HBO’s BARRY: DP Paula Huidobro Takes the Reins
Just wrapping its freshman season, HBO’s BARRY is a dark comedy about a Midwestern hitman (played by Bill Hader), who travels to Los Angeles to kill someone. He stumbles into a community acting class, led by the quirky Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). “What made BARRY interesting to me was the combination of dark humor, his tragic innocence and how hard all the characters were trying to excel in their lives, not always with much success,” says BARRY cinematographer Paula Huidobro. “I love that Barry lived a double life, and how sometimes the behavior of the criminals mirrors that of his classmates in the acting school. Sometimes the acting students would seem more ruthless than the criminals. The characters are all very well developed and they grow on you, the more you learn about them. They all seem to be on a mission and it’s incredibly funny to see them fail but keep on trying.”
Producer Aida Rogers brought Huidobro on the project after looking at her reel and recommending her to BARRY co-creators Hader and Alec Berg. “I interviewed and immediately connected with both of them, talking about the material and their vision for the style of the project,” says Huidobro who previously shot a string of independent features and TV projects. “Bill wanted the camera to be composed and disciplined. He wanted to preserve the studio mode in which the pilot had been shot, and spend the time blocking it and rehearsing for full takes where the actors and the camera would dance together.” She added that the creators didn’t want to glorify violence, which is why she didn’t over-cover those sequences or stylize them with multiple angles and shots that would remove the audience from the violence. With regard to references, Hader is a big fan of Billy Wilder, particularly THE APARTMENT, and the Coen brothers’ movies, especially BURN AFTER READING, were also “a great source of inspiration” for the show’s visual style.
Huidobro and her team used three ARRI ALEXAs, one ALEXA Mini, and Optimo Zooms from rental house Otto Nemenz. During pre-production, they blocked scenes and created shot lists. “Once the actors were on set, we would adjust their marks or I would suggest some changes so we could carry the shot for a longer period of time,” she says. “We also tried to find comedy in the frames.”
Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg; Photo: Jordin Althaus, courtesy of HBO
In one of Huidobro’s favorite scenes in Episode 7, a small airplane carrying a gang leader lands, just as Barry and his crew drive up – and chaotic violence ensues. It’s a scene that would typically be told with frenetic camerawork and lots of cuts, to enhance the violence. Instead, the shot starts on the plane in the sky, following it gently and peacefully as it lands. “Then you see a small car approaching from a distance,” says Huidobro. When the gangsters, who are waiting for their boss to arrive, see Barry’s SUV appearing on the horizon, they decide there is no choice but to shoot at it, making it turn over and explode. “Instead of feeling dangerous, the camera work was very composed, careful, almost traditional,” she says. “The juxtaposition of the slow pace and how composed the characters are and how formal the frames are, is completely opposite to what one would expect in this heightened, dangerous situation. That’s what makes it, for me, even more funny, and what seems to be the style of BARRY as a whole.”
In Episode 8 she worked closely with Berg, who directed the episode. In this episode, she noted, BARRY punches his one-time ally Fuches in the face, spurring Fuches to flip and offer information about him to their mutual enemy Goran. “All the characters are unraveling and allegiances shift,” she says. “I thought the lighting, framing, blocking and camera movements were all completely in synch. We shot-listed our sequences and we enjoyed capturing the dark humor of the situation in the way we framed the characters, and the group shots that really show the power dynamics.” Her efforts on the episode garnered Huidobro an Emmy nomination for best cinematography.
Director Alec Berg with DP Paula Huidobro. Photo: John P. Johnson, courtesy of HBO
Lighting also played an important role in conveying the visual look the creative team was after. “I wanted the light to be as soft as possible, which allowed us to work relatively quickly and consistently,” she says. “My gaffer Paul McIlvine and I decided to go with a more old school approach, using Fresnels, booklights and Chinese lanterns instead of LED technology, which has become the norm.” For day exteriors, they used the ARRI M18, ARRIMAXes and SkyPanels. “I like the versatility of the SkyPanels and I like the color of the ARRI HMIs and how consistent they are,” she says. “These were great tools to have.”
“We wanted the lighting to be real,” she continues. “I was obsessed with not having shadows that would take you away from the faces or the comedy, but still have some contrast. We wanted to keep the light shaped in an interesting way. I didn’t ever want to drift into flat comedic lighting, but I also avoided hard lighting for the most part.” They also used a lot of practicals, both on location and fixtures built into the sets. “I always diffused and controlled them when they were off camera,” she says. “A key to success in making our days was that we were able to build in a lot of lighting solutions into our sets.”
Anthony Carrigan, Glenn Fleshler. Photo: Jordin Althaus, courtesy of HBO
That included rigging “a beautiful soft box” into one of the main shooting sets, the actor’s theater, which Huidobro says was “invaluable.” Her key grip Paul Perkins was, “totally prepared to cut and diffuse everything on location.” “I’m sure I drove him crazy with all the requests, but he really had my back and we overcame a lot of tricky situations,” she says. “Having Bill’s trust was also important. We were able to schedule and block our exterior locations in a way that was helpful for lighting, and I know that isn’t always the case with television.”