Written by: Melanie Addington | July 21st, 2020
What began as a husband and wife filming each other just to document their lives fused with a comedy special, and as life happened, the two ideas morphed into a limited series. The three-part documentary special on HBO Max about comedian Amy Schumer is the directorial debut of Alexander Hammer, renowned editor and producer of Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé and many other great documentaries and visual albums such as Lemonade. What is unexpected in Expecting Amy is that a woman who has made her career being an over-sharer somehow becomes more open and vulnerable than even I, a super fan, expected.
The series follows Schumer as she prepares for her stand-up special while pregnant and navigates some difficulties with the pregnancy and her husband’s diagnosis of Asperger’s (or being on the Autistic spectrum). What the episodes highlight is the focus of Schumer on demystifying and trying to remove stigma around real-life issues many of us struggle with and don’t discuss openly, including disability and female health issues and communication in a marriage. For Schumer, her issue is hyperemesis gravidarum, which is essentially a toxemia of pregnancy making the pregnant person vomit … a lot. It is not sexy but it is real and important, and also the reason I asked to interview director Hammer.
Melanie Addington: You’ve edited a lot of great documentaries on strong artistic females reclaiming their truth, but this is your first feature as director. What made you take on this challenge?
Alexander Hammer: It’s kind of funny that you bring it up, as looking back, that past is apparent, yet it was not something I set out to do. I was raised by one of the strongest, most incredible women in the world and now, looking back, it makes sense to me where I ended up of having a bit of a track record of working with these spectacular artists.
MA: And Ryan Cunningham directed one episode?
AH: Yes, she was involved from the beginning. When they started this, she was a longtime post producer with Amy, and she initially was managing and bringing in elements and sorting everything. So as the project got bigger, Amy reached out to me once she saw Homecoming to see if I could help out.
MA: Since you have focused mostly on musicians, what drew you to comedian Amy Schumer? How did this partnership happen?
AH: She Instagrammed me, which is really funny. I was pretty aware of who she was as a comedian but don’t really follow the personal side of things with a celebrity. So I knew zero of who she was as a person. Once we started talking and she explained the situation of how this started to manifest … it was very rag-tag at the start … and I began really to follow her special and then the pregnancy happened and the story kept snowballing. For Amy, art informs her life which informs her art.
MA: Although she is seemingly very open, publicly, what steps did you have to take as director to earn her trust? And that of others on screen?
AH: You hit the nail on the head with trust. It is all about developing trust. A lot of footage falls into interpreting for viewers how to see this person, and while very much this was in their hands, since Amy and het husband Chris filmed each other in many of the situations, I felt it was important to showcase the less-than-perfect state. Not everything is fully flattering, but Amy championed that idea. The trust was built as I was making and putting things together.
MA: What surprised you during the filming?
AH: Learning about who she was and her own strengths and insecurities, really as an outside viewer getting to know her and what motivates her and her family and her relationship with her husband. It is a side of her most people have not seen.
MA: Were you shooting with the edit in mind? What went into toggling from director/producer to editor?
AH: The majority of footage was them filming themselves or from Marcus, who has been on tour with her and whom she trusts impeccably. A lot of things that were already happening were very raw and loose. Once I went in and met with them, they told me this is what the story is and how can we shape it. So I homed in and tailored the story as editor and director.
MA: How did you take the challenge of Chris Fischer’s diagnosis and the balance of what that meant in their relationship? Full disclosure: my son has Asperger’s, so I was very drawn to how honest he was about the experience and how how she handles it has hurt him.
AH: It was very important to try and paint a picture of the situation and be extremely respectful both to Amy and Chris about all of it. It became as positive an experience about learning about that and a focus on shining a light on it with the hopes that others know they are not alone with it. Chris is wonderful. The goal is to let people know there are tools for people in those circumstances to help. They really allowed us to weave together instances of the lack of understanding and how it can affect relationships with family.
MA: What seems to be a common thread in your work are strong women who know how to really work their brand as full producers of their content. What is a challenge that arises from that?
AH: Amy is a director and writer and performer. This was a great experiment. They went into it with maybe just some personal footage and once it was obvious there could be so much more, she saw a great potential for it. I can’t say enough how supportive she was and excited to see what would happen.
MA: The vomiting … I found it very clever that while some of it is first-person footage, other moments cut to the dog’s perspective to show the household perspective.
AH: Ah, the dog perspective … While suffering, she was sick all day, every day for 9 months, and I wanted to show the direct perspective at very important moments, but the need to do continual footage felt like we’d get exhausted by it. It was important to show the environment around her.
MA: Now that you’ve directed, is this a path you see, going forward?
AH: I plan to do more directing in combination with the work I already do. I want to capture as much stuff as I can and figure it out as I go.
MA: Lastly, is there any particular moment on screen that is your favorite of the 3-part series?
AH: I have to say maybe the final shot: it’s a culmination of all that came before it, how she persevered and is now entering into a new chapter. I think that was most interesting.
[See Expecting Amy now on HBO Max.]