Director/Co-Creator and DP Perspectives On "Hacks"
Lucia Aniello (photo by Ryan Pfluger)
Editor and production designer POVs on "Stranger Things"; production designing "Ozark"

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” 

There’s some truth to that in Hacks (HBO Max) where we see series artisans benefiting from an on-set dynamic that in one key respect mirrors the behavior of the characters they helped to create.

Hacks is about Deborah [Vance] and Ava [Daniels] learning from each other,” said Lucia Aniello, who co-created the show with Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky. 

Just as Vance and Daniels learn from each other, Aniello observed that she, Downs and Statsky are getting educated not just by one another but all their Hacks collaborators--and the characters themselves. “We’re happy to learn from anybody on our set, above or below the line--whether it’s a first AD having a thought about something or saying that we need to move on.”

Portrayed by Jean Smart, Vance is a legendary Las Vegas vet and stand-up comedy diva. Daniels, played by Hannah Einbinder, is a Gen Z comedy writer whose career in L.A. is put in jeopardy over an insensitive off-the-cuff tweet. Desperate for an industry job, she finds an unlikely gig through her agent--writing contemporary, youth appeal material for Vance. The chemistry between the protagonists is a driving force behind the show.

That sense of learning from one another--between characters and among cast and crew--has been integral to Hacks’ success--and in maintaining that high level of performance from season 1 to 2. The bar was set high in season 1 with 14 Emmy nominations, including wins for Smart as leading actress in a comedy series, and Aniello for directing as well as writing (shared with Downs and Statsky). Season 2 has seen the Emmy nominations tally rise to 17, including repeat nods for Outstanding Comedy Series, lead actress (Smart), supporting actress (Einbinder), directing (Aniello), writing (Aniello, Downs, Statsky), cinematography (Adam Bricker), editing (Jessica Brunetto), casting (Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera), contemporary costumes (costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager, costume supervisor Karen Bellamy), production design (a different team in season two, now consisting of production designer Alec Contestabile, art director Rob Tokarz and set decorator Jennifer Lukehart), sound mixing (re-recording mixers John W. Cook II and Ben Wilkins, and production mixer Jim Lakin). Among those from season 2 new to the Hacks ensemble of Emmy nominees are guest actors (Christopher McDonald, Jane Adams, Harriet Sansom Harris, Laurie Metcalf, Kaitlin Olson) and Jennifer Bell, up for best contemporary hairstyling.

Aniello felt the challenge of somehow elevating a well received show in season 1 to new, different heights in season 2. “It comes down to how can every season feel essential,” said Aniello, quipping, “It’s all Hacks all the time,” reflecting an obsession that carries over to plans for season 3, building further on a show that has generated 31 Emmy nominations in its first two seasons. 

Still, season 3 won’t carry certain pressures unique to the first two seasons. For example, Aniello noted that certain prime acting roles, including that of Daniels, weren’t yet cast when season 1 was written. “We were writing in a bit of a vacuum” back then, she recalled. By contrast, for the second season, Aniello and her colleagues had a handle on the actors, a sense of their “abilities, strengths and talents. For the second season, we could write for the actors more.”

Similarly season 2 carried a unique personal challenge for Aniello who was “extremely pregnant” then, giving birth during the last week of production. Aniello directed five of the eight episodes in season 2, after helming six of the 10 for the first season.

Still to be determined are what unique challenges will emerge come season 3 but Aniello is confident that Hacks has a family of collaborators in place who will be up to the task. And they are collaborators with whom she’s built a deep rapport during seasons 1 and 2, among the notable examples being cinematographer Bricker. She’s developed a working rhythm with the DP. “He’s respected on set by everybody,” said Aniello of Bricker, adding, “What he brings to the job is a great respect for everyone on set” while deploying an approach to camerawork that is character-driven.

Aniello noted that Bricker helped meet a prime challenge of season 2 which was to make viewers feel that they were on tour across the country with Vance--even though much of the lensing took place in Los Angeles. Creating the scope of the country, Vance being on the road testing and developing comedy material, was key to season 2. Aniello also credited production designer Contestabile and camera operator Charlie Panian for their contributions on that front. Panian went across the country, capturing footage that helped give the feeling of being on an extensive tour with Vance honing new bits for her act.  

Hacks marked the first time Aniello collaborated with Bricker. She was drawn to his work on Chef’s Table (for which he earned his first Emmy nomination in 2018), Sorry for Your Loss and in particular, American Vandal. Of the latter, she assessed, “It looked really unique and beautiful,” qualities not typical of a comedy. “It was very funny and very beautiful,” a combination that intrigued her greatly.

Bricker was immediately enamored with Hacks once reading the script for the pilot episode. “It’s rare that you read something so strong but also so visual right on the page. I remember reading the first scene describing this legend, Deborah Vance, moving from the stage through the bowels of a casino to her dressing room, revealing her face in the mirror...I knew I wanted to be involved.”

He soon found a simpatico soul in Aniello. “This was a character-driven story, incredibly funny--and free from the handcuffs of comedy cinematography,” said Bricker. “There was no expectation to look a certain way in order to be funny. The cinematography was in support of the storytelling and characters.

While season 1 was primarily set in Las Vegas, shooting in grand wide open spaces such as Vance’s mansion, her extravagant dressing rooms and huge theaters, season 2 had smaller working venues where Vance went through trial and error with new material, and her lavish dressing room is replaced by a far less elegant tour bus. Eventually we see Vance hitting her stride as the material comes together, starts making sense and generates big laughs. Bricker loved being able to bring authenticity to these smaller scale settings and the process of refining a comedy act.

Choice of camera was impacted by the changes brought on in season 2. For the first season, Bricker went with the Panavision DXL2 with the RED Monstro 8K sensor. But with season two moving from grand Vegas spaces to dive bars and a tour bus, he needed a camera with a smaller footprint. Bricker opted for the RED V-Raptor, a camera that had just been released. He deployed what amounted to the same sensor used in season 1 but in a body about one-third the size of the DXL2. 

Bricker said of Hacks, “I just love making this show. I love being in the Hacks family--such a wonderful, supportive group of collaborators. I’m so appreciative of Lucia not just for the opportunity to work on the show but for trusting me and my team to sort of do our thing, giving us a ton of creative room.”

That sense of family and the previously cited learning from one another are also reflected in a commitment to mentorship. In a prior installment of this Road To Emmy Series, editor Brunetto told SHOOT of her directorial aspirations, having made major inroads with Sisters, a short which she wrote, produced and directed. Sisters premiered at last year’s SXSW Festival. Brunetto noted that Aniello has been an advocate of her diversifying into directing. “Along the way as an editor, I’ve tried to gravitate toward people like Lucia who are writers-directors. I learn from them. Lucia has been a longtime mentor of mine as my directing career has been blossoming slowly but surely. I shadowed her on Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and she was so supportive of my making Sisters.”

Aniello has a long track record working with editor Brunetto on such shows, preceding Hacks, as Broad City, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and Time Traveling Bong. Aniello said that Brunetto “thinks as a storyteller--the best editors do. She also has a great sense of humor. Our senses of humor are very similar. She looks for not just a funny performance but how does the scene fit into the larger story. She also cares about composition, using a beautiful take. And she is a fantastic director in her own right. I’m hoping that is something we can explore more in Hacks.”

Dean Zimmerman, Chris Trujillo
This year’s round of 13 nominations for Stranger Things (Netflix) includes Outstanding Drama Series, special visual effects, casting, sound editing, sound mixing, stunt performance, non-prosthetic character makeup, single-camera picture editing and production design.

Nominated in the latter two categories are: editor Dean Zimmerman who shares his Emmy nom with additional editor Casey Cichocki; and production designer Chris Trujillo who is recognized along with art director Sean Brennan and set decorator Jess Royal. 

This marks the third career Emmy nomination for Zimmerman who won back in 2017 for his work on season 1 of Stranger Things. Production designer Trujillo is a two-time Emmy nominee, both for Stranger Things, with the first also coming for season 1.

Zimmerman’s track record on Stranger Things dates back to season 1, a hiatus from season 2 due to a feature commitment, and then a return for seasons 3 and 4. His latest Emmy nomination, for the season 4 episode “Dear Billy,” is particularly gratifying because it’s shared with Cichocki who’s moved up the ladder on the show from a PA the first season to coordinator, then an assistant editor on season 2, and a sort of supervising assistant on all episodes for season 4. Cichocki then got the call to advance from Zimmerman’s assistant to a full-fledged editor on “Dear Billy.”

The elevation of Cichocki came during a season when Zimmerman took over all the episodes except for one. This meant a 7-days-a-week, 18-hours-a-day commitment for Zimmerman who affirmed that without Cichocki and the assistants, it wouldn’t have been possible to properly finish the work. Zimmerman and Cichocki had a shorthand from working together over the  years. “Casey was vital in bringing the season to fruition,” said Zimmerman. Cichocki went from overseer of the assistant world to an editor halfway through the season. Zimmerman said that Cichocki helped “deliver this behemoth of a season on time.”

Contributing to the creation of such a "behemoth" were the ambitious visual effects. Zimmerman said there were some 5,000 VFX shots in season 4, adding that episode 9 alone had more VFX shots than all of season 3.

Being able to take on the volume and sophistication of the work in season 4--and to have it recognized by Television Academy voters--means a lot to Zimmerman who said that the challenges were like “climbing Everest.” But resilience, teamwork, and dedication to--and passion for-- the work did the trick, giving him and his colleagues great pride over the accomplishment.

Stranger Things is the first TV series Zimmerman took on. His experience going into the show was steeped in features; the only TV endeavors being a pilot here and there. He considers himself fortunate to have connected with the Duffer brothers--creators of Stranger Things--and getting the opportunity to work on a breakthrough show. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving as Zimmerman embraces the chance to continue “playing in the sandbox” for season 5.

Meanwhile production designer Trujillo’s two career Emmy nominations are for the very first episode of Stranger Things and now the seventh episode of season 4. Using those as bookends, SHOOT asked Trujillo to reflect on how the production design has evolved over that span. “The inspiration, aesthetic, tone and texture haven’t changed,” Trujillo assessed, noting that the fundamental approach, the conception of what the show is and what it wants to look like essentially remain the same.

What’s different over time, though, has been the exponential expansion of the Stranger Things world, he continued. “The world just grew, got much more involved.”

Reflecting that is the increase in the show’s scope. Trujillo noted that season 4 had him building more ambitious environs than ever before--including the Creel House, the Rainbow Room in Hawkins Lab, the Russian prison complex and the underground missile silo. “Making this sprawling show with the expectations placed upon us--and during the climate of COVID--made this an inherently more complicated season.”

Trujillo, though, embraced the challenge. “As a production designer, any one of those is sort of a dream set. To be able to pursue all of those in the course of one season is both daunting and incredible.”

There was also the prospect of creating the Mind Lair. The extension to this imaginary realm within Vecna’s mind underscored the importance of Trujillo and his team working hand-in-hand with the VFX department. A set had to be designed in a way that visual effects could be deployed to extend the environ even further when necessary to advance the story.

Trujillo gave major credit to his compatriots, set decorator Royal (who also was a member of his Emmy-nominated team during season 1) and art director Brennan. Trujillo said of Royal, “She is in so many ways my creative conscience, fastidiously specific and devoted to the details. No matter what set we’re in, it has exactly what should be in it. She is essential to the creative process. She keeps me honest.”

Trujillo has a track record with both Royal and Brennan. He and Royal were involved in some indie film work prior to Stranger Things. And the production designer collaborated with Brennan on a small film many years ago for Blumhouse. Brennan has served as Trujillo’s supervising art director on Stranger Things since season 2. Trujillo described Brennan as highly creative and a “logistical genius” with a deep understanding of the construction side. “He’s my right and left hand.”

Reflecting on season 4, which earned him and his team an Emmy nod, Trujillo related, “We were able to scale up our working style to achieve this far more vast and epic sort of world--but while operating by the same sort of principles we always have, working in multiple places at the same time” (shooting in Lithuania while prepping in Atlanta and Albuquerque, for example). Trujillo noted that this can only be done “as long as you appreciate everybody equally” learn how to “delegate responsibilities,” make an effort to “instill confidence in people working with us all over the place simultaneously.” Trujillo said his experience on season 4 “opened up my realm, my sense of what could be accomplished.”  

As for what’s next, Trujillo at press time had wrapped an assignment on a Marvel show. Echo, and was gearing up for season 5 of Stranger Things.

David Bomba
Production designer David Bomba picked up his second career Emmy nomination last month for his work on season 4, the final season, of Ozark (Netflix). His first nod came in 2020 on season 3 of the show. Both times he was nominated along with art director Ryan Jennings and set decorator Kim Leoleis.

This time around the recognition in the production design category is but one of 13 Emmy nominations garnered by Ozark, including for Outstanding Drama Series, directing (Bateman), cinematography (Eric Koretz), writing (Chris Mundy), leading actor (Bateman), leading actress (Laura Linney) and supporting actress (Julia Garner).

Ozark became the first season-to-season series gig for Bomba whose prior TV exploits were taking on a miniseries in midstream, Godless, and a telefilm, Gia. He had made his initial mark in features, including Walk The Line (nominated for an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award), The Great Debaters and Mudbound.

Originally drawing Bomba to Ozark was the chance to work with Bateman. In fact, Bomba had interviewed earlier to work on another Bateman project but didn’t get the job. The production designer was told, though, that Bateman would reach out to him again. “I thought it was one of those ‘thank you but no thank you’ lines,” recalled Bomba. It turns out that the interest was genuine as just weeks later Bomba was approached with the opportunity to take on season 3 of Ozark. At first, Bomba wondered whether it made sense to come aboard a show that had already been established and designed. But in meeting with the Ozark braintrust, Bomba learned that season 3 had entirely new wrinkles, 10 episodes being directed by different people, and a whole other set of considerations. “I saw I had the opportunity to make a mark on the series and thought I’ve got to do it.”

Relative to challenges posed by the final season of Ozark, Bomba cited working with multiple directors, serving them and their visions while keeping his approach in line with the overall tone of the show. And of course, Bomba  had to deal with COVID-related complications, including not being able to go to Chicago to shoot, having to do all the work in Atlanta. Thankfully, he continued, having his long-time collaborators, art director Jennings and set decorator Leoleis, in the fold made such challenges far less formidable. 

Bomba pointed to Jennings’ mix of creative contributions and brilliant organizational skills. On the latter front, Bomba said that Jennings’ talent for organizing all the art department elements spanning set construction and decoration, painting, props and the like--all in coordination with production--is unparalleled. “He is the glue that holds it all together.”

Bomba and Jennings had worked together on some feature fare prior to Ozark. Bomba production designed and Jennings served as set designer on the Andy Fickman-directed Parental Guidance starring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. Production designer Bomba and Jennings as assistant art director later teamed on the Jon Turteltaub-directed Last Vegas starring Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman.

And Leoleis too has been a valued compatriot, having started on Ozark during the tail-end of season 1 and right through thereafter. When Bomba came aboard for season 3, he noted that Leoleis helped him ease into the series.

Reflecting on Ozark, Bomba said he felt fortunate to have been brought onto an already successful show that continued its success. “It starts with the people at the top--Chris Mundy [showrunner] and Jason Bateman [director/EP/actor]. They embraced me. I embraced them. We all embraced and collaborated.”

As for who to embrace next, Bomba is taking on a Netflix limited series, A Man in Full, with director/producer Regina King, writer/producer David E. Kelley and a cast headed by Jeff Daniels.

This is the 14th installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories which will explore the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy Series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.

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