Exclusive: Bill Hader on How He Became a Cinephile and Advice for Fellow Film Fans

     September 19, 2019

We at Collider love movies. It’s why we do what we do. But our love of film didn’t arrive fully formed. It was curated through years of watching, discussing, debating, and learning about how movies were made, who made them, and what they had to say to us about the world at large. Every cinephile’s “origin story” is different, but there are usually key markers we find in common: being introduced to something by a parent or family member, lots of Blockbuster rentals, catching something on cable you were probably too young to be watching.

As the media landscape has transformed with the arrival of Netflix and on-demand viewing, it may feel daunting to figure out just how you’re supposed to broaden your horizons and become, for lack of a better word, a “better” film fan. That’s partly why we put together our list of 100 Essential Movies Every Serious Film Fan Should See, and in concert with that list, we also reached out to a very well-known cinephile to discuss the topic: Bill Hader.

While Hader first made an impression on audiences as a brilliant comedic performer on SNL, ever since he was a kid he’s wanted to become a filmmaker. That dream became a reality with his terrific HBO series Barry, for which he wrote and directed multiple episodes, and Hader’s also a well-known cinephile, popping up on FilmStruck/The Criterion Channel to offer recommendations and dropping references to Andrzej Wajda while discussing his influences for Barry Season 2.

Since Hader grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma (as did I), I wanted to talk to him about how his cinematic tastes were formed in a part of the country that’s completely removed from Hollywood or New York. He shared how his parents first introduced him to important films at a young age, the excitement with which he’d discuss having seen movies like Taxi Driver with his friends at school, and the films that first made him want to become a director himself. We also discussed what makes a “good” film fan, as Hader offered his own advice to those looking to broaden their horizons and cinematic taste.

In addition to agreeing to talk about movies, Hader offered up his own list of movies that inspired him, so we discussed a few specific titles towards the end of the interview.

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Image via HBO

Check out the full discussion below, which begins with Hader describing how he first become a fan of movies.

BILL HADER: Well, I became a film fan just because my parents were massive film fans and I just spent a good portion of my early life just watching movies with my family. We weren’t really a television family. We didn’t really watch a lot of TV shows. We would watch movies, and when my dad would come home with a plastic bag with VHS tapes, whatever they got was what we watched. And then when I was about 10 my dad would wake me up when everybody would go to bed and say, “Hey, come in here.” And we would watch, you know, something that was a little bit more adult. I remember that’s when I saw things like the Wild Bunch and I saw Clockwork Orange that way. I mean, he made me leave during like the really bad stuff. He’s like, “You gotta stand up and leave the room,” for Clockwork Orange. Not even shut your eyes. Like, “Okay, leave the room. Okay come back in.”

I saw that movie when I was like 17 and I still felt I wasn’t old enough to watch it.

HADER: You see that movie at a really young age and it’s hard then when you’re at your friend’s sleep over and they’re like, “Let’s put on The Natural.” And it’s like, “What? The Natural? I’ve seen Clockwork Orange! There’s a whole other world!” (laughs) I remember seeing Platoon at a really young age and Full Metal Jacket, I remember a babysitter showing us Full Metal Jacket or she and her boyfriend were watching it and me and my sister just stayed in the room and watched with them. And I just, you know, didn’t care, I guess.

But also recognizing director’s names. I remember Stanley Kubrick or Spielberg obviously, but I remember noticing John Landis’ name. I remember being in a video store in the fourth grade and seeing the box for Kentucky Fried Movie and looking on the back and saying, “Wow it’s written by the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, they did Airplane, but it was directed by John Landis! Oh my God, this has gotta be great!” Or Joe Dante was another name. Gremlins and his name is on the back of The Howling and The Burbs. “It’s the same guy who did Gremlins,” and so you were just making those connections at a young age. John McTiernan was another one, with Predator to Die Hard.

But then when I was probably around that age, probably around 12 maybe, on Cinemax there was a thing called Vanguard Cinema. It was on Cinemax at the time and it was playing things like A Clockwork Orange, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, 8 ½. They would show these foreign films and more art house movies. I remember they showed a documentary on comic books called Comic Book Confidential that I thought was really great. And then by the time I was probably 13 or 14 was when Encore came out. And Encore, I will say for growing up in the Midwest, Encore was huge. Encore was the closest thing I ever had to what Z Channel was in LA in the 70s where it was very curated and you had everything from like cheesy Roger Corman movies to The Last Detail and great films from the 70s. That was around the time I saw Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. And I remember I had both of them on one VHS tape and I would watch that over and over and I wore it out.

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Image via Warner Bros.

I went from being a fan to fanatic student, like my own little—I needed to find books on people. And I think the reason people get drawn to people like Scorsese and Tarantino is because they talk about their influences so much. So you get excited, you feel a kinship with them and you want to find out everything they like.

So then it was getting into everything from the Scorsese stuff to the great foreign films, Rashomon obviously was a huge one or Aguirre Wrath of God, and then kind of the classic Hollywood of the 30s and 40s. I remember really liking the Marx brothers. I liked the Woody Allen movie Love and Death. I remember liking that movie and just being kind of just open to so many things.

That’s the hard thing now, that I watch things and I go, “Oh, I see how that’s interesting. That’s cool how they did that.” And then when you know people in the movie, you’re like, “Oh wow, this is really cool that they did this.” I miss watching something completely removed. I remember on a Sunday afternoon on television Psycho just played on AMC and I’d never seen it, and I sat and my parents were in another room and I watched Psycho and didn’t know the twist or anything and totally just had an amazing cinematic experience, where I just got so caught up in the movie. And I just told my parents, “I just watched Psycho.” And they went, “Did you finish it?” “Yeah.” “Can you believe the ending when he comes down?” And I would go to school and tell kids about the movies I watched. My dad had a giant box of these Betamaxes and in it was the movie Horse Soldiers, and then Terminator was one of the other ones. I remember watching Terminator and telling a kid at school, you know, “There’s a scene where a guy takes his eyeball out.” You know. “What?” The thrill of watching their reaction and them getting excited by it and going, “Oh, I gotta see this.”

Did you have friends that were like into movies and stuff like that? Because that’s something I struggled with because I would feel like I would drone on and on about like, you know, Steven Spielberg and these are the movies he made and how he made them and people were like, “I don’t care.”  

HADER: Yeah I had that a bit growing up in Tulsa where people just kind of went, “Oh cool Bill.” But my sophomore and junior and senior year I went to kind of like a preparatory school, Cascia Hall. And once I went there, there was more emphasis kind of—like we had a class called Introduction to Film that was like an elective type thing that was amazing. And the teacher there was a guy named Dr. Randy Lewis, I remember, and he was awesome. He showed us Herzog and 400 Blows, all these things. I just was totally enchanted by that class. But my friend Duffy Boudreau who writes on Barry and Documentary Now, he was similar. He was very much into it. I remember he and I hunting down movies.

electra-glide-in-blue-posterOne of the editors of Barry is a guy named Kyle Reiter and he just texted me, “Have you seen Electra Glide In Blue?” And I said, “I did.” I said in high school I remember renting that movie and there was a giant party that night and I didn’t go to the party. I left the party because Electra Glide In Blue was sitting in my room and I just had to go and watch it, and I missed out on what is still considered one of the most epic parties (laughs). I was marveling at the opening, you know, the Conrad Hall shot and all that stuff. It’s all a little, you know some people might say sad (laughs). But to me, it was fantastic. You get a charge out of it. It’s like an actual dopamine rush. I mean, I remember trailers coming out and me flipping out over them and being unable to see the movie. There was a movie that Keith Gordon directed called The Chocolate War, his first movie. And there was a channel on TV that had all the channels on it, it was Channel 13 in Tulsa.

Yeah for sure.

HADER: Yeah, the guide would just scroll through, but they would just play movie trailers on it and usually it was whatever the big kind of movies of the day were. But I know that The Chocolate War trailer came up and it was not Anthony Michael Hall, but the other guy from Weird Science, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, and I went “What is this?” I was so intrigued. John Glover’s in it and it was based on like a young adult book and it looked very dark and disturbing. It was like a dark, disturbing version of Dead Poet’s Society. I don’t even know if I saw the movie. I just remember seeing that trailer and being unable to sleep, you know?

Well how did you go about kind of picking and finding the new movies that you would watch? When you’re younger, you don’t necessarily know exactly who Robert Altman is or whatever, but what kind of spurred you to make your choices of when you were going to watch?

HADER: (Pauses) I think I kind of did know who Robert Altman was (laughs). I mean now you don’t have video boxes, but you would just see who the director is, you know? I would get excited by the director and if it looked good. And like a lot of other adolescent kids I got really into horror movies. So it was Sam Raimi and George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter and all those people. I remember like the Return Of The Living Dead poster being in the storefront of Sound Warehouse when I was a kid and I was like “I have to see this.”

But yeah, I picked it out by just what interested me, but also things like this [interview], just anytime Martin Scorsese did an interview, he would mention five movies I had never heard of. And now you can go online and somebody went on Mubi and basically culled every reference he’d ever made into a list that’s like 500 movies long. You can go on there and just start finding things, and they’ve done it for a lot of people. They did it for Kurosawa, listed a hundred movies that he loves and it’s fantastic to go through that. You see something like Running On Empty on the list, a Sidney Lumet movie, and I’m like, “Really?” and then I watch it and I go, “This is fantastic.”

I’ve never seen that one.

running-on-empty-posterHADER: It’s a Sidney Lumet movie that Jake Gyllenhaal’s mom wrote basically about Weather Underground, kind of militant hippies now in the eighties played and it’s Judd Hirsch as a dad and the son is River Phoenix. And they’re basically on the run, but they’re trying to have a family, but they’re under assumed names and everything because they’re still wanted. I really enjoyed it.

Would you ever like make lists and try to go through movies that way? Did you have kind of like a completionist mindset of, “Now I’m going to watch all of James Cameron’s films?”

HADER: Yeah. I would do that, but it wasn’t a full on completionist. It was out of the excitement of seeing it. And if I could only get The Abyss, let’s say, and Aliens, then I would just watch those movies over and over again. I remember watching Night of the Living Dead when I was about 15 and just being totally knocked out by it and just going, “Well I have to find all of George Romero’s movies,” and I could only find Dawn Of The Dead and Martin.

Yeah, I was going to say at Blockbuster, they didn’t really have everything. So you just kind of made do.

HADER: No, so I made do with Martin and Dawn Of The Dead and I would watch those movies over and over again. But there is something that’s really exciting about watching someone’s stuff and seeing kinda how they evolve or their signature. I don’t really believe in the Auteur theory as much, but I do think people have a signature style. But there’s a lot of people that make a movie. So I don’t know, that’s all really satisfying.

So going from like being a movie fan—like you really liked movies and you liked watching movies. Do you remember the point where you could recognize, alright, I know the difference between a good movie and a bad movie now and I think I understand what good filmmaking is and what bad filmmaking is?

HADER: Well, I don’t want to bash anybody’s stuff.

Of course. Well just maybe like thinking about about theme? Like, “I’m engaging on this film in a different way than maybe some of my friends are.”

HADER: Yeah. I remember seeing Barton Fink. I remember seeing that movie and just feeling like I understood on some level what it was trying to do. I didn’t know who Clifford Odets was. I didn’t understand a lot of the historical context of that movie, but I did like that it was a movie that became increasingly more subjective. The fire at the end of that movie, I don’t really think it’s happening. It’s all a little unreal, and I understand at some level that it was a story about a guy who wants to be a real artist in a place that doesn’t care about that. Like the last image of the girl and the bird is falling in the water (laughs), you know, it just struck me. I would just sit and talk about it with friends and some of them were really into it, you know? And others were like, “I don’t get it.” But you know, that’s always okay, too. The other bad thing is you don’t want to guilt people into—I remember one time getting really mad that someone wouldn’t like something I liked or I hated something that everyone was raving about. That’s also really silly, you know?

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Image via 20th Century Fox

But I feel like every young movie obsessive or cinephile goes through that stage.

HADER: Yeah, yeah. And you have to be able to let people have their opinions. I mean, the amount of people that want to fully destroy me because I don’t like Fight Club and The Matrix. I don’t like those movies. I mean, those both came out a couple months apart and people… their heads are going to explode that I didn’t like those movies. I mean red in the face screaming at me and I would try to be really calm and just say, “They didn’t do it for me.” (laughs)

That’s funny.

HADER: I’d go, “I liked Bound. I thought Bound was good.” But I never got into the Matrix thing. “What is wrong with you!?”.

So after that Barton Fink experience, do you remember kind of actively engaging on films on a different level? Where you seeking out different kinds of films or is that just kind of something that kind of gradually evolved?

HADER: It gradually happened and I remember seeing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the Scorsese movies and the Kubrick movies and Spielberg movies like Close Encounters and Jaws. And also, to be honest the movie that made me go from film geek to someone actively trying to make stuff was the first Evil Dead movie, because I saw how they did it. It was a bit like loving music. Like loving Rush or Frank Zappa or whatever and you’re like, “I don’t know how they do it,” and then hearing punk for the first time and going, “Oh I see how they’re doing that super effectively, and I think I can actually possibly do that.” You know? They don’t have a lot of money and they’re figuring it out, and Evil Dead‘s a great movie.

Ellen Sandweiss who plays Cheryl in Evil Dead, her daughter is Jessy Hodges, who plays Lindsey on Barry, Sally’s agent. So when I met her, she was like, “My mom did some acting.” I go, “On what?” “She’s in something called The Evil Dead.” I’m like, “WHAT!? If that movie didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist!” I told her it’s one of my favorite things. That had a big impact on me. That film and the early Jim Jarmusch movies, you see those in high school and go, “Wow.” He’s just kind of the opposite of Scorsese and Sam Raimi and Coen Brothers, which had this camera that was always flying around the place. And then you see those Jarmusch movies and it doesn’t move at all. Robby Müller, he and Vilmos Zsigmond were kind of the first directors of photography that I noticed in the credits and went, “I really like how these guys shoot stuff.”

I was going to ask you about kind of starting to recognize cinematographers and other department heads, and when you began to realize what the different jobs are that go into making a movie. And you follow a cinematographer’s work with one director to another.

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Image via New Line Cinema

HADER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and you start to realize like, “Oh wow. Vilmos Zsigmond shot Close Encounters for Spielberg and that looks one way, but he also shot McCabe and Mrs. Miller for Altman and it looks different, but there’s something kind of common.” There is an aspect of it that can also feel like him, too, you know? It’s like kind of longer lenses and natural lighting and, you know, same with Robby Müller. It’s all very composed with natural light and it looks beautiful.

So I’m guessing audio commentaries were a big thing for you as well.

HADER: Oh, huge. Yeah man. I learned so much from listening to commentaries. I was listening to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights commentary when I was 19 and just going, “Oh man, I want to make a movie so bad.” (laughs)

I’m so mad he doesn’t do them anymore.

HADER: Yeah, yeah. But I kind get it now that I’m on this other side of it, I kind of get it. You kind of go, “Oh, I did that. I don’t need to think about that anymore.” (laughs) You know, I have other things I want to do. It’s almost fun to maybe look at it later. Like I haven’t seen Superbad since it came out. I went to one screening before it opened, but if I watched it now, it’d probably be kind of fun because I don’t remember a lot of it.

I think that’d be fun. I always kind of like when other filmmakers come onto commentaries, like when I think it was Tarantino came on for Hot Fuzz with Edgar Wright? I think that’s kind of cool.

HADER: Yeah. Yeah. Those Steven Soderbergh Mike Nichols ones I thought were pretty valuable. They were all just two great directors talking. Three of my favorite Mike Nichols movies are the first three, and I loved Catch-22. It was a movie that people didn’t like but I really enjoyed it.

I saw that on your list. I thought that was interesting.

HADER: I love that film. Yeah, it’s super dark. It’s incredibly dark and it doesn’t fully work, but the stuff that does work in it is incredible.

So how do you define being a good film fan? If you were talking to people who now who have so much at their disposal on demand and fewer people are on cable kind of flipping through channels just randomly watching things, how do you suggest broadening your horizons?

HADER: I would just be open to things. It really should be what you’re interested in. And I mean part of it is it’s kind of great that you could go on the Criterion Channel right now—have your parents get you a Criterion Channel subscription for your birthday or something and just go on there and see what looks interesting. And really the biggest thing is having patience. What helped me was on some level understanding why I liked something and why I didn’t like something, you know, and tracking the emotion of a story.

I was watching The Heiress last night, the William Wyler movie from the 40s. Olivia de Havilland, I mean, what happens to that character is really fascinating and heartbreaking, but it’s a great film. You just be open to it. Now I’m someone that came up on 80s action movies. You wouldn’t think that I would want to watch The Heiress, but I think it’s because I know that there’s something possibly beneficial in there. Then also just see what you like. There’s always going to be something you dislike that everyone else likes, and that’s good. It makes you an individual. In 1999 to say to a group of film nerds I don’t like The Matrix and Fight Club would pretty much get you killed. It’d be like saying I don’t like a Chris Nolan movie or something, you know?

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Image via Paramount Pictures

I’m kind of surprised you’re saying it now, to be honest (laughs)

HADER: (Laughs) Yeah. No, people just want you to be murdered. But because I watch a lot of movies, I can say, I get that you like it, but here’s why it didn’t work for me. And also being just open to anything, you know? I mean, I watch a lot of Criterion stuff, but I watched that movie Wheelman that was on Netflix. Did you see that with Frank Grillo?

I didn’t see that but I heard good things about it.

HADER: Yeah, I loved it. I thought that movie was great. I saw that and I went, “Oh man, that was great.” I just had a blast watching that movie. It never leaves the car. Frank Grillo is a great actor. I didn’t know where it was going. I mean, I thought it was fantastic. So I think there’s always… you can’t be a snob is what I’m saying (laughs). There’s a balance.

Do you want to dig into a couple of specific movies from your list?

HADER: Yeah, sure. What were the ones that surprised you?

I was actually surprised Apocalypto was on there. That movie’s kind of disappeared.

HADER: Oh I love that movie. Yeah, I know it’s not… Mel Gibson is a pretty divisive person but that’s one like I didn’t see it when it came out [for obvious reasons]. And then I caught it one night late at night on television and I just went, “This is fantastic. This is thrilling.”

I still have never seen it.

HADER: I just thought the action in it was great and I thought the main character in it was great. I mean, I was very tired and was about to go to sleep and then that movie came on and I was wide awake. I was sweating.

A favorite of mine is Paper Moon.

HADER: Oh yeah. Paper Moon is a classic. It doesn’t get much better than Paper Moon. The Tatum O’Neil performance obviously but the greatest thing about that movie is just the way it’s shot, the look of it. And he does these very long takes in it that are fun to watch. It just has a lot of great humanity to it that I really responded to. The story is really good. You get caught up in the story and I’ve seen people trying to do kind of a Paper Moon vibe in other movies. It doesn’t really work as well as the original.

It’s hard. There’s also Ikiru which is a movie I have not seen but it’s on my list.

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Image via Selznick Releasing Organization

HADER: Oh yeah. That’s one of my favorites. Kurosawa, I mean, I don’t want to ruin too much, but I think just structurally what he does in that movie is pretty brilliant. I think the writing on it is brilliant. I mean, watch that movie and then watch Seven Samurai and be like that’s the same guy. You’ll be blown away.

There’s also The Third Man. I wanted to mention this one because it’s one of the few classics that is on Netflix that people can watch right now.

HADER: Yeah, watch The Third Man. It’s great. I mean Joseph Cotton alone is a reason to watch anything. I mean, when I was doing the pilot for Barry, I watched this and Fallen Idol and some other Carol Reed movies because I really like how he shoots things and you could kind of count the setups and go, “Oh gosh, there’s not a lot of setups in this. Not a lot of angles and he accomplishes a lot.” He’s amazing.

The cinematography in that movie is incredible.

HADER: Yeah, it’s amazing.

I wanted to see what you had to say about The Conformist.

HADER: I like The Conformist for the way it’s shot. It has some stuff in it that is pretty hard to watch. But I think the cinematography, you see how that movie affected so many other films. In like Miller’s Crossing, you know, and some other films. Every shot counts. And it was a kind of amazing painting.

All That Jazz, which is one of my favorite musicals.

HADER: You can’t get better than All That Jazz. I mean, also what it just says about being a theater person and how complicated the guy is and it’s like he’s being pretty rough on himself, you know? And for good reason, by the way.

Check out Hader’s full list of movies that inspired him right here.

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Image via HBO

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