- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong was gearing up to shoot the third season of his Emmy-nominated HBO drama when the COVID-19 outbreak pushed filming back indefinitely. Unable to be in production in New York, he’s spent much of the shutdown in the U.K. fine-tuning the season three scripts instead — that way he’ll be ready to go as soon as they can figure out how to safely film the show, which is up for 18 Emmy nominations, this fall. From his home in London, Armstrong opens up about the tentative date for resuming production, how he’s reworking the scripts to be more filmable and whether there are any plans for a pandemic storyline in the upcoming season.
I realize everything is very fluid at the moment and no one has a crystal ball, but is there a tentative plan for when you’ll try to start filming?
The tentative plan is, ideally, in the late fall around Christmas to start shooting, but it’s nothing we can totally commit to because we just have to respond to the situation with the pandemic. But we’re trying to make plans, and I’m trying to focus my own mind and that of my fellow writers on a realistic timetable. Ultimately, nobody knows, so we’ve got to try and remain flexible.
Did you take into consideration the fact that the virus might very well get worse during the winter months? Was that part of the discussion?
I mean, we don’t have our own World Health Organization, so it’s the same information as everyone else has. And yeah, there’s a lot of speculation and some days it feels better and other days it feels worse. It’s just totally beyond our control. We have to try and in some Buddhist way to learn to live with the uncertainty.
Has the story that you planned to tell changed due to the pandemic? Are you rewriting anything to make it more filmable amid the virus?
If you would excuse me, I won’t get into the stuff of the next season, just so it’s fresh for when people get it and enjoy it, hopefully. But I’m being flexible if there are things creatively that I and the writing team can do to make it more filmable. We won’t make any compromises which mean the show is worse, but we are willing to think about how we can do this thing safely on a doable timeline. We’re trying to help the physical production from the writing room.
What’s your favorite scene from the past season?
I wrote a big scene in the last episode where there’s lots of recriminations going on around the table on the yacht. From early on, you think, “What’s going to be the heart of the episode?” It felt like when you’re putting the cards on the wall. Like, who’s going to take the rap for this? Who is going to go to prison? And we were all on that boat together, so it was quite an exciting, creative time to film.
That one was a crowd-pleaser.
And then there’s a scene in the safe room episode, where Shiv and Kendall have a moment of brother and sisterly connection where they had been jousting as they frequently are, jockeying for their father’s affections and their positions, and there’s a moment of honesty where Kendall kind of tells his sister he doesn’t think he’s ever going to be able to fulfill the ambition [to take over their dad’s company], which has always been dangling in front of them as this great, meaningful thing in their lives. And it was really just a magic moment on set where — I don’t know, I may be getting soppy about the show and the characters, but I was reduced to tears by the level of Sarah [Snook] and Jeremy [Strong]’s performance.
Was there a scene that was particularly hard to write?
I do remember we built this set for the Senate hearings in episode nine, and I was behind on finishing the script. So the set was built before I had completed my really solid draft of it. I remember going in and seeing this pretty impressive senatorial edifice growing when I hadn’t written the words to fill it, and that gave me the heebie-jeebies. But on the day, even though [the actors’] stuff came in quite late, they learned it so well and we managed to whip through so quickly that we had the opportunity to write a bunch of extra questions from the senators and put them under real pressure so that the stuff was coming at them pretty late. So that was one of those things where you find yourself in the dressing room at Silvercup [Studios] hammering out questions to senators. It’s fun, but it feels high-pressure when they’re downstairs waiting for you to run down with the questions.
Do you like keeping the actors on their toes?
Yeah. I don’t want to sound like I’m a puppet master because they’re pretty weighty puppets, but I think they enjoy it, too — the feeling that things might change.
The Succession jokes abounded when James Murdoch resigned from News Corp in July. How much do you pay attention to news like that as you’re writing?
Oh, we read and consume it all. The fact that it’s not meant to be a portrait of any one family doesn’t mean that we don’t read all that stuff. Frankly, it’s money for free for writers, whether it’s a story about Sumner Redstone or Comcast or any of the Mercers and the Murdochs. And Ghislaine Maxwell, who’s the scion of a British media baron, Robert Maxwell. We feel total freedom to not use 98 percent of it, but 2 percent of it can start great plotlines.
Do you feel like there’s any misconceptions about the show that you’d like to clear up?
Not really. I feel like the great pleasure of doing a show is that you try and say something without saying it. You’re trying to make people feel a certain way and certain things without saying them out loud and the danger of playing that particular game is that people might misconstrue you or not hear you clearly because you don’t want to be too clear because then it feels like you’re writing propaganda or you’re in the world of politics, not in the world of craft and art. So I don’t mind. It’s all our fault, up to a point, what we’ve done.
What’s the likelihood we’ll see a pandemic storyline in an upcoming season of the show? How do you imagine the Roy family would act in the current crisis?
Well, I don’t want to get into what we’ve got in the show, but I would expect them to behave with the highest ethical standards, as they always do. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And The Odds Are..
Outside of Watchmen walking away with the limited series title, the 2020 Emmys seem to offer few sure bets. If you’re talking about almost sure bets, however, Succession may be just that. HBO’s sophomore drama was an instant industry favorite when it premiered in 2018. And while it stood zero chance of topping network neighbor Game of Thrones to win best drama in 2019, its first Emmys did include one very auspicious win in drama writing for creator Jesse Armstrong. Ozark and, to a lesser extent, The Crown present real threats to Succession‘s favorite status. But many insiders have been saying for nearly a year, back when the series’ sophomore run seemed to outshine the season that preceded it, that this race is Succession‘s to lose. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day