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Succession's Lorene Scafaria on Directing Her 'Kendall Trilogy'

'He comes out victorious, but it's a bit gruesome'

Allison Picurro
Jeremy Strong, Succession

Jeremy Strong, Succession

David Russell/HBO

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 6 of Succession, "Living+." Read at your own risk!]

In its fourth and final season, Succession has inevitably become a show about death. Logan's (Brian Cox) sudden passing in Episode 3 made that clear, and his children have spent subsequent episodes barely processing their grief as they continue to grapple with the realization that their mighty father was never invincible. Roman (Kieran Culkin) says as much in this week's episode: "I just didn't see it coming, with Dad," he tells Kendall (Jeremy Strong). "It's very un-Dad," Kendall agrees.

That's why the bittersweetly titled "Living+," named for Waystar Royco's truly grotesque new product launch, arrives at such an interesting place in the season. The siblings can't stop pushing and pulling, as Kendall spirals further into mania, Roman falls into an anxious, depressive state, and Shiv (Sarah Snook) continues to demonstrate that she has no idea what she actually wants. Their father is everywhere — literally, the episode opens with an old video of Logan that had been made in preparation for the Investor Day presentation — and none of them know how to talk about it with each other. No one can manage to sincerely put into words what the realization of mortality means to them. With the heavy weight of that in mind, Lorene Scafaria, who previously directed Season 3's "Too Much Birthday" and this season's "Honeymoon States," the first post-Logan episode, stepped behind the camera once again. 

Scafaria spoke to TV Guide about working on the final installment in her "Kendall trilogy," Succession's many haunted houses, and pushing for that final scene on the beach.

Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong, Succession

Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong, Succession

David Russell/HBO

Did you notice any parallels between Episode 4 of this season, which you also directed, and this episode?
Lorene Scafaria:
I had done Kendall's 40th debacle, and then Logan's wake, or "the one after the one," as I've been calling it, which was daunting, and now "Living+." They're all so different, actually. 307 was this full spectacle, but perfectly contained, and 404 was like this intimate ensemble play. I had a lot of different inspirations going into that. Some Bergman, and Eugene O'Neill, and Clue was another one. Yeah, there was a feeling that I wanted to create with that one, just that "Ring Around the Rosie" feeling that everything was swirling around in these rooms. That set is kind of a circle, actually, moving through Logan's apartment. It just felt like there was a gravitational force, even though Dad was gone. Then with this episode, when I read the script, I felt like it was just completely different, very much like a sprawling movie. But all of the episodes focused on the siblings without Dad in the room, even though he's pulling the strings, and in a way, still pulling the strings, although Kendall certainly seems to do some puppet mastering in this episode.

I think the other similarity is that all of them have very full Kendall arcs. The three episodes I got to do are actually a nice little Kendall trilogy. It's definitely taking the characters from different places, all three of them. Episode 4, obviously, Kendall's in a depressive state when we find him, rightfully so, and by the end, you see the mania just creep in with that Grinch smile at the end. This episode, I think he starts fully manic, sort of like the birthday boy with a lot of big ideas. The writers just subvert expectations by giving him a win in the end and taking Roman from a place of denial at the beginning of Episode 4. You certainly saw him explode on Matsson, and you're seeing the grief come out in different ways, but I think by the end of Episode 6, he and Kendall have traded places. Now Roman is in a depressive state.

You mentioned that all three episodes you worked on have been about Kendall, Roman, and Shiv alone together without their dad, but Logan does come back here, in a way, in the form of that video that presides over the entire episode. How did you approach instantly setting the tone with that scene with Brian Cox?
Oh, it was so exciting. I mean, you can imagine after Episode 3, I didn't think I'd be working with Brian again, and suddenly at the table read there's this opening scene, which was, as a fan of the show, so thrilling to think of the audible gasp for the audience. But I love that we're seeing him in this completely surreal setting with this green screen behind him and the clapper in front of his face. It's a little meta to see Brian's eyes there. At some point, Jesse asked if I would play the role of director [in the scene], so I can safely say that was the most nervous I've ever been on the set of Succession, acting opposite Brian Cox. Even though I was off camera, I was sweating down to my waist, I brought a change of clothes. It was a nightmare, but also a dream. So in a way, of course, I was very focused on how the show was going to open but I was also panicking. It was so great to have Brian back on set, resurrected. It was a great, great day. Setting the tone in that moment with Brian in front of the green screen, and also suddenly finding Kendall and company at Waystar L.A., which is something that we really haven't seen before — showing that side, the different coasts of their offices, was also something I was very mindful of.

We get to see just how bad Roman is at trying to channel Logan as he manically fires people, Gerri included. What kinds of conversations were you having with Kieran about Roman's arc in this episode?
Kieran is such a special actor, and like all of these actors, they know their characters better than I do. So do the writers, obviously. But as someone who went through loss and grief, I could certainly always speak to the actors about my experience of that. So much is going on for Roman obviously, besides that! He's certainly trying to fill his dad's shoes. But I think so much of what happens in that first [firing] scene with the head of Waystar Studios, played brilliantly by Annabeth Gish, who was just thrown into the deep end opposite Kieran, who's just the greatest improviser — he made that scene so much more intense than I felt like it even was on the page. I think it's because he can feel her undermining him. Roman thinks this might be a place where he can actually have something to say, has talent to give, and is a creative person, whatever that means for him. The moment that she says, "I'm sure you are where you are for a very good reason," I think that's just triggering. You know, this is Mom, this is Dad, these are the years of being ignored.

He brings that intensity into that knife fight with Gerri, in which he's coming off of talking to Ken about death, so you just see all of this is really the grief swirling in him and coming out in different ways. He certainly started in denial more than the others, so whatever stages he's going through, it, like all real grief, doesn't move in a direct line, even though the stages are there. I think when Gerri says, "You're not your dad," it's just such a testament to the writing that it's taken so long for someone to say that exact phrase, actually. I remember that was a moment that Katelin Arizmendi, the DP who I got to work with this season for the first time and is so brilliant, we were like, "This is a slow push. Not a zoom. This is a new moment for Roman, and he's about to do something crazy with Gerri." And J. is of course so staggering in that scene. I think that started in 403 when, yes, Dad told him to fire Gerri, but after Dad died and Roman's in the room alone with her, and he says to Gerri that he's sad and she just walks out of the room, that rejection was so painful. Firing Gerri is at once hurting her the way she hurt him, and also filling his dad's shoes. But, you know, with blood.

With Shiv, you use a lot of visual cues to communicate this feeling of the walls closing in on her. I'm thinking specifically of a shot toward the beginning of the episode where the back of her head is framed between Roman and Kendall when they're in the conference room. With things like that, how much is written into the script and how much are your own stylistic choices?
 I always think in terms of blocking, I think because I studied theater before film, and also because directing TV is obviously a little different than directing film. But I think blocking is framing and it is composition and it is storytelling. It does tell you where to put the camera, setting up shots through the characters' connections to each other rather than just the scenery. This boardroom scene blocking, it was interesting, because it's the first proper board meeting since Logan's passing and having these co-CEOs. So I remember asking Jeremy and Kieran where they thought they might sit, because I wanted them to be sort of near the head of the table, but not exactly doing it. What's fun is they start sitting closer together and Roman wheels just a little more towards the head of the table. But the moment I knew that I wanted to add to the script was Kendall taking Shiv's seat, forcing her to sit on the opposite side and on the far end of the table. Once everyone else leaves and the sibling confrontation is two against one, it does feel like we're at a dinner table. Now we're with these siblings, and she's a little more at the head of the table yelling at these two little boys. 

I love that she actually calls them "boys."
 "You're not good at this!" Sarah's so… I mean, she's terrifying in that scene. It's just perfect sibling stuff.

Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen, Succession

Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen, Succession

Claudette Barius/HBO

Among other things with Shiv and Tom in this episode, the "bitey" scene really got me. I couldn't believe they were doing that in public. What went into shooting that?
It was electrifying to watch. Of course, the two characters have already kissed under the bleachers. I talked to them just about teenagers at a party. Sometimes you're facing one way, sometimes you're facing another. You're not both looking at the view and you're not both looking at each other the whole time. Your bodies are sort of twisting around. You're playing a game of chicken a little bit. Then when it came to biting each other's arms, it was fun to choreograph that in a way so that their faces are as close to each other as possible. I mean, I must admit, it was even different than I had originally imagined. It was so fun to see how close their eyes and nose were to each other. Just these grown-ups all dressed up for a very corporate event.

And just going for it.
Yeah, you've got these two characters — I think Shiv's expression of love can't help but have a little bit of violence in it, and to see who can hurt the other one more. It's the most playful version of this dynamic that I think that they've been wrestling with. For Shiv, associating pain with love, love with pain, whatever those early impressions are from childhood, I think in a way when his teeth break through, that's the moment that the feeling of love is there because it's something painfully familiar.

During Kendall's presentation, was that giant version of Logan actually on the screen behind him while you were filming?
Oh, yeah!

I ask because a lot of this episode dealt with what's real, what's not real — that's a big question on the show in general, characters are always asking if what's happening is real. I'm curious about the camerawork choices you made in a scene like the presentation, where you bounced a lot between the three screens behind Ken. The whole thing feels like a projection of Kendall, he even says as much to Roman earlier.
Yeah, so much of it is obviously great writing. That's part of the joy, is just having such a great piece of text to mine from. This was certainly the day in the schedule I was most afraid of, and so we just went in with a really solid plan. I wanted Jeremy to be able to run this presentation from beginning to end, including talking to the press, all the way through Tom coming on stage. We had a teleprompter, we had 300 background partners with him, and we had seven cameras. Five film cameras and two video cameras, one that was static in the back and one that tracked Kendall. That giant screen in the middle, which ran graphics for Living+, as well as "the strangest double act ever." What's interesting was when we had the video camera on Ken's close up on one side of the stage, it felt like a very typical product launch, but when we switched it to the other side, it suddenly felt incredibly fascist. I can't explain why. It just added some extra feeling to it. It was very dark, very haunting. He was brilliant, but it was almost terrifying to watch. That corporate excitement was almost terrifying.

We had three spotlights following Kendall, so there are these moments where you see him casting three shadows on the floor that felt like echoes of his siblings, even though he's out there alone. And yeah, him manipulating Dad's video — I was very conscious of wanting to hold on Kendall. We have him in the foreground, his head sort of out of focus, Dad looming large behind him, obviously. But it was such a great moment to just hold on Kendall, because he knows what he's doing is wrong, but man, is it working. Jeremy is so good at showing all those tiny cracks. There was that great moment, also, where he talks about saying the unsaid, and you could see that that line is what really gets him, genuinely. In the middle of this Weekend at Bernie's presentation, he has this incredibly genuine moment where he realizes you're never gonna say the unsaid. When you lose a parent, of course, it leaves a hole, but when you're disconnected from that parent, I think it leaves much bigger wounds. He comes out victorious, but it's a bit gruesome.

Every episode you've directed has dealt with the idea of a haunted house. Kendall's birthday had the treehouse, Episode 4 of this season was set in Logan's apartment, and in this episode Kendall desperately wants a house built on stage. I'm wondering about what you've thought about the house as a symbol in these episodes, and how, if at all, it's affected your direction.
It was interesting, with the birthday party episode, I remember feeling like it was Burning Man. He had built what felt quite literally like a haunted house that people would walk through on Halloween and enjoy the scares, but that Burning Man feeling of, "Oh, we're just never gonna see these rooms ever again." So he was very much trying to create a spectacle. and event, a theme park ride of his birthday. The treehouse, there were various times where the confrontation between the siblings could have ended up in a different location, and I remember just feeling like, "It has to be the treehouse, it has to be the treehouse! You know this is where someone almost shoved somebody out." In 404, of course, the haunted house vibes were really real. I remember actually shooting that with Jeremy, whose approach is so specific, and so of course when he really walked through that room for the first time, he actually said to me, "I feel like I'm walking through a haunted house." I was like, "Great!" It was so unsettling for him that he was questioning it. It was just like, "I'm so sorry, but it is good." There's moments that feel like Logan might be watching from across the room, or Logan might be laughing in your face. I did very much think about how that space really was a haunted house.

For this, yeah, he's trying to build a home, right? This family, this house. For people who, every time you see them, they're in more palatial environments with even more ridiculous views out the window, and what does it matter? So I think in a way, it's sort of a perfect symbol for just the pitfalls of capitalism. You know, we're all working so, so hard to pay the rent, and get a house, and have the American dream. They're so out of touch with that in a way, and yet they have to be completely in touch with that in order to sell a bill of goods.

I'm really interested in that last shot of Kendall in the water. Kendall has a long, dark history with water, but he looks very at peace here when he's getting into the ocean. Going into that scene, what were you keeping in mind? What were those discussions with Jeremy like?
The beach scene was something that suddenly appeared in the script, and at one point, it disappeared, and I did beg for it to come back. I felt adamant about the beach scene. I think there were days I was the only person who wanted to do it.

It's beautifully shot. I loved it.
I appreciate it! It was just a logistical nightmare on a cold day in mid-October with incredibly rough seas. I only wish I could have played the action straight through, because Jeremy really dove into those waves fearlessly. There is no stunt double there. I think as a super fan of the show, I was so excited to see Kendall face up in the water for a change. Even though there are dark clouds on the horizon, it's not exactly this perfect sunny day, perfect sunset, he's doing a victory lap, but he's doing it alone. He is at peace, but it does feel a little ominous as well. I think it's certainly a victorious moment. If you're a Kendall fan, I think you're psyched for him in this moment. I think because the writers, to their credit, in both directions, they don't like to hand the audience what the audience expects. And so it makes sense that there were times that the scene wasn't in the script, I could understand why that happened. But I also really greatly appreciate what a generous leader Jesse, and all the writers [were] for allowing us to shoot that in the first place, let alone that it actually made it all the way. I'm so glad.

Is he spelling out anything specific in the sand with his foot?
I believe the final version is a number one in the sand.

Well, he's the number one boy.
Yeah, there were some other things that he wrote, but the one is what made it through.

I spoke to Arian Moayed after Episode 4 and he talked about your skill at handling Succession's specific style, with these long takes all shot on film. Over the three episodes you directed, what's been the most challenging part of adapting to that style?
Arian's incredibly generous for saying that. The day he's talking about was actually a very challenging day. I think what's funny about it is just that Episode 3 did this incredible 27 minute take, so by the time we did our 15 minute take in Episode 4, not only were the camera operators obviously just firing on all cylinders, but also, you know, nobody cared. It was a really long sequence between basically when the speeches started with [Stephen Root's] Petkus, and the siblings come into the room. We played that all the way through Tom telling Roman, "Your dad wanted you." There were a few things I think lifted out of that sequence as well. It was fun, though, we got to play it straight. We had camera operators just dancing out of each other's ways, and just a really exciting plan that just kept everything alive.

For a show like this, you just have to stay late on your feet and not panic. For some reason, I think when the stakes are higher, I calm down more. There's something about that, this environment, that feels like you're shooting a Super Bowl, or the Oscars or something. For me, just as someone who wants to be a little more deliberate than that, I would always go in with a really clear plan, not just whatever philosophies we could apply to the camera, but each scene, very specific blocking. Even if then we rehearse it and we mock it up and we change everything, I would always go in and say, "Okay, I'm really looking for certain frames and compositions and connections between people." I don't just want to throw everybody in a room and be haphazard, and just pick things off as we go, even though you kind of end up doing that sometimes, as a result of the process.

It's certainly gotten easier as I've gone on, I think just shaking out the cobwebs last season, learning how everything works. I don't direct TV very often, so even just the process of directing TV, I would sometimes go, "God, I'm overstepping my bounds right now, I'm saying way too much." And then there would be other moments where they're waiting for an answer and I'm going, "Oh, that's me!" So this season, we certainly figured that part out.

Succession Season 4 airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.