I need that type of structure professionally because I do not operate that way. You’re kind of forced to operate that way and it’s good for you. [You need] all those repetitions to get better at filming scenes under pressure with limited time, limited time with a celebrity host or something. If you can get really great moments with only 45 minutes of screen time with a host because their schedule’s so crazy, then that’s just a very rewarding feeling even though the world doesn’t know that’s how limited a schedule we have.
With the movie it’s just relieving because we have five weeks of pre-production, five weeks of production, months of editing. You can take the time to be precious and meticulous while also having deadlines and a structure that you have to stay on schedule and a number of producers and money people holding you accountable.
The luxury we had with YouTube [was] I had the time to sit with an edit or Kyle could draw something or we could make music for something and not feel rushed. And then I have the structure of SNL. [The film] is a pretty clear culmination of both experiences.
Some artists thrive under deadlines. Does the pressure of a short deadline help you at SNL?
It’s always week-to-week. There will be some weeks where I love the idea or the script so much and it’s not that hard to execute. There’s not a bunch of effects or it doesn’t have to be overstylized to match a genre or whatever –it’s one of those videos that just doesn’t require too much time. For instance, there’s a video [we made] our first year called “Flirty” where Kyle and Vanessa Bayer are kind of flirting in their apartment complex and they’re neighbors. I remember [it] was so fun and so funny and it was so easy to shoot, just trying to play it as realistic as possible. We shot that in the morning on a Friday and we didn’t have to overthink the script. It just felt very close to how we always made videos and how we execute our ideas. I didn’t need too much time to edit it because there weren’t these really intensely cut sequences.
But then there’s a video that has a crazy amount of effects or we don’t totally know which parts of the concept were funniest. You’re kind of finding it in the edit. And it was shot super late on a Friday night into the morning and everyone was tired and we didn’t have the host for that long. And then it goes out at dress rehearsal and completely dies and then it gets cut for time.
When you’re filming a short for SNL and you feel it may not be going well, I assume you still have to finish it. You can’t scrap it and start something else.
Everyone’s on the same page as like, “a finished product is going to come.” It’s just…will it make it on the show? Will it be embarrassing if it gets on the internet? Will Lorne or the producers see something special in it and know that it can be tried again the next week with a little more time on the edit? Every once in awhile there will be a situation where if a host isn’t in it and it’s not a super topical video and it doesn’t work that particular week, then [Lorne] will be like, “Let’s try it next week and give them a little extra time to fine-tune it if they can.” It’s pretty fluid. You just kind of feel out each week and each situation.
What were your expectations working in film and working on SNL compared to what it’s actually like?
My dream was never necessarily comedy. I really wanted to make film or television and was interested in darker stuff over comedy, but I knew I liked dark comedies. I also loved tragedies. Comedy I kind of just fell into because my best bud Kyle. He was in San Diego. I was in Wisconsin at the time. We grew up together and then I had a few years where I went and stayed with my mom in Wisconsin. Kyle was honing his performing skills and really getting into improv. I always thought he was the funniest dude since I was super young. In our 20s I would visit Kyle on the weekends at USC. I loved his community. I loved the friends he was making. I just thought it was so much more fun. I thought they were all so talented. They wanted to act and be funny in front of a camera. I wasn’t seeking out anything necessarily at that time. I just wanted to make anything. Because I saw how funny these dudes were, it would have been probably a strange move to go up to Kyle and Beck and Nick and be like, “Let’s make like a really tragic short video and put it on YouTube.” It just didn’t feel like the climate to do that. And so we started making silly videos. We were also really inspired by Lonely Island who were really making us laugh on YouTube at the time, pre their SNL days. It just became pretty apparent that it was going to be a fun avenue to explore. And we just kept making videos and we really enjoyed it. I dropped out of school two years in, moved in with Kyle near USC, and pretty much just mooched off of his USC experience and got all of the community experience that USC had to offer without paying tuition.
Have you seen any of the projects you worked on then since?
I’ve had a number of break-ins in cars over the years, once at USC and once in San Diego. Once a computer was stolen. Once a hard drive was stolen. I think all of our original shit has been stolen at some point. [laughs] Which kind of sucks.
You weren’t attending classes, but you were still able to absorb what Kyle was learning?
Kyle was in the film studies program and I was helping make some of his videos. I was just this fake student there. It was pretty wild. I remember I’d sneak into the USC media labs to edit, because at a certain point I didn’t have a computer and then we’d finish a Good Neighbor video. No one would go to these labs because they had computers themselves. So I would be in this empty lab with millions of dollars of computers and film equipment and programs and software and we would upload a video to YouTube and Funny Or Die. At the very beginning of Funny Or Die you could upvote to get on the front page by clicking “Funny.” I would put our YouTube video on every screen and then I would just go in a circle and click “Funny” on every screen in the lab and just do it for an hour and we’d get like 1,000 [upvotes]. And then it would come up on the front page. I think these guys did it with me at one point, but it was a funny part of the history of us trying to get seen.
And that worked?
There was one point where we got a shoutout from Adam McKay.
[Kyle walks in]
Dave: [to Kyle] Do you think that Adam McKay quote was a direct result from us clicking “Funny” in the USC media labs or do you think that happened separately from that? Well we couldn’t say that he saw it because it made the front page. He could have seen it without it getting to the front page, no?
Kyle: Yeah, he could have. It’s probably more likely he saw it because it was on the front page.
Dave: Within a year they had worked out the coding where they could fix that algorithm if a “Funny” came from the same IP address so you couldn’t duplicate the “Funny.”
Kyle: What the fuck are you talking about? [laughs]
Dave: That was a funny part of the USC experience. A funny or die part of the USC experience.
Brigsby Bear premieres in select theaters this Friday.