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The series’ longtime director and executive producer talks to The Hollywood Reporter about putting the Emmy-winning HBO drama’s penultimate episode together.
By Josh Wigler
[This story contains major spoilers from the penultimate episode of Succession, “Church and State.”]
At last, Succession said goodbye to its “dear, dear world of a father,” as the HBO drama’s various players gathered together for the funeral of Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Filmed in New York City’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side, the funeral sequence at the heart of the series’ penultimate episode, “Church and State,” stands out as one of the most opulent scenes in this most opulent series, with hundreds on hand to witness siblings Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Connor (Alan Ruck) bid their father farewell.
Leading the procession was Mark Mylod, the longtime Succession director and executive producer responsible for bringing some of the Emmy-winning series’ most important episodes to life, not the least of which was Logan’s death episode, “Connor’s Wedding.” The stakes raise ever higher in “Church and State,” as the Roys bury their father (or, more accurately, place him in a pet food tycoon’s tomb and $5 million mausoleum) then get back to their usual work of tearing each other to political pieces. And as high as the bar is now, it’s only getting higher with a single episode of Succession remaining before the curtain falls forever — an event that Mylod will once again preside over, having directed the series finale.
First thing’s first, though. How exactly did “Church and State” come together? Below, The Hollywood Reporter chats with Mylod for secrets behind building the penultimate episode of Succession, and a bit (but just a bit) of what lies ahead in the highly anticipated series finale.
It’s the morning after “Church and State” aired, and I’m still coming down from it. I can imagine you might still be reeling from directing this one, even if some time has passed.
It’s really true, actually. Honestly, I still don’t feel like I’ve left the show. I was passing through London over the weekend because I had been overseas seeing family, and I got to meet up with [series creator Jesse Armstrong] and some of the writers over there. It was funny. I’m always slightly nervous that when we’re meeting together, but we’re not making the show together, that there will be a feeling of, “What should we talk about now?” But it was really lovely. It felt like coming home.
That sounds quite hopeful to me. You all get together, and everyone gets quiet, and someone says… “Season five?”
Another round of congratulations is in order not just for this episode as a whole, but for managing to keep Logan’s death a surprise when you’re shooting in such a public forum as St. Ignatius. How did you manage to keep the secret?
A lot was going on that I wasn’t directly privy to, but we did have a lot of conversations and planning meetings right at the start of the season as to how we could handle this. HBO were fantastic with their resources and the advice they gave with the benefit of their experience, trying to keep a secret in the social media universe. The first steps were quite basic. From episode three onward, after Logan passes, we basically replaced the word “Logan” in every script with the name Ewan [Logan’s brother played by James Cromwell.] So we played it as if Jamie’s character had passed. When it came to the funeral in episode nine, we billed it in all of our scripts, and even in posters outside the church, as if it was Ewan’s funeral. That was phase one.
The next thing was the classic non-disclosure agreements we asked all of our background actors to sign. When you have literally many hundreds of background people for several days, their ability to stick an anonymous Reddit post up … there are ways, I’m sure. But nobody did. We didn’t just ask them to sign an NDA. I spoke to them, the HBO team did, and we all spoke to them, asking them to keep the secret: “Let’s not spoil the enjoyment for fans of the show. Let’s have this as our little secret. Let’s not tell anybody. Keep it quiet. Obviously, tell your partners at home, but please keep it under your hats.” It was out of good will, really. Everybody obliged. I’m really tremendously grateful for that, and actually quite moved by that. It can be such a cynical world sometimes. That everybody kept the secret was really fantastic.
Brian Cox revealed he was on hand to film the funeral scenes, can you share any stories from his time on set? It’s also come out that his wife Nicole Ansari-Cox played Sally Anne, one of Logan’s former flames.
Nicole came up [for the role] and it was entirely coincidental. She had asked if she could shadow me because she’s a director, and she asked if she could hang out and shadow me for the episode. I was happy for her to do that. She’s a really wonderful person and a great director. So she was with me anyway. When we got the script, there’s this character, Sally Anne. She said, “This is me! It’s exactly my profile. Do you mind if I read for it?” I said, “Nicole, knock yourself out!” And she was fantastic. So she got the role. She doubled up as the director’s shadow and playing Sally Anne.
Having Brian there was all good fun, to be honest. It felt oddly Shakespearean, having this ghost hanging around the church. Brian agreed to come along as part of the misdirect that it was Ewan’s funeral. We asked him to pull up at a very public time outside of the church, so that if there were paparazzi or people looking for those breadcrumbs, they would see him turning up as if he was coming for Ewan’s funeral. So he hung out with us in the church as well, very much as part of the smoke screen to keep the secret.
Was he visible to the actors who delivered their eulogies?
No, we specifically asked him not to be in the church for those moments. I didn’t speak to Brian directly about this, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted to be there either. It was a kind of “in and out” on the day. I don’t think it would have benefitted anybody, himself or the other cast members, to be there in the eulogies, though.
It would be a fabulous Easter egg if one of your four cameras caught Logan in the back row, like a Force ghost.
That’s great. (Laughs.) “This whole thing’s a sham!”
You spoke in the episode’s behind-the-scenes featurette about having limited time to film in the church and leaning on multiple cameras for coverage of very, very long takes. There must be so much that you captured that we didn’t get to see. Any highlights?
It’s going to sound like a stock answer, but there are so many of those, really, especially with a cast like this, that I can’t even give a specific. They were giving so much all the time, and there’s only so much you can squeeze into one episode. It’s part of why the episode is 80 minutes long. The reasons for shooting so fast was a combination of creative and prosaic reasons. The creative I learned specifically in episode three with Logan’s passing, and in four seasons of working with this cast, is that they all benefit massively in very emotional scenes from working in as immersive and unbroken a take as possible. That was the creative imperative, to run the entire service from the hearse pulling up to the hearse pulling away in one unbroken taken.
The second element was, I loved St. Ignatius as a church. It felt like the perfect venue for the service. But they could only give us so much time, I think two and a half days for this vast page count. We had to figure out how to get all of this coverage in such a limited time. Setting up this live camera gallery back in the vestibule where I could see all four cameras do this roll-and-reload, that just felt like the right craft and approach to actually covering all of these pieces. By the time we shot it, I knew the script backwards and I know the cast so well, so I know what we’re likely to get, though they always surprise me. I would anticipate jumping a few lines ahead in the script as things were occurring, pre-positioning a camera to a certain group or a certain group shot, in anticipation of what I thought they might give me. But there’s always going to be surprises, and there will always be things that we miss. But we only did a few takes because when you have so many people running that whole sequence, and you have slightly diminishing returns from something so emotional, and what the actors can give… it’s not something you want to do too often.
But my loveliest surprise, and it was just an inkling I’d had, was that [Harriet Walter as Logan’s wife Caroline] might give us a big reaction to Kendall’s words about these children “that he’s made.” I made sure there was a camera positioned there for Harriet. She absolutely killed it. I laughed out loud, it was such a perfect reaction. There’s a lovely sense when you have actors of that caliber, dozens of them scattered around that church, that when they sense a camera anywhere near them, they’re going to make sure they give you something when the camera’s there as well.
Logan is sometimes talked about as a planet as much as a man, with Shiv even calling him a “world of a father.” How much did you sense a loss of gravity for the show in the post-Logan era?
There was a natural insecurity during episode three, and also when we were planning the season; we knew that we needed to change the paradigm and the angle of the dramatic tensions at the core of the show. We knew we needed to make that change to keep the show evolving. But with that, we were of course losing this extraordinary presence of Brian Cox and his character. Obviously, Brian’s character lives on in the way [Sean Bean’s] presence did after season one of Game of Thrones. We knew that presence would still be here, but the direct conflict had to switch to a different axis. Of course, we were nervous about that. Would it feel as powerful? Would it feel diluted in any way? All those kinds of natural insecurities.
As the scripts started coming in, and as everybody stood up to take those new tensions and tighten those piano wires between those characters — with Matsson specifically and Alexander [Skarsgård] being so wonderful, giving us a new axis there to evolve — I started to feel, not that I missed Brian any less, but I started to embrace that refresher, that new flavor, and find those new tensions. For me, and I hope going through to the end of the season, but people make their own judgments, I’m just very proud of the season and the series, obviously. In the case of this conversation, episodes four through 10 [of season four], we found a way to exist without Brian’s character.
While the Roys process a fallen star in their universe, the rest of the world outside the church is on fire, thanks to the rise of Mencken (Justin Kirk). Even the title, “Church and State,” speaks to the family’s grief intersecting with the political reality and their ambitions. How did you strike that balance and bring some of the political unrest to life?
We needed to mind the juxtaposition between the intimacy of the emotional experience of the siblings and the purity of that grief, with of course, the machinations of the characters and trying to position themselves. It’s too great a room filled with senators and every power point of the establishment for them not to be tempted into the “State” element of the title. Of course, the “State” also expands to outside the church, the reverberations from their manipulation of the presidential call the previous night. On some level, it’s a little bit of a fool’s errand. Even with the great resources of HBO and our show, how do you represent an entire country in the aftermath of that political call? I tried to do it economically, to give that sense of tension.
Luckily, you didn’t have to invent too much for New York City traffic.
Yeah, that was a gift. (Laughs.) We just had to film around rush hour. But there are little moments, like a gasoline can being passed surreptitiously between two protesters, or the thing that New Yorkers and many Americans are familiar with, the boarding up of windows and stores. Those little moments felt good to me about hinting at, without trying to show the massive protest, really until that last scene. In terms of crafting the episode, that’s where we wanted to bring together the epic and the intimate. You have that nihilism of Kieran’s character during those moments, that self-loathing, and that’s when that personal character moment clashes with the state. That’s where “Church and State” meet, the state being the huge aftermath of the protest being kettled down Fifth Avenue as the police try to disperse that crowd.
There’s only one episode left before we know how this story ends. Do you have any breadcrumbs you can sprinkle into the pond for us to nibble on as we wait to see how Succession wraps?
Obviously, I’m not going to tell you anything. But I am really proud of it, and of the season. There’s this weight Jesse and I both felt going through the subsequent seasons. How do we raise the bar? How do we even stay up there after season one was respectable? Season two felt even better in terms of us feeling like we really knew what the show was, and there was such a lovely critical and popular reaction to it. How do we do that again for season three? We’ve always managed to build and grow, so we all felt this tremendous weight going into the finale. How do we end this show? How do we honor it? How do we honor the characters and all of the things we’ve explored over four seasons? I went into it so afraid that I wouldn’t honor it, and I came out of it, out of the final edit, after locking the picture, feeling very proud. It’s up to viewers what they make of it. But I don’t think we could have tried any harder. I really don’t.
Interview edited and for length and clarity.
Succession releases new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and Max. Follow along with THR‘s Succession final season coverage.
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