As 'Barry' comes to an end, Bill Hader the auteur rises
LOS ANGELES — HBO's dark comedy "Barry" is ostensibly the saga of a hit man trying to find himself — and redemption — through a North Hollywood acting class. But one of its most fascinating story lines is the growth of co-creator/showrunner/writer/director/star Bill Hader as a filmmaker.
His credentials as a performer and writer from "Saturday Night Live" sold HBO on the show, co-created with his friend Alec Berg (an executive producer on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Silicon Valley"). In a meeting with the brass, Hader laid down his one condition: He would direct the pilot.
"They said, 'Have you directed anything before?' 'No,'" Hader recalls in an April conversation, laughing. "All eyes went to Alec Berg, and he said, 'I think he can do it.' And he had no idea if I could do it!" He laughs again. "I found out later, they called him and said, 'OK, can he really do it?' And Alec said, 'I think he can do it, and I'll be on set if anything goes wrong.'
"I'll always be indebted to him for that."
Berg says that story is true, except for the part where he didn't know if Hader could do it:
"From the jump, he was much, much more interested in directorial stuff — bigger-picture stuff, tone, color," Berg says in an April call. Obviously, to get it made, he had to be an actor in it, and he's spectacularly good at that part of it. But if you told him he could direct things but never act, or act and never direct, my sense is he would give up acting instantly. I knew he saw it a certain way and should direct it. Bill always jokes, if Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, he'd go, 'It's not the way I would've done it.' "
Hader already felt comfortable working with actors. And, as Berg says, he had a strong vision of what he wanted on screen: He has named Stanley Kubrick, Andrzej Wajda, Akira Kurosawa, Hal Ashby and the Coen brothers among his influences — a group that answers a lot of questions about why "Barry" feels so much more cinematic and deadpan than other television comedies. But Hader says seeing camera moves in his head and sticking to his guns when others couldn't see what he saw were separated by a gulf of confidence.
"If you're making a dish for the first time, you really follow the directions," he says. "You know, making sure you have a wide (shot), a medium, a close; making sure we have the right coverage. But even then, I was trying things. ... You watch a lot of movies and it's in you, you know, it's a visual language."
The show was nominated for multiple Emmys its first season, including for his direction of the pilot. Hader won the Directors Guild of America Award for that episode. He would continue directing episodes as his filmmaking became more daring, idiosyncratic — and also more intimate.
"I think the big moment for me finding my voice would probably be the ' ronny/lily ' episode" in Season 2, Hader says. "It was the first episode I wrote on my own."
Berg says, "I refer to that as his solo album. He went away and was like, 'I'm gonna try some pretty crazy s— here, and it might be a spectacular disaster, but I'm gonna take a swing.' There were things on that episode where a lot of people were going, 'OK, it's your funeral.' And when it worked the way it did, it emboldened him."
The "ronny/lily" episode was one of the strangest bits of storytelling on TV that year. It opens with a comically awkward fight matching an elite-but-stoned martial artist against Barry, who almost apologetically gets the better of him, captured without comment by a calm camera. Then the martial artist's young daughter shows up — skilled and feral. The episode stumbles into a night of insane mishaps as Barry and his father figure/handler Fuches ( Stephen Root ) alternately chase and run from the girl.
Hader earned his second directing Emmy nomination for that bizarre trip of an episode and won his second DGA Award for it.
After that, Berg says, "the show got more cinematic and more audacious, and less wordy and more tonal."
A Season 3 episode called "710N" is Exhibit A of that increased audaciousness. A gang of expert motocross riders comes after Barry, resulting in an insane pursuit including a stretch of L.A. freeway.
Berg says, "He had a very specific idea how it was gonna feel: the claustrophobia of being between lanes (on motorcycles) and the sounds that were gonna emanate and the sounds that weren't. The editors were like, 'Wait, don't you want a chase scene?' 'No; it should be like this.'
"They took all the music out and held on shots; it was designed that way. As a result, it isn't like every other chase scene, and it isn't shot the way it 'should' be shot. And that was exciting and weird and clearly worked."
Hader received his third directing Emmy nomination and won his third DGA Award for "710N." His next trick? Directing all of Season 4 's eight episodes.
He says he thought, "Now that we're at Season 4, I feel confident to go, 'Let me just tell the story.' "
Though the final season has its share of cinematic big swings, it feels even more personal, more intimate, enhanced by Hader's idiosyncratic storytelling.
In prison, Barry's mind drifts to the memory of an open plain: him as a child, with Fuches, seen at a distance. In adult Barry's memory/hallucination, pairs of people in tuxes and gowns surreally jog in a line through the plain, directly into a hall filled with well-wishers." Among them are a much-older Barry and his girlfriend Sally ( Sarah Goldberg ) lovingly dancing together.
"It's a bizarre moment that I love," Hader says. "It gives you insight into his brain."
Later, a time jump finds Barry and Sally living incognito in the Midwest, in an unnamed, remote area marked by vacant plains like those in the Fuches memories. Hader let the physical settings help convey their isolation — and Sally's simmering malaise.
And then there's Hader's increased confidence in his actors. Even when they aren't actually actors.
"The listening is as important. I would argue that so much of what's funny in the Guillermo del Toro scene [the Oscar-winning director had a cameo as an unamused representative for a pair of assassins] is watching him listen. We found that in the edit. We would laugh really hard at his takes when he was just listening. His reactions."
But especially when they are.
"There's a scene of Barry and Sally meeting in prison — you've seen that scene a hundred times. But to have the confidence to just sit in this, to not feel you should be pushing the camera in or have different angles: Let's just watch these two people. That's weird. I let the acting do the work." Hader cackles at his "discovery."
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