Saturday Night Live performers who leave the NBC series and find success outside the realm of that pop culture staple aren’t necessarily a rarity. From Bill Murray to Adam Sandler to Kristen Wiig, there are plenty of SNL alumni who moved on to continue entertaining audiences in a variety of ways. But seeing an SNL performer go on to become a tremendously talented filmmaker is far more unusual. Yes, former SNL head writer Adam McKay went on to become an Oscar-winning writer and director, and Tina Fey is the talented performer, producer, and writer of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But Bill Hader, who left SNL in 2013, has taken a somewhat different path that’s led him to not only write, create, and star in a new TV series, but also make his directorial debut on the show to stunning results.
As Hader tells it, he actually moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a director in the first place. The longtime cinephile got into improv almost by accident, which led to him becoming one of the funniest and most memorable performers in SNL history. But after leaving the series that gave him his big break, Hader is finally making his initial dreams a reality with Barry, a tour-de-force new series on HBO that has the propulsive narrative of Breaking Bad and the comedic instincts of Fargo.
Hader co-created Barry with Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), and stars as a hitman unhappy with his life, who follows a mark to Los Angeles only to discover after stumbling into an acting class that he really wants to become an actor. Hader directs the first three episodes of the show, and not only is the eight-episode first season a positive delight, but Hader’s instincts as a director are jaw-droppingly great. The specificity of vision, motivated cinematography, and classical approach draw sincere comparisons to great Hollywood classics from the likes of Billy Wilder. With Barry, Hader has not only created a phenomenal new TV series, he’s announced himself as a tremendously gifted filmmaker to watch.
As a big fan of Hader’s and the show — and as someone who shares his same hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma — I was delighted to get on the phone with him recently and dive deep into the filmmaking and crafting of Barry. After a lengthy detour into Tulsa Talk (which has been excised since I’m not sure people want to read the two of us discussing the revitalization of the downtown area), we talked about how Hader went about preparing to direct for the first time, how the cinematography of the show evolved after the pilot, his aesthetic approach to the series, and why he enjoyed handing off the director reigns to Maggie Carey, Hiro Murai, and Berg for the rest of the season. We also discussed the creation of the series, forming a writers room, how Stephen Root’s character changed entirely after they shot the pilot, how they went about crafting a compelling and structurally sound narrative throughline, and hopes for Season 2.
It’s a wide-ranging interview and I easily could have kept talking about this show and filmmaking with Hader for another hour, but if you’re at all interested in the ins and outs of directing or creating something, I think you’ll find this interview enlightening. Check it out below.
I love the show. I watched the whole season for review, but now I’m excited to go back and watch it all over again week to week.
BILL HADER: It’s good to hear that. We’ve haven’t gotten the official word from HBO yet so we’re kind of waiting, but if we did get a second season Alec and I are already kind of throwing ideas back and forth of what it could be.
I’m really curious to see what the general reaction is to it. I think it blends the dark comedy with a really compelling narrative, which surprised me. It has the propulsiveness of Breaking Bad where you want to find out what happens next.
HADER: That’s what we wanted. We wanted it to feel like that through the whole show, and that’s hard to kind of maintain. It always has to come from character and that’s always a dicey thing. You sometimes want to go, “God it’d be so great if this happens,” but then you kind of negate who those people are. We actually had that happen where we kind of underwrote a section towards the end of the season, and because the actor brought it up we changed it. You make those mistakes and if you have a good actor they’ll go, “I don’t get why I would do that,” so those things are helpful. But structurally and trying to get that propulsive narrative it’s just a lot of work and a lot of banging your head against the wall. The writers room is very small, and it’s just me and Alec kind of having a conversation across a table with four or five really smart people listening and then they go, “Well I don’t know if that makes sense,” or “What if X happens?” Elizabeth Sarnoff had a suggestion that added a new story to the entire season.
I know you’ve been in the South Park writers room, but what was it like putting together a writers room yourself? Almost half the episodes were written by women, was that a conscious decision?
HADER: We had Amy Solomon, who’s a producer on the show, and she was just meeting writers and reading packets and she was just kind of sending us people that she liked because Alec and I were still busy with other things. I don’t know, the people we responded to were just the people we responded to. Those conversations happen now which is good, HBO is a place where those conversations happen. But it wasn’t a situation where they said, “You have to have this many women,” it was never that. The people we read were just the people we really liked. It was the same thing with Paula Huidobro, our DP. I just saw a bunch of reels. Aida, our producer, she sent me a bunch of reels and I was just looking at them and suddenly this one popped up that wasn’t comedy. I saw a bunch of things that looked like comedy, and suddenly Paula Huidobro’s reel came in and I went, “Wow this isn’t comedy at all,” and then they said, “Yeah she operated for Emmanuel Lubezki,” and I went “Oh wow!” So I met her and went, “Yeah, we should have her do it.” I was saying, “I want it to be Robby Müller stuff where it’s composed but has natural light,” and she went, “Oh yeah like American Friend and Paris, Texas,” and I was like, “She’s hired!” (laughs)
That was another one of my questions because I know Brandon Trost shot the pilot and I’m a big fan of his. How did you land on him for the pilot?
HADER: Well the pilot I had never directed before so I wanted a good DP, and Nick Stoller and Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] and those guys were like, “Oh man you should totally work with Brandon, he’s so good,” so I met with him and we hit it off and that was that. He’s a really smart, talented guy, and just a wonderful dude.
I spoke to him last year for The Disaster Artist and I had to ask him about Barry and he said he regretted not shooting the entire series and that you were the most prepared director he had ever worked with.
HADER: Oh good, yes I was very prepared (laughs).
What was that process like for you, preparing to direct for the first time?
HADER: Well I think because I was acting in it and because I had been a production assistant as well, you wanted to approach it being as specific as possible and I just knew so much of what eats up time is indecision and just people not knowing what’s happening. I know as an actor and as a production assistant and as an assistant editor, all these roles I’ve had on set, there’s very few people who can kind of leave it up to chance, who are really good on their feet. And those are like the greatest filmmakers of all time (laughs). Whereas most people who do that you’re just sitting around and waiting and they’re shooting more coverage than they need because they’re insecure and the actors are fighting and all this stuff, so for me it was just, “Can we be as clear as possible?” We all have to be making the same thing. It was being as clear as possible in pre-production of sitting down and rehearsing scenes and then while we’re rehearsing those scenes we’re taking pictures and we’re talking about coverage, and we’d go to a location and we’d photo-board a bunch of stuff. So when people got there with your sides you’ve also got a photo-board so people can cross it off themselves and go, “Cool. Alright, I know we have these shots left.” A lot of people work that way, especially on commercials and stuff, but I felt more comfortable working that way first time out and acting in it; it was nice to get the whole team on the same wavelength so then I could kind of relax and talk to the actors and act myself.
After the experience on the pilot did you change anything in terms of your directing style and preparation?
HADER: Yeah, yeah. Not preparation so much as I kind of got away from the really wide angle lenses (laughs). Paula Huidobro was like, “You want this to look a little bit more elegant.” So I learned a bit more about that. And there were days when things wouldn’t match the way you wanted or an actor was doing something funny and it would change things, I wasn’t hyper locked into it. But really because it’s a 30-minute show you can’t do a lot of flashy things. Your coverage has to be the simple, dynamic coverage of great old movies. Billy Wilder, Carol Reed. You can’t do the full Max Ophüls when you’re doing a 30-minute thing. You can’t do crazy camera angles really, but you can do more workman-style coverage that is impactful and tells a story. I was always picking the angles specific for that.
Oddly enough, your episodes specifically reminded me of Billy Wilder in that the shots felt very precise. Everything felt very purposeful.
HADER: Yeah I’m glad you picked up on it because it’s a lot of work just to do that at times. The pilot was all shot essentially with one camera, meaning we didn’t do two cameras. But when we got the pickup for the series I remember Aida Rogers, our producer, was saying, “If we’re gonna make our days we gotta do two cameras,” and Paula, in our meetings, went, “I can figure out a way to put a second camera someplace that looks like a shot you would want,” like a shot that you had planned on as opposed to you’re grabbing something with a long lens. It’s the difference between covering a scene and shooting a scene, and I didn’t wanna cover it. I just wanted to shoot it in a way that if it was on mute you could understand people’s relationships to each other through the angles.
Did you ever consider directing the whole season yourself or is that something you’re considering for Season 2?