Spring 2019 Director's Profile: Adam McKay
Adam McKay
A storyline of "Succession"

While a DGA Award is a high honor, Adam McKay was in even more rarefied air this year when he scored two Guild nominations for different projects--for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for Vice, and in the Dramatic TV Series category for the HBO series Succession.

While Alfonso Cuaron took the feature award for Roma, McKay won for “Celebration,” the very first episode of Succession, which introduces us to the Roy family--Logan Roy and his four children--who control an enormous media and entertainment conglomerate. Succession tracks their lives as they contemplate and grapple with what the future may hold for them once the aging patriarch steps down from the company.

Oscar-winning writer Jesse Armstrong (In The Loop) created the show and penned the pilot episode helmed by McKay, himself an Academy Award recipient for writing the adapted screenplay (with Charles Randolph) for The Big Short, which also earned him his first career DGA nomination as well as an Oscar nod for Best Director in 2016. This year McKay added three more Oscar noms to his résumé for Vice--Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay.

McKay has been a long-time fan of Armstrong, though past attempts to collaborate on projects didn’t come to fruition. Finally pieces began to fall into place for the dramedy that is Succession, with McKay, Armstrong, Frank Rich and Will Ferrell among the show’s executive producers.

The fictional Roy family conjures up thoughts of other power-wielding mass media families from the Murdochs to the Maxwells and the Redstones. McKay said that Armstrong’s original script for Succession was “fabulous,” prompting his desire to direct the pilot. 

“You try to only direct things you feel you should direct,” related McKay. “And there are times you feel someone else could direct. I was drawn to this. It just felt like it was from the world we live in right now. As a director, I felt I could actually help the first episode, setting the tone and feel. From my background in theatre and improv, I thought I could add to the idea of family which is at the core of the story. I could add something to this show which touches upon all kinds of ideas--dynastic wealth, income equality, media empires, power, the hallmarks of the times we live in.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting the right tone, observed McKay. “I knew Jesse’s script was so good and the times we live in are so strange. It had to be funny but dramatic and dark. Sometimes it’s very funny. For a few times, I’ve seen that tone well blended, like in Neil LaBute’s early stuff--In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. Neil was kind of a key, a director who’s done that, gone very dark. Foxcatcher was also a big influence as far as the visual look of the show; it was  remotely funny and very dark, a masterpiece.

“I knew these characters (in Succession) would be very unlikeable when you meet them,” continued McKay. “By the end you find their vulnerabilities--not to say you like them at the end. That’s why the tone was a tricky thing. It was what was most challenging and at the same time what excited me most about the show.”

To help realize this unique tone and blend, McKay helped bring together a mix of artisans--including those with whom he worked with before, and new collaborators. 

Embodying this mix were composer Nicholas Britell and cinematographer Andrij Parekh, ASC. 

The former, a two-time Oscar nominee for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, scored both The Big Short and Vice for McKay. 

“He’s one of the most collaborative talents I’ve ever met,” said McKay of Britell. “He can do anything. He’s classically trained but has done hip-hop. He has the ability to create the sounds necessary for the project in front of him. He doesn’t impose himself on it but there’s always a flavor of Nicholas in what he does. I told Jesse he would love Nicholas. They met and in a couple hours banged out the theme which helped bring a Shakespearian tone to the show, depicting a power family, with a rock music feel hinting at inherited wealth. It had a swing and a groove to it. He got the show immediately.”

On the flip side, McKay hadn’t worked with DP Parekh before. The director’s first choice was a prior prized collaborator, Barry Ackroyd, BSC, who shot The Big Short

“I wanted a blend of traditional and hand-held cinematography,” explained McKay who noted that Ackroyd’s hand-held work on The Big Short was masterful. However, Ackroyd wasn’t available, which caused McKay to search for another DP. 

McKay was drawn to the lensing of the HBO limited series Show Me A Hero, which led him to Parekh. “I loved that series and then I saw some of his other work. We met and I liked him a lot. He didn’t have that pre-set box of what to do. He was open to playing around, finding the right look with me. He was so good that when we were done (with the pilot), I thought he should direct an episode. He gets the show and its DNA. His demeanor, how he handled a crew impressed me.”

Parekh wound up directing the “Which Side Are You On?” episode of Succession. McKay said it was “one of my favorite episodes.” 

Relative to Britell and Parekh, McKay cited an adage that “‘70 percent of directing is hiring the right people.’ We did a very good job of that  on Succession.”

Heightened relevance
As the wheels were well in motion for the show, it took on greater relevance and weight when Donald Trump was elected president, said McKay. “During pre-pro, Donald Trump wins the presidency, appoints his daughter to a high-ranking position, his family comes into power, stories of corruption start coming out. We knew this was a relevant script beforehand but now it was even more so.”

In light of this heightened relevance, working on Succession had a therapeutic effect on McKay and others.

“Sometimes we forget how brutal and emotionally distressing things were after that election,” observed McKay. “I was down. We were in New York City which felt like the center of it. There was Trump Tower; he was there at the time. We were in his kingdom. It was upsetting to see America bend in this direction and all the stuff that went with him; an increase in hate crimes, the hard times we live in. Suddenly there was even more of a purpose to doing this show. Everyday showing up and working on it meant something. I give Jesse Armstrong all the credit for this. His antennae were so accurate on this one. After the election, I would have wanted to do a show like this. Thankfully we were. It speaks to the power of expression.”

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