When Bill Hader first moved to Los Angeles after graduating college, he was going west to pursue his dream of becoming a serious filmmaker, not a comedian. But like so many in their twenties who move to Hollywood to be creative, the need to pay the bills and the industry itself was a harsh reality.
“I was an assistant editor on ‘Iron Chef America’ and I was PA for a long-time, PA’d on a ton of movies and would just go to [arthouse movie theaters] and rent stuff every weekend,” said Hader when he was guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, along with his “Barry” co-creator Alec Berg. “All my friends, we just sat around in coffee shops and just bitched about movies and what people intended. Oh man, we were the worst.”
After breaking up with a girlfriend, Hader was motivated to find a way to get out of his creative rut. He found the vehicle to shake things up when his friend invited him to see his Second City sketch comedy class perform.
“I went to his show and I saw all these people my age performing sketch comedy and I was like 25, and I went, ‘Oh wow, this is happening, I should do this,'” said Hader. “What [the sketch classes] taught me was to fail. Those guys at the diner, we were a bunch of people who were afraid of failing, so we kind of judged shit – but, ‘Here’s a camera, man, go and make something,’? We’d be like, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ probably go sit and smoke, and be like, ‘That sucks.'”
One of Hader’s sketch comedy classmates was Matt Offerman, whose sister-in-law is the great comedic actress Megan Mullally (married to Nick Offerman). After seeing Hader perform, Mullally recommended him to Lorne Michaels, who gave him an audition for “Saturday Night Live.”
“From the day I went, ‘I should take classes here,’ a year-and-a-half later I was on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and so I was suddenly like, ‘wait a minute, what just happened,'” said Hader. “And I got there and my anxiety was through the roof, because suddenly you are sitting in rooms with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and all these people.”
After Hader’s successful eight-year run on “SNL,” he moved back to Los Angeles to take the next step in his acting career, but always with the intention of leveraging his star as a performer to get back on track to becoming a filmmaker. “You have these meetings with your agents and you strategize,” said Hader. “But I always kind of inherently knew if I was going to get a chance to write and direct something I would have to be at the center of it [as a performer] somehow.”
When Hader pitched Alec Berg his idea for a show about a hitman, the “Seinfeld” veteran and “Silicon Valley” showrunner instinctively disliked the idea, but then saw the potential of playing off what the audience would come to the show expecting from Hader in that role.
“I think part of the advantage of Bill doing this show [is there’s] the expectation of what he’s done before, and this is not that,” said Berg. “The same way being a hitman, there’s a trope there, there’s a cliche of a hitman and we tried to stay very far away from that, where it’s like, ‘Oh, I thought it would be this, but it’s not, it’s something else.’ Just because someone thought it was one thing, you catch them leaning one way and I think it’s very satisfying [to] go a different way. If they aren’t leaning [at] all, it’s harder to catch them off-guard.”
With “Barry,” Hader not only got the chance to direct (episodes 1-3), he had a vehicle that called on him to cinematically create scenes that were edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and that had the cinematic atmosphere that played to his particular sensibilities.
John P. Johnson / HBO
“What I like about ‘Barry’ as a show is that it’s very nice that my friends from back home, my high school girlfriend, all these people when they see it they all say, ‘Oh, man, that’s so the thing you would want to make – it’s funny, but it’s also dark and emotional and it’s weird, that’s very your thing,'” said Hader. “I’m happy I finally got a chance to do that.”
While on the podcast, Hader and Berg also broke down their unique approach to writing “Barry,” where major elements of show’s story line were discovered in writing later episodes, but they had the time to go backwards to make sure the show’s structure and narrative drive remains tight. They also discussed what they learned from balancing comedy with realistic violence and the show’s literal and figurative darkness.
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.