A bunch of mainly British comedy writers manage to write the Great American Drama. How did they do it?
Writers’ rooms are notoriously secretive. But when you piece together a few clues from interviews and podcasts, it’s both a great story, and one packed full of lessons for anyone interested in creative work.
Obligatory warning: if you’ve not seen Succession yet, mild spoilers below.
Succession’s first episode didn’t air until June 2018, around a decade after Jesse Armstrong first came up with the premise (whilst on location filing Peep Show).
“My first vivid memory of the project that would develop into Succession was trying to get out of it. It was about 2008.”
– Jesse Armstrong
After a stalled first version in 2011 (a “faux- documentary” about Rupert Murdoch), it was 2015 before he hit on the idea of fictional family, and 2016 before HBO made an offer. Only then did Armstrong write the pilot episode in a one-bedroom flat in Brixton Hill.
When asked last week what he was thinking of doing next, he said: “I’ll always go to my office and read things, but the research process [for my next project] could take ten years or something..”
Building something great takes time. Think in decades, not years.
For each season they’d spend “four or five months” together in a non-descript room somewhere in London.
“A writers’ room is not a place to do any writing in.”
– Jesse (again)
This time was spent simply experimenting: developing the characters, working out the shape of the series; and coming up with ideas for great lines.
“Normally Jesse would arrive in the room with a clear sense of the end of a season, but open to total invention as to how we got there.”
Only later were scripts farmed out to members of the team for actual writing.
Put the effort into making the time (and space) to experiment properly.
The writing team came from a variety of backgrounds. - Often they’d look to Tony Roche (creator of the word “omnishambles”) to sharpen the jokes; or to writers to flesh out particular characters (Lucy Prebble for Tom and Shiv, Jon Brown for Roman) - but everyone would be able to pitch in on whatever they liked.
“Jesse [...] has always talked about running a room as being like throwing a party”
– Lucy Prebble
This not only meant more eyes on scripts, but also helped keep the momentum going when another of the writing team got stuck:
“If you’re on your own, it can take a week, whereas if you've got a room, hopefully, for six people who are downcast there's one person who sees a way through. So it's like an accelerator.”
When you’re a small team, everyone should be able to do everything.
Another quick of the writing process was that the scripts themselves often weren’t finalised until as late as possible.
“I remember one of the actors saying at a season 1 readthrough how he’d never seen scripts with so many ‘maybes’”
“A trick of writing is to stay open until you absolutely have to close down the narrative”
– Lucy (again)
Scripts remained in draft till the last possible moment - there was a writer’s room on location at all times during filming.
The actors themselves also came in with interpretations on their characters (until episode eight of the first season Logan Roy was from Canada, until Brian Cox argued his way to a Scottish Logan Roy).
This ensured a relentless pace of iteration.
“I think every other episode of Succession has gone to at least 30 drafts – usually 50.”
When you can, keep things open until the last possible moment.
The team went to absurd lengths to get details right. For the season 4 episode where a vote counting centre in Wisconsin is firebombed during a Presidential election:
“I got Justin on the phone with the elections director for the City of Milwaukee. We got the physical space in which they count ballots. What the warehouse would actually look like. What procedures they would follow.”
Other consultants included funeral directors, former media executives, and even a watch expert (who “drafted multi-page documents detailing the personalities of every character, and then provided a list of potential watches for each.”).
“Because we grew up getting out of helicopters, you just walk right the fuck out.”
– Kieran Culkin
The items on set were also constructed meticulously. From the copy for TVs visible in the background of scenes, to a fake MBA/JD certificate (from Penn) for Gerri, to lavender for Stewy to sniff during a face off with Logan, things were planned to a huge degree.
“Monica Jacobs is selecting every item that you see on the screen and then an actor’s walking into that space and interacting with that stuff, and if it’s the right stuff you’ll get a better performance”
Last, but by no means least: small details matter. Forget them at your peril.