When viewers approach a comedy like Hacks their expectations may be quite straightforward. Like the show’s lead character, Deborah Vance (played masterfully by Jean Smart), the series proved to be anything but. The characters are complex, smart, and colorful and demanded to handled as such.
Hacks DP, Adam Bricker contributed by exploring their journey visually through his lens and the results are quite impressive. In fact, it earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-Camera Series. Bricker took the time to tell Awards Radar about all the work put into the emotional journey that is, Hacks.
Awards Radar: How did you get started as a DP?
Adam Bricker: Growing up, I loved making movies with my cousins and my younger sisters. I went to DePaul University to study filmmaking before transferring to the USC film school to focus on cinematography. After graduating, I worked with friends from film school as much as I could, in addition to a long list of Craigslist gigs. I had my “big break” with Chef’s Table in 2014.
AR: What was your initial reaction when you read the pilot? Did you instantly have a vision in mind for how you wanted to approach it?
Adam Bricker: I knew the script was special from the very first page. It opens with an extravagant, energetic long shot that is later juxtaposed with somber, quiet moments. It’s rare to find a half-hour comedy so rich with character-motivated, visual storytelling, let alone from page one of the pilot.
We wanted the show to feel naturalistic, so we used subtle juxtapositions to subconsciously support the story. For example, when we meet Ava in the pilot, the warm, Los Angeles sunshine we expect to see is there, but only in the deep background of her frames. Instead, we put Ava under a cloud of cold, overcast light, reflecting the unfortunate reality she finds herself in — that she has tanked her TV writing career with one controversial tweet.
AR: What kind of conversations did you have with Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky coming onboard the project? How did you discuss setting the tone and balancing humorous moments alongside emotional ones?
Adam Bricker: As a group, we shared the belief that comedies don’t necessarily need to be bright or look a certain way. If something is funny, it’s funny. We were excited to use the cinematography to help convey the emotional journeys of our characters and enhance the storytelling.
AR: The pilot really sets the stage nicely for Deborah and Ava’s dynamic. What can you tell us about how you approached that relationship visually?
Adam Bricker: Throughout the pilot, we establish two worlds: Deborah’s world shows her drowning in old-school Vegas glamour, alone and going stale in her success; Ava’s Gen-Z world is shot handheld, with the frenetic energy of someone trying to regain a foothold after being canceled. When our leads finally meet at the end of the pilot, it was fun to see how those two styles merged and clashed.
AR: When framing Jean were you looking to other iconic stand-up comics like Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller?
Adam Bricker: Lucia introduced me to the film JUDY, which chronicles Judy Garland’s final stage performances towards the end of her life. It’s a gorgeous film shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland, and I loved how he treated the stage work. He used the quality and color of the light as a tool to reflect Judy Garland’s emotional state. I ran with that idea for Jean — a positive on-stage experience might be warm and soft. A moment where she’s floundering might be cool and harsh.
AR: What aspect of your contribution makes you most proud?
Adam Bricker: As amazing as it was to read the opening oner on the page, it was even more thrilling to see it come alive. For a shot like this, the entire team has to come together to walk this tightrope and make it perfect. The energy on set felt almost like a live performance. If the pacing is off or a light cue misses, it’s not something you can fix in post. In the end, it’s a fitting introduction to the character of Deborah Vance and Hacks as a show. You can’t help but be drawn in.
AR: Did you learn anything about your craft from working with a legend like Jean Smart?
Adam Bricker: Jean is the consummate professional. When you have someone on set who’s so prepared, so talented, and works so hard, it makes everyone step up their game.
AR: You also had to match the feel of so many different settings: late night TV, comedy clubs, a pizzeria, QVC – did you tackle those all differently? If so, how?
Adam Bricker: We did a lot of legwork and world-creation in the pilot, which helped us set some visual “rules.” The show would be naturalistic but expressive, character driven and filmic. We worked to apply those principles to every environment we were in, and things fell into place.
AR: What was the most challenging scene to shoot?
Adam Bricker: Shooting during Covid added a major layer of difficulty to the process. In fact, every stage of the show, from the writers room, to production, to post was impacted by the pandemic. It was amazing to see how the whole team rose to the occasion and made something we’re all so proud of.
AR: Will you be joining season two, and if so, what are you most looking forward to?
Adam Bricker: I’m so excited for season two, and I can’t wait to see where Jen, Paul, and Lucia take these characters that I’ve grown to love.
Season one of Hacks can be found streaming on HBO Max.