Bill Hader and Jason Bateman are familiar faces to TV fans — from their days on “Saturday Night Live” and “Arrested Development,” respectively, and so much more. This season, both stretched their creative muscles with their off-camera work: Hader co-created HBO’s “Barry” with Alec Berg, while Bateman served as an executive producer and director on “Ozark,” for Netflix. In their conversation for Variety, they shared tips about juggling all of their responsibilities, directing other actors — and what they find funny themselves.
Jason Bateman: Bill, how did you first come to “Barry”?
Bill Hader: Alec Berg, the co-creator and I — it was just one of those rare things you actually got set up by your agent and it worked.
Bateman: Like a five-minute date?
Hader: Yeah, like, “Oh, you’re going to go have coffee with the guy.” And you go, “OK.” And so we went and had coffee and we talked about ideas, and we kept on talking about ideas. We would just go and meet for breakfast once a week.
Bateman: Did your agent also represent Alec Berg?
Bateman: These people! They just think, “So here’s a way I think I can double-dip, I’m gonna want you to go out to breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, I don’t care what the hell you do, but you guys figure out something to do, and I can get both sides of it. Subject matter’s up to you.”
Hader: But it actually worked! Sometimes you meet the person, and you’re like, “You’re cool,” and then you just never speak to them. But that guy …
Bateman: I hear he’s a good guy.
Hader: He’s the best — “Silicon Valley,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Seinfeld,” he’s worked on all these things. So we hung out, we talked, and then we came up with this idea. And I remember saying, “Well, what if I was a hit man?” And he went, “I hate hit men, I hate the guy with the skinny tie and the two guns, it’s just holding it sideways and looking rad and all that.” And I just went, “No, but it’d be me.” He went, “Oh, that’s good.” And then we said, “He should be in an acting class.” ’Cause it was, the thing he wants to do, he should be bad at.
Bateman: And did they give you 10 episodes right away?
Hader: We said, “Let’s just do eight.” We kinda liked a small order. I don’t know about you, we like the smaller order where you can craft 30 minutes. I kinda see it as one big story, ’cause I like movies. They were really helpful in teaching me, “Well, no, but each episode has to have its own arc.” You can’t just make it one big story. Did you find that hard to do? Was that a thing when you were doing “Ozark”? Because you have so much going on in that.
Bateman: We wanted to make a 10-chapter movie and find where in this beginning, middle and end, the natural chops would be. The original goal, intention, was for me to direct all of them. That’s why I wanted to do it — call me a glutton, a masochist, depending on how you look at the role of directing, I wanted to take on that challenge. And then as we got into budgeting and scheduling, we couldn’t really create enough time to prep them all. So I ended up just directing the first two and the last two. But in that EP position, as you know, you’ve got that privileged oversight that a director has in film, where you can satisfy that creative challenge, if you want to. For you, being the lead on the show, and trying to manage all that the apparatus behind the scenes as well, and keep all the trains running and hire the directors and the actors, and making sure the scripts are what you like, do you find that that’s more challenging than you thought? Or does it just make it even more fun?
Hader: I find it fun, because when you’re just an actor on a thing, and once you kind of understand how things work, I feel like that’s when I start to become slightly difficult. I worked on a thing once where we’d shoot one person’s coverage, and then we’d turn around, reset on my coverage, and then in the middle of shooting my thing they go, “Oh my gosh, that’s hilarious, she should do that.” And they would turn back around, shoot her coverage, and go back to me.
Bateman: Now you miss dealing with the kids.
Hader: I know it sounds corny but I love being on set, and I like hanging with all the technicians, I love costume meetings, I like going to mixes, I love going to camera tests with the DP. I love grabbing scenes from movies, watching, going like, “How’d they do that?” And learning like, well it’s actually a really long lens, and you’re like, “Oh, can we try that?” I grew up wanting to be a director and a writer. I was making short films and stuff, and then moved out to L.A. and then started acting. I was taking improv classes, and got “SNL” while I was taking improv classes. And then it’s like this weird circuitous route. When the first episode of “Barry” aired and it said directed by Bill Hader, my friends from high school went, “Dude, you did it!” And, “Hey, congrats!” That was an important thing. I don’t know if you relate to this, but I used to love the romanticism of Stanley Kubrick, who wouldn’t talk to Shelley Duvall when they were doing “The Shining.” And now that I’m acting, I’m like, “You don’t need to do that.” As an actor, all you have to do is, you hire the person and you go, “Yeah, man do your thing, and if it’s not right, you could go a little this way, a little that way maybe.” But that romanticism of it gets knocked out of you in a very healthy way, I think.
Bateman: What is your instinct when you’re directing and you see an actor playing a scene in a way that is wildly different than how you had imagined it, either while you were prepping, or maybe writing it? Is your instinct to direct that actor to play it into the way that you have imagined it? Or do you try to recognize the version of the scene and the character that that actor is trying to do, and then your note is try to help them do that?
Hader: I’ve worked with actors where there’s a very clear point to every scene, and this leads to this, so we need hit these notes. But my attitude is, as long as that information is conveyed, whatever you want to do. I mean, Stephen Root’s a guy that every take you get something totally interesting and different. We did a scene in one of the episodes where he tells me, he’s like, “You gotta kill this Marine.” And I go, “I can’t kill a Marine.” And he did three angry takes with me, standing up over me. And I was like, “I’m good.” And then he went, “Let me try something. Bill, just stay standing.” And he did one where he sat down and leaned in and goes, “Hey man, why don’t you just …” When they do that to you, you’re not acting in that moment. Alec Berg was at the video village with Hiro Murai, who directed an episode and they went, “That was awesome.” Directing actors, you want to give them the freedom, the experience you would want as an actor. I’ve had those experiences where they come out and go, “You can do anything, just have fun.” And then you do a couple takes and they go, “Hey, can you …”
Bateman: “On this one word, can you take a beat.”
Hader: “There’s a comma there for a reason.” And you go, “OK, now I’m a puppet.” I’d get a little frustrated and so you just go, “I don’t want to put anybody through that.”
Bateman: I’m just a big advocate for letting people do that which you’ve hired them to do. As long as everybody has a mutually agreed upon finish line, whether they’re actors or crew members, or whatever, you want them to have the right to exercise their instinct as creative people. How you get from A to Z is totally up to you, just know that we’re starting at A and ending at Z. I really like being able to set, establish and maintain that vibe on the set.
“Directing actors, you want to give them the freedom, the experience you would want as an actor.”
Hader: Is it hard when you have to do a big dramatic scene, like the scene in the pilot where essentially you set up the show and you’re directing? I remember going, “God, he’s directing this, and he’s got a lot to say in that scene.” You got a lot of words.
Bateman: It’s probably why you enjoy the directing so much is because acting is so comfortable for you. It allows you to just be open to other parts of the process like, you know that job is kind of moving over there. If you know that it has to be all the way over here by the time you speak next, you’re gonna figure out how to take a beat before you talk. And so some actors enjoy getting deeper and deeper into their part and they can’t be bothered with a mark on the floor, if they’re shadowing somebody. But for some reason, I’ve always been really excited about what all these guys and girls do. And so I love being part of those meetings too, like you were talking about. And you don’t get any credit for the 95% of the work that it takes to just make it believable, just make sure that light’s not in the shot, that boom’s not in it, this chair was picked. And from there, then it’s got to spike, and that’s the interesting part. But that scene in particular was simple because the writing was so good, and all that stuff made sense and you just have to say it in a believable way.
Hader: What’s the difference for you between doing comedy and drama?
Bateman: I’m not trying to be falsely modest, but I don’t do real funny stuff, or real drama stuff with the characters that I play. I’m usually the guy standing next to the very funny guy, or running away from the very scary guy. So there’s not much of a big change for me and what I’m doing. What I really like to do is kind of be us. Be the audience. And so I’m really attracted to characters that are sort of the everyman, or the straight man, or the sane guy, or really just a proxy for the audience. And it’s probably why I’m drawn to directing as well, because that lane is sort of where the audience has their in to what’s going on. As you know, as a director, you’re kind of pulling all those levers, and deciding what the audience is seeing, and feeling and hearing. But I do get what people mean when they say that comedy’s harder than drama, I feel like when I am asked to do something that’s wacky, that you have to still be believable. And it’s harder to be believable when your character is crazy. I think it’s simpler to just be real, to react to a situation, as opposed to reacting in a real way to a situation if you’re bats—. That’s harder to do.
Hader: When I was younger, I always wanted to do “Naked Gun,” “Airplane,” the insane stuff. And I realized how hard it is to pull it off, and what those guys did by casting, not just the real actors that you would see in those airport movies, and that was the genius in that. You’re like, “Oh, that’s part of why that works.”
Bateman: The no winking.
Hader: The no winking, and playing it totally straight. It’s Leslie Nielsen, not Steve Martin. And that’s why it works. The grounded stuff is way harder. That goes into the comedy of “Barry” too. We never sit there and outline, and talk about a script in terms of jokes or comedy, you talk about it in terms of the stories, the emotional and the logic. And then as you’re writing the scene you say, “Oh, what if he says this, and we all laugh?”
Bateman: Yeah, I noticed there’s not a lot of jokes in your show. What you guys are doing, for the most part, seem to be creating these characters that are deeply feeling, deeply flawed, they’re all pretty broken, and you’re putting them in situations where their dignity is getting exposed. And from there, comes the humor. And so those scripts, I’ll bet, don’t table that well.
Hader: Well, as people read them they go, “OK.”
Bateman: But we got to see the performance matched with this character-based comedy. And with the combination of those two things, only then will it be funny. So it’s
risky to table scripts like that, right?
Hader: But Henry Winkler at table read will sell anything, and we have all these great actors who can sell stuff. We’ll have in the outline, “Barry’s unsure of himself,” and Cousineau, Henry Winkler’s character, gives him an assignment, which is to do the “Glengarry Glen Ross” monologue. And so we go, “OK, you have to do Mamet.” That’s all it said, and you get what Barry’s emotion is, but as we’re writing it, you come up with, “I’m gonna give you 10cc’s of Mamet.” And we all start laughing. But that comes because you know the character, instead of leading with a joke.
Watch the full interview: