‘Hacks’ Hits the Road: Crafting Deborah and Ava’s Journey Through America

Editor Jessica Brunetto and co-creators Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, and Lucia Aniello discuss how they put comedy and drama together to craft an equally sharp and earnest tone for Season 2 of "Hacks."

HBO Max Hacks: Behind-The-Scenes Writing, Directing,

“Hacks”

HBO Max

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 writing, directing, and editing was employed to maintain “Hacks” unique blend of comedy and drama going in its second season.

At the beginning of Season 1, conflict was immediate between Vegas standup legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the disgraced up-and-coming comedy writer hired to punch up Deborah’s jokes. The different generations forced to work together is the central tension from which the show mines both conflict and comedy. Over the first season it’s revealed to the audience, and eventually to the characters themselves, that Deborah and Ava are two sides of the same comedy coin. Gradually, they form a creative partnership that allows each to (sometimes) see past the other’s faults, even if insults still fly.

That left “Hacks” Season 2 with the problem that all comedies must solve as they age: introduce new conflict without negating the characters’ growth or upending their dynamic. It’s hard to get right, especially with this series’ celebrated blend of grounded comedy that veers into sadness and drama. “Hacks” Season 2 also spent a lot of time outside its familiar setting of old-school Vegas, trading the narrative comforts of Deborah’s palatial home for a pimped-out tour bus as Deborah and Ava test out her new act.

By taking the show on the road for much of Season 2, the creators threw the characters into a beautifully appointed pressure cooker that brought out new sides of everyone. As you’ll see in the videos below, “Hacks” Season 2’s blend of old and new comes through in in its writing structure, a performance emphasis that’s reinforced in its editing, and direction with a visual style that supports it all.

The Writing of “Hacks” 

The choices made in the “Hacks” writers’ room start the destination. “For Season 2, we knew we were building toward Deborah self-funding a special and selling it on QVC and then ultimately deciding to let Ava go,” co-creator Jen Statsky said. Co-creator Paul W. Downs added that, “because we have a North Star and we know ultimately where we want to go, it helps us figure out what feels most fun for the characters.”

That rough map allows the writers to explore where to pull off and look around and which stops are essential for getting the characters where they need to be by season’s end. Those destinations are based in the evolution of character dynamics and finding key hinge points where their relationships can change, or be changed by new conflicts.

With Deborah no longer defending her Vegas fortress, the writers could find fun new ways to keep her scrappy and do some self-exploration in fish-out-of-water scenarios. Putting her on the back foot also refreshes her relationship to Ava, with both of them driving each other crazy and needing each other in different ways. “Nothing is more important [than comedy] to them, even if maybe it should be,” said Downs.

“It’s kind of a feature of the relationship that they have this twisted dynamic where they hurt each other, but also they love each other and they speak a language unlike any other two characters so they keep finding their way back to each other,” said Statsky. “As much as we love Vegas and that gives us so much story, we saw being on the road as such a good story generator. It gives us so many places to go and so many people to encounter.” In the video above, watch co-creators Statsky and Downs discuss the aspects of character they focus on to build individual episodes as well as the story structure for the entire second season of “Hacks.”

The Editing of “Hacks” 

All the notes that “Hacks” wants to hit are composed in the edit. Editor Jessica Brunetto tries not to cut too much, so that the movements and conversations of the characters feel natural. She also tries to build sequences so that the audience can watch the tension and the comedy happen simultaneously. As you will see in the video above, a perfect example comes as Deborah and Ava exit the private jet (where they ended Season 1). The single shot shows the older comedienne filled with excitement for a new tour while the joke writer is filled with dread: A letter she sent to another show might have already found its way back to Deborah.

“This series, more than other comedies I’ve worked on, we’re really looking for shots where both the actresses can fill the screen,” said Brunetto. When both Deborah and Ava can have visibly different reactions to, say, the deck of a cruise ship for lesbians, the show is able to tap into the essential tension in their dynamic – often for comedic effect but sometimes, as in the final scene where Deborah fires Ava, for a heartbreaking one.

The editing is the place where “Hacks” can really modulate the audience’s emotions. “My starting place on this show is Jean’s performances, building everything around that,” Brunetto said. “In the beginning, the creators talked to me many times just being like, ‘We don’t want it to seem too broad. We want it to feel grounded.’ Sometimes it made me afraid to use bigger takes from Jean. Over time, we realized we have to let her get into her different modes. If our first approach at the beginning isn’t going high enough on that barometer, then the down-swing won’t feel as dramatic.” In the video above, you can see how Brunetto builds scenes that swing seamlessly between the show’s love of comedy and interest in the personal costs to the comedians.

The Directing of “Hacks” 

When it comes to how “Hacks” translates its character dynamics into visual storytelling,co-creator Lucia Aniello says “the eternal tension of this show is how is it funny and beautiful at the same time.” Making the show look beautiful means avoiding the flat lighting and simple cross-shooting setups that define the look of many comedies that emphasize only performance, not on what the camera does to support it. When Aniello steps behind the camera to direct, she must pick and choose when it’s important to capture all the performance options and when it’s important to take a more cinematic approach to lighting, framing, and blocking. “It’s a comedy and I want people to really laugh, but I also like it feeling really real.” she said. “I also like it feeling beautiful and fun to watch. Balancing all those things is a challenge.”

It’s both challenge and opportunity in Season 2. Once the show abandons its Vegas home base, it gains the chance to contrast Deborah against less controlled environments whether it’s the soft morning sunshine of the Grand Canyon or the harsh streetlamp glare on a dumpster in the middle of the night. It was important to Aniello to capture visual variety, as it stretched Deborah in key ways and allowed her to grow and ultimately come up with a comedy special all about holding herself accountable.

“Having to hit the road is a very American idea and having to create yourself by re-immersing yourself into society is really interesting. We wanted make sure she felt like a small thing in large landscape, so we had a lot of extreme wide shots and shots of the countryside,” Aniello said. “She’s an American ideal. She’s deeply seeded in capitalism and that’s something she uses as a saber at times. But also, she’s part of the American dream.” In the video above, watch how Aniello captured Deborah’s American dream and balanced the show’s singular blend of sharp comedy and earnest heart.

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