“Succession” series creator Jesse Armstrong writes characters who aren’t equipped for their times: either their inflated egos make them see minor slights as major personal challenges or their stunted emotional maturity and intellect make them exactly the wrong people to deal with. a real crisis. In the case of “Succession”, it is often both and the camera responds accordingly.
Director Mark Mylod and cinematographer Patrick Capone have co-directed over 10 episodes of the series—including Season 4 Episode 1, “The Munsters,” Episode 3, “Connor’s Wedding,” and Episode 9, “Church and State” — and I like to keep the audience a couple of seconds behind and constantly recapture the characters and the changing power dynamics of individual scenes. He makes “Succession” sound like it should be for the Roy brothers: one giant bullshit after another.
The 90-minute finale of the series is near, and the boardroom battle between “the Roy boys” and “Shiv the shiv” may be turning around. But watching how Capone breaks down a huge emotional set, seeing when and how the show deviates from its usual visual language, can give us an idea of what that ending will feel like, and which of Logan’s (Brian Cox) abused children could win the company. and lose the series.
The first thing Capone and “Succession” like to do is create a sense of outsized pressure and control over these little billionaires through the contrast between their luxurious surroundings and the emotional turmoil of the moment. It’s why it’s so much fun for the show to screw up weddings; the luxury that the Roys inhabit does nothing to protect them from offenses, real or perceived.
In Logan’s funeral, the camera doesn’t just create the sense of a performance by reducing Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and Frank (Peter Friedman) to the pews. There are self-aware shots of all three Roy brothers (sorry, Connor) standing up to speak on monitors, each flattening their personal woes into an image that can be perceived as more or less valuable (sorry Roman) by the brokers of power in the room. Those monitors are the kind of thing that a very posh house of God, like St. Ignatius Loyola in New York absolutely would be, and Capone and camera operators Gregor Tavenner and Ethan Borsuk have found a way to incorporate that realism while simultaneously pressuring Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Shiv (Sarah Snook).
“We basically used their video system,” Capone told IndieWire. “It was so helpful to convey that to the whole congregation, the whole funeral and especially the eulogy, and it really[created]another level of separation beyond what a normal funeral would have. The title of the episode is ‘Church AND State.’ When you realize what was going on the most – it’s not sacred, but the saddest, most personal of moments, you know, everybody’s doing business and it’s being televised.
It’s actually at Logan’s (granted) mausoleum where the tone lightens and the jokes about tax breaks and top bunks get cracked. Capone and the “Succession” crew worked around the sun to keep that ambiance cool and dreary. Luckily, shooting in NYC in January will reliably land you in some pretty overcast environments. “At the beginning of the episode, I tried to keep everyone’s day as creepy and creepy as I could. We didn’t want to make it too heavy,” Capone said. “Overall, Mark (Mylod) and I had a vision of what we thought this episode should be like. It was supposed to not hit people in the head with sadness. And I think the humor that comes out of the mausoleum is just enough to break it.
The tonal tug between tragedy, comedy and a kind of breathless disbelief is both very funny and very sad and is often conveyed through the movement of the camera and how the operators find the reactions of the characters. All the eulogy was caught on multiple cameras at once, but the energy of the performances has an impact on how shaky or stable the camera feels to the viewer.
“Ewan’s (James Cromwell) eulogy was also hand held, but it’s like a dance. When you feel it’s exciting, when you feel Roman getting upset, you know we feel a gut instinct (to have) more movement and move more around him. Ewan was a more stable basis for a eulogy, so while we’re still holding hands, we didn’t necessarily feel like we had to dance around him so much” Capone said.
It’s a powerful thing that the camera pans to “Succession” when someone’s emotions contract. That feeling of being moored or unmoored can tell us exactly what perspective (or sympathy) the camera is taking on and who is left behind. The long episode 3 sequence that Mylod and Capone shot as an almost 30-minute running comedy does a fantastic job of alternating perspectives between the brothers as they learn that Logan is dead. But the funeral is much less balanced because the power dynamics are different.
When Roman falls apart, the cameras make his disintegration that much more horrific. Even the reaction shots from Mencken (Justin Kirk) and all the pews are more dazzled than Greg (Nicholas Braun) shaking his head during Ewan’s speech. When Kendall speaks, she’s much better able to hold the room’s attention, and the cameras much more smoothly wobble and zoom into her words at key moments. Shiv is much more fragmented—Logan isn’t the only man who has trouble keeping a woman whole in his head—getting shot much closer, more intimately, yet his observations are also much more overwhelmed by backlash. And all these different visual interpretations of the brothers, Capone said, are intuitive, gleaned from the camera operators and from him.
For Shiv’s speech specifically, Capone said knowing the story and the kind of reactions they can get from the cast across four seasons led to a remarkable moment that starts with Karolina (Dagmara Dominczyk) and Gerri but shifts to Kendall. . “We know how certain people will react to certain people talking. And there’s always this Gerri and Shiv thing on my mind: the older, more traditional woman and the new woman. There’s always, you know, how you look at the (Waystar cruise ship scandal) as a young woman and an older woman. There are always those reactions,” Capone said.
The transition to Kendall not having a great day with the women in his life, and choosing to point out his non-reaction to that moment, was also the kind of unplanned kismet that comes with leaving camera operators open where the emotion of a scene takes them to. “Mark Mylod and I are sitting next to monitors all the time and we’re going to know something is going on or the operators instinctively do it,” Capone said.
Part of that instinct comes from how the show adjusts its process to create long, uninterrupted takes that aren’t overly rehearsed beforehand. “Succession” is great at creating the energy of a one-hit wonder: Even if it chooses to cut between camera angles, visually and emotionally, there’s no relief for the Roys. Unsurprisingly, Mylod and Capone repeated their process from Episode 3 this season, extending the length of a take even though they’re shooting with film that can only be about 10 minutes long before the reel needs to be changed.
“At one point we basically did a 20-minute take, similar to the day Logan died,” Capone said. “Camera operator and assistant A had two cameras, and as soon as one film finished, they’d just pick up another one (camera body) and another team would reload it for them. We had five cameras at the funeral but six bodies because we flipped camera A and moved on.
“Succession” also sends clear messages in the way it sometimes chooses to deviate from its usual visual language. Capone brought in five cameras to shoot the funeral sequence and positioned two for high-and-wide shots for the coordinated casket entry and exit, inspired by real-life coverage of the funerals of heads of state. “We shot them at the beginning and end of the scene, and then three cameras would roam the rest of the ceremony,” Capone said.
Those locked shots give the viewer an instinctive sense of the funeral as more than a funeral because nothing with Logan can ever be just about family; it’s also always about power. Capone is especially proud of the tracking shot following Kendall out of the funeral. “We wanted to show that he was almost holding court, and he was ready to accept the reins,” Capone said.
Even though each Roy brother has a moment at the funeral and even as the camera expresses their grief (even Connor’s), the importance to Kendall is evident. It’s a kind of special treatment that makes it clear that she “won” the funeral, though the show also makes it clear that perhaps it comes at too great a cost: When you’ve lost Jess (Juliana Canfield), you’ve lost everything.
But what makes the camerawork in “Succession” so satisfying, instead of busy or distracting, is that the cameras simply let the Roy family hang themselves. “From first word to last, we followed them from room to room,” Capone said. “We never stop shooting. And that’s liberating for the cast. They can just keep moving and go where they feel they need to be.”
Sadly, where the Roys feel they should be is never where they should be. This is the tension that makes “Succession” so compulsively watchable and why it will seem that no matter who sits in Logan’s chair, nothing will ever change.