Succession was Lorene Scafaria‘s favorite television show, so the director of 2019’s hit movie Hustlers was beyond thrilled to get the opportunity to direct what turned out to be some of the most memorable episodes of HBO’s acclaimed drama series.
The fourth and final season of Succession earned 27 Emmy nominations, including three nods for directing — one of which went to Scafaria for her episode “Living+.” That episode took the Roy family to Los Angeles and followed Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) grief-stricken children (Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, and Kieran Culkin) as they jockeyed for control of their father’s global media empire, Waystar Royco, following his shocking death.
Scafaria also directed the Season 4 episode “Honeymoon States,” which unfolds at Logan’s wake. She told Above the Line about working with creator Jesse Armstrong and why she’s thankful that he gives his cast — and directors — the freedom to improvise, and she also offered her thoughts on the epic finale that ultimately revealed Logan’s successor.
Above the Line: Congrats on your Emmy nomination, which comes alongside two of your fellow Succession directors — Mark Mylod and Andrij Parekh. How does it feel to be recognized by the TV Academy?
Lorene Scafaria: I’m just so deeply honored, of course, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of this extraordinary show. I was beyond thrilled to be invited in in the first place and [to] get invited back to do two episodes. So I’m just really grateful to Jesse Armstrong and everyone involved — the writers, the actors, [and] the crew, who make everybody look good. All the ideas onscreen are born out of such fantastic scripts, and these actors are just so extraordinary, so it’s incredible to just be a part of this show.
ATL: You’ve directed three pivotal episodes during Succession’s run, but tell me about how you originally landed the gig.
Scafaria: Well, it was February 2020, so in hindsight, they were our last weeks on Earth as we knew it. And I had just finished the press cycle [for] my last film, Hustlers, and I was back home and writing and sitting [laughs]. But directing is my true love, and Succession is and was my favorite show. So I put my hat in the ring, kind of unsolicited, and was lucky enough to get an interview with Jesse and Mark Mylod, and thankfully, it went alright.
Of course, everything got pushed, so it wasn’t until over a year later that I went and filmed Kendall’s birthday episode. It was surreal after being inside for, like, a year straight. The airport was the first place I went, and then Waystar Royco was really the first place I had set foot in.
ATL: I’m going to come back to Kendall’s 40th birthday bash in a minute, but I want to first talk about Episode 404, “Honeymoon States,” the one after Logan Roy’s shocking death, which takes place entirely at his wake as various characters position themselves for the interim CEO gig. You’ve said you were inspired by Ingmar Bergman and Eugene O’Neill in your approach to the drama unfolding at one location, yet there’s also humor.
Scafaria: It was a brilliant episode written by Jesse and Lucy Prebble, and the entire premise of being the one after “the one” was completely daunting, but a sincere joy. It just had that very intimate ensemble play feeling. And in all three of my episodes, we did focus on the siblings. So it was really fascinating to kind of have to take up the mantle of the title of the show and really deliver on the premise of who was going to step up.
I can’t believe how lucky I got with that episode and just how much fun it was to actually do [it]. To figure out the certain limitations [of] and certainly pressure that I felt on the episode, I just knew it was going to be the most eyeballs up until that point, but also the first one without the Big Man.
I really wanted to go in with a philosophy that applied to the episode, specifically. I kind of like to go into each of them differently because they are so different from each other, even though, of course, there’s always the root of the show itself. So it was daunting, but it was really fun.
ATL: Two episodes later, you directed “Living+,” your nominated episode in which the Waystar Royco team travels to L.A. So what was it like shooting there compared to the typical Succession locations in New York?
Scafaria: I wanted to lean into what felt like a movie on the page and present Waystar L.A. and lean into that. To see Roman on the back of a golf cart, to see Kendall at the ocean at the end. Those were sort of these two scenes that I felt like I could bring to this episode. So it did just feel like these big kids [who] were playing “grown up[s].” They had their first boardroom meeting without Dad in that episode. And, of course, then Roman goes on his firing spree. And so [it’s] another one in the trilogy, I think, for the siblings. They really do start and end in very different places in that episode, so it was another big one that they gave me.
ATL: Absolutely. And as an Angeleno, I love some of that iconic imagery you’re talking about on the golf cart and at the ocean. Tell me how you collaborated with your DP and also the cast for blocking and choreographing the dialogue in your episodes.
Scafaria: My DP on both of these episodes was Katelin Arizmendi, who’s incredibly talented. She also shot the movie Monica this year. That’s just my favorite film of this year. Extraordinary. She is incredibly talented. So we went in with a real plan each time, even though the show is incredibly spontaneous and it’s best when you keep it on its feet.
And so it would depend on the scene and what was asked of the actors and how intense it could be, and how much needed to happen in one day. So, [in] Episode 404, the blocking was such a huge part of it. There was a 17-page sequence that we shot without cutting. And so it was pretty essential on that day that I got everybody moving in the direction that I had hoped they would. Katelin and I would go in with a very strong plan after going over everything the night before. Something like the product launch in 406 was something that we needed to have a clear plan for, but then also wanted to keep very much alive for Jeremy.
ATL: And then how much room is there for ad-libbing, as it seems like there’s a lot…
Scafaria: There’s so much room for ad-libbing. We would always do at least one take, if not more, that… I’m sure they all have different phrases… [but] I would just call it a “fun one,” and certainly, everybody could talk over each other. That was always encouraged, actually.
The camera operators were just so great. So, there was no question we’d be picking things off as we’d go. But because I would really like to block and compose each shot, I would certainly try to have a set-up for something besides just the sort of run-and-gun style that you could easily fall into because the cast is so good [and] the writing is so good. But the ad-libbing is so much fun. And, of course, all of them, actually, are brilliant at it, but certain ones certainly like to exercise it more than others.
Jesse just allows for a lot of freedom — for the actors and for the directors. He and the writers all have a very clear vision, and to Jesse and Mark’s credit, they really allowed the directors to bring in their distinct choices. It’s just an incredibly collaborative place. I think it was always best to have a plan, but it worked best when you go in and play in the way that’s best for the actors and [the] writing — to keep it alive.
ATL: It’s great to hear about that freedom, because so many dramas on television are just the script read word-for-word, and some creators get upset if there’s a deviation, so it’s wonderful to hear about this different philosophy.
Scafaria: It’s Jesse at the helm and he really would allow for new ideas to come from different places and allow the actors to certainly question certain things on the page. I think Logan was supposed to die in Season 1. Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and Roman’s relationship was born out of these two actors having incredible chemistry. Kerry’s evolution came from Zoe Winters just being a hilarious genius. Matsson’s storyline is because Alexander [Skarsgård] is just such a strong presence. I think that’s what made the show so special — it was just so intelligent and it finished so strong. You knew what it was the entire time, but it was so alive. So, so alive.
ATl: Absolutely. Let’s go back to Kendall’s 40th birthday bash in Episode 307 and the giant vagina. Tell me about that and some other highlights from that episode.
Scafaria: That was just so much fun to shoot the most manic Kendall episode ever with ideas like that on the page. Certainly, the writers of the episode deserve all the credit in the world for [those] — Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett and the whole room, I’m sure. But Stephen Carter, the production designer, is also just the MVP of that episode. He really built those legs. There were a lot of discussions about the shade of pink. I know Barbie covered a lot of that later. This was a little bit different but in a similar world.
The tunnel was such a spectacle and we got to build a lot of the sets for it, but also combine it with this really incredible [New York City] location called The Shed that allowed for so much scope. And it was during Covid, so it was a really challenging shoot. But it was so many background performers, and so much fun to try to pull off all of Kendall’s manic ideas, [which] only grew and grew. The more that we would speak about them, the more that Jeremy and I would discuss, like, a scene where he’s looking for the gift in the room from his kids. That was just such a special day, and there was just so much buildup to it because I think he recognized how special it was on the page, and I recognized how special it was on the page.
I couldn’t believe I got to be there for it, and I just wanted to create a space for him [where] he felt comfortable doing his best work. There were a lot of drawings going around back and forth between Jeremy, Stephen, and myself — a lot of discovery [regarding] what that room looked like. I’m not sure it’s exactly what Jesse pictured in the first place, but I think it ended up being just a really powerful scene. And I think Jeremy did his best work. He’s extraordinary in everything, of course, but it was fun to see him really push it.
ATL: Let’s talk about the climatic series finale and how viewers were left with some huge surprises. What are your thoughts on how it was left with Shiv [Roy] and Tom [Wambsgans] unhappily riding off toward an unknown future together, yet knowing she’s carrying his child?
Scafaria: I thought it was a perfect episode. It’s a perfect ending. It aims high. It’s Shakespearean. I think everyone ended up where they should — because it’s a tragedy. It still gave you some wins, and Tom could seem like a winner, in a way. But Matsson really is the only actual winner, I think, in the episode. But seeing Tom on top as the most corporate masochistic man in a suit, willing to eat the most trash at the trash factory…
I think that that was the correct ending, again, for a tragedy — for Shiv. It is so difficult to see her sitting next to him, so close to the thing that she wants the most. Ultimately, she had to pick the winner, in a way. I think that’s what that ridiculous handhold feels like. It’s sort of giving in to something. I feel the worst for her, in a way. I think she fell the furthest at that late stage.
I think Kendall always had to lose. He couldn’t have it. What was happening in that room with that showdown with the three of them…
I think even in that episode, even as a Kendall lover, I knew I couldn’t really root for him after he pressed Roman’s wound into his shoulder. No matter what the double meaning was behind that, I thought that was just so brutal. And, so, he also got the punishment he deserved — just the biblical Shakespearean ending to leave him wandering like a ghost.
ATL: That’s a great way to put it, Lorene. You have said that your experiences during the episodes you’ve directed have been a dream. So what do you think and hope Succession‘s legacy will be?
Scafaria: Oh, gosh, they have been a dream. I learned so much working with this group of people, and I learned so much as a director working with this level of writing. So, when I think of the legacy of the show, there’s certainly a few shows in recent history that have landed for people — The Sopranos obviously, and Six Feet Under is another one that was, for me, anyway, really impactful.
Mark, Andrij, the two other directors in this category who I’m rooting for, I think they could speak to it better, but I’d like to think that the legacy is about writers and brilliant writing and what Jesse Armstrong created. It’s just such an incredible story — the structure of the show and the premise.
But I’ve had so many friends who’ve seen themselves in this and I think that’s what’s so interesting about characters like this. I’ve known people who haven’t wanted to watch the show because they’ve thought, “I hate those people. I couldn’t possibly watch these people.” But I think we are unpacking their trauma with them, and I think that’s why we don’t hate these characters as much as we should. And the show is just the greatest exercise in empathy. Can you care about a billionaire asshole? Because everybody hurts. I think that’s why the show is so special, because if all writing is an exercise in empathy, if that’s sort of the point of storytelling, then this is just the greatest example of that.
ATL: As a creative person in the industry right now, with the two strikes going on, what are your biggest concerns?
Scafaria: My biggest concerns right now are that everybody’s been treated unfairly in this sausage factory that we live in. And I think because at the end of the day, in art and entertainment, there’s an assumption that there aren’t people working on all levels. But there are, and they’re being treated unfairly and writers have been taking the flack for a long time.
I’m certainly concerned about AI, more so for actors, actually. But it’s very dangerous for any group to think that it only affects one group. For anyone who’s ever tried to write a screenplay on ChatGPT, it can’t be done. So, I think it is incredibly dangerous for executives to think that it’s not also coming for them. And so everybody needs to just remember on a human level that we’re all trying at the same thing.
There are a lot of people making a lot of money, and there are a lot of people not making a lot of money. And the system is obviously broken, and I hope it gets resolved quickly and fairly. And, certainly, I’m in full support of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. I’ve been member of both for a long time.
All four seasons of Succession are now available on HBO and streaming on Max.