Both Cathy Yan and Lorene Scafaria have had directorial roles in their careers, so the opportunity to lead an episode of Heir offer a new opportunity for each person. Scafaria, best known for the 2019 crime drama Hustlersworked in television, directed three episodes of Fox comedy New girlbut she saw Heir like a dream job largely because it’s one of her all-time favorite shows. Yan, who directed the 2020 superhero movie Birds of preyShe has never worked as a TV director, but she also claims to be a huge fan of Jesse Armstrong’s HBO series.
Yan directed “The Disrupt,” the third episode of the Emmy-nominated third season that reintroduced the cast to the wider world after the first two nearly isolated hours spent together in the aftermath of the night. Finals part two. Scafaria is responsible for episode seven, “Too Many Birthdays”, which revolves around the high-class party of HeirThe troubled protagonist of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong).
The pair, each of which won an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (alongside a Heir host, Mark Mylod), unpacking their initial relationship with the show, what they took away from Heir script and how they navigated their uniquely intricate hour-by-day shooting of the year’s most nominated series.
Both of you are fans of Heir? How did you become attached to the director on the series?
CATHY YAN Before acting, I was actually a journalist and I worked at [the Rupert Murdoch-owned] News Corp. So it’s just something I’ve always wanted to see. Then when I finally sat down and had time, I actually remember watching season one right into season two, to catch up with myself, because I’ve been hearing so many good things. It was a pleasure to watch consecutively. You are heavily invested in these characters. Having all these little things happen even in season one and pay off in season two. I also live in New York. It is a humorous, satirical work. The precision of it, and the obsession these people have with power and the fear of losing it… I think that’s what I’ve seen with my own eyes.
LORENE SCAFARIA It’s a myth that you’re a journalist at first. I can totally see how intrigued you are with the material, and your previous work, how it led to that. I’m just a huge fan of the show. I watched it from the beginning, because I’m friendly with [executive producer] Adam McKay. And the pilot blew me away, obviously. I remember the moment – there was a scene with Tom [Matthew Macfadyen] and Greg [Nicholas Braun] meet on a baseball field. That was the first time I said, “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know who these people are – they are at the same time very familiar and so mysterious. “It’s just incredible writing and acting and just a really muscular performance, a really unique tone of voice. I wrote a line and said, “May I participate in this?” It happened right after I finished Hustlers. I know I’ll be stuck at home writing my next feature for years.
You mentioned that the program often produces profitable things much sooner. How do you navigate knowing you’re doing something that’s a piece in a larger puzzle?
YAN It’s interesting, because I guess in my episode, Tom devoted himself [to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy as sacrifice]. I don’t know what will come in the end. I don’t think anyone does, right? It’s really only the writers who know the broad strokes of the season. Being a movie director, when you’ve just worked that script to death and you know exactly how it ends… At first, it’s scary to say “How do I play this song? ” But then there’s something very liberating like, “Oh, I’m just playing this little part, and Jesse is really the conductor.” But from both a director’s perspective and as an actor, I would imagine it’s pretty liberating. Because that’s real life, right? You don’t know what you’re going to do in a week or even five minutes.
SCAFARIA It’s all about trust, which is obviously a lot easier on a show like this where you have Jesse at the helm. Directing for TV is weird. For me, there is a lot to learn when to chime and when not to chime. I find myself mulling over the details, where they’re like, “The writers handle this.” I said, “I don’t have to write a memorandum of understanding? It’s a relief.” I know I asked to read as many scripts they would give me. I don’t know how someone would be a guest director for something like this that wasn’t I’m a big fan of the show, because I find myself just plowing through the last two seasons trying to keep track of people.
Both of your episodes have complicated, emotional scenes that are really intense: for example, Kendall walks down the studio hall after a painful humiliation at the hands of Shiv. How do you interpret something from the script using your skill set but staying consistent with the show’s visual language?
YAN I think that’s what’s so great about these scripts, because basically as action scripts, it really leaves a lot of room for interpretation and directing. So I feel like that moment warrants it because he has to go from place to place. And it feels appropriate to linger. Usually, I think directing is a bit like jazz: You just want to mix it up. You don’t want it all to be on the same cadence, you want everything to slow down and then speed things up. I was so excited when I read my script, because I felt like, ‘Yes, I can do something with that’. While it’s funny, it sure is: Nothing can be too pretty. Because it’s beautiful, but the characters don’t care about it. And so, sometimes I’m aware, “That’s a beautiful shot,” and the writers say, “So pretty! So pretty!”
SCAFARIA That hallway moment is too good. It was a great choice, a brave choice. I feel like when you watch the show, you really maybe really see the signatures of different directors, and I feel like Jesse accepts that different people offer a different perspective. I felt very spoiled by my episode, and when I received the script, what might not have been overwritten on the page is what makes it sound like a great piece of theater. As a director, you have to go into the text and really try to analyze it. We are both fortunate to work with DP Christopher Norr who is incredibly talented, and this crew is so talented and has been in this ballet with all the actors. And Cathy, we both write…
YAN However, I absolutely write like a director. I write with my mind. But [Succession] is pretty minimal from that point of view.
SCAFARIA Well, it’s not like that on the page where you’re reading very specific instructions. But it evokes images. I don’t know if that makes me a better writer – I’d like to think it did, just dig into someone else’s writing and try to say, “Oh, why am I? see what I’m seeing?”
What were the scariest aspects of your episodes to film?
SCAFARIA I’m really worried about the party itself, because I keep saying it’s like Burning Man, where all these series, they’re all going to be built for this one thing. It’s very different from other places Heir episodes, which can take place in rich, beautiful locations. I’m really nervous about doing the shark jump episode of Heir. The sets that Stephen Carter builds are special and extraordinary. I talked a lot with Chris about lighting. I am inspired by [Kanye West’s] tour for Pablo’s life. Making the party scene feel like a party is its own kind of challenge.
YAN It’s funny, because there were so many things that led up to that party. I feel like even while filming episode three, it was a lot, like, “Kendall’s birthday party, Kendall’s birthday party!” And I said, “I want to go to Kendall’s birthday party.” I couldn’t read the script, but I remember thinking, “Wow, that sounds good.” But I can see why it’s so hard, because it’s all in the same space and you have to actually create these different environments. I think in a weird way, my challenge is probably the opposite of that, which is that I have a lot of locations. Trying to do it with COVID – and honestly, I hate location tracking, because you’re only in a van 80% of the time. It’s about trying to find the right balance, and the right motivation, to build to the end, which feels so eloquent and so dramatic.
The edited interview is long and clear.
This story first appeared in an independent August issue of The Hollywood Reporter.