Dark comedy is never an easy tone to master in a film or television show. It requires a careful balancing act that can easily stumble at any moment during writing or directing. And of course, the visual elements are crucial. That’s readily apparent with Paula Huidobro’s work on HBO and Bill Hader’s multiple award-winning Barry, about a hitman who moonlights as an aspiring actor. We spoke with the cinematographer about the look of the show and how she and Hader create it.
Vision and Inspiration
When Huidobro met Hader to discuss working together on Barry, she instantly connected with his vision for the show’s look. Hader is a fluent cinephile and conversations with Huidobro included fully realized visual reference points — even lens choices — that he wanted to use. Among the references were the Coen Brothers, no strangers to dark humor, as well as Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, shot by Joseph LaShelle. Hader wanted to especially channel the latter’s elegant and dense wide-lens compositions, in order to create room for actors to play and move within a frame (thereby also creating fewer shots).
Huidobro especially enjoys these kinds of early conversations about creative intentions. “I love spending time with a director and hearing their vision about the script and the characters,” she says, and Huidobro’s meeting with Hader made her confident they would make something special together. “With Bill, it’s nice that we had such a clear vision, so that we could start really high and then go even higher.”
Paula Huidobro and Bill Hader on the set of Barry
Preparation and Inspiration
Because of Hader’s fully established conception of the show and his desire for meticulous composition, shooting Barry involves a healthy amount of preparation. “He likes to photoboard the sequences, and know ahead of time what the coverage and the blocking will be,” Huidobro says. “He loves for the camera to move in a kind of choreography – almost like a musical approach.” You see that especially in some of Barry’s most ambitiously shot sequences, which possess a rhythm and fluidity that almost evokes the movements of a sonata or nocturne.
Huidobro welcomes the precise preparation that involves, even if – as is custom in any production – on-set changes will happen. “On the day, I don’t mind if things change completely,” she explains, because the foundation is still there to help any adaptation needed for what a scene calls for. “At least I know what’s in the director’s head, so that I can communicate better with them,” she says. “You always have to adapt. These things change. If you have an idea before then, it goes a lot easier.”
Bill Hader and Henry Winkler in Barry
Because Barry is a show about a hitman, violence is inevitable. Ever since the beginning, however, it was important for Hader and Huidobro to go about “action” in a way that would involve no handheld or floating cameras, as can be common in these scenarios. “Traditionally, if there’s an action sequence, you want to see multiple people doing multiple angles, and you get close and you see the blood, and you see slow motion. It’s more impressionistic,” Huidobro says. But Hader wanted to make the violence more realistic, in good part so as not to glorify it. “He likes to be a little more removed,” she says. “Bill likes it to be showing almost every move more in real time.”
You see that in practice, for example, in episode five of the second season, which Huidobro is especially proud of. In one scene, a ski mask-wearing Hader engages in a brawl with a Taekwondo master in his home. “Bill really wanted to cover it with these long pans. A pan across the room that lasts for a long time, that gives you more information,” Huidobro explains. The violence is thereby delayed in favor of prolonged pans that are constructed around building suspense and comedy by leaving things off camera, then revealing them to us. That includes violence which, when it does happen, is awkward, brutal, real, and funny, in a way that is entirely unique.
Connecting with Characters
Another important component of Huidobro’s approach to her work is to connect in some way with the characters she’s shooting, in order to inform the specificity of the visual approach. “I think it’s important to have a consistency to the visual language,” she says, and that language can come from characters themselves. “If you really connect with the characters, then suddenly, the way you shoot the film makes it a lot more clear, and it matters. You feel that you have a real perspective,” she says. “If you don’t have that connection, then it’s more general and generic.”
As for how that works when your main character, however awkwardly charming, is a hitman, she says: “There are projects where it’s more about the internal world of the character, or it’s more about their emotions, or it’s more about feeling what it’s like to be them,” Huidobro says. “As long as it feels real and in some way human, and it challenges you and makes you think, that’s all that matters. We have to feel that there’s no other way of telling the story.”
If you’ve had the pleasure of watching Barry yourself, you know that Huidobro, and her collaboration with Hader, have accomplished just that.
Top: Bill Hader in Barry. Images courtesy of Isabella Vosmikova/HBO.