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Once Upon A Film Fan - Bill Hader Sets His Sights on Story

Posted By Katie Grant, Friday, January 10, 2020

The Jaws T-shirt was a clear giveaway when Bill Hader showed up to work as a PA in the early 2000s on sets like The Scorpion King, Collateral Damage and Critical Mass. A giveaway that he is, was, and always will be a film nerd. Since those days, the former SNL cast member has earned more distinguished titles, such as multiple Emmy winner (for acting and producing), DGA winner, WGA winner, showrunner and producer. Most importantly, Bill Hader can now finally call himself a filmmaker. Well, as he puts it, he can do that—but only when he’s “alone in the shower.”

Hader headed to LA from Tulsa with the singular goal of making movies. “I just want to see how these things are made,” he remembers thinking. That spirit of curiosity and humility, still very present, made way for Hader’s climbing success. After all, he never meant to be in front of the camera. He ended up on SNL purely by chance when Megan Mullally saw him in a backyard performance with his four-man improv troupe—which he landed in because he simply wanted something to do, something creative. Mullally called Lorne Michaels, Hader auditioned, and the rest is history.

Hader started making his own films as a teen chasing his willing sisters through the woods with a camera for action scenes. Without an editing system, he would try to cut his work between VCRs but mostly edited in camera on the VHS format. The positive feedback he got from a high school teacher who said, “You’re really good,” combined with the creative high he felt, kept Hader going and fed his drive to make movies.

True to form, Hader can’t help but use a film reference to explain how he sees producing: “Well, it’s kind of like Lee Marvin’s character [Major Reisman] in The Dirty Dozen. He pretty much puts everyone together. He’s the person that says, ‘We need an explosives guy. We need this. We need that. We need this so we can pull that thing off.’ And sometimes the filmmaker, the producer, will oversee that aspect.”

Currently as co-creator, co-executive producer, writer, director and star of Barry (HBO), Hader tries to think like a producer, but admits that after all his years in the business, it’s “instinctual. That’s the hardest thing about all this. You have to have the experience in order to get the experience. You have to kind of win the lottery.”

Bill Hader on the set of Barry 

And win the lottery he did. Landing SNL gave Hader the ability to reach out and meet, or better yet, work with, artists he looks up to. As a big Pixar fan, Hader asked to collaborate with their visionaries and Pete Docter, in particular. That turned into a writing credit on Inside Out, the Oscar-winning animated feature on which he played the voice of Fear. He was actually asked to play Fear after recording a temporary voice track for the animators to work with that featured all the characters. Speaking in that voice of Fear, Hader has become an unofficial and very vocal spokesperson for anxiety, citing the terror he experienced working on live TV for SNL.

Hader also worked with the writers of South Park, aiming to hone his story structure. That stint became his first producing credit and his first Emmy win. If working as a PA taught Hader how to run a crew properly, SNL showed him how to produce his own work, suggesting costumes, makeup and basic set pieces for the sketches he wrote. And then South Park let him see that producing stories is really about finding the emotional heart of the piece rather than a three-act story structure or the hero’s journey.

“I used to think it was that stuff. And it's not. What I learned at South Park is you follow the emotion and have a logic. And I think that's why Alec [Berg] and I write really well together. I’m like almost all emotion and he's almost all logic.”

Berg is Barry’s co-creator and co-EP whom their mutual agent paired Hader with in hopes they’d nail an idea for Hader’s HBO deal. They happened upon the premise of a hit man, which Berg famously did not like at first. But once Hader explained that it would be him, not the slick, skinny-tie-wearing idea of a hit man we usually see, they were off and running—straight to an acting class for research. And therein lies the brilliance of Barry, because placing a hit man with PTSD from his military years in an acting class so he can get in touch with his emotions is unexpected, interesting, dramatic and funny.

That acting class was taught by Howie Deutch—famous for directing films like Pretty in Pink and Grumpier Old Men—at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. Hader had plenty of experience in improv classes but not acting classes, which are a whole different animal. Between Deutch’s consulting on the first season and a cast full of actors playing actors with decades of class time between them—not to mention Henry Winkler, who studied with the famed acting teacher, Stella Adler—the show is so true to form that it adds to Barry’s already disturbing nature. And that combo of Hader and Berg playing off the right and left sides of their respective brains is, literally, a winning one. Sixteen awards later, the team is currently working on season 3 of Barry.

Hader, Stephen Root and Barry co-creator Alec Berg

Hader learned on the job how to make hard production calls like the one he cites from Barry season 2’s final day of shooting. They were slated to film a big shoot-out scene on location as well as a three-page monologue for Stephen Root’s character, Fuches, Barry’s crime boss. But it was raining, so sound was an issue. The suggested plan was to do the shoot-out, wait on the rain and do the monologue, hoping to make it in between storms. Hader said, “I don’t want to do that to Stephen because he’ll be in his head going, ‘I have to nail this. I have to get it right.’”

Hader made the costly decision to bring the entire crew back for a half day at the end of the week when it wasn’t supposed to rain. He says he was met with an “awful, dead silence. That was a big one where I felt like I dropped a bomb and then walked away. It was really for the actor… I didn’t want him trying to give a long monologue, and then instead of listening to him, we’re looking at the sky.”

Hader credits keeping it simple and taking things one day at a time for getting through days like that. “It’s kind of the mountain climber thing where they have to look right in front of them. It they look at the top, they’ll just freak out. So you have to look in front of you and not see how much longer you have to shoot.”

Besides Barry season 3, next up for Hader is a feature film called Henchmen that he wrote with four other people. It’s about “two guys who learn they are henchmen for a bad guy.” He also continues to contribute as a writer, producer and performer to the Emmy-nominated Documentary Now!, a farcical mockumentary series he created with Fred Armisen, Seth Myers and Rhys Thomas for IFC. “Documentary Now! is like an ultimate collaboration between people who have their own shows. Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, those two guys make that show happen. We make the jokes and stuff and talk about the recipe basically. But they have to go and make it. So I give them most of the credit for that show.”

Hader is also a dad helping raise three girls and, when asked to compare parenting and producing, he offers, “I think people just like feeling heard. You try to do things with as much respect as you can and hear people as much as you can, even if you think you know the answer to something. The flip side is if you’re too nice, people feel like they can take advantage of you. So you have to just be nice but really honest and no bullshit. And that might involve saying, ‘This isn’t working.’”

Hader’s advice for up-and-coming fellow film nerds is simply to fail. “The big thing for me was failing and learning from failure. When I was coming up, it was so expensive to make something and make it on a professional level, but now you can do it with your phone. So you don’t really have an excuse.

Henry Winkler with Hader in season 2 episode

“I think the thing that holds people back is fear of failing. They get nervous and I just would make it, see what happens and learn. If it comes from your life, then it’s easier to write because you know how you felt. Everyone starts off copying the stuff that they like. You do that for a while and then slowly, you start to know what you like, and you start just being honest in your storytelling.”

Honest stories, Hader says, must include both the dark and lighter sides of life. “Life is like that if you’re open to it. You have bright moments and terrible moments and that’s just how it works. So when you don’t have that, it feels weird. I always feel like when something’s too light, I kind of roll my eyes at it. Or if something is too serious, I roll my eyes at it.”

Casting Barry was another exercise in authenticity for Hader. He says Anthony Carrigan won the part of NoHo Hank because of the way Carrigan listened in the audition. “Sometimes people like to cut out the listening and I like to watch it. I like seeing the thought enter someone’s head. I love just sitting and watching someone behave.”

One of Barry’s casting directors, Sherry Thomas, was hired partially because she, like Hader, happened to have Winkler on her short list to play acting teacher Gene Cousineau. She came in to the interview with that list, admitting presumption, but that bold move was a sign to Hader they were on the same page.

It was a show that, by the way, Hader couldn’t believe anyone was actually watching until Barry got 13 Emmy nominations for the first season. Those accolades won’t keep him from working hard, though. Even when he’s called a “TV auteur” by the press, Hader offers, “It’s nice, but you can’t look at yourself that way. It doesn’t make you better at your job. You’ve got to just keep trying to get better.”

What he’s improving on now is point of view. As an 8-year-old boy, watching classic films with his dad, Hader realized he “was always moved by scenes that had a very strong point of view, like the scene in Taxi Driver when DeNiro’s on the phone with Cybil Shepherd after their disastrous date, and while he’s talking to her, the camera just kind of dollies off of him. It’s almost like the movie can’t watch what’s happening.”

On Barry, holding to that point of view gets harder with all the hats Hader wears. “You have to do it all as one job. You’re telling a story, then you get out of the way of it and then everything else, the acting and directing, it’s all just enhancing that point of view, that story. Every aspect of filmmaking is to harness that and to try to foster it or get out of the way of it.” Judging by his work, Bill Hader is one film nerd-turned-filmmaker who’s mastering that process.


-photos courtesy of Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

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