This story about “Succession” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Well, “Succession” picked the right time to end its four-year run on HBO. As final Emmy voting draws nigh, Hollywood is rife with drama and backbiting, raucous picket lines and dark rumors of back-channel negotiations. Rich CEOs trade insults with writers and actors as an entire industry wonders when and if it can get back to work. In that climate, the entertainment industry itself is generating juicy headlines at a pace to rival anything the Roy family managed to manufacture during their illustrious if imaginary tenure on the Emmy juggernaut “Succession,” which leads all programs this year with 27 nominations.
Given the hubris, spite and chaos that has consumed the industry, do we even need creator Jesse Armstrong’s indelible fictional characters providing riveting but uncomfortable entertainment? Sure we do. “At some point, (the characters) became quasi-real, and I still find myself missing them as if they were,” said Mark Mylod, who has directed 16 episodes and been nominated for three Emmys during the series’ duration. “I hoped when I got involved that we would, over the course of multiple seasons, be able to take these appallingly entitled, awful people and peel back the layers of their psyches and experience and give context to their behavior in a way that might, in some way, not forgive them, but connect us to them on some level. And I feel we succeeded there.”
Mylod is one of the three directors who earned Emmy nominations for their work on the final season of “Succession”: He, Lorene Scafaria and Andrij Parekh grabbed three of the seven nominations in the Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series category. (Single episodes of “Andor,” “Bad Sisters,” “The Last of Us” and “The White Lotus” took the other four slots.) Each of the nominated “Succession” directors managed to display their prodigious strengths and vision while remaining true to the kinetic visual style the show is known for. At the same time, the Season 4 episode for which each director was nominated has ways in which it calls back to an earlier episode from that same director.
Scafaria joined the crew of “Succession” relatively late in the game. Sitting at home in February 2020, having finished the press cycle for her breakout film hit “Hustlers,” she threw her hat in the ring to direct what she said was her favorite show. “I was lucky enough to get an interview with Jesse and Mark, and thankfully it went well,” she said. One year and one global pandemic later, she got to direct the “Too Much Birthday” episode in Season 3. “I think they gave me that episode specifically because of what they saw in “Hustlers,” so I felt like I was stepping into something pretty gigantic,” she said.
“Gigantic” might be an understatement for the spectacle that was the 40th birthday party for Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the presumed but conflicted heir to the media empire headed by his father, Logan Roy (Brian Cox). While Kendall was talked down from performing Billy Joel’s “Honesty” while on a cross at his party, he did go ahead with the immersive theater replica of his mother’s birth canal, the giant treehouse for VIP guests and a laundry list of other excesses that somehow trumped most of the show’s previous excesses. And yet in the end, through Scafaria’s direction, all eyes remain fixed on Kendall. He is as miserable as he’s ever been, yet impossible to look away from, because you truly don’t know what his next move might be.
It was, in every way, the perfect companion to the episode that Scafaria is nominated for this year, “Living+.” Again, the Roys are out of their element, this time in Los Angeles, where they’re trying to make nice for investors and launch a luxury assisted living community originally spearheaded by their now-deceased father Logan. And the wheels start coming off almost immediately.
“It was so much fun to create Waystar L.A.,” Scafaria said. “In a way it reminded me of ‘Too Much Birthday’—it was such a spectacle, but you got to see these characters in another environment that wasn’t the usual offices, so we really had a lot of fun with that. What Waystar L.A. would feel like, what seeing these kids playing at being grown-ups would be like. I just really wanted to lean into the L.A. of it all.”
As his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) loses his nerve and backs out of a planned pitch to investors, Kendall steps into the spotlight in a situation where he seems destined to fail, only to fly instead. “In the show’s history, there’s so much anxiety and tension already baked into the idea of Kendall getting up on stage,” Scafaria said. “And the writers subverted those expectations, only to give Kendall a win. It felt full circle to me.”
As for Kendall’s presentation itself, Scafaria went in with a very clear plan of how she wanted things to unfold. “I wanted Jeremy to be able to run from the beginning to the end, including talking to the press all the way to Tom (Wambsgans, played by Matthew Macfadyen) coming on stage, straight through,” she said. “We did five full takes, two setups of being onstage, and then in front of him and behind him, giving us the most visceral feeling of public speaking. We had 300 background actors who all had to keep it a secret, and I think they did that because they realized how important they were to the scene,” Scafaria said. “Jeremy had 300 scene partners and he thanked them all after. He walked in and they all leapt to their feet and cheered for him. I think they were so impressed by what they saw and they felt so deeply appreciated.”
While Scafaria’s Season 3 debut made her the last person added to the roster of “Succession” directors, few people could claim a longer tenure than Parekh, who won an Emmy for the Season 2 episode “Hunting.” “I was the DP on the pilot, and I guess aside from Jesse, maybe the longest-standing crew member on the show,” Parekh said. “I was deeply attached to it. Attached to the sort of filmed theater that (pilot director) Adam (McKay) and I tried to achieve. Attached to the freedom it gave actors.”
Parekh worked hard to protect that freedom in the earliest days of filming the series, giving camera operators very specific instructions regarding the shooting process.
“When I was shooting the first three episodes, I told the camera people specifically, ‘Don’t ever give them marks,’” he said. “‘I don’t want them thinking about hitting marks. If you give marks, those are reference points for you, not for them.’”
After serving as the DP on the first episode, Parekh was drafted into the show’s stable of directors and made his TV directorial debut in the sixth episode of the first season, “Which Side Are You On?” In it, a bloodless coup is attempted within the executive offices of Waystar RoyCo, as Kendall and Roman try to unseat their father as CEO. With each passing moment, the tension ratchets up until it reaches exquisite frustration when the coup is quelled because Kendall is stuck in traffic. The episode is all the more tragic for its banality: Kendall was supposed to take a helicopter to the offices, but a lockdown on air traffic forced him to take a car like the rest of us commoners.
Like Scafaria’s, the first episode Parekh directed feels oddly simpatico with his nominated episode from Season 4, “America Decides.” In that episode, the fate of the country is decided not by ballot boxes but by petty squabbles as the clock runs down on a fascism-free future. “As the DP, I have all the answers,” he said. “And as the director, I have none of the answers. Maybe it’s just that paranoia and energy and adrenaline that keeps me dialed into the moments. Maybe it’s the total terror of complete failure and knowing that you’re carrying a lot of it on your shoulders.”
“America Decides” is a masterclass of the kinds of stories that “Succession” tells so well. On the one hand, a national election plays out disastrously in the public eye, while in private rooms the Roy family navigates their own fraught relationships while enjoying the power to influence global politics.
If few crew members could rival the length of Parekh’s tenure with the series, then even fewer could compare with the breadth of Mark Mylod’s contributions to the very fabric of “Succession.” Serving as an executive producer and directing four episodes in each of the four seasons, Mylod is nearly as synonymous with the series as Jesse Armstrong is. So when it comes to directing an episode like “Connor’s Wedding,” which behind its innocuous title hides the sudden death of the Roy family patriarch, there was only one person who could be expected to take the wheel.
“The first two things that go through my head are almost in stereo,” Mylod said about receiving a script like “Connor’s Wedding.” “One is, ‘Good Lord, this is absolutely extraordinary writing from an incredible artist at the absolute height of his powers.’ And the other one is, ‘Oh shit, I hope I don’t fuck this up.’”
Here, too, there are echoes in Mylod’s nomination of the first episode of “Succession” that he directed, Season 1’s “Shit Show at the Fuck Factory.” The former takes place in the immediate aftermath of a stroke that nearly incapacitates Logan and gave audiences a first glimpse into what a Roy family looks like without Logan at its center.
“Both Jesse and I felt a tremendous responsibility and, yeah, insecurity and fear and worry, to see the show off correctly and to leave those characters at a place that felt creatively right,” Mylod said. “My relationship with the show is tied into key relationships—my relationships with the cast and crew, my relationship with Jesse, which very swiftly, particularly from the end of Season 1, evolved into the loveliest and, I think, most creative collaboration that I’ve ever enjoyed.”
The central sequence of “Connor’s Wedding” is the seemingly unbroken 27-minute take that begins with Tom calling the siblings to let them know their father had suffered a serious health crisis while flying to Europe for a potential blockbuster deal and ended after they get confirmation that Logan has died.
“It’s my job as a director to give everything in my power to harness the talents of the whole team and to deliver as best as I possibly can,” Mylod said. “We have a certain amount of time, we have this location, we have this crew and this cast and this script. What are you going to do?”
The conventional wisdom, he said, was that they’d have to shoot the sequence in eight-to-10-minute increments. “[That would have been] brilliant, because all those people are brilliant,” he said. “But there was another level we could [go to]. What if we did want to have those characters and those actors inhabit that dreadful moment for a full half hour with a film camera that only runs 10 minutes? How can we do that?’” They lit the entire set, ran three cameras simultaneously and hid reels of film around the set so that one camera operator could reload while the others were still shooting. “So many people were part of the solution,” Mylod said. “It was really, to me, the absolute zenith of my directing evolution on the show. everything I sought to evolve with the creative visual language and tonal language of the show.”
Read more from the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue here.