‘Why do I want to write about these awful, rich, evil people?’: the making of Succession

Inside the writers’ room with Jesse Armstrong and his team of ‘scruffy, shambolic British comedy writers’

• Read Hadley Freeman’s interview with Jeremy Strong

‘If we don’t get this right, it’ll be a problem’: the concept

In early 2016, Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong pitched his first solo project as a showrunner to HBO. Inspired by an unaired screenplay about Rupert Murdoch he had written a decade before, as well as other influences – including true crime documentary series The Jinx – Armstrong created a show about “the nature of very rich people and media power”. The table read for the pilot episode of Succession, directed by executive producer Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) took place on the day Donald Trump was elected.

Jesse Armstrong (creator and executive producer): When we were starting the show, it was that great period when we all thought it was hilarious that Trump was doing what he was doing – he was a joke candidate whom the establishment would never let happen. We started shooting when the conventional wisdom was still that Hillary would win. Any similarities to the family in the show are coincidental – that was us putting our aerial into the general political and cultural ether, rather than trying to reflect it.

The idea was something like Dallas meets Festen [Thomas Vinterberg’s dark comedy about a family gathering]. I was super-involved with the casting. There’s a lot of responsibility given to the writer – if you fuck up, you fuck up. Luckily we had a brilliant casting director, Francine Maisler, and Adam McKay knew people like Jeremy Strong [who plays Kendall] from The Big Short. Kendall was the hardest to cast. I felt like, if we don’t get this right, it’ll be a big problem.

So when I saw somebody in Jeremy who could do that incredibly engaged, real thing, that made me very happy. One of the first things we shot was him in the back of the car [in episode one] listening to a Beastie Boys track. So often in TV you’re looking at the monitor thinking, “Oh, yeah, that sort of looks a bit like that other TV show that we’re pretending to make.” But I was there, thinking, “Yeah, this might work. This looks right.’”

‘Why do I want to write about evil white men?’: the writers’ room assembles

After the pilot, HBO ordered a series. A writers’ room – staffed by both British and American writers – was assembled in Brixton, London. Among the group was playwright Lucy Prebble, as well as Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche and Jon Brown, who had written for numerous comedies between them, including working with Armstrong on Veep and The Thick of It.

Georgia Pritchett (writer/producer): There was definitely a part of me that thought, why do I want to write about these awful, rich, evil white men who are poisoning society? But having to really dig deep into the characters to find their humanity was an exciting challenge. I’ve always had a soft spot for Roman [played by Kieran Culkin], which is concerning. There’s something about that evil little pixie that I really do love.

The Roy family, played byJeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Brian Cox, Alan Ruck and Kieran Culkin.
The Roy family, played by, from left: Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Brian Cox, Alan Ruck and Kieran Culkin. Photograph: Vincent Tullo/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Jon Brown(writer/producer): I think you could have a version of the show that’s nihilistic and bleak that would be quite fun to write, but I don’t think it would be very fun to watch. But we definitely had a lot of conversations about what we think these people have done in their pasts. Sometimes we talked about something that happened in a character’s life to make them how they are, like Roman’s sexual dysfunction. There’s a temptation to put it in the script, but there’s a risk of that trope where you’re like: “Look at these fuckheads,” but also, “This is what happened to them when they were younger … ”

Tony Roche (writer/producer): In the early days, anything was up for grabs. We wondered whether we should reshoot things from the pilot – maybe Logan didn’t have to have a stroke at the end of episode one, things like that. But looking back, a lot of the building blocks of the show were there already. I remember Jon saying really early on, “Tom and Greg are a brilliant double act,” and Jesse’s face lighting up.

‘I was hauled over the coals for suggesting Marcia would cook a turkey’: creating the world of the Roys

The writers used wealth consultants to factcheck the opulent reality they were creating – as well as conducting their own, occasionally intimate, research.

Pritchett: We got some stuff really wrong in the first season. This big American drama was written by a group of scruffy, shambolic British comedy writers who were excited that someone was paying for their Pret sandwich, so we had to get in some rich consultants. With the Thanksgiving episode in season one, I was hauled over the coals – I had Marcia [Logan’s wife] saying, “I’ll cook a turkey,” and they’re going, “God, she would never even go into the kitchen, she wouldn’t even know where it is.” I had the staff wearing maid’s clothes and they were like, “They would never wear that, they would wear polo shirts and chinos. And oh my God, you’ve got napkins in rings – that’s so gauche and poor.” We had them wearing coats and they were like, “They don’t wear coats, they go from their cars or their jets to their building, their shoes don’t walk on the ground.”

Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett on the set of Succession, season one.
Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett on set: ‘This big American drama was written by a group of scruffy, shambolic British comedy writers.’ Succession, season one. Photograph: Colin Hutton/HBO

Brown: I was tasked with researching Tom’s bachelor party at the sex club [for the episode Prague]. Initially it was going to be a full-on sex party, but we decided to make it more grotty. At one point I got an invitation to go to a swingers’ party on a boat along the Hudson River, and it did feel like an insane moment. I was at a gig with Tony and Jesse at Madison Square Garden, then I get an invite to join a waterborne orgy …

‘Probably nobody’s watching it’: Succession airs

The show’s first season premiered in the US in June 2018, garnering middling to positive reviews. Some critics noted that, after a slow start, the pace picked up around episode six, when Kendall Roy aimed to depose his father at a shareholder meeting for the family’s company, Waystar Royco. Elsewhere, family dynamics slowly unfurled, before the season ended with a shock car crash.

Armstrong: We didn’t go, “Hey, let’s make it a gruelling assault course and then we’ll give some people some sweeties in episode six,” but I’ve heard from more than one person that that was a turning point, when the personal dynamics clicked. Jeremy’s acting is method-derived, kind of Lee Strasberg school … he likes to really try to be experiencing, so he was really running around New York for that episode.

Susan Soon He Stanton (writer/producer): We were shooting in a highway tunnel with Jeremy running, we had to stop the traffic. I think he may have got a hairline break in his foot. Everyone’s personalities are coming to a head in terms of allegiances in that episode, but also there’s the question of whether he might have won if he had done less.

Pritchett: We definitely felt in the first season that nobody was going to watch it. So Jesse could do all of these complex business stories, and we could do a lot of Roman jerking off and doing outrageous things, and we wouldn’t get in trouble. I think it was fun for people to see the politics of the family and not just the politics of the boardroom. I keep meaning to ask Jesse if he got the inspiration for Tom giving Logan the expensive watch from the royal family. There was a story about Princess Diana’s first royal Christmas. She was terrified about what to buy for the Queen and bought some very expensive gift, and then she was mocked: they have everything, so they buy each other silly things like tea towels. Basically what I’m saying is, Tom Wambsgans is Princess Diana.

Roche: From the beginning I think Jesse took the view that the kids are quite international due to being incredibly wealthy, and they had lived in England for a while. One of the things that is maybe unusual about the show is that it’s got this Britishness in its tone. It’s quite irreverent towards its subject, it doesn’t respect its betters. Veep had that, The Thick of It had that, and it’s been really nice to see American audiences get it.

Brown: That’s also true of the look and feel of the show. It can be plush and aspirational, but it also shows the disgusting edges.

Writer/producer Lucy Prebble & Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman, on the of set Succesion, season one.
Writer/producer Lucy Prebble & Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman, on the set of Succession, season one. Photograph: Ursula Coyote/HBO

Roche: There’s something quite British about that, like, “Oh look at this amazing view … but look at the bins over there.” One of the things Jesse wanted to think about was that while great wealth can insulate you from a lot of life’s problems, there are some things that are just inescapable. You can’t make everything pretty all the time.

Armstrong: The season one finale, and the Chappaquiddick-ish car crash, was what they would call in America a big swing. We’d hummed and hawed over it … Sumner Redstone, who ran Viacom, had this extraordinary thing halfway through his life where he was in a hotel fire and jumped out of the window. He was hanging on to the balustrade, clinging on to the metal railings that also got incredibly hot. He got terrible burns all over his body. His career took off afterwards, and he said it had nothing to do with that. But other people feel that maybe that catapulted him. If you look at the life of Redstone, or Robert Maxwell, you’ll find some acts of great heroism, as well as avarice and ill behaviour. Human lives contain a lot of stuff, and if you don’t include some of that I feel like you’re not showing the full picture.

Pritchett: It’s also about: “How much can you get away with when you’re rich?” Which is pretty much anything. I had a lot of ideas about how it might change Kendall and how he’d become a better person. But, no. It certainly affected him for a bit but – rather brilliantly – he’s moved on.

‘I’d been reading about Stalin’: the show gains ground

Succession’s second series saw it gain a reputation as one of the most exciting shows on television. Logan’s paranoia and control only increased, and Kendall ventured into startup culture.

Lucy Prebble (writer/producer): At that point, it felt like people reassessed the show a little bit and really got on board. I think it took a while for people to click into that unique combination of drama and comedy. Season two really pushed the solidity of the tone, and the consistent dark comedy of it. We were thinking a lot about Kendall sort of giving up to some extent, and being a beaten dog, who has been called to heel by his father. And also the idea of Shiv, who has been defined by not being part of the firm, finally being dangled the offer that she has really wanted all her life, and that psychological pain of giving up what it is that defines her.

Brown: A friend watched Hunting, the “Boar on the Floor” episode, recently and said it made them want to crawl out of their own skin. Logan was a monster in the first season, but we see him being even more of a monster. We went through our list of corporate things that the characters could do, and decided they could do a hunting trip – . Jesse liked this idea of Logan keeping his closest allies around him, with the pretence of camaraderie and having a good time, but actually torturing and bullying them psychologically – being paranoid himself, but also fostering that atmosphere of paranoia around him. We were quite nervous because we hadn’t done an episode like it before; we were worried it might feel a bit overblown and heightened compared to how real and closely observed other parts of the show are. But Brian did a phenomenal job and made it feel very real. Everyone on set was terrified.

The cast of Succession in a dinner party scene in the ‘Boar on the Floor’ episode
The ‘Boar on the Floor’ episode: ‘Brian did a phenomenal job. Everyone on set was terrified.’ Succession, season two. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Armstrong: I was keen to get across the correspondence between some of these moguls and authoritarian regimes. I’d been reading a bit about Stalin, and how he would do these dinner parties where he would encourage everyone to get drunk, but he wouldn’t drink. Then he would make horrible jokes to Molotov or whoever about their potential torture or the murder of their colleagues.

Brown: We were in the startup world quite a lot with Vaulter [the new media startup acquired and later shut down by Kendall] in season two, so we looked at lots of companies – at Vice in particular. Tony’s amazing at writing all of that stuff you see on the screens in the office, the satirical versions of what might be on BuzzFeed. All the cards you see up in Kendall’s office were handwritten by Jeremy, based on conversations with the show’s business consultant, Merissa Marr. In New York, we went and toured a few offices. We were looking at locations, but what we were also doing was getting a look at those kinds of companies and the culture, so we sort of went in under a smokescreen. Often you pick up on things like 30 boxed plasma TVs that haven’t been opened, that speak to a company that’s out of control or is misspending.

‘Hype you couldn’t manufacture’: Succession fever arrives

Season two marked out Succession as the show that everyone was watching, with the series winning big at the 2020 Emmys, with prizes for acting, writing, best drama, and directing. The writers were also starting to see a marked change.

Jamie Carragher (writer): I could see that shift happen on Twitter. If you did a cursory search for Succession mid-season one and then again by season two, it had caught people’s imaginations in a way that you can’t manufacture. It got its fanbase organically.

Prebble: Someone in New York put on an off-off-Broadway production of Sands, the play which Willa writes in our show. That sort of thing makes you go: this has gone bonkers.

Carragher: One of our writers went to a wedding where they named the tables after TV characters that they liked, and Cousin Greg was one of them, which was a sign of how things had tipped over.

Roche: I suppose we often thought about it from the media element, but essentially, it’s a family story, and it turns out a lot of people have families, so it’s quite relatable. It is worrying when people say, “Oh, my dad is like Logan,” because you think: “That’s not good.”

Francesca Gardiner (writer): So often as writers, in order to get the stakes that you need, you have a murder plot or a death, but Succession has proven that people are interested in the intricacies of family dynamics. The stakes feel as high as any Scandi noir.

‘We wanted Kendall to wee on his divorce papers’: the cutting room floor

Such is the dense world-building in the series, much of the material that the writers pore over doesn’t even end up making it to TV.

Roche: We film whole news pieces that run in the background on TVs, but even that might never get shown because the camera’s always moving in response to what the actors are doing.

Jeremy Strong as Kendall in season three, surrounded by photographers.
Jeremy Strong as Kendall in season three. Photograph: David M Russell/HBO

Brown: There’s a scene in season three where Connor’s going into a meeting. Jamie [Carragher] wrote a whole page of Connor’s notes, but you literally never see them because I don’t think the cameras are over his shoulder.

Pritchett: One of the writers was getting divorced this season, and went to the loo and accidentally weed on his divorce papers. We thought maybe Kendall could do that, but we never got it in.

‘There’s a civil war coming’: season three

For its third season, the writers’ room moved to London’s Victoria, recruiting more US names including Ted Cohen (Friends, Veep) as it continued to craft the conflict between Kendall and Logan. They wrapped in February 2020, just prior to Covid restrictions being imposed. However, delays in filming necessitated some later rewrites.

Will Arbery (consultant): Before joining Succession I had written a play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which dealt with conservative politics in the US. And I think that this season touches on that more directly than past seasons. I was especially interested in Shiv – because she worked for a progressive politician, and then pivoted back to her family – and the idea of toggling between ideological extremes. I’m also very interested in how Shiv navigates her intensely patriarchal world.

Sarah Snook as Shiv
Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in season three. Photograph: David M Russell/HBO

Ted Cohen (writer): I love writing for underdog characters. And they’re all underdogs, except for Logan, which is probably why it’s so much fun. Tom and Roman are just so heartbreaking. As an American, I always want to create a happy ending and you’re never allowed to do that on Succession. I’m a frustrated optimist. If you’re a member of a family like the Roys, it’s like being a royal: you don’t get to leave. You’re addicted to the pain. So I don’t think it’s done because we’re all sadists or anything like that.

Pritchett: After the finale of season two, Kendall gets to be Meghan. He’s putting himself outside the family. He doesn’t get his Oprah interview, but some other stuff goes down …

Prebble: Because of the Covid delays, we ended up doing quite a lot of rewriting. I’m not sure that was so much pandemic-related as more political – more about how the world was changing. It needed to be imbued with what was happening. Not that we live in a political reality in Succession, but we needed some sense that we didn’t live in Trump’s world any more.

This article comes from Saturday, the new print magazine from the Guardian which combines the best features, culture, lifestyle and travel writing in one beautiful package. Available now in the UK and ROI.

Will Tracy (writer/producer): We needed some sense of the political order crumbling and being replaced by something much more unpredictable. Because it’s a show about a media company, we play it all through the way the message is changing, and how operations like ATN [the Roys’ rightwing news channel] are trying to scramble and maybe shift their branding to reflect new political realities. I think we’re always stronger when we remember that [the business] part of it is really the most important thing to Logan and the family, more so than any actual political ideals, God forbid.

Armstrong: In terms of the Kendall/Logan dynamic, we knew there was a civil war coming in season three. At the end of the last season, Kendall effectively declares corporate and slightly personal war on his dad. People were going to have to pick sides, and that was going to be dramatic.

Watch the Succession season three tailer

‘This doesn’t happen every day’: making season three

After a stop-start shoot due to Covid, during which the writers kept in touch via WhatsApp, season three finally wrapped in summer 2021. A growing fanbase had built up over lockdown, however, and followed them on to the set …

Brown: It’s funny to be around the cast on location when people walk past and they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s Cousin Greg. Can I get a selfie?” It must be pretty exhausting to live in New York and be in the show. I don’t think I could do that. I was checking the Succession Reddit forum while we were shooting, and people were posting photographs of our lunch menu. Unlike in the UK, all the permits that they put up say the name of the show, so people knew where we were.

Roche: It’s a pretty relaxed environment with us – it’s not like Star Wars or anything, we don’t use secret code names – but one day we were walking back from set, and a woman was screaming really loudly on the sidewalk near all our trucks. I thought she’d spotted one of the cast, but she had just seen a sign that said the name of the show next to where our toilets are. And she was so excited. I was like, “Wow, this is unusual – this doesn’t happen every day.”

• Season three of Succession begins on HBO/HBO Max in the US on 17 October, and on Sky Atlantic in the UK on 18 October.


Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

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