Anniversary of the Kendall Roy estate: interview with Lorene Scafaria

When you’re Kendall Roy throwing a lavish birthday party filled with replica treehouses, champagne nurseries, and a replacement for your mother’s vagina, you call Lorene Scafaria. After all, the woman knows how to film an explosion on the screen.

The director delivered a visually striking and emotionally nuanced deep dive into the strip club world with her heist drama scammers in 2019. It was a bit of a cultural phenomenon – with Jennifer Lopez producing a brash performance as the woman orchestrating a delightful crime scam with the help of her fellow dancers – that sounded as wild as her story. It was after the end of the press for this film that Scafaria decided on an episode of Succession was next on his filmography bucket list.

A few years and a pandemic later, she directed one of the show’s most memorable and ambitious episodes – an obnoxiously decadent and ridiculously over-the-top party suited to her emotionally stunted techno-Gatsby.

We spoke with Scafaria about the manifestation of this cinematic episode, the treehouse fight scenes, and this coat fiasco. And yes, she is a fan of Wambsgans.

Did you call dibs to direct this episode or was it just luck of the draw?

All Succession the episode suits me well. I didn’t know the details, but it was me who broadcast it, which I was interested in making. I’m just a huge fan of the show. Going to see Waystar Royco the first time, it was like going to Disney World or something.

When did you decide to take your shot then?

It was actually just after the scammers the tour was over. I knew I was going to spend the next year writing in a dark room. So I just thought about what else I would really like to do. I had a call with Jesse Armstrong in February 2020. After that I got the official invitation. Then, of course, the world turned upside down. Going to shoot this episode was actually my re-entry into the world. I really never left the house or socialized until I was 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 start from scratch and get into TV and work with this beautiful and 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 that’s the word they used. I just felt spoiled.

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

There is a Succession style. There is a visual language to the series but I think there is always freedom. We’re in season three, so there’s really a desire to work different muscles and try different things. An episode like this is very special. It’s a bottle episode. I usually work in the cinema. I used to build something from scratch and drag it to the finish line. Running television is strange. It’s a unique process because you are kind of that special guest, but you are leading a whole. It’s a bit wild.

So how do you put a bit of your point of view and your voice in there?

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

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

Oh, I really like everyone. I to do think i’m a wambs girl. Tom and Greg are… he’s a fan favorite. I don’t have any Gerri / Roman scenes, nothing alone with the two anyway. It was the only thing I felt like I was missing out on.

Kendall’s party theme is ‘rebirth’ and we see it in everything from the treehouse to the entrance to the vaginal canal. What kind of contribution did you have regarding the aesthetics of the party?

You just got this script and you’re like, “My God, how are we going to do this? Can we actually put this even on TV? You just start to put it back together. We had a pretty long preparation for something like this because there is a lot to build. Much of it was a team effort, starting from the page. Something like [the canal], you really had to choose the right pink color. What shade of pink do we use? Something darker looked more graphic, but something lighter, maybe the lighting is a bit wobbly. Everything is very specific, of course. It’s a beautiful narration.

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

So you delegate which scenes take place in which rooms?

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

This treehouse fight, the location changed a few times, but it was something close to my heart. Of course, they have to fight in the treehouse. Not just because it’s that kind of forbidden place, but it’s where Kendall just had a temper tantrum. There is so much history between them. It is obviously bubbling on the surface. They have that full arc in this episode, from where they are when the siblings arrive to where they are when Kendall comes out. I think for me, as a fan of the show, I like the scenes where the three of them actually get along. It’s such a rare glimpse of what could have been if they had had different parents. Finding those moments and then, of course, painfully pulling back from that and seeing them come apart again, that’s the sparkle, I think, of this episode.

Is there a version of this episode where Kendall performs her Billy Joel Crucifixion routine?

[laughs] It has never been filmed. I don’t believe it was ever written. I think there were different versions of how he approached it. We’ve all seen him do L to OG. We were all there. So you know what he’s capable of. You know what he’s ready to do. I think the threat of that was almost as suspenseful as if you’d actually seen him do it.

This episode introduces the character of technical brother of Alexander Skarsgard in a truly memorable way. What was it like working with him?

I think everyone who comes wants to play, you know? I think he got into it. There’s been a lot of talk about who this guy is, what his DNA is. I think what was so exciting about him as an actor and as a character is that he’s so no a Roy.

There’s something very exciting about taking a presence like that and putting it face to face with someone like Roman, who has such a beat going for him. This guy is not on the same pace. It’s just always a second late. What is meant to be like a dialogue tennis match, it just doesn’t fly at the same speed. There is just enough disconnection. Then, of course, Roman has to lure her in and find that to connect.

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

Well, it works perfectly, but I believe he was injured. It’s the most Connor’s thing of all time, that coat. Each piece of the wardrobe of the series, so much thought is devoted to it. There are heritage consultants who tell you what brand someone like Connor might wear. It was fun to play with. What is going to drive Kendall crazy when he sees it, but not a big puffer jacket either, something obviously ridiculous, that wouldn’t fit in the style of the show?

Have you ever found out how he injured his arm?

Maybe he told me. Let’s stick to “he fell from his horse”.

James C. Tibbs