Spring 2020

The Vagaries of Privilege

In search of authenticity, the directors behind Succession jettison the glitz by deglamorizing its rarified settings and capturing performances on the fly

By Margy Rochlin

Members of the Roy clan convene for yet another session of crisis management in Succession, about the trials and tribulations of a Murdoch-like media empire. (Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO)

HBO's Succession debuted in the summer of 2018, introducing viewers to the unhappy, power-mad Roy family. Because it was a roiling dynastic drama that drew inspiration from Rupert Murdoch's media empire, with flourishes echoing the Trumps and the Redstones, no one could predict the series' trajectory. "It was a surprising and bold choice," says Succession producer-director Mark Mylod. "There was something about the big swing of it tonally. These are unapologetically hateful humans. It was such a brilliant premise to start with that I was actually convinced that nobody would watch it."

Yet one of the reasons Succession became a favorite with critics and viewers alike was the creative documentary quality established by Adam McKay's tone-setting pilot episode, which won him a DGA Award. It was shot in the jittery, fast-paced style of McKay's The Big Short, with very little standard coverage and not many wide shots. Snap zooms were used like punctuation. Succession was also shot on film. "It was one of my first choices," says McKay of the decision to use celluloid. "My thinking on it was that these are, to use the lazy term, kind of unlikable, broken characters living in an austere quiet world above the clouds and that the warmth of film would help us. It would give us status to what we're seeing and at the same time, a humanity with the natural dynamic range flaws that are in film. So it really felt perfect."

Adding to what made the pilot distinctive, sometimes McKay casually let lines of dialogue be delivered off-camera, occasionally without ever letting the viewer know who spoke them. "I learned from The Big Short that there's an incredible natural energy that you can get when you feel the filmmaker isn't worried about mathematical coverage," says McKay. "I would say 99% of the time we'd get the line on camera. But in the edit room, we were definitely not worried about it."

Another page McKay took from The Big Short was to shoot Succession in such a way that the actors weren't always sure which camera to play to—or if they were on camera at all. "We'd basically shoot scenes with two cameras almost at 45 degrees or 90 degrees to each other and so the actors then never knew where the camera was and it became basically filmed theater," says Andrij Parekh, the DP on McKay's pilot who has since directed three episodes of Succession. "I always ask the camera operators to have one eye on the eyepiece and the other eye looking around at who you're not seeing in the camera. I always tell them, 'As operators, you are making editorial decisions. I'd rather use the camera pan than a hard edit if possible.' It ties people together, just gives you a sense of being there, that experience that a lot of cutting makes you very aware of, or brings in a level of artifice that we didn't want to bring into the show."

Adds McKay: "It's like what Cassavetes used to do with the long lens: They don't know if they're in close-up or medium or wide at any given time, so it creates a much more theatrical experience for them. It's more intimate, they feel freer, looser."

What was instantly apparent from the pilot was that incoming directors needed to know their way around group scenes, in gleaming boardrooms, at long-table dinner parties, at glittering events or at a family therapy session in New Mexic——anywhere the fashionably appointed, perpetually scheming Roys could gather to bicker, berate and draw blood.

"The most fun you could have with Succession is to get as many of those family members into one room, close the door and see what happens," says Mylod, who has directed eight episodes of the series and was nominated by the DGA for the Season 2 finale, "This Is Not for Tears." Mylod has found that, for the most part, the best guest directors are the ones who can throw away textbook TV directing. "It's a generalization, but the more successful directing choices on our show are made by those directors who come in and don't try for a specific aesthetic or shape. If you take this particular cast and this particular show and say, 'You're going to come in and land on that mark and turn at that point and say that line,' it's almost the antithesis of what works on this show. What works is to be in search of a tone, a moment, a vibe of authenticity and be bold in seeking that out. It's so much more of a tone scavenger hunt than it is a staging hunt."

(Top) Director Mark Mylod, right, reviews the script with series lead Brian Cox and Hiam Abbass, who plays his wife; (Bottom) Director Andrij Parekh with actress J. Smith-Cameron. (Photos: (Top) HBO; (Bottom) Peter Kramer/HBO)

To give shape to the staging, Mylod utilizes what he likes to call "stealth." By way of example, he describes a scene in the Season 1 finale where son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a recovering drug addict and on-and-off heir apparent, is ambushed in a room by his waiting siblings Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Keiran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck). Though he already had an idea of how the actors could form what he calls "a great wall of discontent," he simply explained that Kendall would walk through a certain door and asked them to wander around the room until they found a place to sit. "After that, I'll basically negotiate. 'I'm worried you'll be too flat against the wall. Could you find your way over there?' But I'll always let them lead and sniff around, find something that's authentic to them."

As soon as the staging has been loosely established, Mylod—who previously was a producer-director on Showtime's dysfunctional family series Shameless and is familiar with either harnessing a band of actors' energy or watching it fizzle—likes to go into the first take as soon as possible. "Something I learned on Shameless is to try to start shooting when it's just on the right side of chaos, when it's still finding itself. I'll say to the cameras, 'OK, stay on the loose end of the zoom and see what you find.' And then there'll be a specific but quite broad secret mission. Like I'll tell the camera operators, 'Try to find a way to relate the disconnect between this character and this character.' Or try to find a connection between this character or that character. So I'll have a thematic theme I'll want to connect but I'll leave it very broad in the first pass."

When Holly Hunter did a six-episode arc in Season 2, one of the first things Mylod did was take her aside and map out the show's unique approach to shooting. "She's literally one of the world's best actors, and I wanted to warn her that there would be no moment of, 'We're coming in for your close coverage now,'" says Mylod. "At first, she found that intimidating. But by the end of the day, she was like, 'Oh, my God. I can never go back. Why would anyone shoot any other way?' And I don't mean that arrogantly. It's just specific to the tenure of energy and tone that works for the symbiotic relationship between tension and comedy in the satire we're aiming for."

Because the Roys live in a high-gloss world of over-the-top excess, there were many pre-production discussions in the pilot phase about how to capture their world without making it feel enviable. "A big influence for me was Foxcatcher, and how it was shot," says McKay, referencing Bennett Miller's 2014 film about multi-millionaire and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont. "There's not one moment of that movie where you'd want to trade places with du Pont or the wealthy family around him."

When it came to shooting in private jets, mega-yachts or wood-paneled dining rooms, Mylod's approach is to think counterintuitively. "We are programmed to make everything look as gorgeous as possible," says Mylod. "The temptation is to put glorious backlight, to kick off beautiful patinas. I try to avoid that by having the camera movement be motivated by character and not by specifically look at something beautiful. The next stage of that is our final color timing; where we are constantly pulling back. There's a temptation to make things look amazing. To actively not do that takes constant discipline."

Adds Parekh: "[We treat] everything as background to the performances, to the actors. Even if it's a helicopter in the background. We don't do establishing shots. We act as if it's totally normal, and I think that's what makes the show feel very much like we're living in that world. We're not impressed by it."

For guest directors, part of the challenge of Succession is not just the pile-up of characters, or the long wordy speeches, but also just how much story there is to get through in every episode. For director S.J. Clarkson's Season 1 episode "Prague," one of the first problems she needed to solve was where to throw a bachelor party for Shiv's fiancé Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) that seemed ritzy enough for their well-heeled characters but also ultimately disorienting.

From top: Kevin Bray, standing, with Brian Cox, who plays family patriarch Logan Roy; Adam McKay, who won a DGA Award for directing Succession's tone-setting pilot; S.J. Clarkson, who directed the "Prague" episode in Season 1. (Photos: (Top) Zach Dilgard/HBO; (Middle) Craig Blackenhorn/HBO; (Bottom) Peter Kramer/HBO)

As originally scripted, Tom's rager would be held at a mansion in Miami. "I didn't want it to be a seedy part; I wanted it to be something that money couldn't buy," says Clarkson, who after a fruitless scouting trip to Florida came up with another idea: How about a New York pop-up club, one so ultra-exclusive that no one knows it exists unless you're in the know? "It just felt more exciting, original. I wanted it to feel like a mystery, something you couldn't recreate," says Clarkson, who began riffing with Succession's UPM, Frank Covino, who also happened to be Clarkson's location manager on Jessica Jones. "That's when we talked about a disused tunnel in Brooklyn that we almost used on Jessica Jones," says Clarkson. From the tunnel, the revelers would get into an elevator and when the doors opened, they would be greeted by thumping bass-heavy music and a wild bacchanal in full swing. "[For the entrance] we had a lot of information to get across—Kendall's all about business, but [wants to do drugs] while Tom's about getting laid and Greg's got to take care of Kendall," says Clarkson. Culkin's character Roman is used as a sort of tour guide, distributing flashlights to the bachelor party guests, then leading them into the pitch-black tunnel. "There were pockets of light that [DP] Chris Norr put in throughout and some side lighting, but we wanted it to be quite dark," says Clarkson of a oner shot with a single camera. She and a minimal crew sat on a trolley being dragged by grips up the train tracks as the actors delivered their lines in front of them. Once they were in the nightclub, Clarkson used visual artist Max Nova's large-scale video projections—a dancing astronaut, a glittering cityscape, slithering snakes—as backdrops to telegraph everyone's shifting moods.

Video projections also came in handy for a scene in Kevin Bray's Season 2 episode "Dundee," shot at the V&A design museum in Dundee, Scotland. The occasion was a surprise celebration honoring 50 years for conniving patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) running Waystar/Royco. But in his case, Bray had a tall cylinder upon which flickering phone-format footage of the children delivering testimonials was shown. "It felt like something that came from their world, the kind of thing that they'd do to big up themselves," says Bray about how he came up with the plan to turn an elevator shaft into a curved screen.

Bray, whose earliest directing gigs were music videos, knew how to walk into a space and start thinking, "How can I make this seem larger than life? What would make it an event?" The museum's hours, however, put his reputation for being able to nimbly adapt in an ever-changing environment to the test. "Every night we had to go in and redress a basically empty space, then put it all away before the place opened at 8 a.m.," says Bray about their 10-hour window. "It was almost like Mission: Impossible: Fallout when the walls fall away and it's a raw space. But we got into the rhythm of doing it. Production design had an exponentially powerful learning curve. They got better at it every night. [It was all about] military precision: Come in, lay the place out, know where we're going to put the things that are going to have to go away or be put in storage."

During the shooting, Bray remembers being approached by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong about a scene that would become the most memorably cringeworthy in two seasons of the show. How about if Kendall awkwardly performs a rap song to his father while the crowd watches in horror? "I said, 'Absolutely. I love it.' Then I told Jeremy, 'You gotta wear a hip-hop hat,' and he said, 'I see you a hip-hop hat and raise you a jersey,' and then I knew we were onto something incredible. Jeremy and [Succession composer Nicholas Britell] just blew the doors off of a germ of an idea."

Knowing how adept the cast of Succession is at improvisation, Bray was careful to let them watch only a bare-bones rehearsal. When the three cameras actually rolled, Bray could film the actors playing the Roy family, as well as a hall filled with extras react in character—slack-jawed, gleeful, disbelieving—as Strong, wearing an oversized striped baseball jersey, bobbed side to side, stiffly rhyming into a microphone and shouting lines such as "Let's hear some noise…"

"It was wonderfully painful for all of us," says Bray. "It felt pretty fresh."

Getting the actors to free-style, be it with dialogue or facial expressions, wasn't always as easy. Back when McKay directed the pilot, he recalls having to resort to gentle cajoling to get certain cast members to ad-lib. "What I tell them is, 'Look, we're here. We're rolling film. If it's no good, I'm not going to use it,'" says McKay, adding that it's always the most unwilling participants who end up being the best at making up dialogue in the moment. "[Keiran] Culkin was a big one, the most resistant. He was like, 'Nope, I don't do it.' And guess what? He's incredible at it."

These days, when McKay watches Succession, he can't help but marvel at how the series has evolved. "Rather than treat it like, 'Oh, what is this strange style of shooting?' [the directors] have really embraced it," says McKay. "It's like they took it and went times five."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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