If nothing else, “Barry” Season 4 has cemented director Bill Hader’s status as somehow the heir to both Otto Preminger and Jacques Tati. Hader and cinematographer Carl Herse’s camera, like some unholy combination of “Playtime” and “Anatomy of a Murder,” continually embrace patient, wide takes in which horror and comedy unfold one after the other after the other, staying however long it needs to in order to catch the characters out.
The length of a moment and the slow arc of the camera can themselves justify a change in location or a transition, as in Barry’s flashes to his past and to the world he desires in Episode 2, “the bestest place on earth.” But as the camerawork of the show has adapted to Hader’s preference for giving the characters enough rope, so has every other aspect of “Barry” adapted.
For Season 4, this presented production designer Eric Schoonover with a challenge: to create a prison set that would feel appropriately pressurizing for inmates Barry Berkman (Hader) and Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) but physically offer Hader and Herse the flexibility to shoot with wide angle lenses and the expansive point of view that the show adopts in its storylines.
“We try to [create] a little bit more space than you otherwise would give a living room or any room for that matter,” Schoonover told IndieWire. “We might have a fourth wall in mind, but we really have to dial it in 360 degrees because we never really know how wide these shots are going to be.”
Schoonover did a lot of research in order to build sets and dress locations where the fourth wall could be anywhere and everywhere. From scouting actual prisons to watching YouTubers like Wes Watson expound on the structures of prison, Schoonover got a sense of the requirements of penitentiary spaces and the ways in which they could be made stark enough to cast Barry himself in high relief.
“You would see a lot of new paint, but not everywhere. So [my work] was finding that sweet spot of where zones would get hit with natural wear and tear and where it would be pristine. [The key to accuracy was] a set looking pristine in one corner and having water damage in the ceiling at the same time,” Schoonover said. “Things feeling authentic to me is always super important. And so it’s about taking that detail to really make a room feel authentic in 360 degrees.”
It’s not only in the layering but in the choice of color that keeps the prison spaces visually interesting for a camera taking a wide, sweeping look at the space. The main rec spaces are barer (although any set with a screen showing “Yellowstone” can’t truly be called bare) but sort of bruise-gray, in wonderful contrast to the grape juice lighting of Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and Cristobal’s (Michael Irby) Dave and Buster’s crime summit Ted Talk – and the lighting on Gene (Henry Winkler) during his one-man show with the reporter (Patrick Fischler).
Meanwhile, the yard exteriors have the same overexposed and barren quality as the dirt yard in which Barry plays as a boy; the small room in which he offers to talk to the FBI is as black as the fantasy of seeing himself and Sally (Sarah Goldberg) dancing leaves him; and the visitation room’s red window frames cast a tint over Sally and Barry’s conversations that’s suggestive of the anger both of them are still denying in themselves.
The core directives for Schoonover’s sets were that storytelling authenticity and logistical flexibility. “We definitely need to think in terms of camera position, [having] camera ports or [removing] walls. Sometimes all the planning goes into shooting it one way and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘No, we actually need to pull this wall out. That’s part of the excitement for me, is just knowing that whatever they come up with we will be able to do,” Schoonover said. “We always have such a great crew that we can really make anything happen.”