Sat. Apr 4th, 2020

Emmy interview: Hisham Abed, Emmy-nominated director of ‘Queer Eye’

Hisham Abed

Hisham Abed grew up on a staple of comic books and art which led to interests in animation and cinematography. He applied cinematic skills learned on indie features to redefine the reality genre on such shows as Laguna Beach and The Hills. He has earned an Emerging Cinematographers Award from the International Cinematographers Guild and two Directors Guild of America nominations for work on The Hills and the ABC pilot Encore. His most recent work on Queer Eye for Netflix has earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Reality Program.

I chatted with Hisham about his nomination, working with the Fab 5 and finding the balance between tears and joy on a show like Queer Eye.

AW: Firstly, congratulations on your well-deserved Emmy nomination. How did you hear about it and what was your reaction?

HA: I had received a FaceTime call from Jen Lane, our showrunner and thought it was a pocket dial then, a minute later, my wife said she had also received a FaceTime call from Jen, so I returned and was greeted by Jen and the Fab 5 shouting “Congratulations!” and, so, I also said, “Congratulations!” I thought they were sharing the joy of the show being nominated. I still had no idea and then I started receiving texts from friends saying congrats, still thinking it was all for the show. Then it hit me that, “Oh, maybe I did get nominated!” It literally took me twenty minutes to search the internet and find out that I did, actually, receive a nomination.

AW: Tell me a bit about your background. You graduated from USC School of Cinema and Television in 1986. Who was Hisham Abed before that and what was your leap from school to career like?

HA: I also graduated with a minor in Fine Arts, drawing and painting specifically, and was considering graduate school for that but instead I did art related film work, doing storyboards for features and commercials (I had grown up reading and drawing comics and that’s what inspired me to get into animation and, ultimately, film). However, it was my work on some low and “no-budget” features that kept me completely engaged in the film world. I love narrative filmmaking and first applied that aesthetic to MTV’s reality shows Laguna Beach and The Hills. Since working in that genre, I’ve learned tricks that I also use on scripted shows. For example, cross shooting (filming two sides of a conversation simultaneously) is a necessity in the reality genre but not that common in the scripted world. So, if you know how to do it, it can save time on set. For comedies, it’s especially useful, because you get genuine reactions from both actors and they can riff off of each other with a freedom that you don’t get with strictly single camera coverage.

AW: You seem to be able to go back and forth between your career as a cinematographer and a director, sometimes in the same show. What does each role give you that the other can’t?

HA: In either role, I love the collaborative nature of the work. For the most part, I see the roles as nearly inseparable because film/television is a visual medium and I feel the way that a scene is photographed is as important as the story being told and the emotions being captured. They can enhance each other.

I tend to get a different type of emotional satisfaction when a scene I’ve directed turns out well versus a scene that I’ve photographed. I think that cinematography is a balance between the technical and the emotional.

As a cinematographer, I enjoy getting the chance to work with directors to see how they work and also learn from them. Working as a director, it’s nice to have the overall vision and guide it, part of that is working with the cast but it’s equally important to lead the crew and inspire them. It’s easy to tell when that happens on Queer Eye because when we’re all crying, you know we’re all invested and doing our best work.

(l-r): Antoni Porowski, Karamo Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France and Bobby Berk aka the Fab 5 show Jess her new digs (photo: Christopher Smith/Netflix)

AW: Tell me about working with Antoni Porowski, Karamo Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France and Bobby Berk aka the Fab 5.

HA: They are all amazing and are the same people in person as they are on screen. They are all emotionally intelligent, aware, passionate about what they do and are fun to work with as a group and individually. Whether the guys are helping the heroes grow from the inside out or the outside in, it’s amazing to watch the transformations happen, and you never know which of the Fab 5 might find the strongest connection to a hero.

Antoni is a great teacher, he’s so patient and makes cooking fun and not at all intimidating. Mid-season during production, I also had the pleasure of directing him in a short film for Netflix called “Antoni Psycho”, a parody of “American Psycho” that is part of an anthology, ironically titled “Don’t Watch This.” It’s little Easter egg that I think fans would enjoy.

Karamo is so present, he’s a master at cutting through emotional barriers and is able to connect with people deeply and quickly.

JVN has a very deep, spiritual side to him, and he is equally a lot of fun and hilarious. He’s constantly upping the ante on all kinds of facts and tidbits regarding self-care and growth. I learn so much from him and for that, my wife is so very pleased.

The conversations that Tan has with the heroes, as he finds their style, can be incredibly meaningful and deep. He is also responsible for making “sartorial” part of my quotidian vocabulary.

Bobby’s work is always so stunning and one of the highlights of the week, it takes everyone by surprise every time.

Jess finds love from the Fab 5 (Photo: Christopher Smith/Netflix)

AW: The third season of Queer Eye hit some milestones but few were more widely praised than the episode you’re nominated for, “Black Girl Magic,” which brought the Fab 5 their first black, queer woman in Jess Guilbeaux. What was different about this makeover than others for you?

HA: The main thing that I noticed on the first day of filming was that the Fab 5 connected with Jess immediately and with a strength and commitment that was more intense than anything I had seen previously. Jess and Bobby, in particular, bonded over the fact they had both been adopted and were cast out of their homes when they came out.

The emotional issues that came up in this episode were highly charged – everything from Jess’s racial and sexual identity to her search for family and community – they were all beautifully addressed by the ways the guys interacted with her. It was a lot to ask of anyone to share, however, Jess was amazing; she had the rare qualities of being unbelievably open and trusting of the process, while maintaining her emotional availability – and that made her soul shine right through the screen. It was truly a pleasure working with her.

AW: In reality television, as you surely know, there are hundreds if not thousands of hours of footage to cull down into a succinct hour. How do you find the right story to tell with an episode and are there moments that didn’t make it in “Black Girl Magic” that you wish had?

HA: We always strive to balance the tears with fun and joy, but the real barometer for this show is authenticity and emotional truth, and that’s what makes the cut. There were some fun and exciting moments at the genealogy center where Jess found a few more resources that revealed her lineage, but they didn’t add to the already rewarding story so it was paired down, as most scenes are.

AW: Do you have a passion project you’d like to make one day? (or have you already made it?)

HA: Yes! My wife, Melanie, has started a fantasy adventure series, Anni Moon and the Elementals, that is amazing and really fun. I illustrated the cover and chapter art and can’t wait to see it turned into a movie or series!

Hisham Abed is nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Reality Program for the episode “Black Girl Magic” of Queer Eye. Emmy voting begins August 15th and goes through August 29th. The Creative Arts Emmys take place on September 14th and 15th.

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