[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Hacks, “I Think She Will.”]
It’s fantastic news that Hacks has just been renewed for a second season, but even if it hadn’t, the first season of the HBO Max comedy would have still made for a rich and complex story on its own. While there’s still plenty of story left to tell about legendary stand-up comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the young writer who ends up becoming a true creative partner for her, the first season truly took the characters on a wild journey that encompassed professional success and failure, as well as personal grief.
Creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky were generous enough to speak with me about the final episodes of the season, as well as just a little bit about what’s in store for Season 2, and I do apologize to them about the fact that the headline of this article is not, despite their request, “Hacks Creators Love Veep.” (Though they might have been joking about that.) Via Zoom, they detailed the process by which the “archival” footage of a younger Deborah is created and what went into casting two well-known British actors for small roles in what might be the most important scene of the season. But first, we talked about one of the show’s most important elements, without question.
Collider: We’re having this wonderful Jean Smart moment right now, and I feel like the thing that I’ve been especially appreciating is her laugh. Were you guys aware of how great her laugh is before you cast her? And what has it been like having that as a factor in the show?
LUCIA ANIELLO: It’s almost like when people say the city is another character — her laugh is another character.
JEN STATSKY: Yeah. I mean, best laugh in the biz for our money. Yeah.
PAUL W. DOWNS: When we were talking about how lucky we would be if Jean said yes, we were like, “And her laugh is so good.” Because it’s something you want, especially for a standup comedian, to have a good laugh and she really has such a full… I do think it’s a reflection of how good a person she is and how good her soul is. I’m like, you’re hearing it. Her laugh is so full and true and great.
ANIELLO: And generous.
DOWNS: And she doesn’t fake it.
I was going to ask…
DOWNS: No. Well, luckily, Hannah makes her laugh.
ANIELLO: Yeah. And Kaitlin [Olson, who plays Deborah’s daughter DJ].
DOWNS: So if ever there needs to be a laugh, she does it. They elicit laughter from each other, so it’s true. There’re some moments in the montage in Episode 8, where Jean is scream laughing, and it’s real. It’s happening in the moment and it’s so… I delight. I get goosebumps when I hear it.
ANIELLO: You didn’t ask what’s your favorite moment where Jean laughs, right? I’m just going to assume that’s a part of the question. My favorite moment when Jean laughs is actually in Episode 10, in the finale, when Kaitlin and Jean are in the backseat and Kaitlin says, “I almost didn’t even tell her that we’re just naturally thin.” And Jean gives a laugh, a big hearty, beautiful laugh, and Kaitlin, as DJ, looks at her with such incredible love in her eyes, because you know that’s all she wants is just for her mom to laugh at her and to love her. And that to me is a laugh that just shows how much love is in that laughter. That honestly is one of the most emotional moments for me of the whole season, is that moment in Kaitlin’s eyes when she is taking in that laughter. Because you know how much it means to her.
Absolutely. So I want to ask a couple of specifics about the last two episodes — first, talk to me a little bit about casting Chris Geere and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as the British showrunners, because those are both pretty great names to get for a short appearance.
STATSKY: Lucky us.
DOWNS: Jen had an in, so yeah Jen, you should answer this one.
STATSKY: Yes. I worked with Kirby on The Good Place, so we knew her, and we’re just such fans of hers. But for both of them actually, from the very conception of the characters, their names were in the scripts as kind of who we wanted. They were our goals to cast and we just sent them the script, and they really responded, and they’re both so good in that scene, and it’s such a… I think for me anyway, and I think these guys agree, that scene’s one of my highlights of the season. I love that scene so much. And we were just so lucky they were so funny and wonderful in the part, but also feel very real. They don’t feel like caricatures.
DOWNS: Their accents sound real. I couldn’t believe it.
Was there any real-life inspiration involved in the show they’re creating? Just because I immediately flashed to Veep, simply because it had a British creator and featured a complicated female protagonist.
STATSKY: Oh, that’s interesting.
DOWNS: Oh. You know what? We actually never even thought of that. Because we absolutely love Julia Louis-Dreyfus and our producer produced Veep, so.
ANIELLO: Yeah, Morgan Sackett.
DOWNS: No shade to Veep. We love Veep.
STATSKY: I love Veep. Make sure that’s the headline: “Hacks Creators Love Veep.”
ANIELLO: No, it was pretty much just fictional. I mean, I don’t know if these guys know, but in my mind I have the idea of what I think The Bitter End is, which is a sitcom set in purgatory. But I don’t know if you guys know that or if you’d agree with me.
DOWNS: I’ve never discussed it with you, but it sounds very good.
ANIELLO: Yeah. Really.
STATSKY: That sounds great. Let’s do it.
DOWNS: I mean, Jen’s kind of done it, because I think The Good Place deals a little bit with…
ANIELLO: Oh yeah, I guess that’s that show.
STATSKY: But if they had British accents, that would’ve been fun.
ANIELLO: It would be a different show.
STATSKY: It honestly comes from our love of British comedy. We all love so many. Obviously, we love Fleabag. We love I Hate Suzie, a show that had come out last year…
DOWNS: Our favorite shows are British shows, sorry.
STATSKY: Our favorite shows are British shows, so it really just comes from thinking of, what’s the coolest opportunity that Ava could be presented with that would be so hard to turn down because British comedy is so good.
DOWNS: For us it would be anything on the BBC or HBO.
STATSKY: Or Channel 4.
I love that you call out that scene because I could sense that something was going to go wrong, but I didn’t realize it would also end up really cementing the show’s thesis in a lot of ways, specifically the way we look at complicated women.
ANIELLO: Yeah. I will say that is one of the scenes that we, guys correct me if I’m wrong or if I shouldn’t be talking about this, but that’s actually a scene that ended up changing a little bit in the edit. Not a lot, but we really wanted to make sure that it never felt they were fully the baddies. They were trying to make something cool. They understood her point. They weren’t trying to just be fully like, oh, well, it’s going to be a well-deserved study of a shitty woman. They had their points, but that was one that we definitely wanted to relay it back to our ultimate theme, which is what are we saying about women in media? How do we contextualize them? What is our point of view? And of course in the end, it’s all undone by a beautiful pair of Fenty Pumas. And that’s also part of the point.
DOWNS: Yeah, Part of the pitch of the show was a moment where Ava has the opportunity to betray Deborah, but [doesn’t] because of her deepened understanding of what this woman went through, what made her the way she is, and also a deeper appreciation for her actual talent and work ethic. We always wanted to give an opportunity for her to reject temptation and not betray Deborah and in the end be her defender.
When it came to the finale, was it always a part of your season-long plan for Ava’s father to pass away then?
STATSKY: Yeah. When we pitched the show that was laid out in our season arc. Obviously some things changed. The way in which Deborah appeared [at the funeral] wasn’t necessarily solidified at the very beginning, but it was always like, this is going to happen, and then Deborah will show up.
All of us have some experience with grief and loss, especially after the last year or so — when it came to the scenes involving Ava’s father’s passing, were there aspects that were personal or based on recent experience?
STATSKY: Yeah. I think we all drew on experiences we’ve had. My mom passed away two years ago, and there’s a lot of that that’s in there.
DOWNS: Yeah, and having been to funerals like that, I think anybody can maybe relate to the idea of, why don’t you say something nice? And it’s so hard when you’re put on the spot, and no one wants to because, as Deborah says, it’s not because you don’t have something nice to say. It’s just because it’s exhausting, and it’s a hard time to have the words. And that’s the thing, right? I think that’s why it’s such an effective scene is because if you’ve experienced grief and you’ve experienced that particular thing, it’s so hard.
ANIELLO: And as we have always said, Deborah isn’t always good, but she’s always funny. And so in that moment, what Ava really needed was Deborah’s superpower, which is being funny. And she did it more in that moment then probably ever in her whole life.
DOWNS: I wish I’d had Deborah Vance at a couple of funerals. It would’ve been nice.
Very much agreed. This is something unrelated to the finale, but I want to ask about is the use of “archival” footage of young Deborah, because those moments look fantastic — you don’t question the reality. It’s like, “Oh, they found footage of Jean Smart doing standup in the ’80s.” But what actually went into making those sequences happen?
DOWNS: She got a lot of rest. We just said…
STATSKY: “Take a long weekend.”
DOWNS: “And we’re going to light it in a different way.”
ANIELLO: It was quite complicated really, but ultimately, to make a long thing short, we recorded Jean doing the performance. We had an incredible actress, Olivia Boreham-Wing, who did essentially a pitch-perfect lipdub of it. And we had costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hagar brought in these amazing vintage costumes for her to be wearing over different time periods. And then our production designer, John Carlos brought in different backgrounds. Some are digital, some are real. And then we had David Niednagel, the VFX supervisor, get old footage of Jean and do what is colloquially known as a deep fake on top of Olivia’s face of vintage footage of Jean, and then continue to degrade the footage and match the footage to vintage footage. And then we had Shane Reed, our colorist, color it to feel more accurate to the time period of when we shot each one, whether it was seventies or eighties, so they all had a slightly different color temperature. And so it was really a team effort.
Thank you for breaking it down, because all those details are fantastic, and I feel like a lot of people might not even know that there was an actor involved in actually creating something to work off.
ANIELLO: It was an army.
DOWNS: It was an army. And we really thought about it because it’s such an important moment for the Ava character to sort of discover all of this stuff about Deborah. So we really didn’t want it to take people out because when you watch things and it’s funky Photoshop or something, it always takes me out. And we really wanted to make sure the audience was in and everything felt very real.
Gotcha. So I understand totally from a narrative perspective why we don’t get to see Deborah’s big final show, but I am curious. Have you scripted that hour or parts of that hour? Did you film anything from it?
STATSKY: What if you were about to release an hour-long Jean Smart standup special on HBO?
DOWNS: I didn’t tell Jen or Lucia. I did write an hour-long…
ANIELLO: That’s right. That’s where you were.
DOWNS: I was too nervous to tell them. No, we pitched the show also as an exploration of the offstage moments and didn’t want to languish too much in watching fictional comedy. But I do think there’s room to see it in the future. I think what we wanted to do is make sure we didn’t let the audience sit there while Deborah bombs, because she bombs, and instead the funeral kind of becomes the performance and that cathartic moment that the audience gets to see where she’s being herself, and she’s being vulnerable, and she’s being really funny.
ANIELLO: Did you miss it?
No, I didn’t.
DOWNS: Do you want to see it?
I do want to see it, though. Which leads to a question about Season 2 — it sounds like the finale clearly sets up definitely different ways the next season can go. At this point, how much of it is plotted out and much can you actually tease?
DOWNS: We have 14 episodes, but they’re only giving us 10… No, no, no.
STATSKY: We need the fans to take to Twitter and demand four more.
ANIELLO: We need to demand the Aniello-Statsky-Downs Cut, or whatever.
DOWNS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
STATSKY: That’s going to take up most of the tweet, just that many characters.
ANIELLO: We definitely, I think, know where the series goes. Generally. I think we know probably where Season 2 ends. There’s a lot to figure out between, and I think we have some things we know and some things we don’t know. And something personally I’ll say is that I think it’s really interesting now that people are reacting to it and seeing it and starting to feel a little bit, maybe even ownership over some of these characters in a way that I think is cool. It’ll be interesting to see how that affects our writing moving forward, because we really wrote Season 1 in a full vacuum. No one knows during any Season 1, you know? So you write based on what you feel you want to say, and we’re not writing for the audience, but of course you don’t want to Red Wedding everyone, or whatever. It’s exciting.
DOWNS: That said, we should say there is a red wedding. There is a bloody, bloody wedding, and they can look out for that. That’ll be fun.
Great. I have a quick follow-up on that, which is just that Season 1 had a pretty small cast of series regulars for any show of this type. Are there plans to expand upon that in Season 2? Either by promoting actors to series regular status or by adding new characters?
ANIELLO: You’ll have to…I don’t know.
DOWNS: Legally, we cannot say.
STATSKY: Legally, our hands are tied.
DOWNS: I think the audience will see a lot of the characters they’ve come to know, and in new lights, and there may be new friends along the way, especially since we’re going to be at least partially on the road.
ANIELLO: Yes. And also, I think there’s also major fallout that we’ll have to deal with, with Jimmy and Kayla and Barbara from HR. So I don’t know exactly what will be in store, but I have a feeling we’re making a trip to HR in Season 2.
DOWNS: And again, if you remember, I just said Red Wedding. Maybe you can put pieces together and figure out who’s going to die.
The clues were right in front of us the whole time.
DOWNS: I’ve been dropping breadcrumbs. In every interview, one little breadcrumb at a time.
STATSKY: It would be that Jimmy and Kayla are getting married and then he Red Weddings everyone to get out of it.
ANIELLO: What was that? I forget that there was a show where the tagline was, I gave you all the clues.
STATSKY: Mr. Snowman?
It was The Snowman, I think. And, “Mr. Police, I gave you all the clues.”
STATSKY: Mr. and Mrs. Journalist, we give you all the clues.
Hacks Season 1 is streaming now on HBO Max.
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