“Ronny/lily,” the Emmy-nominated episode (writing and directing) of HBO’s “Barry” is, in a word, bonkers.
In it, star — as well as co-creator, co-writer and director — Bill Hader as reluctant hitman Barry is being blackmailed into killing Ronny, whose only crime is dating a jealous cop’s wife. Insane complications ensue (who knew Ronny was a martial-arts master, for instance?), but mainly from Ronny’s weirdly dangerous and otherworldly young daughter Lily, who walks in on the violence and proceeds to leap, climb and spider-crawl around like something from a horror film.
When a seriously injured Barry tries to flee the madness, his handler/mentor Monroe Fuches (Emmy-nominated Stephen Root) pushes him to finish the job, including killing the child (12-year-old Jessie Giacomazzi).
How did that all come together? As director, Hader employs cinematic tools to lead Barry toward a key realization that will change the series’ trajectory.
“Bill is a film nerd of epic proportions,” co-creator and co-writer Alec Berg says. “When he first moved to L.A., he started P.A.-ing and stuff, he was an assistant editor, and it wasn’t because he wanted to be a performer. He wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Hader admits one reason he co-created “Barry” was to direct. He helmed the show’s first three episodes, helping develop its visual language. It has an unusually cinematic look and often uses long, wide shots to patiently allow moments to develop in the frame. “Ronny/lily” notably has no score.
“I’m a big fan of Hal Ashby’s movies, like ‘Being There’ and ‘The Last Detail,’” says Hader. “They’re comedies, but they’re not shot like comedies. They have incredibly emotional moments but I’m laughing through the whole thing.
“If you have your TV on mute, it should feel like you’re watching a drama. Then the comedy is funnier.”
“Ronny/lily’s” first jaw-dropping moment is the casual reveal that Ronny (elite stunt performer Daniel Bernhardt), is a tae kwon do master. That’s immediately followed by a second: A sloppy, brutal, three-minute fight between Ronny and Barry in one continuous take.
Hader wrote in a ski mask for Barry to wear in part to “let somebody else get beaten up” — namely stunt double Jake Dashnaw. Still, Hader got into the action plenty.
Stunt coordinator Wade Allen says, “We’re accustomed to Bill’s ability to impersonate somebody vocally, but he also has an innate ability to watch something and kind of impersonate the physicality. So he picks up on things really quick.
“I think this is the first time [in my experience] somebody has worn so many hats. And that the hats have been so complicated in front of the camera as well as behind.”
Berg says, “We’re always trying to make the violence seem less glamorous and fun, and more kind of ugly and horrific. We talk about [it emulating] security-camera video.”
Hader says, “The hardest thing ... was when Barry hits Ronny’s throat and they both fall out of frame. Camera operators, the way they’re taught, they pan with the action. I just wanted it to be empty because I wanted [Ronny’s] wheezing to take us to him. I couldn’t describe that. The real hero of this episode is my first A.D., Gavin Kleintop. He would help when I was having a hard time explaining something: ‘What you want is an empty frame.’ ‘Yes! Yes. Thank you.’ ”
Allen says Hader wanted three distinct fighting styles in Episode 5: Ronny’s tae kwon do; Barry’s adapted Marine combat; and Lily’s supernatural martial arts/gymnastics/animal craziness.
Allen knew young Giacomazzi’s stunt-performer parents: “When I sent the script to her dad, he said, ‘She’s done all of these things to her brother or I repeatedly.’
“We purpose-built that living room and kitchen to be a playground for Jessie. The pots-and-pans rack, we built for her to swing on. The bookshelf Barry throws her into was built for her to land on and spring back off.”
Lily climbs a tree and runs across a roof to perch on the apex of a garage — in a single shot.
Hader says, “People were like, ‘You’re going to go in for coverage on that, right?’ ‘No, no, it stays wide.’ That shot tells you everything. [Fuches is initially] over her, she runs up and now she’s over him. She takes over the dominance in one shot.”
Unfortunately, there was no tree beside the house for Lily to clamber up, so Berg recalls, “someone suggested, ‘I guess we could create a CG tree here.’ Bill was like, ‘Great, let’s do that.’ Everyone was like, ‘Wait, we’re not really going to do that, are we?’ Before you know it, we’re building this CG tree” — a green-screen climbing wall and bridge to the roof.
That’s when onetime father-figure Fuches orders the gravely hurt Barry to climb up and kill Lily.
“When Fuches says, ‘Up you go,’ that, and the very last shot I thought, ‘We’ve got to get this right,’” says Hader. “He doesn’t care that Barry’s dying.” And Barry realizes it.
Hader and Berg say they saw Season 2 as Episodes 1-4, then this one, then 6-8.
“For us, writing, the hinge was Barry discovering that Fuches is bad for him,” Hader says. “So it’s the thing of Fuches ordering Barry into the car and Barry actually making a choice between ‘Do I go to jail or do I get in the car?’ ”