I recently caught up with showrunner Jesse Armstrong to discuss creating the family dynasty The Roys for last summer’s HBO hit Succession. Dysfunctional, wealth and power are the central themes here. Brian Cox plays Logan Roy, the family patriarch and his children are not the nicest. In one memorable scene, Roman (Kieran Culkin) goes to a baseball game and offers $1 million to the son of the field manager. The boy connects and Roman tears the check. There are many more moments of sheer dysfunction as the Roy children plot taking over their father’s company with all their troubles in tow.
It’s addictive viewing and the good news is it’s coming back this Summer. Armstrong and I chatted briefly to talk about creating comedy and drama while taking us into this filthy rich world where people use helicopters as their preferred choice of transportation.
You went from creating one of the biggest and best comedies ever seen on British TV with Peep Show, and then with other projects in between, here we are talking about Succession. Talk about how Succession happened?
It’s quite a big jump from a sitcom. Peep Show is cult TV and a relatively long-running show, at least by UK standards. There were a few stopping points in the middle. Sam Bain and I did a show called Babylon with Danny Boyle and that was about the police. It was an hour-long series and a mix of drama and comedy. I guess in all comedy, I’ve always loved things that feel really real and hopefully, with Adam McKay’s shooting style from the pilot, we’ve carried on and we give you a sense of what these people’s real lives might feel like. That I guess is where the comedy comes from. It’s a comedy of real life.
I’ve always felt with these big business and cultural figures if you show them without the edges of comic hubris and overreach and just everyday mishaps and miscommunication, if you exclude that then you end up doing a weird hagiography where you treat them as faultless, either these brilliant brutes or some other kind of fake version. I think comedy is a part of life. You can have tragic moments and odd things happen and weird things get said that are funny and I like to try to include that because it’s a fuller picture of life.
That’s what works so well here. How did you assemble your writing team and what you looked for?
You’re looking for that perfect mix. There were some people I knew well from the UK. Georgia Pritchett, Jon Brown and Tony Roche were people I’ve worked with on previous projects. It was important to have new blood. I admired Lucy Prebble and Anna Jordan’s work in the theater. I think playwrighting is a place to take your craft very seriously and it’s nice to have that in the room. It was important to have American voices. These were writers that I hadn’t worked with before, but through reading tons of scripts, we got Jonathan Glatzer and Susan Stanton. I think you want a mix of genders and backgrounds. Some people didn’t know these worlds at all, but that didn’t matter as long as you can read the research, you can find your way into it. It was about finding the balance. It was about doing a lot of reading and a lot of meeting people.
You talk about reading, was there a source that helped you dig into that world?
For Succession, the source material that we kept coming back to was Disney War. It’s about the Disney clan, Michael Eisner’s reign, and Jeff Katzenberg. They encouraged people who worked on their Management Training Program and their senior execs to spend time inside their suits, so I used that early on in the pilot. We have Greg doing that in the pilot.
I thought Disney War was great. Redstone wrote his own autobiography and it’s interesting what he leaves out and includes. You get this sense of a person whose dealmaking prowess is extraordinarily present. He’s not necessarily someone to hide his life under a bush, he’s proud of his work. You get one mention of his wife in the whole book so you get this sense that Phyllis- they had a troubled divorce, but nevertheless, you get a sense of how peripheral and emotional life can be to one of these people.
There was a lot on the Maxwells, The Murdochs and The Comcast people and those were the ones we kept coming back to.
You created the outsiders with Tom and Greg which was a great perspective, they’re looking in and Tom is entering that world through marriage. Talk about creating those characters.
Sometimes you can conceptualize as a writer why you’re doing things and sometimes it’s instinctive. Greg was instinctive in the sense that it would be good to have an outsider. Tom is an outsider to the family. Greg is a cultural and financial outsider. Both are really helpful. I love writing about the intense relationship of the family, but I guess one of the downsides is there’s a shared language and history that can be none comprehensible to an outsider including the TV watching public, so having those characters who come in and say, “What’s going on, this is weird?” They’re our eyes in the situation – I don’t know if I was aware in a mechanical situation, but it felt right to have outside eyes to be able to say, it’s not normal to ride helicopters around the place. I think they serve a good function from that point of view.y’s shooting style from the pilot, that we’ve carried on. We hopefully give you a sense of what these people’s real lives might feel like and that’s where the comedy comes from – it’s a comedy of real life.
With Kendall, he has one of the finest arcs for being put through the wringer and the father-son dynamic
Kendall, like the rest of them, have this familial relationship that I recognize from life sometimes. They find it hard to find anything as interesting as their family on a basic level. They have outside relationships that are meaningful and important, but they’ve never really managed to escape the orbit of this family and this man. I think that’s a struggle and you don’t need to be part of great wealth and power to understand that, but if you add that to the mix, but it feels like such a toxic brew to have a powerful and controlling father who you’re trying to break away from. But he’s someone who holds the promise of potential love and power so tightly to his breast. Kendall can seem ridiculous and foolish, but as a writer, I can’t help but seem sympathetic to his plight. Like all of them, he has an almost unplayable position on the chess board.
In Peep Show, the guys are just socially inept and with The Roys, they are so smart, elsewhere they fall down, who’s the most socially inept?
There’s also different ways of operating in the world. Greg comes across as the most gauche and unsophisticated. Sometimes you see hints he’s playing his own game and although he is somewhat gauche and unsophisticated, he also kind of knows what he’s doing. Tom is a bit more polished and would like to have a charming persona which is an unbroken chain of glamorous moments of displaying his life. I guess you’d say Greg, but he’s not afraid to use his guilelessness as a disingenuous front in the world.
Logan is very brutal and does not seem to have social graces, but I think that like a lot of powerful people, when he turns his attention on you, it’s so powerful and people come away thinking he was a rather fascinating guy.
When you’re writing season one, how much of the storytelling was helped knowing you had been picked up for a second season? Or had you wrapped before the announcement?
HBO were nice and warm and they give things a chance, we weren’t picked up until we had finished so I guess you’re writing into a bit of a void. You hope you’ll come back but you can’t be sure. It’s pretty all-consuming, but it’s a tremendous job. It’s a dream to get to do a ten-part drama with all the resources, but it is extremely demanding.
What can you tell us about season two without spoilers?
We go abroad. There’s a hunting trip for team morale. We go to a media and tech conference so there are definitely some nice locations.