Are you’re a writer or director in the industry in love with an established show you’re not working on? Let the journey Cathy Yan went on be a lesson to you. The “Birds of Prey” filmmaker is an Emmy nominee today because she made sure the powers at be were aware she is a massive fan of HBO’s “Succession.” And it was her first television credit. Sure, it helped that she lived in the New York Metro area and was available to helm the third episode (“The Disruption”), but after a sit-down meeting with series creator Jesse Armstrong, she landed the assignment. A year later she was shocked to get her first Emmy Award nomination (and we’re pretty sure considering how competitive this year’s Emmy race was, HBO was surprised too).
Over the course of a conversation earlier this month, Yan discusses what it’s like to come into an established series as a director, how Ziwe put her own spin on her television interviewer character, her upcoming feature, and much more.
The Playlist: Congrats on the Emmy nomination. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
Cathy Yan: I was totally surprised. It came out of nowhere, really. So, I was just very surprised and happy and excited.
This was the one episode of “Succession” you’ve done so far. I don’t know if you’re doing any of the upcoming season four.
You’re not, O.K. So how did this opportunity to do this episode come your way?
I’ve just been a long, long-standing fan of the show. I love it. I live in New York, as well. And so I told my agents, I told my team, if there’s ever a chance to shoot something with “Succession”, I’ll do it. I’ll PA. I don’t care. And then I just met with Jesse Armstrong and I met with Mark Mylod and there was just a lot in common, I think. I used to be a journalist, as well, and so Jesse and I talked a lot about that. The way that I like to shoot and what I value, I think, in storytelling, “Succession” had that in spades and so it was just a really easy connection and it felt right.
You’re coming into the third season. They have a set look and a set way that they sort of shoot the series. Was that easy for you to sort of be part of? Did you feel like you could bring any of your own cinematic eye into the episode in terms of some of the shots and setups?
I did. I mean, I think the way it’s shot works so well for the show. It’s really unique. It looks different and looks very special. Frankly, just with all the amazing amounts of dialogue and the number of people in the room, it’s the only way to shoot a lot of the scenes. It creates this tension and this excitement that works extremely well. But I did feel like, especially in my episode, there are moments of melancholy and there are moments to just go a little wider and to be a little bit more quiet. To really let these moments linger and to highlight them a little bit more. And I think oftentimes too, with the world, there’s so much beauty, but they always ignore it. So it’s nice sometimes to just take a moment to breathe or take a moment to go a little wide. They were absolutely good with that. It’s such an all-encompassing style in a way that they were fine and happy and very supportive of it.
One shot that comes to mind in that context involves Shiv walking down the hallway and she comes into an office and there’s no dialogue. That felt like a moment where you were having sort of a break that the show doesn’t always take.
Yeah. I mean, it came in the writing, which was great. As in, I felt like there were a lot of strong moments that were handed to me in the script that allowed for it to breathe. So naturally, it was there. I didn’t feel like I had a force a pause, but it felt right to me, because of course, there would be no dialogue for that moment to allow it to linger. It’s a challenge shooting at Waystar because it’s been shot to death. And it’s also challenging technically because of all the mirrors and reflections and all of that. So, I think Chris Norr, the DP on that episode, is so talented and insanely collaborative. We always knew we wanted to be a little bit more cinematic there and take our time and I knew I wanted to shoot it around sunset. So it just worked out, finding that reflection shot in the mirror was just a stroke of good fortune, really.
Also in this episode, and correct me if I’m wrong, you shot the Ziwe stuff as the host of a fictional talk show. Not something you usually see on “Succession.” I also think I saw an interview with Ziwe where she said that she sort of got to write her own dialogue a little bit. Can you speak to that part of the episode?
She definitely helped form her character. I think she renamed her character because, in the original version of it, it was more of like a Samantha Bee character. So she brought such a freshness to it, and obviously, we wanted to change the name to reflect her. She also was so brightly colored, which was very colorful for the world of “Succession” where almost everyone’s just in beige and black. That was really fun to bring that element. I mean, obviously, it was still within the show. It was a show within the show and then we shoot the show, which was really quite funny. We had to shoot with those kinds of cameras, not on our film cameras. We actually brought in a producer of those double camera shows. And it was fun to just have to fully embrace that style.
The actors in “Succession” have now spent many years playing these roles. They sort of know their own characters in and out. Were they willing to listen in terms of direction and advice?
Yeah, they were very respectful. And it’s definitely different. I’m mostly a feature filmmaker and so it’s a very different process. You have longer to prep work with the actors and it’s a very director’s medium and television, as you said, they know their characters more than anyone. But everyone was always very respectful and I think a director is still that objective voice that’s going to tell you, that is the keeper of the episode and keeper of the cadence and keeper of the arcs within the episode. I think there was a lot of good, respectful dialogue in terms of like, “Yeah, maybe you should try this. Maybe you think this is more instinctually, right?” But then sometimes Jesse will come in and he’ll say like, “I think we should try it this way.” And so it was always a dialogue between it. I think they’re always open and finding new layers to their own characters. These characters are all so complex and interesting and have multiple layers, like an onion. So it never felt like, “Oh, we’re done here. I just know this character inside and out.” Because the characters themselves are so multifaceted they’re always discovering a new side of themselves anyway. And you, as an audience member, have seen another side of them. I think you really get to see Shiv be vulnerable or Shiv be angry in this episode and you get to see Kendall really be vulnerable, in a way. So you are always seeing different sides to their characters.
Jesse has spoken of plotting out the entire season beforehand and this season, in particular, had been written out because of the pandemic delay. Were there moments where Jesse said, “Focus on this because this needs to matter down the road in some way”? Did Jesse let you know where the season was actually heading?
Oh no. No, I don’t think anyone’s really privy. I know the actors aren’t either, I’m pretty certain. I think it’s a very small inner circle that knows it. And Jesse’s tweaking all the time. He’s pretty mum about it. I think because he truly feels, and I don’t want to speak for him, but I think there is a sense of why should the characters know their future. It’s that realistic. And there is such an effort to be authentic and on the show, authentic in the performances, authentic in the reactions, authentic in the world, authentic in every little minute detail. I was like, “Is it too much if I get an FBI expert so I can make sure that the raid looks right?” And they’re like, “What do you mean? Of course, we’ll have an FBI expert.” That is not budgeted for every movie or every show. And so they do not cut corners from that perspective. And I think keeping everyone on their toes is a really big strategy that’s employed, for the entire show and from the directing as well. You want to keep it fresh. You want to make sure they’re improving and trying to react in real-time, as opposed to just saying the lines over and over again.
With your experience on this and now landing an Emmy nomination, are you interested in doing more television? Is that something that’s sort of coming down your road or are you sort of back to focusing on features at the moment?
Oh, I love television. I think what’s so fun about now is that there’s such an ability to move between the two. I think a lot of what I love about movie making, in general, which is characters and character development and getting to build out these worlds, that’s all happening in television. So I have a few television projects going on right now too. I really love to get in there early and develop. As a writer and writer-director, it’s being able to get in there early and work with writers and develop the shows and EP. It’s wonderful and it’s super collaborative and it lasts longer than a feature, so those are all reasons to get into television.
And just out of curiosity, do you know what’s up next for you? Is there anything that we should be looking forward to?
Sure, yeah. I have a feature film called “The Freshening” that will hopefully shoot soon. I wrote it, I’ll be directing it and it’s pretty wild. It’s this sci-fi love story that also has movement in it and it’s inexplicable in a way. But I’m so excited for it and it, I think, touches upon a lot of different themes and ideas and even aesthetics that I’ve been exploring in my previous work. So I’m really excited about that.
“Succession” is available on HBO Max.