If you watch Bill Hader’s late-night appearances, a common theme becomes clear pretty quick: Everybody asks him to do impressions. Everybody. No matter what remarkable achievements Hader seemed to pull off — his performance in The Skeleton Twins, his series Documentary Now!, and so on — he keeps getting asked to do impressions.
It’s a testament to the success of Barry, the HBO series Hader created with Alec Berg that finished its eight-episode debut season in May, then, that you almost forget about the impressions thing entirely. In Barry, Hader gives the best performance of his career as a depressed hit man desperate to escape the game and become an actor. A key feature of this decision is that Bill Hader might be a great actor, but Barry is not — meaning all those impressions are off the table.
Instead, we get to finally appreciate the many sides of Hader’s creativity. There’s his acting, which is top-notch, but there’s also his writing, show-running, and maybe most of all, his directing, which garnered him an Emmy nomination. (Naturally, he also got Emmy nods for writing and acting too.) But Bill Hader the director didn’t come out of nowhere: He has freely admitted in the past that he came to Los Angeles to be a filmmaker, and his cinephilia is widely documented by the Criterion Collection, which has done top ten, closet visit, and “Adventures in Moviegoing” segments with him. In honor of Hader’s Emmy nominations, Vulture caught up with him to get a sense of how he approached his first directing gig, the influences he brought with him into Barry, and what he learned about filmmaking over the course of the process. And if you liked Hader’s directing work on season one, stay tuned: He says he’ll be helming two more episodes next season.
How Hader felt as a rookie director
I don’t know what my personal style is until someone tells me what it is. You just do what you like, and what your instincts are telling you, and what you think is right for the story. Barry very easily could’ve turned into, Oh man, I want to throw every single influence in this one thing, because I’m a big cinephile and I’ve been sitting on it for so long. But because I’m a little older, I was aware that’s a trap I could’ve fallen into. It was more about what’s best for the story. What helps tell this story? If it’s working right, you don’t really notice it, you know? It doesn’t draw attention to itself. When I was younger, the kind of filmmaking I liked was the kind where it was like, There’s the filmmaker! and drew a lot of attention to itself. It’s the same thing in comedy: When I was younger, I was into more weird anti-joke stuff, and then as I got older and actually did it for living I realized, Oh, telling jokes is really hard. Making a solid comedy is difficult, and the same thing goes for directing. Just making a thing that makes sense is so hard, you know?
On directing Barry’s pilot episode
When I envisioned the pilot, I envisioned all these things that were going back to older movies, which had very simple dynamic coverage. You would watch Billy Wilder movies or an Anthony Mann movie or something like that, and you would count the setups and just go, “Wow, that was just four setups, that’s all you really needed for that.” And so, it was being secure in the plan and photo-boarding everything. I was a PA, I’ve worked as an actor, and through all the stuff I’ve done on sets, the thing that drives people crazy on set is the question of how much more do we have to do today. [Laughs.]
I like to put the photo-boards, which are each setup for each scene, out where people can see them. They can go, Oh, we’ve done this and this and now we just have these two to do and then we’re done. But it’s always best laid plans. You get there and you start rolling and you go, It would be great if we popped in on a special close-up on this, and we could do this and do that. A thing I told all the other directors, like Maggie Carey and Hiro Murai, was just simple, dynamic coverage — you don’t have to overcover it. And then, you do it all and you fucking have all these things and then you look at it and you go, Nope, it just looks like a TV show! [Laughs.]
On Barry’s opening scene
That scene, as written in the very first draft, was a guy begging for his life and Barry shoots him. And then, it was a gag: It was a massive gunfight that we just missed and it was a long Steadicam shot of Barry making sure he has everything, and it was in Las Vegas. And then — and this is what’s good about hammering at this stuff — everyone’s happy with it, but Alec and I were like, I don’t know, is that the show? And then we were like, Instead of Vegas, it should just be in some crappy hotel someplace. The whole idea is that he’s not John Wick. He’s like a traveling salesman, he’s low-rent. It should just be a guy in the bed who’s unarmed, and he went and shot him in the face, went to the bathroom, and then left. Production loved that because it’s cheaper. [Laughs.]
The idea was that you place the body in the foreground, and he doesn’t even notice it. It might as well be a coat or a towel that’s laying in the bed. He’s just so numb to it, and this thing that the audience hopefully sees and are taken aback by, he doesn’t feel anything. It was like an emotional camera move, in a way — it’s observational but weirdly subjective at the same time. The other nice thing was that, because it’s Alec and I doing the show, people assumed, Oh, this is going to be a big silly thing. It was nice to have the first shot. You want it to not be a comedy that gets super-serious. You want it to be serious and then let the comedy bleed in.
On the art of close-ups
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, there’s a moment where there hasn’t been a close-up of Richard Burton for a while, and then Elizabeth Taylor mentions the son, and it suddenly cuts to this big close-up of Richard Burton. You could be watching it on mute, and you would know, Oh God, she just said something that she wasn’t supposed to, and that’s pissed him off, just by the performances and the editing and the cinematography. That’s all those things working in tandem together to create a moment. I like that rather than, like, I feel like we can go in close here just because, because I’m bored hanging out in this two-shot or wide or whatever.
Kyle Reiter, who edited episode eight, did a great job on the scene of Barry and Moss and Cousineau and Sally having dinner out at the cabin when Barry’s kind of revealed. That kind of stuff he worked on and worked on forever to make it feel effortless. You don’t see all the work that goes into it. It’s not flashy — it’s hard, it’s all emotional. You’re trying to lay out the dominoes in just the right places, and when you hit, it makes you go, Oh my God! Jeff Buchanan did a very similar thing in the scene where I’m in the car with Chris. He kept it all in two-shot and then he cut in to that close-up when Barry says, “I told you to get out of the car,” and you go, Oh God. If he had been in close-ups through that whole thing, it wouldn’t have worked, but because we popped in right there, you suddenly go, Oh Jesus, this is serious.
On finding inspiration in books and movies:
This is going to sound really highfalutin, but I think writers like George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, and Mary Karr — you read a Tobias Wolff or George Saunders story and you’re just going, Wow, this is so funny yet so sad and so moving, all at the same time. They all love Chekhov and Tolstoy and Gogol, so I read some of that stuff, and I thought, Oh yeah, it’s just following this emotional truth. You read Anna Karenina, and she’s fallen in love with this other guy and she comes home to her husband and there’s this whole passage about his ears, his ears drive her crazy, and you’re like, I know that feeling, I’ve had that feeling before, and I’m sure people have had that feeling about me. They were having that feeling in Russia in the 19th century. There are very finite human emotions that those writers were trying to explain, and then in film, you saw that they were influencing people — especially Kurosawa talks about how much he likes those guys. A movie like Ikiru is a big influence on me, and his samurai movies, and his crime movies like Stray Dog and High and Low. I’m a massive fan of his, and you can track the emotion in it. And Bergman, something like The Virgin Spring is Bergman doing Kurosawa [laughs], it’s like Bergman’s version of Rashomon. You watch that, and you go, God, that is such a rough movie, but I get it. This guy is this pious person, and he’s unwittingly giving shelter to the people that raped and murdered his daughter. He finds that out, and yeah, he’s gonna fucking kill them! [Laughs.] That’s just human emotion, and you don’t like it about yourself, you know?
On the stress of editing:
Growing up loving movies, I had this naïve thing of like, People know what they have while they’re making it. You have no clue. You have no clue. You get into the editing and you have an ulcer. When you see the first rough cut of any episode, you want to go blow your brains out. You’re just like, We fucked up, we completely fucked up. I remember seeing the rough cut of the pilot, and I had to go do a Q&A for an Emmys for Your Consideration event for Documentary Now!, and I was just in a stupor. I’m sure I was a dick in that Q&A, to the point where people were like, What is wrong with you? and I was like, I just fucked up the whole thing, I just fucking blew it. I totally thought I blew it when I saw the rough cut, and then it was Alec Berg and Jeff Buchanan, the editor, who were like, No, we’ve got this, watch.
On praying for happy accidents:
I remember watching Taxi Driver, which I think Barry owes a lot to — that and Raging Bull as well, some of the stylistic stuff, the isolation of a person — but I just went, “Oh, he knew how he was going to do everything,” and it’s like, no! [Laughs.] If you listen to [Scorcese’s] great commentary track from the ’80s, which is just phenomenal, he’ll say, This scene wasn’t working, so we tried this. You have no idea. You can plan and plan and then it’s true, you pray for an accident. Sara Goldberg doing the Macbeth scene and the “out damn spot,” she started licking her hand and going fucking crazy. Hiro Murai and I were like, What is happening? That is not at all what I thought was going to happen. She brought this thing to it that was funny, but also very real and strange and made sense for what she was doing with the scene. It was just wonderful.
On the auteur theory:
You hire the right people and then they make your stuff better. You hire [cinematographer] Paula Huidobro or Tyler Robinson, the production designer, or Jeff and Kyle, our editors, or Sharon Bialy, our casting director, and you’re like, Oh, wow, this idea I had has now gone up a notch. You’ve got to honor all this work these other people are doing. I was definitely in my early 20s reading that Andrew Sarris book, and the whole auteur theory this and that, and now I’m like, It’s all bullshit.
It’s a big group of people. Alec and I are the bosses of the thing, but we hired you for a reason, so we’ll tell you if it’s in the right direction or wrong direction. Like, Sarah Goldberg spitting on her hand, or the way that Anthony Kerrigan ran as NoHo Hank, that stuff was hilarious. Or Henry Winkler’s little improv when he hits my shoulder and he goes, “God, I keep forgetting how strong you are.” Kirby [Howell-Baptiste], her thing where she goes, “This guy had me come over and said take off your clothes, and I said what are these photos for, and he said, ‘The internet?’” That was all improvised. It’s coming from every place. Our assistant editor came up with the NoHo Hank “Gulp” Bitmoji. We didn’t tell him to do that. So that’s not me. It’s a big group of people making this thing.