That's Classic – Bill Hader on 'Essential' Hollywood Films for the Whole Family

Talk to actor-writer Bill Hader for even a short while, and you quickly realize that the affably offbeat Saturday Night Live comedian is—as his castmate Andy Samberg once remarked of Michael Bolton—“a major cinephile.”

It’s not just that Hader has seen a gazillion movies—independents and blockbusters, films foreign and domestic, arthouse and grindhouse. It’s that he’s his own IMDb, a veritable search engine of memorable scenes who’s able to describe in detail the kind of tiny movie moment that lands a big punch. The son of two avid film buffs, Hader began compiling this database as a boy growing up in Tulsa, OK, where his parents would regularly gather the family around the TV for a Marx Brothers or Thin Man marathon.

As his fans can attest, a diet rich in classic Hollywood films has made Hader both a gifted mimic (his vast repertoire includes Vincent Price, Gregory Peck, Al Pacino, and, memorably, James Mason in a doughnut shop) and an inventive actor with some indelible moments of his own (Superbad, Adventureland, a spectacularly dimwitted General Custer in Night at the Museum 2).

It also makes him an ideal host for Turner Classic Movie’s summer series Essentials Jr., a thirteen-week, Sunday night showcase of classic Hollywood films chosen especially for family viewing. Essentials Jr. kicks off on Sunday, June 3rd at 8 pm with Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men starring Henry Fonda, and continues with such films as Rio Bravo (June 17), The Great Escape (July 22), The Band Wagon (July 29), North by Northwest (August 19), and Ball of Fire (August 26). The accompanying website is chock full of filmmaking back stories and fun facts for kids, such as Jury Selection & Duty 101 in the case of Twelve Angry Men.

Here, Bill Hader offers a few short lessons in film history, and a preview of Essentials Jr.

Beth Brosnan: So what kind of movies did you watch with your parents when you were growing up?

Bill Hader: Both my parents, my mom especially, love old movies. They would rent plenty of new releases, but then sometimes my dad would come home and say something like, “You guys need to see Shane.” I would watch all these movies, and slowly over time you start to pick things up. You realize that George Stevens, the guy who directed Shane, also directed A Place in the Sun and Giant, and that his movies look a particular way.

BB: Which movies do you remember most? What was it about them that captured your imagination?

Hader: What I remember most are particular moments in particular movies, like the first time I watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame, [the 1939 version] with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. There’s a scene where Maureen O’Hara is about to be executed, and Quasimodo rescues her. She’s in the foreground, and you see him way in the background, kind of up high, getting ready. And then he just swings down and grabs her, all in the same shot. It’s beautiful.

Just before that scene, I can remember my mother kind of gasping and saying, “Here it comes!” Then he swings down and saves her, and my mother said, “God, I love that!” That was big.

BB: It’s wonderful the way movies can do that—how small moments, often wordless, can have such impact.

Hader: It’s all moments. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s Boo Radley behind the door. And during the trial scene, when Tom Robinson, the black man who’s been falsely accused of raping a white woman, tells the jury he felt sorry for her. The film cuts immediately to Gregory Peck, and the look on his face is so devastating. It’s a look that says, “That’s it—we just lost. It’s done.” Yet he still gets up and gives that unbelievable speech. He knows [an innocent man] will be found guilty and probably executed, and yet he’s still going to give his speech. His kids see all that, and it’s very, very moving.

Another moment I remember is the pajama scene in The Best Years of Our Lives [when Homer, an injured veteran who now has hooks for hands, tries to persuade his childhood sweetheart that she would be better off without him]. He thinks she doesn’t like him, but it’s clear that she accepts him as he is. The way they show that is her buttoning up his pajamas for him. It’s moments like that make me love old movies. The storytelling is so clean. It’s not fast, it takes its time, and it’s more impactful.

This is not a movie snob thing—I like movies now, too. [Hader started off as PA on films like Collateral Damage, and has appeared in close to 50 features and shorts, plenty of which were independent.] I’ve seen some great movies this year, like Take Shelter, Tree of Life, and Attack the Block. I just saw The Avengers and thought that was great too. But I think a movie like The Avengers understands that kind of classic emphasis on story. It’s full of speed, but it still takes its time in the big moments. I appreciated that.

BB: Why do you think it’s important for people, especially kids, to watch older films? Including kids who might grow up to be independent filmmakers?

Hader: I remember talking to a guy who said, “I don’t need to watch old movies, because the movies I like now are all based on those movies.” He said the main thing he got out of watching John Ford’s Stagecoach was realizing it had inspired the ending of Walter Hill’s Road Warrior.

I get what he’s saying, but you should still watch Stagecoach! It’s a great movie, and it has the best opening shot ever of a [leading man]. The first time you see John Wayne is when he rides up and stops the stagecoach. The camera pushes in on him, and it’s fantastic. It’s a shot that says to the world, “Here’s your new movie star.”

BB: You weren’t just watching movies as a teenager. In a way, you were also an indie filmmaker. You made a bunch of short films with your friends.

Hader: I was also really into horror movies, so when I made stuff growing up, it was always a horror movie or a horror comedy. Those were the most fun, because you got to make fake blood. I was really influenced by the Sam Raimi movie The Evil Dead, which had scenes where the camera would chase people. I figured out that was a very cheap way to get a thrill, to make your short film feel really cinematic.

I also really liked Roger Corman’s movies. They were so cheap, but you always got the sense he worked really hard and tried to make them at least presentable, even if he only had two days to do it. He did one called Bucket of Blood, with Dick Miller, that I absolutely love. (He actually remade it in 1995, and Will Ferrell has a small part in it.) I also love Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies with Vincent Price. Those films look great.

BB: Can you draw a line between any of these older films and performances and your own work in movies and on SNL?

Hader: I can’t say that I saw someone specific and said, “OK, this is how I’m going to do this [role] differently.” Maybe what I’ve learned from these older performances is a real commitment level. That’s what I like about actors like Vincent Price: he just committed to a story and to his role. That, and the fact that it looks like he’s having so much fun. He didn’t take himself that seriously.

I also like people like James Cagney, who’s such a strong actor. And Marlon Brando. It sounds so cliché, but you watch A Streetcar Named Desire and it really is like there’s Before Brando and After Brando—the way he changed everything that came after him.

BB: It’s like your observation about Stagecoach and Road Warrior. You watch Streetcar and you can see where actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sprang from.

Hader: I also grew up watching Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and thinking those were such phenomenal performances. But when you watch Streetcar, you realize how that probably influenced De Niro. And then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s talked about seeing Taxi Driver six times in one weekend. He was so inspired by it.

It’s not like one thing is better than other. It’s whatever inspires you. Some kid right now will see The Avengers and say, “I want to go make movies.” And that’s awesome. But it’s still good to see these older movies, to see where everything comes from. There’s still something to learn.

BB: Bill Hader and Turner Classic Movies sounds like a perfect match. How did that come about?

Hader: On TCM, they have something called Guest Programmers, where they invite someone on to choose and then present several different movies. I called my manager and asked, “Hey, how do I get on that?” That was my first appearance on TCM, as a guest programmer in September 2010.

BB: The four films you chose—Five Graves to Cairo, Rashomon, Brewster McCloud, and This Is Spinal Tap—cover a lot of ground in terms of period and genre.

Hader: People always assume if you go into comedy, you’re only interested in comedies. And I think you should watch everything! There’s a lot you can get out of watching all kinds of movies.

BB: You began hosting Essentials Jr. last summer. What are your duties as the series host? Do you help choose the movies?

Hader: TCM sends me a list of 20 potential movies, and then we go back and forth to make the final 13 selections. This summer I really wanted to do a W.C. Fields movie, and they said, OK, how about The Bank Dick? And they wanted to show Lassie, Come Home, which I had never seen. So they sent me a DVD, I watched it and said, this is great! Let’s do this.

As far as the actual hosting, I introduce the movies as if I were talking to a family at home, gathered around the TV set to watch a movie: “Here’s what we’ll be seeing tonight, here’s who directed it, here’s the year it came out, here’s a brief synopsis, here’s where the stars were in their careers at the time.” After the movie is over, I’ll add some more information, maybe about the ending, because I would never want to give that away in advance.

BB: TCM has said their goal was to introduce younger viewers to classic films, and that they figured ages “8 to 14 seems to be a general time span in which they are old enough to watch these films but not yet too old that they wouldn’t want to watch something with Mom and Dad.” Who do you think the series appeals to?

Hader: If I were anywhere between age 6 and say, 22, I would love this show. Actually, whatever your age, it’s a great introduction to these classic films. You watch Twelve Angry Men, and you go, “I want to check out more of Sidney Lumet and Henry Fonda’s movies. I’m going to watch The Wrong Man or The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe The Hill, which is this great 1965 Sidney Lumet movie with Sean Connery. Or Network.”

One movie always leads to another. That’s what it did for me.

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