‘Hacks’: Crafting the Visual Story of Deborah and Ava

Craft Considerations: Watch cinematographer Adam Bricker, production designer Jon Carlos, and director/writer/EP Lucia Aniello break down the visual language of "Hacks."

Hacks Jean Smart HBO Max craft

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with HBO Max, for this edition we look at how co-creator/executive producer/co-writer/director Lucia Aniello, production designer Jon Carlos, and director of photography Adam Bricker created a story-rich Las Vegas canvas for “Hacks.”

What drives both the comedy and drama of “Hacks” is the collision of Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) — a clash fueled by differences of wealth, career status, environment, and a zoomer versus boomer sensibility to not only their profession of comedy, but the world. And yet, after the 25-year old Twitter-cancelled comedy writer is forced to work for the legendary Vegas stand-up act, we slowly begin to see they are different sides of the same coin.

“The idea of two woman finding themselves on the fringes of the traditional entertainment world and finding each other in the desert is a bit fitting,” said Aniello. “They find themselves there together and ultimately they are on a path to redemption.”

Aniello’s collaboration with Bricker and Carlos harnessed a subtle use of cinematography, production design, and direction that deepens our understanding of each character through careful visual compositions. In the videos below, the three collaborators show not only how they established a visual language for both Deborah and Ava, but how that language arcs as the tenuous union between the two forms over the course of the season.

The Cinematography of “Hacks”

It’s hard to find a half-hour comedy that begins with a show-defining oner (through the backstage of a Vegas casino, no less). The initial shot, which ends on a fitting star turn for Smart, transitions into a montage establishing the protagonist’s on-the-move life as an entertainment mogul, before depositing her bereft in the stillness of her mansion. Director of photography Adam Bricker was invigorated by the “Hacks” pilot, but also determined to maintain the show’s visually sophisticated DNA, even when comedic set pieces required the cross-shooting of more traditional half-hour series.

One of the early references Aniello shared with Bricker was the 2019 biopic “Judy.” “In watching that film a few times, I realized that they were adjusting the color and the quality of light on the spotlights of the stage performances based on Judy Garland’s emotional states,” said Bricker, who was inspired to look for similar opportunities to bring that same level of subconscious storytelling to “Hacks.”

In the video above, Bricker breaks down how he took the “Hacks” characters on their own emotional lighting journeys, starting Deborah Vance in a place of great warmth and nostalgia, but also a bit of stagnation. While the bright lights of Vegas begin as a burden to Ava — who had found herself in the shadow of Hollywood’s sunlight — Bricker shows the gentler palette he created for the two women as the season progresses.

The Production Design of “Hacks”

In creating a grand dame of the Vegas Strip, there was every danger that Deborah’s character could have veered into a parody of gaudy gold and neon excesses, which is why production designer Jon Carlos was careful to ground the extravagance of the star’s French chateau with a sense of tasteful curation.

“I think the untrained or youthful eye might find [Deborah’s house] to be kind of gaudy, but I think when you look at the loudness, there is a settling nature to it,” said Carlos. “She’s a woman who’s traveled the world and collected objects from different time periods. She knows what she wants and has a beautiful eye of curation to pull them together in one harmonious space.”

In capturing Deborah’s lavish design taste, Carlos aimed to reveal character. Like a good screenwriter, the production designer worked with the series’ creators to come up with a detailed backstory of the chateau’s multi-year design and construction process, which would have been carefully overseen by its do-it-yourself owner. And as the season progresses, and the viewer gains a more nuanced understanding of Deborah through pieces of her backstory, Carlos designed his set to mirror these revelations.

Created with the camera in mind, he used a European formalist style called enfilade, where all the doors line up to the hallways, so that characters can always see each other across rooms. “I just thought it was so important to be able to track through spaces and see the depth, and be able to go from one room through a hall to the other,” said Carlos. “[Deborah’s] house is where she basically is part prisoner, but part also able to remove the armor.”

In the video above, the production design takes us on a tour of the house, detailing the role space, color, and fabric played in telling the story of Season 1.

Creating the Look and Feel of “Hacks”

In addition to developing and writing “Hacks” with her co-creators Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky, Aniello also directed six episodes, including the first three, where she established the look, feel, and tone of the series. Inspired by “Behind The Candelabra” and the “Ocean’s 11” movies, she wanted to find a way to capture how director Steven Soderbergh made Las Vegas in those films look “fun, poppy, and glossy, but is also real.” The older parts of Vegas she and Bricker would turn the camera on are, like Deborah, out-of-step with the times, but she would imbue them with a funky vintage-quality through music, de-tuned lenses, light, and camera movement.

By being neither quite a straight sitcom, nor a contemporary drama, “Hacks” had the freedom visually to simply be itself, yet translating that balance from script to screen required careful modulation. In the video above, Aniello breaks down a scene that goes to precipice of melodrama, without falling in.

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