The following interview was conducted prior to the current WGA strike.
Audiences may have initially tuned in to HBO’s “Barry” to see Bill Hader the actor play a morally conflicted, eager but brutal hitman, but over the course of four seasons what they’ve gotten is Bill Hader the world-class director. As an actor, writer, director and producer, Hader has taken the series in unexpected and completely original directions, constantly evolving his voice and sensibility to the point that it has become as distinct and recognizable as those of his heroes, Joel and Ethan Coen. Hader wears many hats in “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 captured and shot, he often finds his actors and crew giving him ideas in rehearsals and on set that take the material in an exciting new direction. “A good example of that was Season 3 when Sally’s character is talking to her agent about her after being dragged online,” Hader told IndieWire. “I pictured her sitting down and Sarah Goldberg said, ‘I think when I yell at her, I should stand up and scold her.’ And then I said, ‘Well, what if you back off and we back you up in the dark? Which is kind of a foreshadowing of where your character is going next episode when she kills a guy.’ So Carl (Herse), the cinematographer, and the production designer gets involved, and they all try to figure out, OK, how are they going to do it? And then that changes how we’re going to shoot it. It always happens.
On location scouting – which Hader describes as the most punishing phase of the filmmaking process (“It really kills you, sitting in a van for hours on end in Los Angeles traffic all day”) – Hader begins planning his shot in detail so that minimal time will be wasted shooting useless shoots “I shoot the entire time with Artemis explaining to Gavin Kleintop, the first AD, ‘Here’s our shoot. We will see this and we will see it. We’ll never see over there, we’ll never see over there. So it’s all very, very planned. That said, Hader acknowledged that many of his ideas need to be fixed in post. “There are some scenes that are very cut out and completely re-edited because I went into editing and I was like, ‘Oh, I had this great idea and it didn’t work.’ I usually get into trouble when the visual idea gets in front of the emotion of the scene. So I’m going to take a shot that looks great, but you’re so wrapped up in what’s happening with the characters that it doesn’t really matter.
On writing and editing
Over the course of four seasons, Hader’s style became more and more precise. “Everything is an act of simplification,” he said she. “When you write it and then you try it, you are reducing, you are refining. The scene where Sally is teaching Gene’s class and she yells at a student was initially much longer. Gene’s one-man show in episode 2 was much longer. You go into the edit and you feel like, ‘Well, I’ve already boiled it down to the essence of him. I don’t think we can cut anymore.’ And then you see them perform and you say, “Well, do we need this?” I guess we don’t need it.’ You start coming up with other stuff 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 think back and say, ‘Look at all these things that we had before. Why did we think we needed it?’” Hader says he learned in the first two seasons that shooting more than necessary is hard on the actors and crew and he tried to streamline his writing process appropriately. “A scene has 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 thinking, well, we’re going to pick what it is in the edit and just see how that feels. And it’s terrible to do to actors because they don’t know what they’re playing.
On working with the actors
Sharpening his intentions helped Hader facilitate even the best work of his actors. “I have a very clear idea of what I want, so I think it’s helpful,” she said. “It’s really hard as an actor when the director doesn’t know what he wants and you present them with ideas and they’re like, ‘not that, not that.’ That, to me, isn’t 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 a cheerleader and a good audience. If someone does something funny, I sincerely laugh. Or if it’s exciting, I tell them, “Oh my god, that was great.” I think the most important thing with actors is that they just don’t want to look like idiots. Sometimes you’ll have an actor come in and they’re in their head and they’re freaked out and I’ve been there. So it’s just a matter of saying, “You can’t screw this up.” The most important thing you do for an actor is just be encouraging and let them do their thing, and then sort of guide it.
From time to time Hader will tell an actor that he has what he needs even when he doesn’t, just to loosen him up. “The best thing you can tell them is, ‘We have it. Now let’s try other things.” So 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 as not to wear down his actors. “I’ve talked to directors who do a lot of reshoots, and as an actor, I never thought it helped me. I had that thing when I was 20 with Kubrick, to think shooting all that footage was really romantic and beautiful. But then, once you really start doing these things, you’re like, ‘This is crazy.’”