Brigsby Bear Adventures is a fictional ’80s children’s show, but after audiences see the affecting comedy Brigsby Bear (in select theaters now), they’ll find themselves wishing they could watch it for real. (Some spoilers ahead.) In director Dave McCary’s debut film, SNL star Kyle Mooney (who also co-wrote the script) plays James, a young man who has been raised in isolation by the well-meaning but unbalanced “parents” who kidnapped him as a baby. When James learns the truth and returns to his biological parents, the hardest thing for him to accept is that his favorite TV show, Brigsby Bear Adventures,never aired outside of the family bunker; it was wholly the invention of Ted (Mark Hamill), the man he thought was his father. In other words, his only pop culture reference is one that literally no one else knows. The film follows James as he learns to adapt by bringing elements of Brigsby into his new life.
Throughout the film, we see glimpses of the TV show, a gloriously bizarre yet wholly believable series of adventures starring a man in an animatronic bear suit. Complete with electronic songs, ’80s-style green-screen effects, and odd episodic “lessons” (“Remember: prophecy is meaningless. Trust only your familial unit!”), Brigsby Bear Adventures feels very much like the low-budget children’s entertainment that ’80s kids watched on VHS tapes, which is the whole idea. McCary and Mooney stopped by the Yahoo Movies office to go deep on the inspirations and creation of their show-within-a-movie — and revealed that audiences haven’t seen the last of Brigsby.
Watch a clip from ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’ as seen in the film ‘Brigsby Bear’:
When conceiving the idea for Brigsby Bear Adventures, Mooney and co-writer Kevin Costello looked to live-action children’s TV shows from their own childhoods in the ’80s and early ’90s. Specific influences included the Disney Channel series Welcome to Pooh Corner, a Teddy Ruxpin TV special, and a live-action Rainbow Brite “birthday” special. “I guess in theory if it was your birthday and you’re a child, or a grown man or woman, you would pop this tape in and it would be like Rainbow Brite and the characters from that show celebrating your birthday with you,” Mooney explains. The actor is so obsessed with this aesthetic — “all of that stuff where it’s like, the matte painting background sets and a live-action creature thing walking around on set” — that he has a collection of children’s-show VHS tapes that he found in thrift stores in his 20s. “Every year, more and more of these things are making it to YouTube,” Mooney says, “but back then, these things only existed on videotape. When you’d find [one], it was something truly special.”
Costello did go so far as to write a show bible for Brigsby Bear Adventures, though only bits and pieces made it into the screenplay. “Sometimes it would just be a blurb — Kevin would have written some soundtrack cue that was like, ‘This song is taken from Episode 46 Volume 18, ‘The Raid of the Plutorians,’” Mooney recalls. In the film, Ted has been producing the show for around 20 years, so the writers had the idea that it evolved over time from a rudimentary preschool show into an elaborate, world-building fantasy. “We would have loved to have the time and resources to make the shoddiest, earliest version of the show, where maybe the animatronics aren’t even there and it’s just like a loose, puppeted mouth,” says McCary. “You know even how Homer Simpson looked different in that first season?”
While the show’s themes seem to reflect the paranoia of James’ kidnappers — “They definitely wanted to instill this idea that what’s out there is dangerous, and if you’re curious about that stuff, it’s not natural,” says McCary — its hero is nevertheless an upbeat role model in James’ life. “I think the overall message of the Brigsby Bear TV show is to be positive to one another,” says Mooney. “And I think just from the standpoint of this being the only source of entertainment for James, he just loves these stories and it inspires him to create himself.”
As for the weird math lessons in Brigsby Bear Adventures, Mooney says they came out Ted’s desire to build a genius “superchild.” McCary has his own theory. “I like to think that [Mooney’s kidnappers] have maybe some prophecy of a catastrophic event that’s going to happen and maybe it happens after their time, and so they think if James knows these equations, maybe he can continue living,” says McCary. “But, they’re crazy. They’re very sincerely loving and want to protect James but they truly believe in these very weird worldviews. So we wanted to show that it was a tricky situation for everyone involved!”
The villain “Sunsnatcher,” as played by Hamill in a rubber sun mask, is a hat-tip to the sky themes of so many retro children’s TV characters: the rainbow-riding Rainbow Brite, the cloud-dwelling Care Bears, the baby in the sun in Teletubbies. “It felt fitting that they would turn the sun into a character,” says Mooney. The “Smile sisters” (both played by Kate Lyn Sheil) also have a distinct Rainbow Brite aesthetic.
As for Brigsby himself, McCary took pains to make sure the character seemed sincere and “not too cartoony.” “We were just looking at how Winnie the Pooh is kind of soft and gentle,” says the director. “We didn’t want it to feel too tongue-in-cheek, like we were aware of, oh, look at how how silly this is. Because the character [Ted] is putting a lot of love and creativity into this, and these lessons and this show means a lot to him and his son.” Hamill, who performed the voice, auditioned several different options “and they were all great,” says McCary. “We also wanted to make it so it didn’t need to be too complicated. He got it immediately.”
In order to create an authentic ‘80s feel, cinematographer Christian Sprenger purchased vintage broadcast cameras on eBay. The production team used practical effects wherever possible, including hand-painted backdrops and the bear’s animatronic head. Composer David Wingo scored the scenes with music inspired by retro show clips. (Mooney remembers pulling up The He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special for one scene.) The final versions of the film’s Brigsby scenes were transferred between VHS tapes, then put into a VCR specifically designed for “banging” (creating those distinctive VHS tracking lines), in order to create the authentic appearance of a much-watched videotape. “It was a fun art project,” says McCary.
In the opening scenes of the film, the audience sees James’ bedroom, which is filled top-to-bottom with Brigsby merchandise, VHS tapes, furniture, and memorabilia. Of course, all of that would have been handmade by Ted, without James’ knowledge. “There is a level of professionalism to the quality, but there’s also some jankiness,” says Mooney of James’ Brigsby collection. “So it would be fun trying to figure out, what would a VHS cover look like? How’s Ted doing this artwork? Is it watercolor, is it colored pencil? And so everything kind of has this handmade aesthetic while also trying to look as legit as possible so that James doesn’t catch on.” Production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly created Brigsby toys by modifying thrift-store action figures. “There’s a Shrek figurine that he just painted over, which felt true to what the character of Ted was probably doing,” says McCary.
THE LOST EPISODE
At the time of the interview, McCary and Mooney were putting the finishing touches on a Brigsby Bear Adventuresepisode — “one of James’ favorite episodes,” says Mooney — that they were creating themselves, outside of the film. It will likely debut as a series of clips. “In a perfect world, we could make a 30-minute episode,” McCary says. “We didn’t have the time and resources to do that, so we tried to abbreviate that into six minutes, and then thought, maybe we should just break this up into best scenes.” So what do we know about the lost Brigsby episode?
“Without spoiling too much, this is our introduction to the Festival of Kindness. So for Brigsby fans that’s a pretty big deal,” says Mooney. “I would maybe mention,” adds McCary, “that something is up with Arielle Smiles in this episode.” “She has been acting a little strange,” Mooney concurs.
Will Brigsby solve this mystery? Stay tuned, and remember what Brigsby always says: Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!
‘Brigsby Bear’: Watch a trailer:
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