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Hacks Production Designer Alec Contestabile on Taking the Hit HBO Max Series on the Road in Season 2


Jean Smart in Hacks/HBO Max

Hacks stars Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder get a lot of credit for the success of the HBO Max show along with its multi-hyphenate creators, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky — and rightfully so. But Hacks would not have earned 15 Emmy nominations its first time out of the gate had “JPL” (as the creators are referred to by those on the show) not assembled an impressive below-the-line team to make their series the best it could possibly be.

Joining that team for Season 2 was Production Designer Alec Contestabile, who for the last decade has been working mainly in television, starting on Mad Men. More recently, he was part of the ADG Award-nominated team from Feud, and he also served as the production designer on Showtime’s Black Monday

For Season 2 of Hacks, Contestabile was tasked with creating what is essentially a season-long road trip as legendary comic Deborah Vance (Smart) and her joke writer, Hannah (Einbinder), go on tour to test out new material. Their luxurious tour bus takes them to a regional state fair in the Midwest, and there’s also a stop aboard a lesbian cruise ship, which yields disastrous results.

Below the Line spoke with Contestabile a few weeks back, so please enjoy our chat before the close of Emmy nomination voting.

Alec Contestabile
Alec Contestabile (Photo credit: Jon Kopaloff/Filmmagic)

Below the Line: How did you first get involved with Hacks? Did you know Lucia or Paul beforehand? If not, how did you connect with them?

Alec Contestabile: I have worked with John Carlos, who was the Season 1 production designer, and we come from the Mad Men school of design. I think John Carlos was at one point a PA, I know I was under him, working on Mad Men. We’ve all kind of worked our way up. There are a lot of people that started in Mad Men, in that world of television, and we’ve all gone on to do good shows and good work. He couldn’t do this season, because he was designing Westworld, and he was having twins so he recommended me, and I got the job, I guess.

BTL: I also liked Feud, which I think you got an Emmy nomination for that?

Contestabile: Yes, we got an Emmy for Feud. I do a lot of period stuff, and I did a show called Black Monday, which was on Showtime and got canceled. I really cared about that one too much, but that was another one where the below-the-line creative side did a really good job on that. What I’m getting at is that I’ve done a lot of period shows, and this being kind of a contemporary television show, I was trying to figure out, “Okay, what will make this season interesting, and what’s my motivation or what gets me excited about this season?” It was really trying to tell a story of a road trip and try to find those very regionally-specific character elements to the spaces. I think Episode Two did a really good job of showing Arizona [and] Sedona these little strip malls and the little strip malls and the little offices, and our crystal shop in Sedona was a good way to show the regional aspect of this.

BTL: That’s obviously the big difference with Season 2 is that Deborah and Ava do get out of Vegas and go to different places like the lesbian cruise and the state fair. How far in advance of shooting an episode are you going on location scouts to find these places?

Contestabile: We had a couple months, but a lot of it was all kind of location scouting. The only sets that came back were Deborah’s office and Marcus’s office in the mansion, and we shot those for like half a day. Our most permanent set was the tour bus, which we shot for four and a half days. Really, everything else was either trying to find a location that looked like somewhere out of Southern California, or building little sets. It was just on the sheer amount of small sets to make this work – I think it was 130-something [sets] for an eight-episode season, so it was challenging, but we got through it, and I think we did a good job. 

Image via HBO Max

The cruise ship was interesting because I believe that was originally written during the pandemic, so they assumed, ‘Oh, there’s a ton of cruise ships out there. We’ll just get a cruise ship and we’ll shoot on the whole thing.’ As it got closer and closer to shooting, the cruise ships were opening up. We scouted about four cruise ships to shoot on, but then it was like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be open, and we have passengers on here.’ And then the Omicron variant came out right when we were gonna shoot, so like two weeks before we were going to shoot on the ship, they said, ‘Okay, we can only shoot on the decks. We can’t shoot below in the atrium and the suites and any of that kind of stuff.’

We had to scramble, so we were just like, ‘What will work as a cruise ship?’ and our Location Manager, Kyle Sucher, found a Hilton hotel down in Anaheim. What made it unique is that it didn’t really have windows, and so many hotels in Southern California have big walls of windows. It didn’t look right. We needed that enclosed space, so in two weeks, we all went down to the Anaheim Hilton. I designed what the interior of the cruise ship would look like, and we modified that space. They were so great about it, everyone who was down there and worked there. They’re used to doing big conventions, so having a film crew down there was good work for them.

So all the deck stuff was on a cruise ship, all the below decks — like the buffet room and the atrium, their hotel suite — those were all at the Hilton. Then, all of them deboarding and getting on the dinghy, that was on a Harbor Breeze boat in Long Beach, so we actually used a smaller boat, and then I made it bigger in post-production to make it look like an actual cruise ship.

BTL: The reason why the cruise ships were all empty and available was that they were shut down due to COVID, which probably doesn’t make them safe for a big production either.

Contestabile: Exactly, because I’m sure the idea came from, ‘Oh, we’ll be able to shoot in here because the cruise ships aren’t working.’ By the time we had to shoot, they were up and running again, with an Omicron surge, so that was kind of a fun thing. 

The other big challenge was the state fair. We had to figure out a way to do a state fair during the day with lots of different events. We actually shot that at. Magic Mountain. It was scripted that they get on a slingshot ride, and they fly up in the air. The only slingshot ride we could find in all of Southern California was at Magic Mountain. We mainly chose Magic Mountain because, “Oh yeah, they have the ride here, so we can do that part.” As it turns out, the ride at Magic Mountain was broken. We still ended up shooting at Magic Mountain, but we had to build the slingshot ride from scratch in a parking lot in North Hollywood. Which is the irony of that whole set. We chose the location based off a slingshot ride [that] was broken, and they wouldn’t allow us to film on it. But we shot everything else there except for the slingshot ride, which we built. 

Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Hannah Einbinder in Hacks/HBO Max

BTL: How do you build a working slingshot ride, or do you just build something that looks like it and the rest is movie (or rather, TV) magic?

Contestabile: We actually hired a guy that builds amusement park rides out in San Bernardino, so the actual pod that they sit in is pretty accurate to what they actually are. As far as flinging them up in the air, we just had a couple of cranes with cables holding them, but the whole ride did articulate back and move and connect, so it was a fairly good effect. And then, our art director did a bunch of graphics for the set as well, which really made it feel real. A lot of aging on that to make it look like a janky carnival ride. That was one of those fun, ‘Oh, we’re expected to design and build a carnival ride, but here we go.’ That was another fun thing.

BTL: I want to go back to the tour bus since that does play a large role in the season. Were the interiors built on a set somewhere or did you have a real bus that you dressed up?

Contestabile:  So we did a lot of research, and buses don’t look that great as a whole. We looked at some fancy tour buses, and we’re all just like, ‘This isn’t great. They’re small, it’s very hard to shoot,’ so we decided, ‘Okay, we’re gonna build this thing really from the ground up on a stage.’ Our assistant art director Bronte [Campbell] actually found a bus under the freeway up in San Francisco that was pretty similar to what we wanted for the exterior. So we had that shipped down and bought it for I think like $2,000 but the shipping was like $30,000, it was one of those crazy things.

BTL: You couldn’t just drive it down?

Contestabile: It wasn’t drivable. The back end, I think there was a dead cat in it, that kind of level of bus. We were able to cut the front off of the bus, and we had that on wheels, so we could roll the driver’s seat area on and off when we needed to. The exterior of the bus was actually Travis Barker, the drummer, his tour bus, which at one point, we had looked at. Again, the interior didn’t work, but we added a big pink “DV” [logo] and gave it spiked lug nut caps, which was a nice touch for Deborah Vance.

As far as the interior goes, Paul had a lot of ideas for it, and we referenced both the Season 1 look of Deborah and what her colors are, what her vibe is, but we wanted to give it kind of a sleeker more modern, streamlined look. Pulled up a bunch of Architectural Digest references and really honed into a color palette for that. We took a few liberties here and there, just to make it a little bit more shootable. The backsplash in the kitchen, it’s like this pink marble backsplash, and that was actually a photo of a pink shelf block I had bought at Trader Joe’s.

I was walking through, and it was like, ‘Oh wow, this is beautiful. This could be Deborah Vance’s backsplash.’ We took a photo, blew it up, did a little bit of Photoshop, and so her backsplash was just a photo of Trader Joe’s shelf block. The other half of that tour bus is that it’s all fully upholstered, all the walls are, and the ceiling, if it’s not this faux wood stuff. We shot it on the green screen stage. There was discussion of doing an LED wall, but we couldn’t do it within our timeframe and our budget constraints.

Image via HBO Max

BTL: Do Jean or Hannah get involved with that stuff such as living spaces on the bus which could affect how they play the character? Do you talk to them at all about what their characters might prefer?

Contestabile: Not really, not this season. Personally, I was so busy. I was on set in the very beginning and just barely at the end because I was scouting so much. I didn’t get to talk to the actors too much, but I did talk to Hannah. We had the same alma mater. We went to the same college, Chapman. It was kind of funny because we were chatting about Chapman, and then she had to go shoot her scene, and I said, ‘Great, we’ll talk later.’ And I didn’t have a chance to talk to her again until our premiere party a few weeks ago. It was kind of funny, like, so we were talking about tattoos. It was kind of a funny moment. ‘So we were talking about Chapman…’ We watched Season 1, so we kind of know the characters, and JPL — Jen, Paul, and Lucia — have such a clear, really strong vision for the show, which is super helpful. It’s great to work with showrunners and directors that just have such a clear idea of what they want and [they] convey that to us so that we can really make their vision come to life.

BTL: I know that both Paul and Lucia direct episodes, but I’m not sure what episodes they did in Season 2, so did one of them direct the cruise or the state fair episode?

Contestabile: They did every episode, except for the last one. That was because Lucia was pregnant, and one day, she went into labor, and then Paul had to act in a scene. So there was a pretty fun, crazy day where Lucia is at the hospital, and Paul had to finish the scene before he runs to the hospital. That was the scene where Paul goes in and announces that he has quit Latitude to Deborah and the whole gang at Deborah’s L.A. mansion, so the frazzled-ness was probably good for it. But Lucia directed the first four episodes and the second to last, and Paul did the two kind of middle [episodes], 5 and 6. Honestly, Lucia is probably one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with on just clarity of vision and knowing what she wants, and getting those performances out of the actors. So, she would say like, ‘I only need this much of the set,’ so we’d stop it there, and it was really great working with them and working with people that have [a] real clear vision of what they wanted. 

BTL: It’s really turned out quite amazing to have these two great seasons of television, which is somewhat rare, especially when making such an elaborate show on the level of what HBO usually does.

Contestabile: They did not take the easy way. ‘Let’s do Season 2, but let’s make it a road trip and throw out all the sets from Season 1, and redo it, [and] put our characters in a new situation they’ve never been in’ I definitely give them props and respect for making that decision, and it seems to have worked. I think this season turned out as great as Season 1. 

Both seasons of Hacks can be watched on HBO Max. Look for our interview with the show’s Emmy-nominated costume designer, Kathleen Felix-Hager, very soon.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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