The directing nominee talks about what’s special about the world of Netflix’s Queer Eye.
Netflix’s Queer Eye is a phenomenon, and no one knows that better than director Hisham Abed. Unlike other reality shows, the reboot wears its heart on its sleeve, and everyone involved with the production is clearly in it for the right reasons. Queer Eye received more nominations this season than last year, and Abed represents the only person nominated in the directing field from the show.
‘Black Girl Magic’ is easily one of the show’s most popular and well liked episodes–people always mention Jess Guilbeaux’s story and gab about how much they loved it. Abed gets emotional just thinking about her interactions with The Fab Five. He deftly captures emotional moments without being exploitative (Abed directed the first episode of the fourth season where Jonathan Van Ness makes over one of his high school teachers).
If you look at Abed’s resume, you will also find that while he beefs out his directing credits, he still works as a director of photography for many projects. Like the men of Queer Eye, he is looking to better himself as much as possible.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your nomination. What was the announcement like for you?
Hisham Abed: I was actually blindsided by it. I got up in the morning and I had a couple FaceTime requests from our producer, Jen. She then did the same thing with my wife, and I thought that maybe I should call her back? Jen and The Fab Five were on the other side, but it was a big surprise.
AD: You directed two episodes for this third season. What made you want to direct of Queer Eye since you hadn’t before?
HA: Jen actually asked me come aboard on the first two seasons, but there were scheduling conflicts that made me unavailable. When I literally was able to get onto seasons 3 and 4—by the skin of my teeth—I was super excited with what was started. I wanted to help continue it. I wanted to dive into something that was truth and rang truthful.
AD: Were you familiar at all with the previous iteration?
HA: Yes. I admit that I didn’t know it very well, but I remember it. It was a great show, and the reboot had to take into account all the social awareness and everything that has changed since then. I think this version does that very well.
AD: You directed two very different experiences of Queer Eye for season 3. If I may ask first about “Black Girl Magic” because it’s your nominated episode. What type of responsibility to you feel to Jess’ story?
HA: I’m getting teary eyed just thinking about it. Here is this person who has so many cards stacked against her. The Fab Five embraced her more than in any other show that I was involved in, and I’ve done 20 episodes total now. Sorry it’s just emotional to think about.
AD: I remembered the episode from the first time I went through the series, but when I watched it again, I was a blubbering mess within 10 minutes.
HA: On a personal side, my wife was adopted, so I know what kinds of things she went through. I can’t completely relate because we have different backgrounds. Bobby Berk also had a similar experience. Jess’ circumstances addresses so many issues this show tackles head on. I don’t want to diminish her issues by calling her a poster child. If a hero, like Jess, creates a dialogue for the world to see something that it hasn’t seen or understood before. It opens your heart to another person’s predicament and embraces it wholeheartedly.
AD: I had forgotten that she was adopted. I was adopted as a kid, so maybe that’s why I connected with her story so much. I didn’t have a lot of her circumstances, but the base connection was there. And that’s what I think the show does really well. It allows the viewer with empathizing with other people.
HA: It really does. Her spirit really came through. Our job is to create an invisible process so the heroes can have that experience with The Fab Five. There might be 25 people that drop in on somebody’s house. There’s 3 camera people, 2 sound mixers, and maybe our associate director managing the people around while these emotional moments are happening. You put 12 people in a living room trying to capture these intense emotions and we have to be literal flies on the wall. We have to be as respectful as possible and do everything in a caring and compassionate way. I try to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to that whether it’s telling a sound mixer to drop a boom or not or deciding where the camera should be.
AD: With a group like The Fab Five, do you have let them do their own thing completely?
HA: We do. That’s exactly how I would look at it so they can do their best work. Exactly how you have to prepare on a technical level on the production side. We always want to make sure that they are prepared as well. If someone is unsure about something, we have to assure the guys about the heroes backstory so they can connect with each person in a personal way. The other thing is that once they get going, it can be unknown as to which of The Fab Five they will connect with most. Sometimes it’s a surprise and it can vary from person to person. Maybe there’s a sense memory that someone has with food or taste that takes them back to their childhood and Antoni is there. It can be as simple as a texture of cloth when Tan presents or the scent of shampoo with Jonathan. All the guys are so emotionally intelligent and intuitive to reach into somebody’s hearts and help them become the better person that they’re meant to be.
AD: None of it ever reads as faked or forced. The emotion that is elicited from us as an audience is very rare, and Queer Eye does it so consistently.
HA: That’s the most important agendas we have on the show.
AD: When you direct reality television, do you approach it the same way with scripted work? Is there a base of things you do for both and it just varies from project to project?
HA: Well, that’s a good question. The one thing that’s common for me is that I have a background in cinematography, so I look for cinematic moments. Aesthetics are always important to me, but I have to balance that with the authenticity of the material. That’s always a true line whether it’s scripted or reality. Once I can connect those things and find the balance, they each have their own methods. With scripted, the aesthetics are less forgiving because there’s a template you have to follow. With reality and documentary, it’s less forgiving that way, but what I try to bring to it is that experience I’ve had doing scripted work. Bringing that cinematic eye to the material. And I think it matters. Some reality shows are shot without a great care for the aesthetics because they do impact the visuals and the emotional response.
AD: I love how your resume goes back and forth a lot. Once you started directing, you didn’t stop being a cinematographer. That has to make you feel like you’re strengthening your skill set.
HA: It does. I think working in the documentary and reality world has allowed be to become better and faster in the scripted world. And vice versa. I am sort of agnostic that way, because I want to serve the story. It’s fun for me to be a DP for a director and learn from them.
AD: What is the energy of the show like in person? Can you describe that?
HA: It’s chaotic, but we want it to be fun. The guys have an amazing self-awareness to every visit, every house, every hero. Although they sort of have fun with exploring with pulling out clothes they might not approve of, they do everything without judgement. I think that’s a very difficult to do, and I think they do that very well. Because they do it in such a lighthearted way, I think the heroes don’t feel judged and less threatened to opening their hearts to what the week has in store.
AD: I do feel like this iteration was kinder and sweeter. No disrespect to the original Fab 5, but I don’t think anyone is uncomfortable when this Fab 5 comes rolling up.
HA: I agree.
AD: Since you do so much behind the camera, what do you want to do next? You mentioned that you’ve done 20 episodes now, do you want to continue with the Fab Five or maybe try something totally different?
HA: Yes, I have done 20 with seasons 3 and 4 and with the upcoming Japan episodes.
AD: Whaaat? I didn’t know that was happening! That’s so exciting!
AD: Is there anything you want to hone with Queer Eye?
HA: Have passport—will travel. What I love about this show is how strong it is on an emotional level. How meaningful it is to work on and for an audience. I love that kind of content—inspiring whether it’s scripted or reality. My roots are in script, and I love bouncing back and forth. I strive for emotional realism and authenticity.
All four seasons of Queer Eye are available on Netflix.