Right from its opening shot — a 90-second oner (really multiple shots stitched together) that follows comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) from behind as she walks backstage after finishing her Vegas stand-up routine — “Hacks” announces its filmmaking intentions. As the audience watches Deborah’s interactions and the way she moves through her surroundings, character is being defined by the use of the camera even before we see its star’s face.
When “Hacks” co-creator Lucia Aniello, who directed six of the 10 episodes in Season 1 (including the first three), was on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, she discussed how that opening shot served the purpose of establishing the myth of the fictional legendary comedian, but also establishing this was a half-hour series that had more than jokes on its mind.
“We made sure the camera felt, especially in the pilot, to have shots that mirrored what we wanted the audience to feel, especially for Deborah,” said Aniello. “[When] she’s working and she’s on her grind, it’s moving, it’s fun, it’s exciting. But when she gets home, she’s alone, and she’s alone in large space, and it mimics how we want her inner life to feel, which is, she’s by herself and she’s put all these objects there to keep her company.”
Aniello, who along with her partner and “Hacks” co-creator Paul W. Downs, cut her teeth on the low-budget “Broad City,” said that for this series, the larger budget and resources were key to telling this particular story.
“It’s an exciting thing to have a little bit more control over everything,” said Aniello. “Those details were very important to us, because it says a lot about our backdrop, our setting, and therefore our characters. And it was a really fun thing to develop over the course of writing and shooting.”
According to series cinematographer Adam Bricker, who joined Aniello for the second half of the podcast, that control was key to shaping a Vegas backdrop that was also an expression of character.
“We wanted [our Vegas] to have a vintage quality to it,” said Bricker in discussing his lens and light choices. “Kind of an echoing on the themes of Deborah’s heyday is behind her, she’s stuck in the past a little bit.”
Entering Deborah’s Vegas is the 25-year-old Ava (Hannah Einbinder), whose Hollywood comedy writing career hits an abrupt stumbling block after one of her snide tweets goes viral (in a bad way). Narratively, the introduction of Ava starts to knock Deborah out of established ways and, as Bricker explained, that is mirrored in the series’ visual language.
“Ava definitely has a visual impact on the [series],” said Bricker. “In the beginning, when we’re with Deborah, we’re on steadicam and it’s these big static wide frames, and once Ava enters, it’s a lot more handheld, and she really brings this modern vibe to the visuals.”
While the first 20 minutes of the pilot establishes how the two characters are from different ends and generations of the industry’s comedy world, in the pair’s first interactions, Aniello’s compositions start laying the groundwork of their commonality.
“It’s essentially a story about two women who were kicked out of the traditional Hollywood structure, so they find themselves in the desert together,” said Aniello. “Everything from the composition to the camera movement itself, every choice is purposeful in terms of, ‘OK, these are two women that actually do have a lot in common, and we tried to mimic that and tried to say that with just shots and composition and lighting.”
To watch Aniello and Bricker break down how they used the camera to tell the story of the unique partnership that forms between Deborah and Ava, watch the video above.
To hear the full discussion, subscribe to the Toolkit podcast below:
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.