Co-created by Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Rhys Thomas, the hilarious IFC series Documentary Now! is back for Season 2, during which they’ll be lovingly paying homage to six well-known documentaries with an array of acclaimed guest stars, including Anne Hathaway, Mia Farrow,Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda and Maya Rudolph. Hosted weekly by Dame Helen Mirren, there is a wide range of subjects explored, from politics, food and door-to-door sales to music and entertainment.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Bill Hader talked about people’s love of documentaries, the criteria they have for choosing which documentaries to pay homage to, getting to do a full-on concert for one of the episodes this season, and their crazy production schedule. He also talked about his upcoming half-hour HBO series, Barry, about a hit man from the Midwest who moves to Los Angeles and gets caught up in the city’s theater scene, for which he made his directorial debut on the pilot.
Collider: This show seems like such a crazy idea, but it got such a hugely positive response with the first season and even an Emmy nomination. Did you have any clue that you would get the reaction you did and that people would love this whole concept?
BILL HADER: No, not at all. I am the worst barometer of what people are going to respond to, so I’ve taken this view of, “Well, if we like it, the law of averages is that other people will like it, too.” That’s where the focus lies. We just want to make something really good, and we’re always trying to get better.
You guys clearly have a love for documentaries. Are you surprised that people respond as much to documentaries as you do?
HADER: It seems like more people have been watching them over the years, especially as more streaming services have come on. Documentaries have their own category now. There was a time when the documentary would win the Oscar was something that no one knew about because you had to find the one theater it was showing in. I didn’t even know there was a documentary Oscar until I rented The Times of Harvey Milk, and the beginning of it said, “Oscar winner for Best Documentary,” not that the Oscars or any of that should matter. You have movies like The Act of Killing, which you can watch on an airplane. That’s bananas! That’s one of my favorite documentaries in years. It has become much more of a prevalent thing.
When you did the first season, did you have a much bigger list of documentaries that you wanted to pay homage to, and were you still working off of that list for Season 2?
HADER: Yeah, we had some that we wanted to do, but there’s also criteria that has to make sense. You know which ones will work and which ones won’t. We tried to figure out one, forever, for The Staircase, but it just never came together in a satisfying way that we could do in 22 minutes. It just felt like we were doing the same joke, over and over again, and it didn’t have a throughline to it. There’s always a big list that we’re just never, ever going to be able to figure out. This season – and we had it happen last season, too – we were trying to do one that was too ambitious for our schedule and our budget, so we had to cut it at the last second. That’s when we thought, “Well, what if we do Spalding Gray because that’s just one location?” So, we all watched Swimming to Cambodia and went, “We could totally do this!” It’s not so much picking the documentaries that’s hard. It’s getting the different styles. Each one has a different quality and feels different, and that’s important to us. How long we can carry that on, I don’t know.
Music documentaries are especially fun, and you pay homage to the Talking Heads documentary, Final Transmission. What was that like?
HADER: We just shot a concert, and that was a blast. It was unbelievable! Fred [Armisen] and Jon Spurney wrote all of the music for it, and they taught me my bass lines. It was really fun! It was really neat. I’d never had a chance to play a concert. I was like, “I can’t hear you guys through the speaker,” and they were like, “Oh, your monitor is up.” And I was like, “That’s why, when I watch concerts, I see people turning off stage and asking for it to be turned up or down. Now I get it!” Now, I’m a rock star! It was just one night, where we played the concert twice and all of these people hung out. We did one concert, and then they had to put the cameras in different positions, so during that time, me, Maya Rudolph and Fred entertained the audience, just to keep them satisfied.
What is your production schedule like for this? Do you have to shoot these episodes really fast?
HADER: It’s insane! We have to shoot them really fast. We did the bulk of this season in four weeks, which is insane, especially for how ambitious they are. The “Sandy Passage” episode was two days, and that was just me and Fred in a house. There was so much to shoot and do, and there was a lot of stuff that was cut out of it, too. (Directors) Rhys [Thomas] and Alex [Buono] are just so driven to make it look authentic, but different from any other show. And in a good way, not in a dickhead competitive way. They just want to know that they did their best job, and that feeling from them makes us think, “Gosh, if we’re going to play these characters, let’s make sure we give it our all and try really hard.” When I did the Spalding Gray thing, I watched all of his movies and tried to make sure I had it down pat. Not with all comedy, but sometimes in comedy, there’s this feeling of, “Oh, we hang out and funny stuff will happen,” and that’s not wrong. You don’t want to plan it too much. You do want a spontaneity, but I feel like the best spontaneity comes from planning. When you know what you’re doing and you understand it, and then, in that, you go off, it’s already at another level. So, Rhys, Alex, Fred, Seth [Meyers] and I never want the show to feel disposable. Sometimes, especially in comedy, it can just feel disposable. At SNL, you’d do a sketch and it wouldn’t work, but it was okay because there was another show next week. But when we were at SNL, we very much felt like everything mattered. I work at South Park and those guys are the same way. Their whole career hangs on every show for them because they want it to be good, and they want to keep getting better and changing. Not to sound pretentious, but that’s a real artist, instead of going, “Oh, I do this and people love it, so I’m just going to stick here and play it safe.”
You also have a TV series that you’re doing for HBO, that’s also your directorial debut, called Barry. What made that the right project for you to jump to that side of the camera?
HADER: Right after I finished Saturday Night Live and moved to L.A., I had a meeting with HBO and they said, “We’d love to have a development deal with you, for you to develop something with us.” And I got together with this guy, Alec Berg. We have the same agent. He runs Silicon Valley, and he ran Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s a genius, great guy. And we just sat in a diner for four months, talking about what could be a good TV show. We went down right road and stopped. There was this one character I had, but that didn’t work. And then, I said, “What about if I was a hitman?,” and Alec went, “I don’t know.” I said, “Not like Grosse Pointe Blank. That’s already been done. But a very real, rooted thing.” We just started talking about what this hitman could be doing, and for some reason, Alec went, “Well, if he was taking an acting class, that could be interesting.” So, that’s the show. It’s tonally much more real and dark, but it has a lot of comedy in it. It has a buoyancy to it that you need for a comedy, but it doesn’t sell out the truth of it. This guy is a wrecked person. It’s definitely a different kind of show, that’s different from anything I’ve done. I’ve never done anything like this, where I have to play an ex-Marine who can shoot guns and do all of these things. But, that’s what’s exciting about it.
Is it daunting to take on writing and directing something that you’re also playing the title character in?
HADER: That’s what I’m doing now. Since we’ve been picked up, I just go into an office and go, “Okay, Episode 2 will be what? I guess this could happen and this could happen.” Alec will run over from the Silicon Valley writers’ room and I pitch him, and he goes, “No, no, no, no, yeah, yeah, no.” And I go, “Okay, thanks,” and then I start rebuilding again. So, I’m just in the middle of writing it right now. Our writers’ room doesn’t open until this fall, so you won’t see it for a long time.
Documentary Now! airs on Wednesday nights on IFC.