Outside of Succession creator, producer, showrunner Jesse Armstrong, no one has had a greater impact on Succession than Emmy nominated director and producer Mark Mylod. The veteran director has helmed eight of the series’ twenty episodes and is nominated for his brilliant work on the season two finale.

In season two, the Roy family rallies behind Logan Roy (Brian Cox) to defend Waystar Royco against a corporate “bear hug” that would see the family lose control of their media company.

To complicate matters, the siblings are jostling for Logan’s favor in the hopes of being named his successor — a position he secretly offered to Shiv (Sarah Snook). Following the brilliant turn of Emmy winner James Cromwell in season one, the Succession creative team cast Oscar winner Holly Hunter as Pierce Media CEO (and possible Logan Roy successor) Rhea Jarrell.

Jarrell attempts to deliver Logan Roy the life-saving acquisition of Pierce media, but things quickly go south after a very public scandal regarding Waystar Royco’s cruise line division.

Following that failure, Jarrell has an unexpectedly short stint at Waystar Royco’s after Logan announces her to be his successor.  Jarrell’s quick exit leaves Logan Roy in an incredibly vulnerable position going into the season two finale.

Emmy nominated for directing the finale, “This Is Not For Tears,” Mylod beautifully builds suspense into the Yacht-centric corporate retreat from hell.

One of the key scenes, a twelve page breakfast table conversation, shows the Waystar Royco board members turning against each other in an attempt to avoid the guillotine. “It was maybe twelve pages and we were able to comfortably shoot it in less than a day,” Mylod shares. “If I took a more traditional approach to the coverage, I could never achieve that.”

Awards Focus spoke to director Mark Mylod on reteaming with Adam McKay for his next feature film, remaining active on Succession’s third season, and the soulless quality of the yacht that he adored for the finale. 

Awards Focus: With the finale episode, “This Is Not For Tears,” you spent most of the time on the water in Croatia?

Mark Mylod: Well the scene with Kendall and the press conference was New York City, but the rest of the episode was all shot in Croatia, around the Dalmatian Islands, just north of Dubrovnik. It’s a gorgeous area.

AF: The finale, which you’re Emmy nominated for, runs an hour and ten minutes. Unlike many series, each episode runs close to a full hour. Do you normally have to trim a lot in the edit, or are you given a lot of latitude?

Mylod: The first cut of the finale ran an hour and forty-five minutes, but the gang at HBO said to run long on that episode. Normally, we’re pretty much tied to the hour, and it’s torturous sometimes. There’s a few things that I won’t go into too much detail about, because I hope that all the themes of those scenes will be resurrected in season three at an opportune moment.

There are some gorgeous scenes in the season finale that didn’t make the cut just because of the imperative to follow the narrative. Even though our scripts do tend to be quite long, we accept that there’s going to be an amount of fallout even beyond that. Often when we’re shooting a scene, a minute and a half on the page will suddenly become three minutes, and it’s glorious and inspiring.

It’s really hard not to try to indulge that in the edit, but we have to be really ruthless. And the flip side of that hopefully is that it is incisive and kind of Darwinian, and there isn’t room for fat.

AF: Brian Cox talked about how Logan subtly acknowledges that Roman has gained a maturity and an insight based on his time in Turkey. What was it like shooting that sort of subtle realization and giving Kieran this moment to shine in the finale?

Mylod: When we confer in the writers room and work with the actors, we’re looking at the long view of where we’re going with those characters. Which should be fluid to a certain extent, but it’s always been the intention that he lacked potential. It seemed that his flaws would always hamstring him and undercut his ambition, and that he didn’t have much potential in his career.

As we evolved through season one, we reinforced that idea with the disastrous rocket launch satellite launch in Japan, where his inability to really focus undercut him once more. For season two, it had to evolve,  through ambition and certainly through Gerri’s (J. Smith-Cameron) influence.

There is a growth of the character, and by extension, the growth into potential as a leader for the company. In terms of taking that to the next level, we wanted to give Roman that opportunity in episodes nine and ten, to make a hard choice and a wise choice. It was a non-deal, he say the fantasy of it, and Roman was able to make that choice. It felt really good to push the character ahead, and it made him so much more dimensional.

Keiran Culkin and J Scott in SUCCESSION
Kieran Culkin and J. Smith-Cameron in SUCCESSION (Photo Credit: HBO)

AF: Kendall, having such growth and passion in the first season, he regresses from his trauma and really becomes dependent on Logan. You get the sense that he believed in and supported his father until his own head is on the chopping block.

It seems like everything for Kendall hinges on that “You’re not a killer” conversation that he has with Logan. Do you think that’s also a misjudgment by Logan that he could be that honest with Kendall and not inspire him to say “I’ll show you Dad?” What was your take on that?

Mylod: I preface answering that by saying that I love that everybody that is interested in this question seems to have their own answer. Jeremy certainly has his arc on that decision making, and it’s slightly different from how I read it.

I love that everybody has a slightly different theory on when that change occurred when that switch flipped. Personally, I don’t quite believe in the black and white all the time. Even though it feels good and satisfying to point to one moment that flicks a switch, I’m not sure that in reality, things are that sudden. Major choices in life tend to be somewhat more incremental, and I like that grey zone.

In season one of this character, he’s in this semi-catatonic state, and then growing and trying to find a place for himself in the world, in the company and in the family. I’m not quite sure how genuinely conscious of that evolution Kendall is. At some point between “you’re not a killer” and the press announcements, that decision is made, but I like the grey zone. I like the fact that I can’t put my finger on it, and that feels authentic to me.

Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox in HBO's SUCCESSION
Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox in HBO’s SUCCESSION (Photo Credit: Graeme Hunter/HBO)

AF: When it came to shooting the yacht scene where everybody’s at the table discussing who should take the fall and leave the company, the intensity of the scene is aided by how you and the camera operators approach the coverage. Can you talk about your process for that?

Mylod: We had an almost anti-aesthetic with the camera footage, and I got to give it a workout earlier in the fifth episode, “Tern Haven,” where there was an extended dinner sequence with about 22 characters around the table.

There were specific challenges in how to shoot that scene, without it taking three weeks and more importantly killing the life of it. First of all, I take inspiration from watching Gosford Park and Robert Altman’s approach to that kind of challenge, with the camera seeking and finding spontaneously.

Once we’ve done a brief lineup and worked through an obscene amount of staging, we stage it almost like a theatrical event. The actors know that they’re on from page one, and a lot of the stuff from the early takes is going to end up in there later. With our actors, that’s where we get the gold.

One of unique things about the way we work with the camera operators is that on the first few takes, they have extraordinary leeway to go where the story leads them. We invite our brilliant operators into the rehearsal process. They have the scripts and they will follow the story.

When the camera can pan from one line to a reaction, the metronome of our production is much more satisfying than relying on cutting all the time in the edit. As each take proceeds, I will be working with the camera operators to practice different methods and point out moments.

There is this constant fluid change in every take, with me greedily vacuuming up these particular beats until that intangible moment where I just feel that we have it all. At that point, they’re going to have a few freebies and improvisational takes.. it’s very loose and fluid.

And only then, once I know that I’ve got all the close performances, we pull the cameras back into more geographical coverage.

AF: I’m assuming it’s equally tricky with the sound as well?

Mylod: A really important part of this method is the heroic sound mixer. This can only work with a sound mixer who is bold enough and confident enough to have this two mixer system whereby all the actors at the table can be talking simultaneously and improvising — so they’re constantly alive and in the authenticity of the moment beyond descriptive words.

The sound mixer needs to be confident enough to be able to isolate the scripted dialogue, but also give us the option to grab unscripted moments. And he is quite brilliant at that. The whole Altman-esque way of thinking can only work because he’s able to help us get that sound clearly recorded for us.

It seems like chaos, but there is a method to it. It enables us to grab all those moments and just as importantly, the reactions in an insanely fast way. That particular breakfast scene with everybody throwing each other metaphorically overboard. It was maybe twelve pages, and we were able to comfortably shoot it in less than a day. If I took a more traditional approach to the coverage, I could never achieve that.

AF: On the yacht, what was surprising about shooting on that location? Did you guys set up there during the day and like to actually stay on it? Was that an option?

Mylod: It wasn’t really an option, although a small number stayed on one night. Our excuse was we needed to get a bunch of sunset shots and dawn shots, but we really wanted to enjoy it.

The logistics of getting on and off the yacht were tricky, and we basically had a team of boats that shuttled people from the various hotels early in the morning. We had an extraordinarily expensive yacht for a very limited period of time, so we had to shoot really fast. The most surprising thing about shooting on the boat was how emotionally cold the atmosphere felt.

It felt wonderfully soulless, and this extraordinary piece of material wealth that gave our characters nowhere to hide on the water. We embraced that direct overhead point of light, and didn’t try to give it more warmth or soften the images. We wanted our characters to have the full glare of the Mediterranean sun on them and that oddly harsh environment.

AF: I know you’re hard at work on season three of Succession and as well as your work on the film, The Menu, which you’re doing with Adam McKay producing. Can you talk a bit about both?

Mylod: It’s been good to have had brain fodder for the past few months. If I’m not shooting, or not close to shooting, I only feel half alive. I don’t mean to equate it to much bigger issues in the world, but I find the pandemic massively frustrating because I’m not near the camera.

Figuring out how to get back into production safely with Succession, and simultaneously developing the script and the production model for The Menu has been a lifesaver. They’re such different projects in their aesthetic and their tone, but they both have a satirical bend. Each episode is it’s own event, which is a challenge, and it’s an ongoing battle to deliver that scope and scale, particularly with the number of people on screen. I’m on the phone almost every day with Scott, my producer, just working on the problem. It’s as fascinating as it is frustrating. We’ll crack it, but it’s a tough one.