Susan Vaill, ACE, won an Eddie Award in March, for the “1.69 Million” episode in Season 1 of HBO Max’s Emmy-winning series Hacks, which follows legendary Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance, played by Jean Smart, and young comedy writer Ava Daniels, portrayed by Hannah Einbinder.

This episode explores harassment and sexism in entertainment, something that sadly carries added weight for many women, including Vaill. “It’s not something we can wish away,” she admits. Hacks was created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky. (Aniello and Downs also direct, along with Desiree Akhavan) “They were so intelligently funny and feminist with great female characters,” Vaill says of the scripts.

Vaill was especially moved by Pat Regan’s script for “1.69 Million.” “I read it and thought this might be the most important episode I’ve ever gotten,” she says. “It has what is basically a 5-minute tour-de-force for Jean Smart, when her character Deborah Vance is headlining on a comedy stage, yet still subjected to sexist remarks and putdowns by the male comedian introducing her,” Vaill explains. “He makes her a victim in what should be her place of power. What the script does brilliantly is externalize the inner monologue that every woman has when confronted by this kind of sexism or harassment:

Do I call him out on it or do I just let it go? And it’s of course compounded by a lifetime of moments like this, big and small. Most of the time, we let it go, because confronting harassment often just victimizes the victim further. In the moment, it feels simpler, safer to say nothing. But eventually it becomes death by a thousand paper cuts,

“Earlier in the episode, Ava has pointed out to Deborah that by saying nothing in the past, she has allowed gross bosses to continue to prey on young female comedians that tried to follow in her footsteps. And while Deb was able to soldier forward and succeed, there are probably many women who left the business that they loved, because of the abuse they constantly faced with no recourse. So in that breathtaking moment on the stage,Deborah decides to publicly expose the sexist jerk for what he is. And because she’s finally in a place of power in the hierarchy,she can also take him down.”

Okay, so, here’s what’s going on. He’s pretending to flirt with me. So I have two options. I could shoot him down, and not play along. But then I’m not funny, a bad sport, cold bitch, etcetera. If I do that, I’ve made it awkward, and it’s gonna be hard to win you back. Or, I do play along – because let’s face it, it’s easier – and then I’m sexualizing myself on his terms. THAT guy in the pleather hoodie.

(the crowd laughs)

My set has become entirely about a stranger I find disgusting. God, no matter how long you’ve been away, when you come back there’s always a Drew talking about your tits as he brings you on stage. Death, taxes, and this fucking guy.

It is an extremely rare and exhilarating moment of honesty for Deborah Vance onstage. “I made sure to establish several early wide shots of Deb on the stage, so in the final moment when she plants her flag and tells the guy, ‘Get the fuck off my stage,’ it lands visually in the viewers’ memory since I wanted to be in close with her for that actual line,” Vaill relates.

“I really tried to save the close-ups of Jean so it built visually with the rhythm and momentum of her speech, so as her wallscame down we finally get to see and hear the actual pain and vulnerability she’s experienced. And it was very important to me to balance this with shots of our dedicated background actors in the club audience, who are very diverse and inclusive. For a long time, comedy was dictated by jokes said by straight white men for a straight white male audience. That’s not true anymore.

The people at the comedy club in this episode are a mix of women, men, Black, white, Latinx, gay and straight, young and older. And these people, white men included, all wind up rooting for Deborah and cheering her on to take down this douchebag. I chose the reaction shots very carefully to show the audiencewas at first uncomfortable with the confrontation, but then they have Deborah’s back and lend her their strength as well. And the fact that some of them are documenting it on their cell phones shows the power of social media that will broadcast Deborah’s
victory even wider.”

Cutting the “1.69 Million” episode of Hacks was both thrilling and harrowing for Vaill. “In an ironic twist of fate, I was working on this brilliant episode about harassment while having to quietly revisit my own history of being harassed. “I’d have to jump off Zooms with the showrunners while we were in the producer cuts to go Zoom with attorneys to discuss my Victim Impact Statement. It was all overlapping, but it was still confidential at that time, so I couldn’t say anything to our producers about what I was also going through.” Vaill was one of more than 700 plaintiffs in the landmark 2021 lawsuits against USC, whose student health center’s gynecologist was accused of sexual abuse of thousands of young women between 1996 and 2016. “I saw him in 1998, and even wrote a complaint to the health center about what happened to me at that appointment. Despite other warnings by staff and students, USC kept this doctor on before they let him go with a severance package in 2016,” Vaill relates.

“As a plaintiff, I had to write a detailed Victim Impact Statement that also examined how not being heard when I was abused as a film student impacted my confidence in confronting the harassment I then experienced in my career. And it’s happened on film sets, in tone meetings, in job interviews, on mix stages,”she says. “It was just appalling to put it all down on paper, to realize just how many gross, inappropriate and offensive experiences.

I’ve been through in the last 20 years. It’s compounded trauma. “I shared one of my war stories with our showrunner, Jen Statsky, about a time a director tied me to a chair when I was anassistant editor. Ha-ha. So funny, right? And we had a conversation that really emulated the one Deb and Ava have in the episode, where Ava presses Deb and says, ‘How come you never outed him?’ But what could I do? He thought it was a joke.

Who could I go to when it’s my boss who’s doing it and then asking me things at lunch like, how did I lose my virginity? I handled the situation by trying to stay polite and then choosing not to work with that guy again. It was a long time ago, I moved on. But Jen asked, ‘Is he still working??’ And I was stunned. I realized he probably continued to work and harass other young women without any recriminations. And I have to face that.” Vaill adds, “Like Deborah says, ‘There’s always a Drew.’

And a director, a DP, a writer, a producer and a doctor, who are doing to other women what they did to me. Most of the time, these incidents happened right in front of other men and womenI was working with. I hope collectively we can all start being more like Deborah and Ava and call out passive-aggressive sexism and say, ‘When will you just stop?’”

Initially, the showrunners were experimenting with the series’ style and finding their voice as Aniello shot the first block of three episodes. They looked to dark comedies like HBO’s Succession and Getting On for inspiration, but with a Vegas spin, of course.

“They were trying to make it very cinematic with crane shots and helicopters, but then they also realized that handheld worked really well – that subtle tension that the movement of a handheld camera adds to a scene between two people talking to each other that’s very present in Succession,” Vaill explains. “Then they realized that they wanted to do more of that, so we actually wound up manually adding handheld movement in the Avid to a lot of scenes in the first two episodes that hadn’t been there when it was shot.”

Vaill stresses that music also played an important part of creating the show’s style. Creatively they shied away from using a comedy score and brought in Emmy-winning composerCarlos Rafael Rivera (The Queen’s Gambit) who had a knack for bringing emotional weight to the show’s dramatic moments, like a scene where Deborah is alone with her priceless collection of antique salt and pepper shakers.

“We had to be able to jump quickly from pretty crazy comedy moments to very deep and authentic emotional moments. But I love that though,” Vaill says. “It’s about rhythm and about pacing and knowing how to surf that wave of comedy energy, and then letting the crest of the wave fall into an emotional trough that is carrying the sympathy that you created in the comedy into the emotional resonance that you get in the dramatic beats. And that is such rewarding material to cut and play with.”

The editor recalls that while the scripts were tight on the page, the showrunners had assembled a cast that had a lot of improv experience, which led to experimentation and alternative cuts in the editing suite. In particular, Downs, who also played Deborah’s agent Jimmy, and Megan Stalter, who played his assistant Kayla, would riff off of each other and offer much more material than what was originally on the page.

“They’d give us so many options on the punchlines and how to end the scene. It was fun to try out really long versions of the scene  and then cut it down to just these great funny beats,” Vaill recalls. “When you cut comedy, it’s almost microscopic editing – is this take 10 percent better than that take? It’s about microscopically examining the subtle shades of deliveries on lines and then just cutting out what’s not necessary until the timing is perfect.”

One of the things Vaill loved most about Hacks was that the three Season 1 editors were all women: Vaill, Jessica Brunetto (who returned for Season 2) and Ali Greer. “Jessica and Ali have both had incredible careers in comedy. We all brought a lot of passion and experience to the table. And each one of us was nominated for an Emmy for editing Hacks, which felt amazing to have our hard work be so recognized together.” Brunetto also edited the upcoming A League of Their Own adaptation for Amazon, and Greer is editing Barry for HBO.

Vaill was assisted by Marc Wiltshire, who she first met as an ACE intern. “Marc is fantastic, and as feminist as me. He was actually cutting before COVID on a show called Star. But then the pandemic really disrupted a lot of people’s career momentum and he was willing to assist for me again.”

She reports, “The producers adored his sound design, constantly referring to it on the mix stage and even restoring some of the things he’d done, like the cuckoo clock in the antique shop in Episode 102. Also this show had way more visual effects than I think a lot of people would realize and Marc was terrific at that.”

As a talented editor in his own right, Vaill was able to give Wiltshire much of the subplot of the relationship between Marcus (played by Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and Wilson (Johnny Sibilly). “He really got to know those characters and guide the throughline of their relationship arc through multiple episodes.”

Vaill noted that immediately after Hacks, Wiltshire returned to the editor’s chair for the Fox series Our Kind of People, and recently signed on for Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga. Vaill recounts that tragedy struck toward the end of Season 1 production, when Smart’s husband, actor Richard Gilliland, passed away suddenly at the age of 71. The producers shut down production for a week, after also having faced multiple COVIDrelated shutdowns, extending the sporadic shooting schedule from November to April.

“At that point, I didn’t think it would be possible to finish on time,” says Vaill. “I mean, it’s unfair to even think Jean could come back, and in the finale, she had a central role in a funeral scene and I thought, that’s too cruel. But she is such a professional, and I think she really wanted to see it through, in some  to her husband and how much he believed in her.”

Vaill reports that Smart returned after a short break and delivered her funeral monologue with a beautiful dignity that was touching to edit. “The compassion and grace in her performance was so powerful.” Overall, Vaill hopes that audiences come to understand the challenges that women in entertainment face in a much more sensitive way.

“For me, it was remarkable to see feminist storytelling donewith such depth, so intelligently, so authentically with real humor and real emotion, and to see generational feminism be presented in such a fascinating way. It really affected me,” she says. “It made me contemplate many of the challenges I’ve experienced as a woman in entertainment through a new lens.”

Hacks’ second season began airing in May. However Vaill had already accepted a job on HBO’s upcoming adaption of Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife before the sophomore year was greenlit. “I’ll just be cheering them on from the sidelines,” she says. “But, I would love to come back for Season 3 or 4 or 14, whenever I can do it. I think it’s just an amazing story about how hard women work, and I would love to help them tell it again

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