Bill Hader hasn’t been shy about his dream of becoming a film director. One of his motivations in creating HBO’s “Barry” with Alec Berg was to leverage his value as performer in order to get an opportunity to direct a couple of episodes while guiding the visual language of the show. Yet in looking back at Season 1, Hader feels like he was far too timid in the first two episodes he directed.
“I felt like on Season 1 I didn’t do a good job of some things,” said Hader when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit. “When I’d look back I went, ‘Oh man, I wish I’d stuck to my guns. I saw that in a specific way and I kind of chickened out.’ Or if someone said, “Oh, don’t you want to do it this way?’ And I went, ‘OK,’ and I didn’t stick to my guns.”
In plotting out Season 2, Hader did something that was unusual in terms of the way he and Berg write the tightly structured show with their staff. He took the idea behind the standalone episode “Ronny/Lily” out of the room and wrote it himself.
“The nice thing about writing that episode was that it really was very intuitive,” said Hader. “All of our episodes you put them up on a board, you outline it, you write a treatment for them, and then you look through the treatment and realize things don’t work. You’re going over and over and over the material constantly, and that was an episode that was [exhales] a breath of fresh air, I could be about these 30 minutes and that’s it.”
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Berg jokes that the episode is Hader’s solo album in the middle of the season. Ultimately the writing staff integrated the episode into the structurally-tight Season 2 – the four prior episodes setting up the need for Barry to kill Ronny (Daniel Bernhardt) – but the self-contained story and cinematic world Hader created stand independent on the show. For Hader it was important to write and direct an episode exactly the way he saw it in his head, and off the success of Season 1 he’d been given the vote-of-confidence and freedom from HBO to do exactly that.
Right from the opening shots of “Ronny/Lily” Hader’s personal filmmaking fingerprints are felt. Long, widescreen shots – in which both the tension and deadpan comedy come from the relationship between what’s onscreen and offscreen – of a nervous ski-masked Barry explaining to the silent, stoned Ronny of his plan to not kill him. While plotting the episode, Hader was watching movies by the late Polish master Andrzej Wajda for inspiration, but he’s amused that so many people seem to think he’s biting the style of more recent masters. “People go, ‘Oh that reminds me of Tarantino,'” said Hader. “Nothing wrong with Tarantino, or the Coen Brothers, and you’re like, ‘Oh right on, I like both of them, but that wasn’t what I was thinking.”
For Ronny and Barry’s fight, Hader tasked stunt coordinator Wade Allen with creating a messy fight in which the characters become quickly exhausted. “I wanted it to feel more real in a sense and just brutal,” said Hader. “I wanted it all in one shot. The nice thing about them coming in and out of frame is it feels a little bit more judgmental of what they’re doing. A little bit more, ‘this is a bit silly.’ That aspect of it I like.”
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When the two men simultaneously deal each other severe blows, cinematographer Paula Huidobro pitched the idea of both men falling out of frame. Hader loved the idea of the frame being left empty, followed by the camera slowly following the sound of Ronny wheezing to reveal his windpipe had been broken.
The hardest part for Hader was getting the camera operator to let the frame stay empty, as a professional’s natural instinct is to continue to follow the actors. An empty frame followed by a delay move is something that would normally render the oner unusable. With the wheezing sound effect being added in post, on set there was no motivation for the camera movement. “The hardest part of directing is just maintaining your confidence and your persistence of vision when everyone is looking at you like you’re crazy,” said Hader. “And that was one of those instances where everyone was like, ‘Wait, what? There’s no one in frame.’ ‘I know, I know, but it’ll be great.'”
When Hader first sat down to write “Ronny/Lily” the big struggle was how to arc the story, specifically when (and if) during the episode Barry should kill Ronny. At the time, Allen showed Hader a video of Jessie Giacomazzi, an incredible 11-year-old martial arts expert he worked with on another job.
“And then it just clicked in my head, ‘That’s his daughter,’ Barry kills him, then you have a split second where it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, is Barry going to have to kill a little girl?'” said Hader. “Then it reveals that she’s from another world, almost, and it was just kind of writing it intuitively.”
Ronny and Lily’s house was built on a soundstage with removable ceilings to do wire work that made the feral Lily (Giacomazzi) defy gravity as she attacks Barry. The pacing, style, and world stood in sharp contrast to the messy Ronny-Barry fight that proceeded it. “As you are writing it you want to be surprised, you don’t want to see the same thing again,” said Hader. “And then you go, ‘Is this too far?’ And everyone was like, ‘No, this is hilarious.'”
Creating a cinematic style that simultaneously embraces the absurd and the realistic is something Hader sees naturally in his head, but took careful planning to pull off. He credits Huidobro for creating a lighting scheme that grounded the home, something he would mirror with sound. “Not putting music in, not having a score, was important and feeling the outside, the neighborhood’s sounds at all times,” said Hader. “Just making it feel like a room you are actually in and then letting the violence happen and let it sit for a second. It’s all pacing.”
Feeling those internal rhythms of the episode is one thing, having trust to listen to them and the skill to pull it off is what allowed Hader to take an enormous step as a director this season.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.