Editor’s Note: This interview took place prior to the beginning of the Writers Guild of America strike on May 2.
Audiences may have initially tuned in to HBO’s “Barry” to see Bill Hader the actor playing a morally conflicted, yearning but brutal hitman, but over the course of four seasons what they’ve gotten is Bill Hader the world-class filmmaker. As an actor, writer, director and producer Hader has taken the series in unexpected and completely original directions, steadily evolving his own voice and sensibility to the point that it has become as distinct and recognizable as that of his heroes, Joel and Ethan Coen. Hader wears a lot of hats on “Barry” and is articulate about his approach to the series; here he is on four aspects of his filmmaking process.
Although Hader has a clear picture in his head of how he wants a scene to be blocked and shot, he often finds that his actors and crew give him ideas in rehearsal and on set that take the material in an exciting new direction. “A good example of that was Season 3, when the Sally character is talking to her agent after she’s been getting dragged online,” Hader told IndieWire. “I imagined her sitting down and Sarah Goldberg said, ‘I think when I yell at her, I should stand up and I would just be berating her.’ And then I said, ‘Well, what if you back up and we’d get you backing up into darkness? Which is kind of a harbinger of where your character’s gonna go in the next episode when she kills a guy.’ Then Carl [Herse], the DP, gets involved, and the production designer, and everybody tries to figure out, OK, how are going to do that? And then that changes how we’re going to shoot it. That’s always happening.”
On location scouts — which Hader describes as the most punishing stage in the filmmaking process (“That really kills you, sitting in a van for hours and hours in L.A. traffic all day”) — Hader begins planning his shots in detail so that minimal time will be wasted shooting unnecessary coverage “I’m taking pictures the whole time with Artemis explaining to Gavin Kleintop, the first AD, ‘Here’s our coverage. We’re gonna see this and we’re gonna see this. We’re never gonna see over there, we’re never gonna see over there. So it’s all very, very planned out.” That said, Hader acknowledged that many of his ideas have to be fixed in post. “There are certain scenes that are very cut up and completely rearranged because I got in the edit and thought, ‘Oh, I had this great idea and it didn’t work.’ Where I usually get in trouble is when the visual idea gets in front of what the emotion of the scene is. So I’ll do a shot that looks amazing, but you’re so caught up in what’s happening with the characters that it doesn’t really matter.”
Over the course of four seasons, Hader’s style has become more and more precise. “Everything is an act of simplifying,” he said. “When you write it and then you rehearse it, you’re cutting down, you’re honing. The scene where Sally is teaching Gene’s class and she yells at a student initially was much longer. Gene’s one-man show in Episode 2 was much longer. You get into the edit and you feel like, ‘Well, I’ve already cut it to its essence. I don’t think we can cut anymore.’ And then you see them perform it and you go, ‘Well, do we need that? I guess we don’t need that.’ You start pulling other stuff out and then a good editor like Ally Greer or Franky Guttman will say, ‘I don’t think you need this. I get it from here to here.’ And then you look back on it and you go, ‘Look at all this stuff we had before. Why did we think we needed that?'” Hader says he learned on the first two seasons that shooting more than necessary is hard on the actors and crew and tried to strip down his writing process appropriately. “A scene needs to be about one thing. It can’t be about five things. And sometimes as a writer, you don’t want to make decisions. So you end up writing five things figuring, well, we’ll pick what it’s about in the edit and we’ll just see how this all feels. And that’s terrible to do to actors because they don’t know what they’re playing.”
Refining his intentions has helped Hader facilitate his actors’ best work as well. “I have a very clear idea what I want, so I think that’s helpful,” he said. “It’s really hard as an actor when the director doesn’t know what they want and you’re presenting ideas to them and they’re going ‘not that, not that.’ That, to me, is not really directing. I get frustrated with directors like that as an actor. So I always want to be very clear with what I want, and then we’re working together to get there and I’m just being a cheerleader and a good audience. If someone does something funny, I genuinely laugh. Or if it’s emotional, I tell them, ‘Oh my God, that was great.’ I think the biggest thing with actors is that they just don’t want to look like idiots. Sometimes you’ll have an actor that comes in and they’re in their head and they’re freaked out and I’ve been there. So it’s just about saying, ‘You can’t fuck this up.’ The biggest thing you do for an actor is just be encouraging and let them do their thing, and then kind of guide them.”
Occasionally Hader will tell an actor he has what he needs even when he doesn’t, just to loosen them up. “The best thing you can say to them is, ‘We’ve got it. Now let’s try some other stuff.’ Then you can just see them relax and after that take they always nail it.” Hader also tries to keep the number of takes to a minimum so that he doesn’t wear his actors out. “I’ve talked to directors who do a ton of takes, and as an actor, I’ve never felt like it helps me at all. I used to have that thing in my 20s with Kubrick, thinking shooting all those takes was really romantic and cool. But then once you actually start doing this stuff, you’re like, ‘That’s insane.'”