[Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Barry.”]
You’re not alone: “Barry” stunt coordinate Wade Allen also misses the days when the HBO series was about a fucked-up hitman who wanted to be an actor. The darkness of the show’s final season has only grown alongside Bill Hader’s visual style; and Episode 4, “it takes a psycho,” required Allen, production designer Eric Schoonover, special effects supervisor Ryan Riley, and visual effects supervisor Laura Hill, to create the show’s most complex — and easily one of its most horrifying — visual gags to date. Unlike the fate of Sian Heder’s “Mega Girls” franchise, which we have to imagine the studio is locking down tight, a ton of Episode 4 spoilers below.
While Barry (Bill Hader) lurks in the shadows of Sally’s (Sarah Goldberg) apartment after escaping prison, Hank (Anthony Carrigan) disposes of his would-be crime-utopia henchmen in the cold light of day — specifically the cold light of a silo filled with sand. As with much of the jaw-dropping work on the series, the camera captures Hank luring everyone to the center of the pit and then turning it into quicksand, burying them alive in an agonizingly slow wide shot. We can only watch as the sand silences the screams until there is just dust floating above the space a dozen guys just were. Covering the whole movement of the stunt, from 12 guys standing on the sand to just Michael Irby’s Cristobal desperately clawing at the air before being engulfed, took as much thought as any of the shootouts on “Barry.”
“The sandpit had a bunch of people with a lot of film experience scratching their head going, ‘How exactly are we going to do this?'” Allen told IndieWire. “It was the brainchild of Eric Schoonover, Ryan Riley, and Bill and [first AD] Gavin Kleintop and [producer] Aida Rodgers and myself, just meeting after meeting, trying to figure it out from a physics standpoint: How do we keep all these tiny items, the sand, in place, but allow large items, all the humans, to pass through and still not leave this gaping hole that the visual effects department would end up struggling to close up?”
The eventual rig that the “Barry” team developed was the show’s most expensive, according to Hader. “It was two stories high and then there’s the sand, and then there’s a contraption underneath it, like an hourglass, that opens up and all those guys fall through it. And then there’s stunt men at the bottom of it, pulling those guys out,” Hader told IndieWire.
“That was definitely the craziest thing I had ever done,” Schoonover told IndieWire. “It was definitely the only set where people had to come from the office just to see what was going on. You know, the other sets looked great. And I’m super proud of all of our sets. But that was one where it was so much of a spectacle and there was so much involved in it that people couldn’t help but need to lay eyes on that.”
Aside from a shit-ton of sand — in reality, less abrasive ground-up corn husks) — the set required a mechanism that would let the humans pass through safely. Allen and Riley experimented with a number of shapes before settling on a trap-door design that would drop the actors and then close fairly quickly so that most of the sand stayed in place.
“Whether it’s something like this or us doing a super long fire gag or us doing a type of car thing or a fight, all of which we’ve done over the course of ‘Barry,’ it really comes down to just some stunt guys — and in this case the special effects boys — going off to a warehouse in Santa Clarita and going, ‘Well, let’s see what happens if we do this,'” Allen said. “I think the first time [we tried it with] two or three humans and went, ‘OK, that’s cool.’ And then we expanded to six humans and that worked. And then when we finally moved to Sony and were a week out of shooting, we did it with all 12 humans. And that was important because the diameter of the hole that they passed through had to be big enough to accommodate [everyone].”
The calibration that was most important to get right, according to Allen, was determining the height of the camera. “If the camera was too high, you could see down into the hole where those guys were going. But if it was too low, then it didn’t really look like we did what we did,” Allen said. But it was important to fix the camera as an implacable observer, both to stay true to the style of the show and to get the gag right. “Bill is lauded for his coverage of action. But when it comes to the conventional coverage of action, Bill doesn’t do very much at all. Like, there aren’t inserts of a foot smashing the accelerator pedal or tire squealing or whatever. He really lets the camera do the work,” Allen said.
The camera does the work in two shots, and because of the nature of the shifting sands, the “Barry” team only got a limited number of tries. “The set was such that you could take a wall out of it and we have a camera, or a technical crane, and so we have the guys go under [the sand] and it’s like, ‘Great. Now everybody stop. Don’t move,'” Hader said. “They literally bolt the camera down. We set up cones so you can’t walk across [the sand] and disturb the sand. And then they brought in a giant crane and just started dumping sand into the hole to a certain place. We put this giant box in there with a hole in it. You dump more sand on that, and then you put Michael Irby in the box and he pops his head out and they just put sand around him. So he’s kneeling in a box that has a hole in it and then we get him in that place and the camera hasn’t moved at all.”
The prep for the second (and last) shot of the sequence took an hour, then the camera was unbolted for the slow push in on Cristobal struggling to escape. “The toughest part of it was having to take all of that material that spilled out and get it back up in the pit. You know, it just was physical. It was just physical labor of loading pounds and pounds and pounds of sand and then lifting it with a forklift and dumping it back in,” Allen said. “You can imagine, being on set you don’t just want to stand around and wait for an hour and a half for people to reset. So that was a big challenge with this particular gag because I could only get so many cracks at it per day.”
Still, the sandpit sequence seems like an almost inevitable final-season innovation for a series that has spent three seasons watching its characters fail to claw their way out of metaphorical holes. Coming at the season’s mid-point, the sequence may be an unsettling capstone on Hank and Cristobal’s project but is likely not the last scene that the “Barry” team will engineer in the show’s signature style of brutally observational humor. The sandpit only ended up using some of the stage space that Allen’s stunt team got to play with.
“We had the ‘Mega Girls’ set over on one part of the stage, then we had [some massive stunt equipment] on one part of the stage, and then right over behind it was the sand silo set,” Allen said. “So, if you didn’t know it was ‘Barry,’ you’d think we were shooting a fucking Marvel movie. It was wild. And it’s for a 30-minute comedy. I looked around a couple times and I’ve been on massive feature films where we have whole stages dedicated to all this stunt equipment. It looked just like that and I just thought it was hysterical.”