HBO Max Hacks: Written, Directed, Edited Behind the Scenes Season 2

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we think is worthy of recognition. In partnership with HBO Max, for this issue we look at how the writing, directing and editing were used to maintain “Hack’s” unique blend of comedy and drama in its second season.

As season one begins, an immediate conflict erupts between Vegas standup legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the disgraced aspiring comedy writer hired to spice up Deborah’s jokes. The forced collaboration of different generations is the central tension from which the show deconstructs both conflict and comedy. In the first season, it is revealed to the audience and eventually 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 when insults still fly.

That left Hacks season 2 with the problem all comedies have to solve as they get older: introduce new conflicts without negating the characters’ growth or upending their dynamics. It’s hard to get it right, especially with this series’ acclaimed blend of grounded comedy veering into sadness and drama. “Hacks” Season 2 also spent a lot of time away from the familiar surroundings of old-school Vegas, trading the narrative amenities of Deborah’s palatial home for a souped-up tour bus while Deborah and Ava try out their 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 is evident in its writing structure, an emphasis on performance that is amplified in the editing, and direction with a visual style that supports it all .

Writing “Hacks”

The decisions made in the “Hacks” author room begin the goal. “For Season 2, we knew we were working towards having Deborah self-finance a special and selling it on QVC, and then ultimately deciding to let Ava go,” said co-creator Jen Statsky. Co-creator Paul W. Downs added, “Because we have a North Star and ultimately know where we’re going, that helps us figure out what the characters enjoy most.”

This rough map allows the writers to explore where to stop, look around, and which stops are essential to get the characters where they need to be by the end of the season. These goals are based on developing character dynamics and finding key hinge points where their relationships can change or be altered by new conflicts.

With Deborah no longer defending her Vegas stronghold, the writers could find fun new ways to keep her rowdy and explore herself in fish-out-of-water scenarios. Putting her on the back foot also refreshes her relationship with Ava as they both drive each other insane and need each other in different ways. “Nothing is more important [than comedy] for them, even though maybe it should be,” Downs said.

“It’s a feature of the relationship that they have this twisted dynamic where they hurt each other but also love each other and speak a language that’s different than two other characters, so they always find each other,” he told Statsky . “As much as we love Vegas and that it gives us so much history, we found it such a good story generator to be on the road. It gives us so many places to go and so many people to meet.” Watch the video above as co-creators Statsky and Downs discuss the character aspects they’re focusing on to identify each Creating episodes and story structure for the entire second season of Hacks.


Editing “Hacks”

Any notes that “Hacks” wants to hit are composed in the edit. Editor Jessica Brunetto tries not to cut too much so that the characters’ movements and conversations feel natural. She also tries to build sequences so the audience can see the suspense and comedy at the same time. 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 excited about a new tour, while the joke writer is full of fear: a letter she sent to another show may have already found its way back to Deborah.

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

Editing is where “hacks” can really modulate audience emotions. “My starting point on this show is Jean’s performances, building everything around it,” Brunetto said. “In the beginning, the creators would talk to me a lot and be like, ‘We don’t want it to be too broad. We want it to feel grounded.” At times, using bigger takes of Jean scared me. Over time we realized that we need to let them come into their different modes. If our initial approach isn’t high enough on that barometer early on, the downturn won’t feel as dramatic personal expenses for the comedian swing.


Directing “Hacks”

When it comes to how Hacks translates its character dynamics into visual storytelling, co-creator Lucia Aniello says, “The perpetual tension of this series is how funny and beautiful it is at the same time.” Making the show look beautiful means the flat lighting and avoiding easy cross-shooting setups that define the look of many comedies that only emphasize performance, not what the camera is doing to support it. Stepping behind the camera to direct, Aniello 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 when it feels really real,” she said. “I also like it when it feels nice and is fun to look at. Balancing all of these things is a challenge.”

In Season 2, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. Once the show leaves its home base of Vegas, it’s given a chance to contrast Deborah against less controlled environments, whether it’s the soft morning sun of the Grand Canyon or the glare of a street lamp atop a dumpster in the middle of the night. Capturing visual diversity was important to Aniello as it was a crucial challenge for Deborah and allowed her to grow and eventually develop a comedy special about holding herself accountable.

“Taking to the streets is a very American idea and creating yourself by re-entering 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 extreme wide shots and landscape shots,” said Aniello. “She is an American ideal. She is deeply rooted in capitalism and sometimes uses that as a saber. But she’s also part of the American Dream.” See in the video above how Aniello captured Deborah’s American Dream and balanced the show’s unique blend of sharp comedy and genuine heart.

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Lindsay Lowe

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