“Succession,” which earned a whopping 27 Emmy nominations for its final season, has captivated audiences with its complex, uber-wealthy characters. For director Mark Mylod, telling stories about family and social class is a recurring theme — His credits include “Shameless” and “The Menu” — with surprisingly personal roots.
In this episode of “The Envelope” podcast, Mylod opens up about his fascination with this topic, takes us behind the scenes of the pivotal “Connor’s Wedding” episode, and shares how he pushed through his comfort zone to take on more creative risks.
Mark Olsen: Hello, everyone. We’re back with more episodes of “The Envelope,” from the Los Angeles Times, where we bring you in-depth conversations with some of the talents behind your favorite movies and TV shows. I’m one of your hosts, Mark Olsen.
Yvonne Villarreal: And I’m your other host, Yvonne Villarreal. So, Mark, this is the last episode of our season, and we’re going out big. We are talking about a show that is no longer with us, but whose cultural imprint was so large we will probably be seeing references or getting that theme stuck in our heads for years to come.
Olsen: You know that’s right, Yvonne. After four seasons, a successor was finally named and HBO’s ”Succession” came to a close. Following the Roy family through the unexpected ups and downs of what became much more than just a boardroom drama has been such a wild ride. The show has been critically acclaimed and has received 27 Emmy nominations for its final season, the most for any drama. For this week’s episode, we shook things up a bit. We are speaking with someone from behind the camera, Mark Mylod, a longtime director and producer of the series.
Villareal: Finally a Marky Mark conversation.
Olsen: I had nothing to do with that. The British-born director was also nominated for an Emmy for best directing. Mark is not just known for “Succession” though, he’s directed for “Shameless”, “Entourage” and “Game of Thrones,” among others. He also made the class-conscious comedy “The Menu” where guests dine at an exclusive restaurant on a private island that became a surprise hit last year, and he made that between seasons of “Succession.”
Villarreal: I’m sensing a theme here between those two projects, you know this dramatizing of the uber-wealthy.
Olsen: Yes, and he had some surprisingly personal things to say about that as we talked about what motivates him to make the work he does. So let’s get to that conversation.
Mark Olsen: Mark, thank you so much for joining us.
Mark Mylod: Thanks for having me, Mark.
Olsen: And now, as we’re having this conversation, in Hollywood, writers and actors are both on strike. I’m speaking to you as a director, and what is that like to sort of be thinking about something like the Emmys at a moment like this, and then also for you to kind of be the only available representative for the show?
Mylod: Hmm. There is obviously a conflict of interest there, isn’t there? In that obviously, most importantly, one stands and I think all my director friends and colleagues stand in complete support of the writers and actors that we work with and without whom nothing gets done, and it seems to me, that the way that we consume content over the past few years has just evolved so quickly and yet the way we pay these artists has not, and that needs to change. So of course I stand in support of them.
Olsen: And I mean, one thing that I’ve found really interesting is how much sort of strike commentary, picket signs, have been related to “Succession” that like the show has become sort of “memefied” in a way around the strike. What is that like for you? Like is it interesting for you to see the show be sort of picked up and become part of like a cultural commentary in that way?
Mylod: I imagine that part of that reason, Mark, is because I think “Succession”, as a show, just absolutely typifies those two particular art forms or crafts at their absolute zenith and why they are so important to the content that we enjoy and celebrate and the studios obviously need and celebrate. What would “Succession” be without the incredible writing of Jesse and his team and that incredible cast? Those two art forms are just at their kind of perfect entwining in “Succession.” So of course it makes sense that it becomes a bit of a banner for the protest.
Olsen: The show became so immensely popular and especially in this last season, like every episode was just sort of dissected and examined so microscopically. Did you engage with that work at all? Like, do you read any of the coverage of the show as it’s coming out week to week?
Mylod: Not really, no. I don’t find it helpful, Mark, particularly going forward. I’m always worried. I spend my life being kind of worried that things will be distracting, that I find I’m at my most effective, I think, when I’m just head down, worried about nothing but the script, the performance, the tone, the execution of directing and making the show and anything outside of that I worry is going to be a distraction. And part of that is, superstition, but part of that is also experience where, you know, because I’ve been directing for quite a while, I’ve seen, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of, I know I’ve been guilty of it myself, where I have been distracted by the reaction to a show. And then whether consciously or not one starts to play into that somehow, and I think as soon as one does, then that’s probably an unhealthy way to work.
Olsen: When did that happen to you? When do you think you fell guilty of that?
Mylod: Particularly my early comedy days. I don’t want to talk about American projects because they’re too recent, and I don’t want to, you know, unconsciously offend collaborators from that time. But going back to before I moved to America, when I first started directing, I was lucky enough to work with some very, very funny comedians who really kind of had the comedic zeitgeist at the time. And because the shows and their work were so celebrated, going into subsequent seasons, I’d be hearing all the talk, this is pre Twitter, but I’d be hearing all the talk in the media coverage about, you know, certain sketches, certain catchphrases, and the temptation was, to repeat that. You know, to repeat that, oh, let’s give them more of what they want. So there, so there would be that. We always had a creed of, you know, kind of anti-complacency as best we could. There’s a million other mistakes to be made, but hopefully it wouldn’t be through lack of trying. And so once a season came out, you know, if I knew that there was going to be another season, I would deliberately tune out from that as much as possible.
But the exception being, obviously, when Season 4 was airing, Because, you know, by the time we got to midseason I’d kind of finished post on the final episode, so, I could read as much as I wanted at that point with a clear conscience. So I did. I did enjoy the discourse a little more after Season 4.
Olsen: And tell me just a little more about that transition from working in British television to then coming to America to work in television. It’s interesting to me that behind the scenes on “Succession,” there are so many, you know, British collaborators. And I’m wondering, in some ways, like, in your mind, is “Succession” almost like a hybrid, U.K./U.S. production?
Mylod: I suppose so, in the terms in that there are so many brilliant British writers in the writers room, and obviously the creator of the show is, you know, Jesse is English, as you know. It’s funny though, because I think in the past, I don’t know how many years, but that British versus America thing, which, back when I started directing, they seemed chasms, they did seem an ocean apart, and I don’t think that now. I think that both sides have kind of taken good things from one another. The writers room, for instance, has become commonplace now and probably the norm in, you know, particularly in larger scale dramas or comedies in the U.K. in a way that it never was when I first started. It would always, you know, almost it would invariably be one or two writers maybe. When I did the British pilot of “Shameless,” they did have a little gang of writers supporting Paul Abbott, but that was very new at that time. And that was 2004, 2005, so it’s relatively new that that idea has transferred to the U.K. In terms of what Britain has given to the U.S. industry, I don’t know, Jesse Armstrong and Phoebe Waller-Bridge maybe, that’s, that’s a pretty decent contribution.
Olsen: A number of actors on the show, like especially, I’m thinking of Sarah Snook and Jeremy Strong, were relatively unknown when they were cast on the show and, you know, have really become quite famous, much better known through the course of the show. What has it been like for you over the series, you know, the multiple seasons of the show to see them develop, not only as performers to sort of grow into their role, but also to see them sort of launch in the way that they have?
Mylod: Wonderful, obviously. I mean, first of all, I’ve got to give a quick shout-out to Francine Maisler, who, the casting director who did the original casting of the siblings and of Logan. It’s one of the great casting choices in recent television history. I think because as you say, so many of the cast are unheralded and who the heck knew that, you know, that Mr. Darcy was absolutely hilarious. I had no idea that Matthew had that side to his performance. Just absolutely genius casting. But seeing the rising kind of popularity, appreciation of the show over four seasons and particularly of their talents has been great.
Seeing the Emmy nominations this year and, and seeing a lead actor nomination for Sarah, a lead actor nomination for Kieran, a supporting actor for Alan for the first time. And all that brilliant cast of guest actors with Alexander being so fantastic and all of that gang, seeing them so kind of appreciated by the academy, it gives me pride almost at the risk of sounding patronizing, almost a kind of paternal pride, that they’ve grasped that incredible opportunity of that incredible writing with both hands and just, dug into it with a tenacity to leave no stone unturned in exploring those characters.
Olsen: And now the characters on the show, they are seen as greedy, selfish, cruel. I mean, they often are, you know, giving into their worst impulses. And yet, in some ways, that’s almost like what I think draws audiences to them and makes them seem somehow more human is that we so often are seeing them at their worst. Is that part of the draw? Like, why do you think that audiences became so attached to these, you know, what could be seen as awful, awful people?
Mylod: It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I’ll answer the question in two parts, if that’s OK, Mark. Firstly, by my own experience of it. Having watched the pilot that Adam McKay directed so beautifully, having seen that beautifully kind of bombastic, couldn’t give a s—, it seems like nobody making that show cared that those characters were so despicable and entitled and there was something so ballsy about that. And so prescient to me. In the time of Trump, you know, still being president at that time, it just felt like it had that zeitgeist. But in terms of joining the show, my hope was that we would start from that place and then gradually, you know, coming back to the PhD of the characters, start to peel back the layers and, and start to investigate the context of their behaviors, not to forgive them, not to be apologists for them, but at least to give it context.
I think in our efforts to do that, I think we were finding our way somewhat in Season 1 and for me, the first kind of breakthrough, if you like, at least in episodes that I directed was the last two episodes of Season 1 at Shiv and Tom’s wedding. We had two key scenes in Shiv and Tom’s bedroom where they talked about their marriage.
[Clip: TOM: So I just wanted to get you up here to talk about the, uh, table plans SHIV: Oh, and have you thought any more about whether or not you want to tell me about the secret thing? TOM: And I just wanted to say that, I uh, I did meet Nate. SHIV: Oh you, you’ve met Nate before? I think. No? Huh. Oh well, you know he’s a good colleague. He’s a friend of Kendall’s. They ran around Shanghai together. He’s a dick. Well, He’s OK, but he has a certain dickish quality about him. I think I’ve mentioned him to you before. TOM: Look, Shiv. Is this real? ]
Mylod: We found a portal into examining the emotional lives of the character. Up until that point, we’d very much played through ironic deflection. And that we continued to evolve through subsequent seasons and gradually, I imagine, because it was certainly my experience, that we got under the skin of those characters and despite ourselves, we found ourselves caring.
Olsen: I’ve heard you talk about how, for example, in the “Connor’s Wedding” episode, that initially you didn’t intend to use as much of Matthew Macfadyen’s side of the phone call as you did, but that his performance was sort of so strong that you, in the edit, you just felt yourself pulled back to that. How do you stay open to that? Like sort of allow yourself to realize like, oh, this is something that’s really working. We should move towards that and not stay on like a really sort of like strict plan. Is it difficult to sort of like, stay open to a sort of happy surprise like that?
Mylod: I think it’s difficult if you don’t plan for it. If you, I think we set up, you know, the producer side of my role on the show, was really about setting up our stall at the beginning of each season to give ourselves absolute kind of maximum leeway and creative freedom and the ability to pivot whether it be within a scene or, you know, in some cases, changing a major location for an entire episode at quite short notice. So setting up the way we like the show, the way we record sound, to give every level maximum “pivotability,” if that probably isn’t a word, is it? One example that I’ve talked about in the past was in “Connor’s Wedding.”
I knew that we had it, but I also felt that there was something a little bit more to mine. So, along with my assistant director team and with Patrick, the DP, again, we created, we carved out a two-hour period at the end of the last day shooting on the boat with this idea, this burgeoning idea of what if we just run it all in one go, one half-hour unbroken take and the scenes themselves took place on four, three or four different levels of the boat. So to shoot that with our, with, I think, three camera operators, set on different levels of the boat in one unbroken take for half an hour was quite a feat. It allowed the actors to disappear into the intensity of that moment in a phenomenally unbroken way. And I’m so proud of their performances in that.
In terms of Matthew’s performance, and so it became a gorgeous dilemma in the edit, really, to try to get that balance right. And, uh, I think it probably ended up quite close to the original script, but there were some real dilemmas there when little moments that Matthew gave us where the sheer effort of keeping that facade up of, you know, that pretense that maybe Logan wasn’t actually dead, was just too much for the character to bear.
Olsen: And was it difficult to not — having accomplished that long take the way that you did, was it difficult in the edit to not be precious with it and to, like, have the impulse be to, like, show it off? It’s interesting that you did that, but then you still cut away from it and yet somehow maintain the energy and the momentum of that single take.
Mylod: In terms of the, you know, showboating, wow, look, we did this in one take, that obviously as a director, that is slightly tempting. I’d be disingenuous to say it wasn’t, but, much more important was really to get the best material, you know? Choose the best bits. That’s editing, isn’t it? The best bits in the right order. So it was just more important to make those choices as purely as possible and specifically because once it became clear that so much of the performance was on this extra level of tension and pain, from the siblings, that became very much the anchor.
Olsen: And the way in that episode, the way that each of the siblings get like a moment on the phone with Logan that sort of becomes this distillation of their relationship with him, those moments. Like it’s so astonishing how so much is said in just a few short sentences from each of them.
[CLIP: ROMAN: Uh, I hope you’re OK. You’re OK. You’re going to be OK, uh because you’re a monster and you’re going to win. You just win. And uh, you’re a good man. You’re a good dad. You’re a very good dad. Uh…you did a good job. Nope, I don’t, I’m sorry…]
Mylod: Yeah, brilliant writing and brilliant acting. That’s why we need to pay these people properly. Oh, it’s an incredible moment, just incredible. My directing role on the show there’s so much, you know, to get right tonally, a million tiny things, but, you know, when those actors, when they walked on set every day of that episode and pretty much every day of that season, they would just be pitch-perfect with tone. They walked on just locked and loaded.
Olsen: Can you tell me a bit more about your collaboration with Jesse Armstrong and how that’s evolved over the course of the seasons? Like, does he talk to you as things are being written? Did the scripts just sort of arrive to you fully finished?
Mylod: I’ll start it by saying that the collaboration with Jesse is the loveliest and I think most productive and closest collaboration that I’ve ever had with a writer, in quite a few years of directing and Jesse is on another level. I think the nucleus of it really was the bonding experience of thlevee last two episodes of Season 1, both of which I directed, which was Shiv and Tom’s wedding over in England. It was such an intense period, it was really our first time shooting out of the country.
Coming out of the season and putting those last two episodes together was such a joy, and we were of one mind, excuse the cliche. That kind of fast tracked our mutual trust so that when we got into Season 2 and understanding that our kind of various kind of strengths and what we could bring. The way it would work with Jesse would pretty much send a document or have a conversation and say OK I think you know maybe the first episode is going to be here and the second episode is going to be probably here and the fifth episode we’re probably going to need some more kind of, you know, liberal rich people’s house. So we’ll get a briefing, and then my, my job is to basically work with the team, work with the cast, work with the crew to actually put those building blocks in places to find those locations. So that we can, you know, visually eventize each episode and give a structure, hopefully a structural build to each season, find the right, you know, supporting cast, the right directors, or that kind of, production and craft element. Jesse would then be able to focus in the writers room. I would focus on, you know, physical production, and then we’d kind of meet up again on set, and, and it became just a lovely collaboration of, just best idea wins, and that would continue into postproduction.
Olsen: If I can, I want to step back just a little bit to ask you about the movie “The Menu” that you directed kind of amidst, I guess, between seasons on the show. What was it like for you to sort of like step away from, you know, the intensity of working on the show to make this whole other project, to make “The Menu”?
Mylod: Oddly kind of unbroken in terms of its intensity, in the way it played out. We shot “The Menu,” we edited it, and as I was getting into final postproduction on “The Menu”, I was then starting preproduction meetings for Season 4 of “Succession,” which then, you know, continued on for the next year.
So, the intensity of it was just unbroken, really. “The Menu” is it’s, you know, very different but actually shared a lot of, DNA in that, you know, world. Will Tracy, of course, was one of our writers on “Succession,” so we, we already had that relationship together, but it was really hard work, is the truth, Mark. I was just so, I’ve never been so tired, but also I’ve never been so kind of creatively alive. After three years of that kind of intensity, I felt like I just needed to lie in a bath for two years.
Olsen: And now “The Menu” and “Succession” are connected in a way that even I think relates to some of your work on “Shameless” or even going back to “Entourage” and that there is an interest in a class consciousness in your work and I’m wondering how aware are you of that and to you like what is that getting at? Like what is your sort of interest in this ongoing exploration of the impact of wealth and class on people’s lives?
Mylod: Class and family and power I suppose are ongoing fascinations, particularly class and family. When it comes to class, it’s a little bit ... uncomfortable. But it’s really, I think if I’m really honest, my dad was a cop and my mum worked in a bra factory. It’s a kind of revenge. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. Also I completely failed my A levels, which is the, you know, a U.K. equivalent of a high school diploma. I failed all of that and didn’t go to college. I just went straight to work in theaters backstage. So I think I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. And when I joined or tried to find my way into the British television and film industry, it seemed to me probably unrealistically, but it suited my particular prejudice at that time, to imagine that everybody else had been to Oxford or Cambridge and their parents owned a manor somewhere. For a long time that was a fuel that drove me, I suppose, trying to prove that the policeman’s son from Devon could play in that world. And be as good as all those people who seem to walk around with such self-belief and confidence that I’ve never had. So yeah, a bit too self-analytical there maybe, but that’s probably the truth.
Olsen: And do you feel like that’s something that still motivates you?
Mylod: Oh yes, yeah, I can’t get rid of that, yeah, it’s a lifelong, impostor syndrome, you know, that’s still there. It’s nice when you have, the victories, if you like. That’s not really the right word, is it? But, it is so lovely on every level when something that one works on is appreciated on whatever level. But I also know that you’re just one project away from the next face plant. So the minute you let your guard down, that’s when, you know, that’s when you prove everybody right. That, you know, that you are just an upstart who shouldn’t be in the room.
Olsen: And then a step even a little further back, I’m really fascinated by this and that you, in 2011, you directed a film called “What’s Your Number,” a rom-com starring Anna Faris. And after that, you sort of, you’ve talked about how you really purposefully wanted to kind of reset your career. And I’m interested in that moment, like what was it that you wanted to change? And like, how did you make that happen? What’s the first step in achieving that?
Mylod: The first step is, self-realization being a realist, I suppose. And I’m being honest with the kind of mea culpa of that moment. When I started directing and achieved some success, particularly in the U.K. at that time, with some wonderful comedians that I was working with and projects like “The Royal Family” and Paul Abbott’s “Shameless” and then making a film that didn’t do any business, which was entirely my fault, I came over to America and started working on “Entourage” and HBO which kind of reset my life. There was, very sad things going on in my personal life and the breakdown of a marriage, with my two older daughters involved in that. That was a really dark time. I think I just doubled down on staying in my safe box of comedy, or versions of comedy without pushing myself.
And there were some really, really interesting scripts coming my way, particularly after the British “Shameless” came out, which was very well-received. It was the first kind of quasi-drama that I’d done. But instead of being emboldened by that to take more creative risks,I just stayed in my safe box, and I paid quite rightly. I paid the creative price for that. I became kind of stuck in that, and chose safe projects that I thought would do well commercially, telling myself that if I had a commercial that’d be good, because that would open the door to other, perhaps, more adventurous projects or tonally complex projects, but what I was actually doing was being cowardly, and that just came to a head with “What’s Your Number,” and with a brilliant cast and two lovely writers. They all deserve better, and the film did no business, or relatively little business. Some people like it, but I wasn’t proud of it. And I wasn’t proud of my work on it because I just hadn’t pushed it enough, you know?
And I remember just after that, just thinking, OK, if you want the right to tell stories, you better have something interesting to say, you know? So there was a real, yeah, reckoning, and a determination to push myself and not be afraid or rather to move towards that which I was afraid of, instead of just running away from it. The first really kind of meaningful opportunity for that was “The Affair” pilot, which I thought was such a boldly intimate piece of writing. It was terrifying because it had this “Rashomon“-type structure. It was so complex, it was so nuanced, but most of all, it was so intimate. I’ve related somewhat to a lot of what was going on through personal experience, but I pushed hard for the project and I did you know, I did a good job.
That was a life-changer, it really was. That emboldened me to go and chase down David and Dan on “Game of Thrones” and explain to them in a room in Los Angeles why I should be directing “Game of Thrones” despite the fact that everything I’d done was really small and low-budget, and led to a, brilliant adventure and massively steep learning curve on “Game of Thrones.” My experience over that, you know, second half of the decade and until now has been one that yeah, being bold when I’m facing down my own fears has been rewarding. That sounds such an awful kind of, cheese ball answer, but that I think is the truth, Mark.
Olsen: No, that’s such a wonderful thing to hear that, like, you could sort of pull yourself out. To recognize the moment in the first place and to sort of like turn it around like that is, I find really inspiring.
Mylod: Thanks, mate. Yeah, I feel better about it now. Thank you.
Olsen: And now as you said, you’ve come to the end of this really long run of work with both “Succession” and “The Menu,” moving forward, do you see yourself making another series? Do you think you’re going to want to make a movie? Do you have some idea of what you’re drawn to do next?
Mylod: I know that I want to do more of both. I do feel, you know, emboldened by “The Menu,” finally making a film that I was proud of. I feel somewhat emboldened but also intimidated by the success of “Succession,” but I am hungry to do more. I feel I’ve got more to say, which is a nice feeling. I’m hungry to tell good stories, complex stories and original stories. What form they take, you know, whether a series, a miniseries or a movie, I hope I can do them all. I really do. Obviously, with our strike, you know, there’s an imposed moratorium anyway, but I do need to kind of empty my brain and just read books and, you know, try to learn how to fish and all that cheese ball stuff.
Olsen: Well, I for one can’t, can’t wait to see what happens next. Mark Mylod, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mylod: Thanks so much for having me, Mark. It was lovely talking to you.