Lorene Scafaria knows how to portray characters who run the gamut from ridiculous to melancholic and deeply human. The writer and director behind Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Meddler and Hustlers was a fitting choice for the world of HBO’s Succession, in which characters display a wide range of intense emotions.
Last year, the filmmaker received an Emmy nomination for directing “Too Much Birthday,” in which Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) performed a birthday rap. Once again, Scafaria helped deliver another memorable moment from the prince of cringe in the last season’s episode, “Living+”, one of the two episodes she directed in the final season.
Recently, Scafaria talked to Below-The-Line about her time working on the episode as well as the rest of her fulfilling experience on Succession.
Below-the-Line: How are you feeling about the nomination? I imagine good.
Scafaria: [laughs] I’m certainly feeling very good just to be honored and just grateful to [creator] Jessie [Armstrong] and everyone else involved. It’s an extraordinary show. I’m sure the writers will make everybody look good. Yes, quite pleased.
BTL: “Living+” was such a great episode. I was wondering, being a very good writer yourself, when you got that script, what was it that you appreciated about it as a piece of storytelling?
Scafaria: I often think that an exciting episode of TV is often just made up of very fascinating scenes and memorable scenes. I also remember the first time I looked at the script, just saying, “Wow, I can’t believe we get to do Bitey.” It felt like it was already part of the Biteguard, and so at the time, I was reading the phrase Bitey, I couldn’t believe what we were going to get to do with Tom and Shiv.
I also just specifically love the writing of Georgia Pritchett and Bill Larbery. They’re just so talented. I’ve worked with Georgia before. I was incredibly lucky on the show to get the script. That was pretty stacked. It’s so memorable.
BTL: The writing gives audiences so many fun lines to read between. Are there certain choices you’re making with your DP about how to preserve this space for an audience to take what you will from this moment?
Scafaria: Oh, yes, certainly. The beauty of a show like this is obviously there’s certain things about the visual language of it or possibly even more about just the style of shooting, where you want to keep it alive for the actors as much as possible. Go in and play in the way that’s best for them and for the writing. Yet, I think each episode, and obviously, each scene, just calls for certain choices. There’s a lot of freedom on the show for the directors. It’s incredibly collaborative. Jessie, he certainly has a vision for the show, but that’s not necessarily where he’s calling all the shots.
The two episodes I did this year were just very, very different. I think when you look back at them, they feel very different. They look very different because they call for different things. The first episode was much more contained and more like a living play and something that was in real-time. “Living+” was very different from that with falling and culminating that location with then possibly less characters to focus on.
That way, it became very much honed in on the siblings, and there are some choices built around. What was really on the plate and that’s really the beauty of a show like this. All the ideas on the screen are born out of these fantastic scripts. We get into a room with these actors and have this cast. There would be things I would be going in, and I got to draw more on my experience in theater. I think that’s what the show offers up. There’s so much room to just keep it alive and that’s what these actors do best.
BTL: When you saw the finale, did you look at your two episodes and interpret them differently?
Scafaria: I can’t say I interpreted them differently just because I knew the arc of the show very early on before I knew which episodes I was doing. I knew where it went. The biggest challenge is keeping that a secret from everyone I knew forever and ever because nobody wanted to know. No, I think, if anything, I felt like the show was just really stuck the landing. There was just a perfect episode, a perfect ending, a perfect tragedy, a perfect Shakespearean tragedy [laughs]. I think where everybody ended up, Tom and Shiv and Roman and Connor, it was all just right. They were perfectly calibrated. It was so satisfying.
It was also just so brutal, but so believable. Some bad guys are rewarded for bad behavior. Others like Jerry and Karolina, and Willa, I think they got some wins there. [laughs] The three siblings had to go down for their fatal flaws. Yes, it’s brutal to watch, especially as someone who really fell in love with all those parts. That is a perfect tragedy.
BTL: Is there as much room to play in the editing room as there is on the set?
Scafaria: The scripts come in really long. Something like Living+ is probably an 88-page script that was about an hour and a half cut for the first assembly. I actually do try to get them down. I don’t try to take it all out, obviously, and hand them something that I think the writer would probably like to see. Some versions of things that I do try to at least get 12 to 15 minutes out on my own. Something like Score was so exciting. I remember sending Jesse some messages saying maybe there would be some spots or some new pieces of Score and Living+, in particular, because it hits certain highs that I’m not sure will even come again after that episode.
Something like seeing a candle at the beach, which there was a lot of debate about whether or not was going to end up in the final edit. Anyway, it was something I was really pulling for. I remember when I watched it back for the first time with [the composer] Nicholas [Britell], a new piece of score that I hadn’t heard there before, and it just gave me chills because it wasn’t really something I was editing to. It was something that I was editing to obviously another piece of his score, something like it. That of course, he brought so much more to it. It was exciting to obviously be able to pass along that message and be heard by someone as brilliant as Jesse and feel that interpretation by someone as brilliant as Nicholas Britell.
BTL: Speaking of great collaborators, [costume designer] Michelle Matland’s jacket for Kendall in “Living +”…
Scafaria: [laughs] Yes.
BTL: What was your reaction when you saw it?
Scafaria: I have to give credit to Jeremy Strong because Jeremy is really the one who, from the very beginning, I think he was the one who said he loves this corporate environment, but he wanted to bring something that he thought Kendall would bring to it. I remember we were talking about the jersey, the baseball uniform that he wore for the birthday rap he did. I thought that brought so much to that episode, so very early on, there were conversations between me and Jeremy and Michelle about, is it a flight suit?
Flight suit’s probably too over the top, but about a flight jacket that brings in those Top Gun: Maverick vibes, but also feels incredibly fascist. I think the stroke of genius on Michelle’s part is where she placed that ATN patch. It’s right on the left sleeve. For all of us that were watching it in the room, it’s obviously very funny.
Seeing Kendall go over the top yet again was so exciting, but it was also just incredibly eerie, a very ominous feeling in the room with the thing where it just blurred a lot of lines. Yes, it was an incredible collaboration between Jeremy and Michelle. I was just very encouraged by the idea because I thought it would just bring so much to this theme that again, I could feel the basic product launch. Let’s face it, when Kendall gets the microphone in front of him, it is anything but basic, so very fun [laughs].
BTL: It’s also perfect because the tone of the show is so funny, but it’s not as silly as real life. I mean, Ron DeSantis did a Top Gun ad in a similar style.
Scarafia: [laughs] Yes. Yes, life is beyond satire. Real life is beyond satire. I think if anything, the show shows incredible restraint in what it shows as reality and what it is satirizing because it’s also a testament to all the actors on the show who nobody is playing a direct translation of just one character in real life. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Lukas Matsson as this Elon Musk type. Are you kidding? Matsson does a lot of things. He’s certainly bad in it, but there’s so many different colors to that character. I think that’s what the show does brilliantly, what the writers do brilliantly, what the actors bring to it, it’s very real. It’s very grounded.
Yes, I’ve also heard it described as an American drama or an English comedy [laughs]. In a way, I suppose I saw a screening of one of the episodes in London, and it was just a laugh-out-loud riot. I think it really does depend on what your real life is satirizing and what you see around you and in the news. Yes, it’s not far from the truth, that’s for sure. It’s also something that, again, I just think it shows great restraint and what it doesn’t paint so obviously.
BTL: There is so much dialogue in that product launch scene. When you have that many lines to get through, what do you and don’t you want to do visually?
Scafaria: Yes. Like everything, I would like to keep everything feeling as real as possible for the actors who are in the scenes, and so that day was the most daunting day on set. It’s certainly the day on the schedule that I feared the most, so we just went in with a really solid plan. I wanted Jeremy to be able to run the presentation from beginning to end, including talking with the press and all the way through Tom coming on stage. We did five full takes I want to say. Two setups on stage with him, one in front of him, one behind, and looking out at the audience, which gave us this very visceral feeling of public speaking.
We did two setups, wanting to connect him to the audience and the press and to the old guard. Yes, so much planning went into it. I think it’s also that those choices of when are the moments that we feel Dad looming. When are the moments that we want to really highlight the projection behind them? When are the moments that these characters feel connected? We also had 300 background actors who all had to keep a secret. [laughs] Like scene partners for Jeremy, and along with the flight jacket, we had three spotlights that were following Kendall to the moments, casting these three shadows on the floor behind him with these echoes of his siblings that are with him, but he’s very clearly up there alone.
There was just a lot of planning that went into that pitch and certainly production design and these great screens and the editing of Dad’s video. I’m glad it feels like restraint because sometimes you just get to be with these actors, and you just have all these toys, and you want to see what you can do, but you always start with the text. It begins and ends with this trip, and so it was all about what’s the feeling that we want to convey and what are times that we’re with Kendall on stage? What are the times that we’re backstage with the siblings? How much do we want to show this audience? How much are they in shadow for him?
I like to tell the actors, “Let’s treat this like a stunt. Let’s make it so you feel like you are really interacting. You’re having this live performance as much as possible.” Yes, keep it alive. Keep it on its feet as much as possible.
The final season of Succession is now available to stream on MAX.