‘Succession’ Directors Cathy Yan and Lorene Scafaria Say the Show “Is All About Trust”

‘Succession’ Directors Cathy Yan and Lorene Scafaria Say the Show “Is All About Trust”

Both Cathy Yan and Lorene Scafaria have had robust careers directing features, so getting the opportunity to helm an episode of Succession presented a new opportunity for each. Scafaria, known best for her 2019 crime drama Hustlers, had already worked in television, having directed three episodes of the Fox comedy New Girl, but she saw Succession as a dream job largely because it’s one of her favorite shows of all time. Yan, who helmed the 2020 superhero film Birds of Prey, had never directed TV, but she also considers herself a huge fan of Jesse Armstrong’s HBO drama.

Yan directed “The Disruption,” the third episode of the Emmy-nominated third season that reintroduces the cast to the larger world after a mostly isolated first two hours spent scrambling in the aftermath of season two’s finale. Scafaria is responsible for episode seven, “Too Much Birthday,” which revolves around the over-the-top party of Succession‘s troubled protagonist, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong).

The pair, who have each earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding directing for a drama series (alongside another Succession helmer, Mark Mylod), unpack their initial relationship to the show, what they took away from the Succession scripts and how they navigated shooting each of their uniquely intricate hours in the year’s most nominated series.

Were you both fans of Succession? How did you become attached to directing on the series?

CATHY YAN Before I went into film, I was actually a journalist and I’d worked at [the Rupert Murdoch-owned] News Corp. So, it was just something that I’d always wanted to watch. Then when I finally sat down and had time, I actually remember watching season one right into season two, to catch myself up, because I’d been hearing so many good things. It’s such a joy to watch in a row. You get so invested in these characters. There’s all these little things that happen even in season one that pay off in season two. I also live in New York. It’s such a fun, satirical piece. The accuracy of it, and the obsession that these people have with power and the fear of losing it … I think it was something that I had witnessed firsthand.

LORENE SCAFARIA That’s so wild that you were a journalist first. I could completely see how you gravitated toward the material, and your previous work, how it led to that. I was just a huge fan of the show. I did watch it from the beginning, because I’m friendly with [executive producer] Adam McKay. And the pilot blew me away, obviously. I remember the moment — there’s a scene with Tom [Matthew Macfadyen] and Greg [Nicholas Braun] meeting on a baseball field. It was the first one where I was like, “I have no idea what’s happening. I don’t know who these people are — they’re at the same time so familiar and so mysterious.” It was just incredible writing and acting and just a really muscular show, a really unique tone. I cast a line out and said, “Can I be a part of this, please?” It was right after I was done with Hustlers. I knew I was going to be stuck in my house writing my next feature for years.

You mentioned how the show often plants things early that pay off much later. How do you navigate knowing you’re making something that’s one piece in a bigger puzzle?

YAN It’s interesting, because I guess it’s in my episode that Tom does offer himself up [to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy as sacrifice]. I had no idea what was coming at the end. I don’t think anyone does, right? It’s really only the writers who know the broad strokes of the season. Coming in as a feature director, when you’ve just worked that script to death and you know exactly how it ends … At first it was terrifying to be like, “How do I play this song?” But then there was something very liberating to be like, “Oh, I’m just playing this little part, and Jesse’s actually the maestro.” But from both the directing perspective, and also as an actor, I would imagine it’s quite liberating. Because it’s real life, right? You don’t know what you’re going to do in a week or even in five minutes.

SCAFARIA It is all about trust, which is obviously made a lot easier on a show like this, where you have Jesse at the helm. Directing for TV is so strange. For me, there was a lot to learn of when to chime in and when not to chime in. I found myself poring over details, where they were like, “The writers handle this.” I was like, “I don’t have to write the deal memo? That’s a relief.” I know I asked to read as many scripts as they would give me. I don’t know how one would become a guest director on something like this without being such a huge fan of the show, because I’ve found myself just poring over the past two seasons trying to track everybody.

Both your episodes have these really intensely emotional, complicated scenes: Kendall walking down the studio hall after a crushing humiliation at the hands of Shiv, for example. How do you interpret something from the script using your skill set but also remain consistent with the visual language of the show?

YAN I think that’s what is so great about these scripts, because as action-packed as they are, it does actually leave a lot of room for interpretation, and directing, essentially. So I felt like that moment warranted it because he had to go from one place to another. And it felt appropriate to linger. Oftentimes, I think directing is a bit like jazz: You just want to mix it up. You don’t want it to all be the same beat, you want to slow things down and then speed things up. I got very excited reading my script, because I felt like, “Yes, I can do something with that.” Although it’s funny, it’s definitely like: Nothing can be too pretty. Because it’s beautiful, but the characters don’t care about it. And so sometimes I was aware of “It’s such a pretty shot,” and the writers being like, “Too pretty! Too pretty!”

Brian Cox in “The Disruption,” directed by Cathy Yan.

Courtesy of MACALL POLAY/HBO

SCAFARIA That hallway moment is so good. It was such a great choice, a brave choice. I feel like when you watch the show, you actually can really see the stamp of the different directors, and I feel like Jesse embraces that different people bring a different point of view. I felt so spoiled by my episode, and when I got the script, what’s maybe not overwritten on the page is what makes it feel like a piece of great theater. You get to, as a director, dive into the text and really try to break it down. We were both lucky to work with DP Christopher Norr, who is incredibly talented, and this crew that’s so gifted and is already in this ballet with all the actors. And Cathy, we both write …

YAN I totally write like a director, though. I write with shots in my mind. But [Succession] was pretty minimal from that perspective.

SCAFARIA Yeah, it’s not like that on the page, where you’re reading very specific direction. But it conjures images. I don’t know if it’s made me a better writer — I want to think it has, just to dive into someone else’s writing and try to go, “Oh, why am I seeing what I’m seeing?”

Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin in “Too Much Birthday,” directed by Lorene Scafaria.

Courtesy of MACALL POLAY/HBO

What were the most intimidating aspects of your episodes to shoot?

SCAFARIA I was really nervous about the party itself, because I kept saying it felt like Burning Man, where all these sets, they’re all going to be built up for this one thing. It’s so different from other Succession episodes, which maybe take place in beautiful, wealthy locations. I was really nervous about making the shark-jumping episode of Succession. The sets that Stephen Carter built are exceptional and extraordinary. I spoke a lot with Chris about lighting. I was inspired by [Kanye West’s] tour for The Life of Pablo. Making a party scene feel like a party is its own kind of challenge.

YAN It’s funny, because so much was leading up to that party. I felt like even shooting episode three, it was a lot of, like, “Kendall’s birthday party, Kendall’s birthday party!” And I’m like, “I want to go to Kendall’s birthday party.” I didn’t get to read the script, but I remember thinking, “Oh, man, that sounds like a good one.” But I can understand why it’s so difficult, because it’s all in one space, and you have to really create these different environments. I think in a weird way, my challenge was probably the opposite of that, which was that I had a ton of locations. Trying to do that over COVID — and I hate location scouting, to be honest, because you’re just in a van 80 percent of the time. It was about trying to find the right balance, and the right momentum, in order to build up to the ending, which feels so operatic and so dramatic.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.