Jazz Tangcay Talks to Adam McKay about Trump, Succession and the scene the made him say yes to Jesse Armstrong.
When creator Jesse Armstrong told director Adam McKay about the idea for Succession, McKay says he loved it from the get go. There were a few things that stood out for him, but in particular, the banter between Tom and Cousin Greg. He was in.
As Emmy voting opens, McKay and the show scored five nominations including Best Directing in a Drama Series and Best Drama Series.
Dealing with extreme wealth, and dynasties is not foreign news, from the Murdochs to the Maxwells. Mergers and Acquisitions too, “small fish eats small fish eats small fish, and the big fish eats them all.” McKay says, commending Armstrong and the crew for taking us inside the world without glorifying it.
I caught up with McKay to talk Succession and what he’d like to see happen in Season two.
Was there a scene or a line that made you say, “Yes, I‘m in?”
I definitely loved the idea right from the second I heard it, but when I read the script, there were a few things that got me. It was a combination of the humor. I remember there was a joke where Tom tells Cousin Greg, “Kiss me. No, I’m just kidding. No, no seriously kiss me.” That exchange, mixed with the idea of the little kid trying to hit a home run for a million dollars, that painful scene. I don’t think I’ve read a script in my life where two moments like that co-exist in the same script where I was laughing so hard about Tom hazing Cousin Greg saying, “Kiss me. I’m just kidding” on the softball field, and then they do the moment where Roman is going to write the check for a million dollars, and the kid tries to hit the home run. It’s so heartbreaking, demented and deranged. That’s what struck me about it. This show has a real bottom to it. It has really powerful themes running underneath it, but at the same time, it’s just laugh out loud funny. You don’t see that kind of darkness or humor very often.
I remember that scene when Roman rips up that check and you’re just thinking, “Who are you?”
Trump gets elected by the time the show goes into production, how much did that affect the show and where that was going?
We were already in pre-production. We were already going to make it. Unfortunately, the world before Trump had some issues already. Especially with income and equality, and runaway wealth and dynastic wealth and media families. All those themes were very applicable to the real world and very relevant. And, you’re right, Trump won while we were in pre-production. The very next day after the election, we had our first tech scout. I remember being on the tech scout and we were all just really devastated and stunned. No one could believe that this had happened. I remember having this feeling, and maybe even saying it out loud, “We’re on the right show.”No one person or no small group of people could fix all of this at one time, but at least this group of people that we’re with, they get to make this show to tell this story which instantly became — as relevant as it was beforehand — became a dozen times more relevant. There was some comfort in that, at least we get to tell this story at this time.
Sure enough, he started appointing his daughters and his sons, exactly like in the show. It’s all these positions that they were ill-equipped to handle. It was nepotism, and it was quite astounding to be working on this show, and to be seeing these dynamics.
You’ve got to remember, we’re in New York City. So, after he had got elected, he was mostly in New York, so it felt like we were near the Eye of Sauron. It felt like that was in the middle of Manhattan. You drive by, you’d see the security around Trump Tower and it was going on all around us. It was a very strange time.
America has been on a very strange path for the last 30 or 40 years, and there’s no question, the world has, but man oh man, that was a strange time.
Also, you get this commentary on mergers and acquisitions, that are just going on all the time.
That’s another thing; I hope when people watch the show, you get to see the decisions that are being made pretty quickly and offhandedly. A lot of the time they’re driven by emotion and things that even the people themselves don’t understand that is affecting all of us, that are erratically altering the world, sometimes in terrible ways, sometimes in funny ways, and sometimes in good ways. I think the idea of going beyond the front lobby of these Upper East Side buildings and really seeing how the people are living inside of them.
I think the really great thing that Jesse has done and the whole team; the cast, the production team and everyone, they’ve done a great job of showing this world without glorifying it. I don’t get the feeling that when you’re done watching the show that you feel that you want to be those people. It just feels that you’ve seen some people who, if anything, are closer to being afflicted than privileged. I think it’s important to show that side of it. To show that, in some ways, I wouldn’t wish that life on my worst enemies.
As a far as the mergers and acquisitions, the structure of the show revolves around that, the hostile takeovers. Especially, these days, you see it where more and more companies are being swallowed by bigger companies, so there are fewer companies. We’re watching the big fish eat the small fish, eat the small fish, eat the small fish, and the big fish eats all the fish. That’s the direction American capitalism has gone recently, and that’s another part of the show that got even more relevant. You would think that part of the show could be really boring, but we’re so surrounded by it and living in the middle of it, that part sprung to life as well.
Let’s just talk about political satire and how that’s changed since he got elected?
We felt coming into this that it was already changing and that there were so many extreme things going on before Trump was elected.
Jesse and I really talked about the idea of plunging into slightly tricky waters with how real and how dramatic we were going to play elements of the show, and how funny the show could be. There are thousands of examples of drama and comedy co-existing, but what we wanted to do was take the dramatic side even darker and more dramatic, and almost tragic in its shading and scope, and see if that could live with comedy.
We look back at other people that have done versions of it, and there was early Neil LaBute In The Company of Men, and Friends and Strangers. Both of those were interesting to watch, but there was not a long list of stuff that was that funny, and that dark, tragic and dramatic. It was a hard list to find. There were a few other examples we looked at.
We looked at Foxcatcher as far as the theme and scope, and I really loved that movie. At the same time, we flipped and looked at comedy. We took a little bit of a dive into the unknown with that, and sure enough when the show premiered for its first season, there were a bunch of people complaining about the two different tones in the show, but that happens. That’s one of the great things about series, and HBO being patient with series, you know that you have a chance for the audience to settle in for what it’s going to be, and eventually they did, so all is well.
On the subject of the audience, the other thing they love is the bromance between Cousin Greg and Tom; the show is a gif.
It’s so funny. That’s so cool. We knew very fast we wanted Nick Braun to play Cousin Greg. Actually, Matthew might have been the last person we cast, and we had no idea there would be that chemistry between them. We started filming and the second the two got near each other was so interesting.
My DP had the green light to what was interesting, and we kept turning to the two of them and even the body language between the two of them was making us laugh. We definitely opened the door to improv with the show, so both the actors are really comfortable with that and they kept leaning into it, finding funny things with each other.
When we had done the pilot, I remember Jesse and I thought there was a lot of fun to be had with Tom and Cousin Greg. Sure enough, they just got more enjoyable.
Everyone who I’ve spoken to has really loved the idea of working with you and your improv style.
I find it helps a bunch of different ways. It lets the actors know they have freedom and they can make choices. Of course, we’re going to do what’s scripted, but if we don’t get it exactly right, it’s not the end of the world.
I also think a big part of the reason it really worked was Jesse Armstrong. It would be very easy for him as a writer to say, “No, you’ve got to do what’s written.” I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if he had said that, but he was generous enough that he opened up his script that he let us mess around and try different things.
I’ve just always found with actors, even when they’re initially afraid of improvisation, that once you start doing it, they love it. It really lets them behave. Especially with a show like this, we’re not trying to always think of funny one liners or crack everyone up. It’s just really behavior. With improvisation, you should be making mistakes, and it just creates a great collaborative atmosphere. Sometimes, I’ve even done improvisation in a scene and not really used a lot of it in the end.
I even feel the acting overall gets better. All the foundations of improvisations are just good for everything you’re doing. This cast was incredible. I feel you could improvize a movie with this cast they’re so good.
There’s a bunch of it. Now, in season two when I wasn’t there, I could tell where they’re improvising, you can feel that life to it. It’s been very cool to see it become e part of the way they work.
I love it. I love where the characters are, and what’s to come, but the one character who is shady, is Marcia. What is beneath her?
I agree with you. There’s a whole deep layered world there. They’ve done a very nice job of just hinting at it. We’ve met her son. There’s the moment where Shiv tried getting a Private detective. There is no character shrouded in mystery more than her. When she finally shows her intentions, it’s going to be very exciting.
The other thing I really want to learn more about is Logan and his upbringing. I want to learn about his brother and his uncle. We keep talking about the idea of doing a flashback, but we’ll see what happens. Marcia’s a good one. I want to know more.
Also, whenever they talk about their childhood, I’m dying to know what that’s about too. You see it in the opening credits. It seems pretty horrific. As bad as he is when he’s older, can you imagine when he’s younger and when he’s driven? I’m dying to meet some more of his ex-wives too. We met the one during the wedding last season, and that couldn’t have been more enjoyable. He’s got some other ones, and I’m excited to meet them.
You’re teasing me.
OK, but we have to talk about the score because Nicholas Brittel has created one of the greatest themes and scores.
Forget it. I think, and I’ll go this far, it’s one of the great scores in the history of TV. It’s jawdropping.
He got that sound of dirty rich money in that theme.
Oh my God! I just bought that album and all of it. Every drop of it is beautiful.He’s the absolute best. I can’t imagine doing anything without him. We’re working a pilot for HBO, and he’ll be scoring this as well. He’s a rare talent.