‘Barry’ Cinematographer Breaks Down Episode 5’s Big Twist: ‘What Would Happen if This Character Got What He Wanted?’
SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for “Tricky Legacies,” the fifth episode of “Barry” Season 4.
At the end of last week’s “Barry,” we meet John (Zachary Golinger). He’s an innocent young boy, but his existence is completely terrifying: It means that Barry (Bill Hader) and Sally (Sarah Goldberg) have brought a child into their violent, conspiratorial world. But John is being raised against a rural Midwestern landscape that matches Barry’s hallucinations from prison at the beginning of Season 4 — as though there’s a chance he’s a figment of Barry’s imagination, too.
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In Episode 5, we re-meet Barry and Sally, who have aged considerably, and bear new accents and names (Clark and Emily, respectively). They’re raising John as a devout Christian, with Barry actually seeming to believe what he’s preaching. Sally, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same delusions. She puts on a messy brunette wig every day to work at a diner that clearly makes her miserable, passing the time by telling lies to her coworker Gina (Emily Spivey), who tells her that another coworker, Bevel (Spenser Granese), has been jerking off to Sally. Or rather, to Emily — who then gets her revenge.
For much of the episode, it feels possible that we’re still seeing images projected onto a screen by some small, sad of part of Barry’s brain — until, near the end, Sally gets a Google alert for an article with the headline “Gene Cousineau Resurfaces, May Consult on Barry Berkman Biopic.” Earlier, we’d seen a long-haired, full-bearded Cousineau (Henry Winkler), having emerged after eight years in hiding, paying a visit to Warner Bros., perhaps as his first stop.
And now, with only three more episodes to go, Barry has resolved to kill his former mentor. The time jump clearly isn’t fictional, and “Barry,” ever reinventing itself, is a new show yet again.
According to “Barry” cinematographer Carl Herse, the illusion (and perhaps hope?) that Clark, Emily and John may not exist is due in large part to “these incredibly flat landscapes that went off forever into the horizon, without any mountains or hills,” which were shot in the Antelope Valley region outside of Los Angeles (though the original intention was to work out of the Midwest).
Herse spoke to Variety about what the time jump represents narratively, how he captured those themes with his camera and working with “Barry” co-creator Hader, who directed every episode in this final season.
This episode takes place years after Barry escapes prison, but until we see Cousineau toward the end, it’s unclear how far in the future we are, or whether any of this is really happening. How did you approach all the uncertainty?
Bill grew up in the Midwest in a landscape not unlike the one that we’re showing here. He saw that, for his character, as representing the place he comes from and could escape to. The root of where we wound up for Episode 5 was in Season 1. There’s a moment where Barry is imagining his future, and it’s him and Sally and a child having their family portrait taken. That was Barry’s dream when he was trying to escape this violent world that he had been a part of. And I think the idea behind the time jump was, what would happen if this character got what he wanted?
Bill wanted to tease those visuals early on in the series. When you make that jump, you’re questioning the reality of it, because Barry’s been dipping in and out of lucidity. Episode 5 is its own bizarre, Gothic story that has this almost supernatural threat hanging over the environment. These giant, vast landscapes look otherworldly.
When we talked about the Season 3 finale, you mentioned that a lot of your work on “Barry” is about being “really visually expressive using spaces that are relatively unremarkable” since so many scenes happen in homes and offices. How did you apply that idea to this new environment?
Something that Bill is very good at, in his writing and his direction, is creating very propulsive storylines. The plot moves really, really fast, but within that, a lot of our camerawork happens very slowly. In five minutes, a ton of information will be conveyed with five one-minute shots, rather than over-explaining things with dialogue and editing. There’s one long shot of Barry and John walking towards the camera, talking about honoring God and Barry’s newfound religious leanings, that then pans over to see his son looking at this faraway Little League baseball game. There’s so much story we were able to achieve in these big, empty landscapes just through careful blocking and staging. The emptiness became its own character, and we found it absurd and interesting to juxtapose the emptiness of the landscape with Barry telling John, “Look at all the things we’ve been so blessed to have! Look around yourself!” Meanwhile, they’re hiding out from society and Sally’s losing her mind and slowly regressing, as she has lost the spark that she had as an actor.
We plotted our days around the weather and the sun and the limitations of these giant empty spaces. When you don’t have anything to look at on the horizon, you notice the sky and the shadows on the ground as clouds slowly drift across the landscape.
How did your camera work differ from your process at other locations?
We shoot almost the entire show on one lens, one focal length, which is 27mm. Most of the time, if you want to go from a close-up to a wide shot, you change out lenses, like from a 100mm lens to a 25mm lens, but we tend to move the camera rather than change the lens. But on this episode, we wanted a little bit more of a formal and surreal perspective, so we shot on a 32mm lens, which is almost imperceptibly different, but we did the same thing where we shot almost everything on that lens, so the whole episode has a slightly different tone than our normal “Barry” universe. It changes the relationship of how close the actors are to the camera.
But so much of it was creating atmosphere. One of the most powerful things was we had all the windows cracked, with fans in every window, so the blinds slightly move in the breeze. It’s subtle and quiet, but seems eerie and ominous. And we tried to do everything in as few camera setups as possible, with longer takes that hold as much of the story in a single shot as possible. Even the most violent and disturbing moment of the episode, when Sally and Bevel are in the bathroom, was shot as one long, slow-moving, evolving take rather than cutting it into a bunch of different parts and pieces.
Tell me more about that scene, where Sally seems like she’s going to have sex with Bevel but starts to stangle him instead.
That’s the type of scene where, when you read the script, everyone knows it’s going to be a hard one to shoot. Normally, we spend we would spend a whole day shooting any scene that has a stunt in it, and it requires an intimacy coordinator because there’s a sexual element. That can be really draining on performers, so, similar to the elevator scene at the end of last season with Sally and Natalie [D’Arcy Carden], it’s important to try to achieve the goal of the scene without wearing them out and making them do something uncomfortable over and over again.
If you construct a shot that tells the whole story, and lets the actors reach the place the level of intensity that they need to be at, and shoot it in two or three takes, you’re gonna get a better performance out of everyone. We had a mini-rehearsal day where we talked through the beats, and on shoot day, it took 20 minutes. We did two takes and moved on.
It was [Granese’s] idea to be drinking the chocolate milk in the previous scene, creating this idea that he thinks of himself as a badass, but he’s actually like a little boy. And when you’re shooting in one unbroken moment, you see someone that thinks he’s gonna go hook up with someone in a bathroom, and then see him reduced to the little boy that he really is. You see that Sally has grown in her intensity and her ability to be threatening. When she grabs his face, the direction from Bill was like, “When you see a cat holding down a bug, there’s kind of an emptiness to it.”
At one point, Barry and Sally hear a mysterious knock at their door and Barry stands outside all night, guarding the house with his gun. It seemed to mimic the last few episodes of Season 3, which saw different people emerge from or retreat into completely black backgrounds.
There’s certainly a continuity of the film language. Bill often explains what he’s looking for in absolutes: “The character is walking towards blackness.” Sometimes, I’ll think about how I need to have enough light so that they can see far into the distance — but in this situation, we wanted it to feel like Barry was stepping out of the safety of his home that he had hidden himself away in, and towards this great unknown. We wanted to see Barry approaching a darkness that felt like there could be a threat 10 feet in front of him that he couldn’t see. And with the sound design with people running around, and the subtle pans that we did, I think it expressed this uncertainty they were all living with for so long. The constant, looming dread of the violence that Barry has caused. He’s hell-bent on saving John from knowing these terrible things about him and his mother, and visually, he becomes this protector — of a lie. The truth is that Barry a bad person, but he’s created this false version of himself that his child believes, so now he’s trying to protect that lie at all costs.
There’s a major tone shift when Sally reads that Cousineau may consult on a movie about Barry, who decides he has to kill Cousineau. Can you walk me through the images you created there?
One of the most interesting scenes in the episode was the scene that preceded that, with Barry telling John pure lies about his experience as a Marine, and again playing that as one unbroken shot. Then when Sally yells Barry’s real name and he comes running, the rushing camera is pretty jarring considering how slow the pace of the episode has been from a camera movement standpoint. So much happens, but you rarely see the camera rushing forward or retracting back at a clip like that.
The other big thing is that we find Barry in the future with this complicated religious rebirth. Religion can have the capacity to help people recontextualize their reality, and Barry is doing that now. He’s kind of letting that justify the ways he’s living his new life. There’s a scene that I’m very proud of: A dinner scene that takes place at dusk, where the lights are all off in the house. You just see the pink hue of the horizon and the sun dipping on the landscape. You can tell Barry has been droning on in the dark with his family and mulling over this idea of tricky legacies. The whole scene is kind of a comment on how, with internet culture, we can find a way to morph anything in history to serve our own agendas. Taking role models like Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi and pointing out faults — it’s obviously Barry wrestling with his own past. There’s something so haunting, with the lights fading and the world cast in this slate blue tone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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