Succession’s cast and crew on how the show pulled off its greatest trick
This story contains spoilers for the season four episode of Succession, Connor’s Wedding. Every week The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald will be recapping the latest episode of Succession. You can listen to our recap podcast here.
Is it possible to grieve for a TV character who was both highly problematic and almost definitely emotionally abusive? Yes. Is it happening to so many of us right now? Certainly. Did the LA Times run a very real obituary for a made-up media mogul? Indeed.
While the dust is still settling on the decision to kill Logan Roy, Succession is being widely celebrated not just for the bravery of making that call but the skill with which it was pulled off. In TV-land, killing a central character is an area that can make or break your series; one wrong move and you’ve jumped the shark.
The natural question following Logan’s death might be “Why has it happened?” but given how masterfully the episode presented, it feels more pertinent to ask: “How exactly did they pull it off?”
Breaking it to Brian Cox
It’s never easy to tell your lead actor that his character is set to die, especially when that actor has become famous for weaponising the term “f— off.” So spare a thought for Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, who faced the prospect of breaking the news to Brian Cox over lunch.
“He took it like a total pro; he was decent and kind, yeah it was a good meeting, but a sad and significant one,” Armstrong revealed in a behind-the-scenes vignette.
Succession creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong. That would be the exact face I would also pull when telling Brian Cox he was about to be killed off the best show on television.Credit: Screenshot
Cox was told of the decision just weeks before production began on season four. “Jesse told me right before the season started, this was going to happen,” the Scottish actor confirmed to Deadline. “And I knew that I was going to be going; I’m very proud of myself that I managed to keep this secret.”
One take of heartbreak
The sequence where the siblings learn that Logan died en route to Sweden will go down as one of the finest scenes in Succession’s history, a naturally emotional moment heightened by the way it was shot.
For director Mark Mylod it became crucial that the sequence was captured in one unbroken, unflinching take. “In the planning of the shots, the camera had to be sadistically voyeuristic; it had to stay really close without taking its eye off them”, he explains.
In order to capture the emotional landscape required, director Mark Mylod opted to shoot the ‘phone call’ scene in one single take using three cameras. Credit: HBO / BINGE
The only problem is, Succession is shot using multiple 35-mm film cameras with magazines that could hold a maximum of ten minutes of footage before reloading. And this was going to be a single 28-minute take.
“The camera operators hid rolls of film around the set, and we hid a third camera body, so basically, we were doing superfast reloads, making sure that one camera would always be running, so they would need to reload at the same time.”
Mark Mylod has revealed the exhausting 28-minute take that changed the course of SuccessionCredit: Screenshot
The end result? Kieran Culkin said, “It was like doing a one-act play on a boat. Across several rooms with hundreds of background actors and three hidden cameras.”
Filming the death scene
Part of what made Logan’s exit from the series so grand was that it wasn’t grand at all. After three and a half seasons of mythological presence, the great Logan Roy keels over in a bathroom, sight unseen.
In an interview with Variety, Mylod explains the logic behind not delivering audiences an indulgent Logan death scene.
“Instinctively, it felt oddly disrespectful. It became a point of discussion, chatting to Jesse about it, and he felt exactly the same as I did,” says Mylod. “So we moved forward with that, and we just showed Brian’s face, or Logan’s face, just the one time in what, I hope, is quite a poignant scene of the phone being up against his ear.”
The decision was also made not to force Cox to play dead – literally – so the body we see on the plane is a stunt double.
“Getting into the real machinations of it, 90 per cent of the time, it was a stunt double down there, that one shot where you see of Brian laying on the floor, whilst the heart compressions continue, is actually a composite shot and Brian’s head – we stuck them together in post.”
It’s 2 am in London
To maintain the level of emotion required on set Mylod wanted to ensure that the actors were bouncing off one another in real time. The Roy siblings finding out Logan had died was the first sequence shot for this episode, meaning Welsh actor Matthew Macfadyen (whose scene on the plane was filmed after the boat) had to jump on the phone to deliver his lines.
Welsh actor Matthew Macfadyen on the set of Succession.Credit: Screenshot
“When we were shooting on the boat, Matthew was always there on the phone. He was actually in London at the time — the poor man was with us until two o’clock in the morning sometimes,” Mylod tells Variety.
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the cast returned the favour when the time came for Macfadyen to film his scenes. “When we get onto the plane, the rest of the cast, the other siblings, were there off-camera for him to give him the kind of quid pro quo back.”
Keeping the send-off a secret
In a strange case of life imitating art, production was wary that if Logan’s death leaked, there would be real-world consequences (maybe the stock market wouldn’t crash, but fans would undoubtedly be sad). To avoid spoilers, the cast and crew signed NDAs, especially those involved with the boat scene, including more than 250 extras.
“We spoke to the extras and asked them for their cooperation, and on that occasion as well as on subsequent episodes, everybody kept themselves zipped,” Mylod explained to Vulture.
The director also confirms that Cox was invited back to set on several occasions to film scenes that were ultimately a ruse. “We basically bring him on to shoot dummy scenes — scenes that didn’t actually exist. As a misdirect.”
But the greatest bit of misdirection fell to Brian Cox, who crashed the filming of his own funeral just to confuse paparazzi stalking the set.
“As soon as I got out of the car, paparazzi were shooting me left, right and centre, and therefore, they thought, Logan’s at the funeral, what is he doing?,” the actor told Deadline.
Succession is dropping new episodes every Monday on Foxtel and Binge.
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