American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story

I produced and directed this 10 hour Amazon Originals series on the life and times of Hugh Hefner and the rise of Playboy magazine.

This show was so fun for so many reasons. I got to learn the surprising tale of America’s most eligible bachelor, Hugh Hefner.  Turns out he was a business tycoon, cultural visionary, and civil rights champion.  It all began when Hefner was a shy, awkward teen in Illinois, dreaming of being the coolest guy in school.

Creatively, the key concept that I played with was transformation.  Not just Hefner’s evolution, but also that of the country between the 50s and the present.  The 50s, to Hefner, represented sexual repression, so I bent the color palette to the cooler tones of gray.  Matt Whelan, who starred as Hefner in the dramatic scenes, did a beautiful job giving the young Hefner a surprising innocence that most viewers wouldn’t expect.  

Hefner, of course, rebuilds himself into the iconic, tuxedo clad ladies man by the 1960s.  By then, he and his magazine had become the cutting edge of American culture, commentary and sexual politics. Our imagery became slightly warmer, shinier, more contrasty. Camera movement — Technocrane, Steadicam and dolly — was smooth, self-assured, confident just like the man. It was here that we revealed the aspirational nature of the Hefner story.

The show’s lead, Matt Whelan, grew the Hefner character to command the corporate scenes and charm his consorts in the romantic scenes. Whelan’s voice and mannerisms were an uncanny match for the real Hefner and held up well when played alongside the fantastic archive from the Playboy vault.

When Hefner moves his operation to Los Angeles, he is at his height. The production design and wardrobe was critical to evoke the time and place.  We built a replica of rooms from the Playboy Mansion in New Zealand, where we shot the narrative portion of the show. The highlights become warmer still and hard sunlight streams through the windows to match the unique honey-tinged light of Southern California.

Eventually things break down for Hefner, as the cultural zeitgeist, business competition, and even his own drug use, begin to erode the Playboy empire.   We played our scenes in deeper and deeper shadows, adding a touch of sour cyan to the darkest parts of the image to suggest the descent.

Hugh Hefner passed away a little while after the show’s premiere on Amazon. I feel quite privileged to have had the chance to put his story on screen.  While the magazine’s attitude toward women eventually fell out of sync with modern sensibilities, I don’t think it is possible to understand the evolution of American culture without understanding the role of Hugh Hefner and Playboy.