SUCCESSION: A Conversation with Oscar-Nominated Writer Jesse Armstrong

Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox, photo credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Oscar® and WGA nominee Jesse Armstrong has developed a cult-like following over the past decade writing for some of television’s strongest shows, including Black MirrorPeep Show, and Veep. His feature script, In the Loop, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2009.  His latest creation, Succession, is set in New York and explores themes of power, politics, money, and family. The HBO show centers around Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox, a tough, powerful, aging patriarch and head of Waystar Royco, a family-controlled international media conglomerate, as his children maneuver to take control of the company.

While Armstrong is serving as showrunner, the pilot is directed by Oscar winner Adam McKay (The Big Short) and takes a modern lens to ancient ideas about familial struggle and self-interests. “All through history, moments of succession are points of conflict,” creator Jesse Armstrong says. “Whether it’s the Roman Empire or Babylonian Empire, succession is tough, and often in political and national history, when a king, queen, or leader has to leave the stage, they can find they want to linger in the limelight longer than anyone thought.”

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Armstrong to talk about how he approached the characters in his new show and what advice he has for up-and-coming writers.

John Bucher: You have been very clear that the family is not based on any one particular family in history, but would you talk about what the origin of this story was in your mind and how you began to put these characters together?

Jesse Armstrong: I wrote a screenplay about the real (Rupert) Murdoch family almost a decade ago, and that didn’t come to anything in the end, but I guess it was the origin of thinking about media families. I’ve written about power and political power a little bit on In the Loop. And when I was thinking about a show, a sort of family show, a show that could talk about power now and where we are at in the world, I guess a media family felt very intriguing. Sometimes the spark is weird for a project, isn’t it? And (HBO’s documentary) The Jinx sparked me a bit, I think, thinking about powerful people and what they can get away with. There may not be a huge amount of that evident in this show, but there may be a commonality between the very powerful patriarchs who often have succession issues from the Roman empire to all sorts of kings and queens. Successions are screwed up moments where the rubber hits the road in terms of power meeting expectations and plans.

John Bucher: The characters are so rich, so complex, so nuanced. Can you talk about your process? Do you spend time writing out backstories and histories of each character?

Jesse Armstrong: I think most writers can post-rationalize these things. I do spend a bit of time doing what you describe — that kind of bibliography —  when did they go to school? How do these ages fit together? What’s the birth order and religious affiliation? You just fill in all of the back story which might provide story context, or gives you interesting stuff to explore, but the essence of each character, I feel comes in a slightly knowingly mysterious way. We’ve spent a lot of time in the writers room talking about birth order and how that can be quite defining to your destiny and character.

Brian Cox and Jesse Armstrong, photo credit: Peter Kramer/HBO

John Bucher: The characters have aspects of who they are that are very appealing and many aspects that are quite horrid to see. We are given a looking glass into Greg’s character who is coming into the family, much as we are, just getting to know them, really. Was Greg’s character something that you were intentional about? To give the audience something to relate to? Or was Greg’s character serving other purposes in your narrative?

Jesse Armstrong: I think you’re dead right, and I can’t remember if it was consciously schematic like that, but it felt like when people started liking it, I was definitely aware that you’ve got a character as the perspective of the audience. To use that analogy, most of the characters are like fish swimming around in water — they are not aware of their extraordinary wealth or privilege most of the time — so having Greg there gives the audience a way to approach this world.

John Bucher: Logan Roy’s character is so interesting in that we as an audience aren’t exactly sure when his failing health is a motivation for his actions or his true feelings about a member of a family member motivates his actions.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, I think Brian’s performance is tremendous and we’ve thought hard about the reality of a sad situation like that. In The Madness of King George, it’s a terrifying possibility that someone might change when they’ve lost some part of their identity, or their essential nature, who they are — that’s a horrible prospect. We’ve chosen to see that in this mythic corporate context, it has that brutality to it, that hard edge, that zero sum game, which is business.

Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook, photo credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

John Bucher: You used that word “mythic,” and the story seems to have a very mythic quality about it, something very ancient. Are you someone who looks to those sorts of sources for inspiration in developing modern stories?

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, I am. You know it can get kind of highfalutin and sort of high on yourself when you start to feel your mind encouraging it. We make it a joke in the show. There’s an episode when Kendall gets his moment in the sun and it seems like he might be empowered. He encourages everyone to read The Epic of Gilgamesh. I think that’s a little joke against the show itself, because at one point I started encouraging everyone to read The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid and the rest of the Western canon, all of the best classical literature. The stuff is there if you choose to go to it, and we did that for a while. We had an expert on the history of the Imperial period of Roman history come and talk to us. The story is the main thing, right?

John Bucher: Absolutely. A great number in our audience are creatives themselves — writers, directors, producers. What advice can you offer those who are in the midst of trying to create their own stories? Are there any habits or advice you can give to those who are toiling away in the trenches?

Jesse Armstrong: It’s a fresh version of all of the advice you hear — of liking yourself and trusting your instincts. Sometimes when we start to write, we come with that sense of what the market wants and what we’ve seen which we can emulate, but trust the other impulse, which is doing what you are really interested in.

Succession premieres on all HBO outlets on June 3. 

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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