Succession, quite arguably, is the best show on television. The Emmy winning best drama continues to stun fans episode after episode. Its premise focuses around a wealthy dysfunctional family whose members attempt to solidify themselves as the CEO successor of their multi-billion dollar media empire. While that may not seem exciting, the show certainly is. It’s satirical, funny and callous, carved from the point of a wickedly sharp pen. The writing is as smart as its performances, which have been hailed by audiences and critics alike.
Ahead of the premier of Succession‘s third season, DiscussingFilm had the chance to sit down with Mark Mylod, one of the returning directors to the series. He’s helmed many episodes, including all the season finales as well as the first few episodes of season three. Insightful and honest, he outlined the process of filming this season, a particular challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how he hopes the audience will react.
You not only directed the finale episode last season, but the episode one of this season. After such like an explosive finale, what was the process like determining what the aftermath should look and feel like?
Mark Mylod: Yeah, it was led by fear on my part. The reception for the last episode of season two was wonderful. And so Jesse and I after each season have– the first time we talk about where we start setting up the next season is, “How the hell do we not– how do we match that? How do we keep the bar high? How do we raise the bar? How do we not mess it up?” And the huge, huge fear coming into season three was to be a let down, to be anything less than season two and particularly after that lovely last episode.
The other challenge was trying to get– I don’t want to dwell on COVID– when we did eventually feel it was safe to go back into production around Thanksgiving of the end of last year, 2020, everybody coming back to work in that environment in that face shield and face mask and social distancing environment, trying to hit the ground running with the intensity in the immediate aftermath of Kendall’s press conference was really tough because [of] that whole communication and that transactional of communications when you’re behind a mask [and] when you’re behind a face shield. Luckily, it’s pretty much the same team, but I found it really hard. And scary if I’m honest. Because I was really worried that something in those COVID protocols would somehow take something away from the intensity that we needed at the beginning of season three.
The ace in the hole was that there was great writing and backed up by great performances. When we did stand back and take off the mask and call action, our cast just… bang! They were in there as if we’d never stopped, which was a huge, huge relief obviously. When I’d look at the dailies and look at the the scenes coming together, that was when I thought okay, “Well, we might be okay here,” because that intensity was there.
When I was watching the show, I realized how many just seem like they’re just talking to each other face to face or they’re on phone calls but it all seems so dynamic. So, how did you keep up like the intensity that way even if they’re just like very static scenes?
Mark Mylod: Yeah, those first two episodes are very much about the immediate aftermath and positioning. So there was the potential for that to be a little emotionally dry. But again, the skill of the writing and the performances meant that– we were also collectively aware that it needed that intensity because as you say, it is they’re not spectacle episodes. They’re episodes where characters are trapped, that they’re trapped in a hotel room in Sarajevo or they’re trapped in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan but, either way, all those characters are trapped and rotting.
There’s an inherent intensity to that and the ticking clock element of it; of both sides trying to gain the upper hand, trying to get the best lawyer, trying to get the best PR team, that sense of it running against the clock and on through the night into the next morning. That ticking clock element lent a certain intensity to the performance and a pacing to the episodes and I think that those elements of being trapped in those rooms also heighten the tension I hope in that there was nowhere to go there was an element of kind of expensive buckets episode to them in that there’s there’s no way for those characters to escape at that point, they’ve just got to face themselves and face the challenges in front of them.
That combination of the need to position themselves, to summon their troops around them, during that through the night and in those smaller tighter confines so internally, it was difficult to find any excuses for any kind of exterior shots. I’d contrived for phone calls that happen out on the balconies or upon the roof or for characters to step outside just to get kind of a collective breath for yours to take before you’re plunged into the intensity of those of those positioning negotiations again.
A lot changes in those first two episodes and they have to re-evaluate their relationships with each other. Everyone the royal family is kind of very conscious and constantly has to adapt, but at the end of the day, they are still a family. They grew up together and they know each other very well. So when you’re directing them, and you have to be aware of how much is changing, what do you try to keep consistent between their relationships?
Mark Mylod: That consistency is actually, at this stage, if I’m honest, it’s quite easy in that we, as a group, know each other so well, and those dynamics are drawn. In terms of the sibling connection, the actors are so smart, they just understand that instinctively, so that’s always in the building blocks of their preparation for a scene. I truly don’t remember ever once having to give a note where it’s, “Remember, this is your sibling”. Those connections are built in in terms of the relationships that have evolved between the actors themselves over the year and the way that life imitates art sometimes. So they’ve always felt connected to me, I’ve never felt we’ve lacked that. The discussions are really more about where is that relationship right now in terms of the ongoing power struggles between them and who is in the ascendant, who is the most vulnerable, and that ongoing chess game between them. Tracking the individual arc of a character, both within an episode and across the season. That’s often the biggest talking points between us, between me and the cast, when we’re when we’re working together.
Speaking of independent arcs, in particular Kendall right now is having, I’d say, a rough time. You expect him to be triumphant after finally setting up his dad at the end of season two, but you can see he’s getting increasingly unhinged at the beginning of season three. What do you try to focus on with this directing this portrayal and try to get right about Kendal’s mental state?
Mark Mylod: Jeremy’s deep dive into the character in his preparation for a season is extraordinary. Like nobody I’ve ever worked with before. His instincts will put him in a certain place. Our conversations tend to be about levels of confidence, levels of self deception, levels of mania, levels of vulnerability. Those are some of the elements that just become part of the conversation. In any one scene, as we both try to track it, he’s already had an excellent idea of calibrating it. Together, we’ll then try to riff with that. We all work together to experiment. We’ll all have our set ideas of how a scene should play and where any one character should be within that moment. What’s lovely on take two or three is to mess with that– “What if this character is more vulnerable? What if this, what if that?”.
It’s asking questions of the actors to explore. With all the cast, their willingness to explore the parameters of their characters and to push that is endless. So that’s the fun of it. With Jeremy is that, “Okay, what if it’s this, what if is that?”, very often with him, he’s just got it from the first take. It just seems in the right place. In calibrating any one moment, this goes through all the characters for all of our three seasons, it was rarely an isolation. It’s always within the context of where we know the characters going or where the character has been. “Perhaps are we too elated? Are we too confident? Let’s pull this down to here and try one here.” It’s always a calibration, an alteration in the nuance any subsequent take, we rarely ever attempt to do the same take twice, we’re just not that kind of show.
So, when you’re shooting Succession, it’s a satire as much as is a drama and you still manage to keep the show funny while maintaining the tension. Do you find that difficult to do or what do you think works so well?
Mark Mylod: Very occasionally, there will be there’ll be a recalibration after initial rehersal where, “okay, this is playing too dour” or “this is playing too broadly comedic”. So, there is often a discussion between Jesse and I about how a scene is playing tonally. The writing and the performing, those elements are so strong, that shifting that dynamic one way or the other is is effortless. Matthew Macfadyen is the master of it with Tom. Tom can be anywhere between a Shakespearean tragic character and a clown. Matthew is one of the revelations, obviously, in season one was just how damn funny Matthew is.
But we’ve always been very careful not to push that clown element of the character too far, even though there was a version of almost every scene with Matthew where he could just absolutely steal it comedically and just have us laughing our heads off, but for the character to also have an inner light, to have dimension and also to be a threat, to have a pretence to the crown. We need to be able to take him seriously as a power player, and we tried to take his relationship with Shiv very seriously as a portrait of their particular marriage and their respective needs from that. If there’s a scene between Greg and Tom, for instance, a lot of our conversations will be, “Is this too bored? Maybe, let’s pull this back.” or “Actually, you know what, we’re playing this maybe a little safe. Let’s try and let’s push it a little bit. Let’s go a little higher energy on it. Let’s push that comedic satirical element it’s a little bit.” [Matthew’s] such a Rolls Royce. He’s so finely tuned as an actor that it’s almost like 10% funnier. But they can all do that. So again, the first rehearsal and the first couple of takes will tell us where the scene is falling and if we need to push it in one direction or another. All of them have that ability to make that little tonal adjustment if it’s needed.
So you are directing the third season Succession finale and you probably can’t tell me much about it, but every finale has had some kind of twist or event that’s majorly raised the stakes. How would you place season three in terms of stakes, intention, and a twist compared to the other finales?
Mark Mylod: What I can say about it was that I was really scared that we wouldn’t be able to match that intensity and escalation of stakes that that I think season two had. I think I can safely say is, by the time we’d finished editing just a few weeks ago, I wasn’t frightened anymore. I’m really proud. I’m really proud of the season and I’m really proud of the way it builds and the escalation of tension, stakes for the audience to to decide if it passes muster, if it’s as good as season two. That’s not for me to say. But when we walked away from shooting and when we finished editing, I felt really proud of the work that we did. I think I can say that safely.
I’m sure that is the question. It’s my favorite show on TV right now. I love it so much. I convinced like six people to watch it, and they all love it.
Mark Mylod: That’s where we go into the next season, “God, what do we do? How do we match that?” In the whole COVID world, we are exponentially more worried about season three because with that element thrown in. Coming out the other end of it, I feel it’s a show that I’m really proud of everybody’s work. I don’t think we made a COVID season. I think we just made the best season we could
Someone said somewhere that Succession won’t deal with COVID because COVID doesn’t affect wealthy people?
Mark Mylod: Yeah, I have no idea who said that or why they say that. I can’t imagine that with anyone in our core team. No, we chose not to dig into COVID because, frankly, it felt like a bad bet. When COVID was starting, we had no idea what the scope, what the scale what, what the intensity, what the duration of of the pandemic would be. We felt that if we did bring it into the storyline, then we were in danger for a show that tries to present, that it would feel dated in some way. And then of course, there are individual tragic elements. Members of our team died, and it just didn’t feel like something that had a place in our story. It certainly wasn’t to do with any kind of, “it’s not appropriate for these characters,” that that that would be that would be inappropriate for me.