HBO Max Hacks: Writing, Directing and Editing Behind the Scenes of Season 2

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Organized by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we think deserves accolades. In partnership with HBO Max, for this edition, we take a look at how the writing, directing, and editing went into keeping “Hacks”‘s unique blend of comedy and drama going into its second season.

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

That left “Hacks” season 2 with the problem all comedies have to deal with as they age: introducing new conflicts without negating character growth or upsetting their dynamics. It’s hard to get it right, especially with this series’ famous blend of grounded comedy that veers into sadness and drama. “Hacks” Season 2 also spent a lot of time outside of its familiar old-school Vegas setting, trading the narrative comforts of Deborah’s lavish home for a pimped-up tour bus as Deborah and Ava test out her new act. .

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 to everyone. As you’ll see in the videos below, “Hacks” Season 2’s mix of old and new shines through in its writing structure, a focus on performance that’s reinforced in its editing, and a direction with a visual style that supports everything.

Writing “Hacks”

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

This rough map allows the writers to explore where to retreat and look around and what stops are essential to get the characters where they need to be at the end of the season. These destinations are based on changing character dynamics and finding key turning points where their relationships can change or be altered by new conflicts.

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

“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 that’s unlike any other character, so they keep find,” Statsky said. “Even though we love Vegas and it gives us so many stories, we’ve seen being on the road as such a good story generator. It gives us so many places to go and so many people to meet. In the video above, watch co-creators Statsky and Downs discuss which aspects of the character they focus on creating individual episodes as well as story structure for the entire second season of “Hacks.”

Editing “Hacks”

Any notes that “Hacks” wants to hit are dialed into the edit. Editor Jessica Brunetto tries not to cut too much, so the characters’ movements and conversations feel natural. She also tries to construct sequences so that the audience can see the tension and the comedy unfolding simultaneously. As you’ll see in the video above, a perfect example comes when Deborah and Ava exit the private jet (where they ended Season 1). The single shot shows the older comedian filled with excitement for a new tour while the joke writer is filled with dread that a letter she sent to another show may have already found its way to Deborah .

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

Editing is where Hacks can really modulate the emotions of the audience. “My starting point in this show is Jean’s performances, building everything around that,” Brunetto said. “In the beginning, the creators talked to me a few times, just saying, ‘We don’t want it to feel too wide. We want it to feel grounded. Sometimes I was afraid to use bigger holds. Over time, we realized that we had to let her into her different modes. If our first approach at the start doesn’t go high enough on that barometer, then the drop won’t be as dramatic. Above, you can see how Brunetto constructs scenes that seamlessly oscillate between the show’s love of comedy and concern for the comedians’ personal costs.

The realization of “Hacks”

Regarding how “Hacks” translates its character dynamics into visual storytelling, co-creator Lucia Aniello says “the undying tension of this show is how funny and beautiful it is at the same time.” Making the show look good means avoiding the flat lighting and simple cross-shot setups that define the look of many comedies that focus solely on the performance, not what the camera does to support it. When Aniello steps behind the camera to direct, she must choose when it’s important to capture all 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 to feel really real.” she says. “I also like that it’s beautiful and fun to look at. Balancing all of those things is a challenge.

It’s both a challenge and an opportunity in Season 2. Once the show abandons its Vegas home base, it has the opportunity to confront Deborah with less controlled environments, which it is be it the soft morning sun of the Grand Canyon or the glare of the streetlights on a dumpster in the middle. of the night. Capturing visual variety was important to Aniello because it stretched Deborah in key ways and allowed her to grow and ultimately deliver a comedy special about holding herself accountable.

“Having to hit the road is a very American idea and having to create yourself by re-immersing yourself in society is really interesting. We wanted to make sure she felt like a small thing in a big landscape, so we had a lot of extremely wide shots and shots of the countryside,” Aniello said. “It’s an American ideal. She is deeply rooted in capitalism and it is something she sometimes uses as a sword. But also, it is 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 heartfelt heart.

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