How ‘The Beanie Bubble’ Directors Saw Themselves in a Craze They Barely Remember

How ‘The Beanie Bubble’ Directors Saw Themselves in a Craze They Barely Remember

Kristin Gore still isn’t exactly sure why her agents slipped her a copy of Zac Bissonnette’s 2015 book, The Great Beanie Baby Bubble. She was not party to the mid-’90s collecting craze. In fact, she barely recalls it. But peppered throughout the book’s 260 pages, which document how a line of $5 stuffed animals briefly commanded resale prices as high as six figures, is a topic that she’s quite familiar with: uncredited work.

“Thematically, it resonated with me,” says Gore, a former Saturday Night Live scribe turned screenwriter, whose biggest writing gigs are absent from her IMDb profile. “But I was much more interested in — and felt a responsibility to — the universal story of people who just get screwed by systems.”

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The daughter of former Vice President Al Gore and advocate and activist Tipper Gore, she previously contributed to the screenplays for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Foxcatcher and, perhaps most notably, Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning script for AI romantic drama Her. But save an associate producer title on Foxcatcher, her name is not officially attached to these films. The reasons vary from project to project. “I grew up feeling like it was my duty to help things larger than myself succeed, and that ended up dovetailing perfectly in the creative world,” she says, nodding to the family business of public service. “I was genuinely so happy to be helping others make exciting things. Later, I realized, ‘Oh, no one knows that I did that … and that seems to matter.’”

Gore’s name is all over The Beanie Bubble, however. She adapted the screenplay from Bissonnette’s book and co-directed the feature with her husband, composer and OK Go frontman Damian Kulash. The script pays more attention to the three women (played by Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook and Geraldine Viswanathan) who were quietly pivotal to Beanie Babies’ wild success than it does to the dolls’ eccentric creator, multibillionaire Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis) – who steamrolls his female collaborators at every turn. It arrived in theaters July 21, obscured by the fog of “Barbenheimer” and its premiere canceled by the SAG-AFTRA strike, but the movie gets a wide release this Friday on Apple TV+. Naturally, the couple hopes that audiences find it and see the same timeliness in the story that they do.

“Look under the surface and you’ll realize that this wasn’t a weird blip in time,” Kulash says of the plush parable that unexpectedly became the couple’s first collaboration. “It’s the same insanity that happens always. It’s the logical conclusion to tech utopia and unequal workplace relationships — the American Dream and the false idea that everybody can get something that’s too good to be true.”

Zach Galifianakis and Geraldine Viswanathan in The Beanie Bubble.

Zach Galifianakis and Geraldine Viswanathan in The Beanie Bubble

Courtesy of Apple TV+

On the patio of a Silver Lake cafe in early July, Gore and Kulash appear to have easily navigated their first professional collaboration. “We don’t think alike but agree on about nine out of 10 things, maybe even more. We just never get there the same way,” says Kulash. They joke about the legal concerns inherent to dramatizing any true story, almost fondly reminisce about the six-year slog from pitch to release and fail to summon one example of a big disagreement throughout the whole process. That spouses could endeavor a feature film without some tension also seems too good to be true, but Gore, 46, and Kulash, 47, have an unconventional relationship. They were high school classmates in Washington, D.C., who struck up a friendship after 18 years of estrangement.

“We recently found a notebook of Damian’s from high school,” says Gore, who’s wrapping up her latest novel when not on the picket lines with fellow WGA members. “He’d sketch during government club, and we found a portrait of me at age 16 in there.”

“It sounds just a hair creepy,” interrupts Kulash, whose previous directing credits include most of OK Go’s viral music videos. “But there were many other people in there!”

Neither of them recall this classroom portrait sitting. But almost two decades later, they reconnected during a 2013 conference in Staten Island — “Where all great love stories start,” jokes Kulash — and kept things strictly platonic for another year. “When it became spontaneously romantic, she was very clear that we would not be together. In fact, she told me that I would not be ready for her emotionally for seven years,” recalls Kulash, who ultimately bargained her down. They married two years later and gave birth to twins (a boy and a girl, now five) another two years after that. For most of that time, they toyed with the idea of a creative team-up. Now, over coffee, they open up about their professional baby, and the “absurd cultural touchstone” that inspired it.

What was your awareness of Ty Warner going into this?

KRISTIN GORE We didn’t even know he was a man. I just had known those animals and the word “Ty” was on that heart-shaped tag. We missed the craze.

DAMIAN KULASH I do remember it being one of those absurd cultural touchstones where people just lost their minds. There were nightly news segments on people selling Beanie Babies for college tuition. But we were exactly the right age to ignore it completely and roll our eyes at how weird people can be.

GORE It’s a weird example of a lot of the fictions that power our world. Like, why do we value what we value? And what is currency anyway? (Laughs.) We swarm to certain things like they have meaning suddenly, and you realize how arbitrary a lot of that is — how ephemeral it can be. It makes you start questioning your own role in it. What’s interesting about this story isn’t so much the toys but what they represented in terms of human behavior.

Kristin, why do you think your team liked this book for you? It’s not an anomaly in your resume, but I wouldn’t call it “on brand.”

GORE When I worked on Foxcatcher, a friend of mine described it as “a funeral for the American Dream.” That phrase really stuck with me. I’m drawn to that. For this, I wanted it to be a second line parade through the French Quarter type of funeral for the American Dream. I still want the darkness and dysfunction, but with joy and warmth and color. So, that’s one through line. I mostly thought about having so many people see themselves in these women’s journeys. I’ve had a lot of experience with uncredited work. I respond to that aspect of dismantling this myth of the lone male genius who has a brilliant idea and brings it into the world. The reality of all these situations, throughout all industries, is that there’s always so much more to the story. There’s always so many other people involved. You don’t know their names. They don’t get the money. But they were crucial and critical. Why are we not more real about that? Why are we so committed to this myth?

KULASH Geraldine’s character is basically the same age as us in real life. And I remember that time well, when it felt like the internet was going to transform culture and democracy and human connection in a way that couldn’t be bad for us. There’s always a generation seeing the big broad future and buying into these things because they believe — or want to believe — in a meritocracy. Our mothers were of a generation where, when they hit the glass ceiling in the corporate world, they saw it coming. They’d been mistreated in a very particular way.

GORE They couldn’t get credit cards. They had to get it through their husbands.

KULASH My mom still won’t use American Express because they denied her and offered my father one the same year. I know this isn’t universal, but in the world that I grew up in, there was this pervasive feeling that the world had been really bad and was getting better — and yet, racism, sexism and classism all still echoing. When the women in our generation hit glass ceilings, I think they were more surprised by it. Wait a second, I fucking thought that our parents did away with this.

Gore There was an idea that if you just work hard enough, it’ll all work out. Really? That’s bullshit.

Joaquin Phoenix in HER, 2013.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her (2013); Gore contributed to the script for the film which was nominated for five Academy Awards and won best best original screenplay for Spike Jonze.

Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Can you speak a little bit more about your experiences with uncredited work?

GORE I was happy to help art that I felt was important get out there. I still am. There’s nothing wrong with that. The way the system’s set up … that was a late-breaking thing for me. My agents realized it way before I did and tried to get me to be more aggressive. Some things just were messed up internally. Each example is different, and I’m proud of all the work. I love those movies.

How were the scenarios different?

GORE There was an example where I was asked to do it. I was asked to not challenge through the guild. And I agreed.

You were asked by your collaborator?

GORE Yes. My agents were saying, “Are you sure? Because you would likely get (credited).” Well, I promised I wouldn’t. Then there was another one where the production company submitted the wrong draft to the (Writers) Guild for their credit determination process. When the director became aware of it, they went to bat for me with the producers. They said, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it.” Didn’t fix it. When I went to the guild, they said, “Sorry, you missed the two-week window.” It’s complicated and boring, but there were always these things. The earliest one, I was just so happy to help write some scenes that were being filmed the next day. It was fun. It never even occurred to me to ask for credit, because there was no contract or anything. Those are the main three.

I’m aware of Her and Foxcatcher. What’s the third?

GORE I got to help out on some scenes in Moneyball. And my first movie ever was with David O. Russell. We filmed for three months in South Carolina. This was during the 2008 financial crisis, and our funding fell through. We were shut down like eight times during filming — and then shut down for good before we got the last scene. Then, it was held hostage. David and I actually went in the edit room for four weeks. Then that got shut down, too. That was sad. Creatively, it was incredibly fun. It was this amazing cast.

That’s the Jake Gyllenhaal movie, right?

GORE It was called Nailed when we were making it. It actually came out (in 2015 as Accidental Love), and it’s a rough assembly. Unwatchable, basically. It could have been great. But just to clarify: that uncredited work, it’s part of my background. It was a lot of great experience that helped me make this movie.

KULASH Well, except some of the most offensive things that are said to Geraldine’s character (in the movie) were said to Kristin in real life.

GORE There is some dialogue that’s ripped from my real life, yeah. (Laughs.) Mine is not a sob story. But the systemic inequality that exists actually ruins people’s lives and holds people down in horrible ways. That’s what we’re trying to give people, an underdog story that resonates. Yeah, this system is oppressive and terrible. Let’s just blow it up.

KULASH Or walk away from it.

Musicians Damian Kulash, Tim Nordwind, and Andy Ross of OK Go perform onstage during the Thirst Project's 8th Annual thirst Gala at Beverly Hills Hotel on April 18, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.

Damian Kulash and OK Go bandmates Tim Nordwind and Andy Ross performing in 2017

Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Thirst Project

Damian, you mentioned our original hopes for the internet. What’s your relationship with that subject matter, considering OK Go essentially catered to the Internet with viral music videos but ultimately lost out on a lot of money — like so many artists — because of the internet’s impact on recording profits?

KULASH We did a great job of fucking over the rest of them, huh? (Laughs.) At most points in my life, I can think either, “I’m so lucky that I am in this moment when this set of tools has finally opened to humanity,” or, equally, “Oh, God, there goes what’s so good about blank.” I genuinely feel lucky that my band and myself came along in a time when a bunch of weird and crazy creative ideas could be the output of the band. If I had been born in a completely different era, I hope that I would’ve adjusted to whatever tools those were, but the tools themselves always push that envelope. And the envelope is always moving and losing something. I’m equally sad about what we lose as I am happy about what we get.

Tell me a little bit about the legal logistics of this movie. Were those even real Beanie Babies that you used?

GORE The book helped us tremendously, because that was our launchpad for everything. Apple really relied on that to give us some firm lines to stay within. It wasn’t like we tried to get IP we couldn’t get. Apple was like, “We use the book. We make our own Beanie Babies.” Because we were more interested in Ty as a stand-in for the American Dream — and, more so, these three women as representative of so many people who see their stories in these stories, we went for it as a fable. And that’s why we have the disclaimer (about it being partially true) at the beginning. We just want to be clear that this is not a documentary.

KULASH We didn’t want it to be about real Ty or about the real women exactly. It’s almost comically impossible that people could make such weird decisions, yet you see them in the decisions we make every day. Being true to actual Ty was not ever an exact goal. So while this is about what happened, this is also fictional.

In terms of the actual events depicted, what percentage would you say happened?

GORE A high percentage.

KULASH Though not always by the same people they’re attributed to in the story.

GORE There are amalgamations in some places, because you have to always do that, but I would say 80 percent if I had to assign a number to it.

So, did you give your children any of the Beanie Babies? And, if so, do you feel weird about it knowing what they represent?

The Beanie Bubble

Gore, Kulash and Galifianakis on the set of The Beanie Bubble

Courtesy of Apple TV+

GORE The ones we made, yeah. They’re not their favorite. (Laughs.) They rejected them, but they have very specific animals they love.KULASH During the writing of it, somebody gave us a box of old Beanie Babies.

GORE They threw them around a little bit, but they didn’t feel the same passion that we do for this story.

KULASH They also don’t know what we do. They know that we moved to Atlanta to work on “the big story.” We don’t really give them screen time, so they don’t know what any of it is. At my parents’ house, there’s a TV that’s always off. When they were there, they asked “What’s that black frame?”

GORE Like it was a picture frame up on the wall that’s just black. We’re like, “All right, we are depriving you guys. Sorry.”

KULASH They just started to watch one episode of cartoons per weekend. The good thing about having twins is that, for the most part, they’re never bored. There’s no, “God, just entertain them!” It’s basically like a steel cage match all day.

Interview edited for length and clarity.