How ‘Succession’ Trapped the Roy Family in a ‘VIP Room’ of Grief in Episode 3
It feels weird to spoiler warn something “Succession” has built towards and hinted at since the pilot. But spoilers abound!
Death comes for us all, even for Logan Roy (Brian Cox). ITheinescapability of that truth, as much as any tears, denial, guilt, and/or panic, takes Episode 3, “Connor’s Wedding,” so affecting. And it is the rhythm of the edit and, as director Mark Mylod put it, the “sadism” of the camera that refuses to let the Roys beg, browbeat, or weasel their way past the one force even Logan couldn’t cow: time.
Mylod and cinematographer Patrick Capone hammer home the helplessness of this moment and the illogical gravity of grief by delivering maybe the fullest version of the visual and dramatic approach that has made “Succession” so remarkable. They, veteran camera operators Gregor Tavenner and Ethan Borsuk, and the shows’ actors stress-tested the series’ preference for shooting as freshly as possible with as long a take as possible. The limit for takes on “Succession” is usually about 10 minutes, as the show shoots with film that must be reloaded once the reel is used up. But for the sequence where the siblings learn that Logan died en route to Sweden (putting business over family until the very end), Mylod and the actors wanted to cover about 30 pages of material in one go.
“That felt like it really needed to be an unbroken take, an unflinching take,” Mylod told IndieWire. “Normally, if there’s a [dramatic] moment, we explore it fully and even go beyond it, so having to artificially say, ‘OK, we have to cut there because the camera’s run out,’ felt just a little less than satisfying, even though the work that the actors and everybody was doing was fantastic. Patrick Capone, my brilliant friend and DP, was the key to it. The camera team basically worked out a way where they could have the two camera operators hide a bunch of film magazines around the set all over the place. Perhaps even a third camera body to pick up at some point. And [we just went] for it [and] I’m so glad we did. I’m really proud of that take.”
Macall B. Polay / HBO
The show’s two cameras dance around the actors, exposing how small Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) are by moving through the scene with them and reacting like an unseen person in the room who is turning to us and oh-so-quietly whispering, “What the fuck?” For this massive 30-minute take, a third camera was added so that as one camera did a quick reload, at least one operator was always following the siblings wherever they went and however they navigated the multiple decks of the ship to find somewhere less exposed to process the shock of losing their father.
But one of the great joys of “Succession” has always been that the trappings of wealth do not necessarily afford the Roys any dignity. Setting Connor’s (Alan Ruck) wedding aboard a yacht in the New York harbor, underneath a bright and beautiful blue sky, played a key part in how Mylod and Capone use composition to create the feeling of sudden, isolating grief. “The positioning of the boat with the stern facing out into New York Harbor was to me a lovely visual contradiction,” Mylod said.
“On the one hand, you have all the freedom of the water and the harbor and the great adventure of New York City out beyond. But at the same time, these characters are trapped in this little glass cage, in this VIP room, trapped in their grief and in their frustration of not being able to get the knowledge or comfort they seek. That, to me, was the perfect visual juxtaposition. And so when Kendall finally goes up onto the deck, that’s the first time you can properly breathe,” Mylod said.
Courtesy of Macall B. Polay / HBO
But one of the ingenious things about the episode is that the visuals don’t draw attention to themselves as technical feats. In fact, the show deliberately diffuses most of the bravura camera moves with quick cut-ins so that nothing feels like a “Oner” with a Capital O, and so the perspective of the camera never distracts from the emotion of the sequence.
“One of the things I’m most proud of in the whole way that we’ve evolved this way of shooting is this dance that’s evolved between the camera operators and the actors over the years,” Mylod said. “We’ve tried to evolve this idea of the camera, and therefore by extension the viewer and sometimes the characters themselves, barely keeping up with events. The whole way in which we try to manifest [this approach] is that we rarely rehearse, and we never rehearse with cameras. We throw the actors and the camera operators together into a space, with sometimes very little guidance from me. They’ve just learned to anticipate one another – I don’t know of any other show that does that in quite the same way – and I’m really proud of it.”
The frisson of the actor and camera scrambling for perspective and control is beautifully, heartbreakingly counterbalanced in Logan’s death scene by cutting back to the scene onboard the airplane. The episode uses each new shot of Tom (Matthew MacFadyen) on the plane as a kind of punctuation mark that only feeds the desperation and denial on the boat.
Macall B. Polay / HBO
“The biggest single dilemma, for me anyway, was the aircraft side of [Logan’s death sequence] initially. Particularly during that 30-page section, a lot of that was supposed to be played off in that you’d hear Tom on the phone, obviously, and that was Matthew live [on the call] each time. But you wouldn’t necessarily cut to the aircraft much, if at all, during that section. But we thought we’d shoot it anyway, and Matthew and the rest of the cast on the plane were so damn compelling. It was really hard to get the balance between intercutting the boat and the aircraft at that point in the story,” Mylod said. “We ended up cutting to Matthew’s side of the call a lot more than we originally intended because he was so good.”
The other moment in the episode that was both planned and surprising was the final shot: Kendall alone on the tarmac after his father’s body is taken off the plane. That was always the final moment of the script, but Mylod didn’t call cut. “We let the moment play on. And actually, you know, in certain takes, Jeremy’s character broke down completely, emotionally. One of the takes, one of my favorites, was a continuation of the one we actually used. The moon happened to be rising very beautifully behind him.”
In that unused take, Mylod let the camera roll past Kendall getting into his car, the ambulance driving away, the police cars leaving, and the press trudging away on the other side of the fence. Mylod held on a very “lone and level sands” composition of just the plane sitting on the runway. “There was that lovely kind of emptying of the stage, you know. The play is over, and all the players exiting. That was really beautiful and very emotional for me,” Mylod said. “It would’ve been beautiful, and Nicholas Britell would’ve scored the hell out of it. But the right moment was [the one in the episode]. It’s the zenith, all the complications and contradictions going through Kendall’s head, seeing his father’s body there.”
Nothing better encapsulates the visual sensibility of “Succession” than that preference for finding landscapes that betray the characters’ ambitions, making them look small, showing them at that peak moment when their emotions leak through, and then cutting away. Much like Logan himself, the show’s cameras always put business over pleasure.
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