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Director/Writer Lorene Scafaria On How She Pulled Off Kendall’s Wild Birthday Party Episode Of ‘Succession’

When you’re Kendall Roy and you’re throwing a lavish birthday party filled with replica treehouses, champagne nurseries, and a blow-up stand-in for your mother’s vagina – you call Lorene Scafaria. After all, the woman knows how to shoot an on-screen blowout.

The director delivered a visually striking, emotionally nuanced deep dive into the world of strip clubs with her heist-drama Hustlers in 2019. It was a bit of a cultural phenomenon – with Jennifer Lopez churning out a brash leading performance as a woman who orchestrates a deliciously criminal con with the help of her fellow dancers – one that looked just as wild as its story was. It was after press for that film was over that Scafaria decided an episode of Succession was next on her filmography bucket list.

A couple of years and a pandemic later, she’s helmed one of the show’s most memorable and ambitious installments – an obnoxiously-decadent, ridiculously over-the-top bash fit for its emotionally-stunted techno-Gatsby.

We chatted with Scafaria about manifesting this cinematic episode, treehouse fight scenes, and that coat fiasco. And yes, she’s a Wambsgans fan.

Did you call dibs on directing this episode or was it just the luck of the draw?

Any Succession episode is fine with me. I didn’t know the specifics, but I was the one who put it out there, that I was interested in directing. I’m just a huge fan of the show. Going to see Waystar Royco the first time was like going to Disney World or something.

When did you decide to shoot your shot then?

It was actually right after the Hustlers tour was over. I knew I was going to be spending the next year writing in a dark room. So I just thought about what else I’d really like to do. I had a call with Jesse Armstrong in February of 2020. After that, I got the official invite. Then, of course, the world turned upside down. Going to shoot this episode was actually my re-entry into the world. I truly never left the house or socialized until I got vaccinated. Then 10 days later, I left for New York. I think the first place I went to was the airport, so it was surreal to go from nothing to stepping into the TV and working with this beautiful, wonderful group of people.

But then they told me it was the birthday episode … they said they wanted me for something particularly cinematic I think is the word they used. I just felt spoiled.

The show has its own groove and rhythm. Is there a Succession style of shooting you had to adapt your process to?

There is a Succession style. There’s a visual language of the show but I think there’s still freedom. We’re in season three, so there’s definitely a desire to flex different muscles and try different things. An episode like this, it’s very special. It’s a bottle episode. I usually work in film. I’m used to building something from the ground up and dragging it across the finish line. Directing TV is strange. It’s a unique process because you’re somehow this special guest, but you’re running a set. It’s kind of wild.

Right, how do you insert a bit of your perspective and voice in there?

It’s a well-oiled machine. You’ve got crew that’s been there from the very beginning, these camera operators that have been in a ballet with these actors for so long. The actors know their characters backward and forward. So obviously, a lot of it is about listening and feeling it out. But as a fan, I’ve watched so much of it, I like to think that I could predict what Roman’s feeling, what Greg’s going through.

Since we’re listing off different characters, did you have a Roy you were particularly excited to work with?

Oh, I love everyone, really. I do think I’m a Wambs girl. Tom and Greg are … that’s a fan favorite. I don’t have any Gerri/Roman scenes, nothing alone with the two of them anyway. That was the only thing I felt like I was missing out on.

The theme of Kendall’s party is “rebirth,” and we see that in everything from the treehouse to the vaginal canal entrance. What kind of input did you have when it came to the aesthetic of the party?

You just get this script, and you go, “God, how are we going to realize this? Can we actually put this even on television?” You start to just piece it together. We had a pretty long prep for something like this because there’s lots to construct. So much of that was a team effort, starting from the page. Something like [the canal], we really had to choose the right color pink. Which shade of pink are we using? Something darker felt more graphic, but something lighter, maybe the lighting is a little wonky. It’s all very specific, obviously. It’s great storytelling.

I think the arc of the episode, Kendall goes through different things. He’s really throwing this party for two or three people to think it’s cool. I think with this, it’s really a party he’s throwing for his siblings. Then at some point, when he realizes what they’re there for, he gets hurt and decides maybe, forget it. There’s so much vulnerability in this episode, but so much planning had to go into the space and what story the different rooms are telling.

So you’re delegating which scenes happen in which rooms then?

I think the biggest thing that I wanted to make sure we did was to have that fight in the treehouse. There were certain things … the opening of the letter in one scene, that’s just the perfect location for it, isn’t it? A version of his office on fire is just, obviously, the place to have that scene.

This treehouse fight, the location changed a couple of times but that was something that I felt very strongly about. Of course, they have to fight in the treehouse. Not just because this is that sort of forbidden place, but this is where Kendall’s just had a temper tantrum. There’s so much history between them. It’s obviously bubbling to the surface. They have this complete arc in this episode, from where they are when the siblings arrive to where they are when Kendall walks out. I think for me, as a fan of the show, I love the scenes where the three of them are actually getting along. It’s such a rare glimpse into what could have been if they had different parents. To find those moments, and then, of course, to painfully pull back from that, and see them get separated again, that’s the brilliance, I think, of this episode.

Is there a version of this episode where Kendall does perform his Billy Joel Crucifixion routine?

[laughs] It was never filmed. I don’t believe it was ever written. I think there were various versions of how close he gets to it. We all saw him do L to the OG. We were all there. So you know what he’s capable of. You know what he is willing to do. I think the threat of this was almost just as suspenseful as if you’d actually seen him do it.

This episode introduces Alexander Skarsgard’s tech bro character in a truly memorable way. What was it like working with him?

I think everybody who comes in wants to play, you know? I think he threw himself into it. There was a lot of conversation about who this guy is, what’s his DNA. I think what was so exciting about him as an actor and as a character is he’s so not a Roy.

There’s something very exciting about taking a presence like that and making him go toe to toe with someone like Roman, who has such a rhythm to him. This guy is not on the same rhythm. It’s just always a second off. What’s supposed to be like a tennis match of dialogue, he’s just not volleying at the same speed. There’s just enough of a disconnect. Then, of course, Roman has to pull him in and find that in order to connect.

Now, was Alan Ruck really injured, or was the whole sling and jacket debacle just a way to convey Connor’s growing ego?

Well, it works perfectly, but I believe he was actually injured. It’s the most Connor thing ever though, this coat. Every piece of wardrobe on the show, so much thought goes into it. There are wealth consultants who tell you what brand someone like Connor might wear. That was fun to play with. What is going to drive Kendall crazy when he sees it, but also not be some big down jacket, something obviously ridiculous, that wouldn’t fit into the style of the show?

Did you ever find out how he hurt his arm though?

He might’ve told me. Let’s just stick with ‘he fell off a horse.’