Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Promotional poster for SUCCESSION season 4

To kick off a brand new season, host Taffy Brodesser-Akner sits down with Succession creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong to discuss how he staffed and ran his writers’ room, the importance of maintaining distance and perspective in your artistic endeavors, what’s next for Jesse now that Succession is over, and much more.

Jesse Armstrong is a screenwriter, showrunner, and producer known for his work on several critically acclaimed television series. He rose to prominence as co-creator and writer of British sitcoms Peep Show and Fresh Meat, as a writer on the first three seasons of The Thick of It and cowriter of its 2009 feature adaption, In the Loop, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Most recently, Jesse served as creator and showrunner of the HBO black comedy Succession, for which he received – among others – four consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, three Golden Globes, and two Writers Guild Awards for Drama Series.

Succession centers on the ultra-wealthy and ultra-dysfunctional Roy family, owners of global media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar RoyCo, and their fight for control of the company amidst uncertainty about the health of the family’s patriarch. The series—which is nominated for the 2024 Writers Guild Award for Drama Series—concluded its fourth and final season concluded last year, and the entire series is available to stream on Max.

This episode of OnWriting is hosted by screenwriter, journalist, and author Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Taffy is the creator and showrunner of the FX on Hulu miniseries Fleishman Is in Trouble which is based on her 2019 novel of the same name. She has previously worked as a freelance writer and as a contributor for GQ and The New York Times, where she is currently a staff writer. You can follow Taffy on Twitter at @taffyakner.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America East. The series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producers are Molly Beer and Tiana Timmerberg. OnWriting’s Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Taylor Bradshaw.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Taffy Brodesser-Akner: You are listening to OnWriting a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the union members who create the film, TV series, podcasts, and news stories that define our culture. We’ll discuss everything from inspirations and creative process to what it takes to build a successful career in media and entertainment. I’m your host, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and I’m thrilled to talk with Jesse Armstrong, the creator and showrunner of the acclaimed HBO series Succession. In this episode of OnWriting, we discuss how the uncertainty of who would win the finale shaped Succession’s writing, navigating writers rooms as a new showrunner and our existential crises following our show’s ending.

Hello, Jesse Armstrong. Welcome to the Writers Guild. First of all, these amazing offices at the Writers Guild East and also to OnWriting, the Writers Guild podcast. We are so happy to have you. There is so much to talk about. You wrote a show, it’s called Succession. I just had the terrible luck of having the flu, and so I actually watched the whole thing again in the last week.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh my God, Taffy. Jesus.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I did it because I like purpose, just lying there.

Jesse Armstrong: Okay.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I keep thinking about endings. I was there at the Emmys. I saw you sweep the Emmys. I saw you sweep everything. I mean, a couple of nights ago, the SAG Awards, everything. And I guess I want to talk more broadly about endings, first of the show and of what this means now and what this meant to you. But I would like to talk first about the writing of the show. Did you know when you started it, how it was going to end? It feels like if you watch it now… I’ll answer this for you. I’m sorry. I’ll answer this for you. If you watch it now, it feels like it is so clear what you were planning.

Jesse Armstrong: Really? That’s fascinating. Have you got any more on that?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, no.

Jesse Armstrong: Good. Well, I didn’t. I very much didn’t. I guess what’s true is I knew what the tonal ending was and that was, and therefore, I think if you’re writing a certain kind of mystery show or maybe a genre show of a certain kind or a crime or a sci-fi, then you need to know the answer to what, if there is a mystery, you need to know very practically what the answer is, right? Otherwise, you run the risk of disappointing the audience with making it into a shaggy dog story.

I don’t think there was any such danger in ours, because I knew that tonally, and hopefully, or that’d be my guess about what you’re responding to, that tonally the ending is of a piece with the beginning. And in a way that’s not so hard, because, say, another person had won and become the CEO, hopefully if the plot elements had aligned to make that feel really satisfactory in a logical sense, it would’ve been tonally, right? Because the end of the show is not a triumphant, this person is going to save the company and save media or America or newspapers. That’s not the tone. And so I knew that wasn’t going to be the tone, and therefore the precise nature of the plot ending was not so important to know, although it’s [inaudible 00:03:26].

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I feel like it had to be.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh, okay. What, the actual Tom of it? Because we’re doing spoilers.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Forget the tone, because the tone is the tone. And I want to talk about the tone and the voice of the show, and in specific later I would like to ask about how a group of people agreed on that tone, because I don’t have the experience of writing in a room and I can’t believe how everyone agreed and pushed this tone all the way through. It’s specificity, it’s sharpness, but it seems to me that from the beginning, there is this plot question, who is going to succeed Logan? That is actually the sort of-

Jesse Armstrong: It’s a big question.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: … Big question of the pilot, right? If you go back to watch the pilot. The ball, I feel like you hid was it was never going to be one of these children. Was that?

Jesse Armstrong: I think that’s true. I think, I don’t know what I would’ve said if I’d been put on a polygraph when we were making the pilot, which was a long time ago, and you are so consumed or you’re present engaged part of your mind is so consumed with the next scene, getting the pilot picked up, what we’d do if we did a first season, the kind of deeper creative machinations of how this might work have gone into abeyance a bit. I don’t know, there may have been a bit of me that thought, I love that character of Tom, I’m not part of that world like the character Greg, cousin Greg, they’re the two outsiders and therefore they’re the ones that I can find more imaginable in that world. They both act in immoral, amoral way. So they’re not the heroes of the show in any sense. But then maybe the protagonists I feel most easy to feel in their shoes. So maybe I would’ve said, “Oh, maybe it will be Tom.” But that thought in arranging the plot pieces for that ending to be the ending didn’t start emerging until I think maybe the end of the second season I was thinking, “Oh, I think that might be how this goes.”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Was that a decision you made on your own?

Jesse Armstrong: It’s a really difficult one that, and it’s maybe interesting especially on this podcast to get into a little bit the very complicated nature of that question, because as the showrunner and the creator, I wrote the pilot before I met the room who became so important to the development of the show, it was just me. And so quite a lot of things that are and aren’t in the show were me to begin with. But sometimes people come up with stuff in the room which goes into the show, which is sort of “theirs”, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s an idea of Tony’s or John’s or Lucy’s or George’s that’s gone in.” But a lot of times I guess the room can work.

I guess I’m the one thinking about the show the most in between seasons and probably the most. So a lot of times the room act as a proving ground for things that you thought about on your own. And then you come into this incredibly engaged bright group of people and say, “What about this?” Or, “I’ve been thinking this.” And that’s a great place to find out if it rings true when you say it to a smart group of people who know the show inside out and whether they come up with a twist on it or reject it and say, “That doesn’t feel… Why do you want to do that?” And it’s a good way of interrogating yourself about your impulses and whether they’re kind of good and good for the show impulses or not.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Interesting.

Jesse Armstrong: Does that make sense?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yes, of course it makes sense. It makes sense. I had a mini room, because my pilot was sort of halted because of the pandemic. So in order to sort of keep the deal going, we hired a group of really incredible writers. And I found it was like that my show, which was a book, it was this thing that was complete, had this group of best friends that they acknowledged that I was the creator of it. They were the best friends to it. They knew it inside out, and it was quite an amazing experience.

Jesse Armstrong: TI think people who haven’t been in rooms, obviously they’re more common and lots of people, hopefully WGA members, will experience it. But it can be an awful place when it’s not working well and a sort of graveyard of hopes and dreams for everyone, and they can just not work. But when it does work, I find it just a great experience. If I could keep on doing the room without doing a show, I might be quite tempted to do that.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Well, how did you pick your writers?

Jesse Armstrong: Mixture of people who I knew and felt comfortable with. I was a new show runner, so I was scared of the whole process, and am I going to be doing it right? What are we going to come up with? Will this work? It was particularly maybe important for me to have some people who I knew, like Tony Roach, John Brand, Georgia Pritchett, who I’d worked with before on Thick of It and Veep and a few other shows. And then just reading scripts that were put forward by agents, bit by HBO. And yeah, I would look for… I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I guess what I’d love to look for is people who can do structure really well.

In my opinion, the hardest part of the process is coming up with structural integrity for a season, structural integrity for an episode, for a scene. But I think that that is hard to tell whether somebody can do that or not on the page. So I ended up just thinking, I’m just going to look for stuff I like, I just want a line that really says something that I’ve never seen said before. That’s enough. That’s what will make me fall in love with the idea of this person being in the room, because if they can bring that, maybe that will be useful. And there’s so much I don’t know, I’m just going to go on that quite simple reaction to seeing an individual moment or line.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: So amazing. And you had these, in addition to the writers, you had consultants, right?

Jesse Armstrong: Oh, yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Because you, I mean, just for my own ego, I need to know, you don’t know all of that about finance. And also I have this pet theory that anyone as sort of obsessed with wealth as anyone who would write a show about wealth, I include myself, has not initially had access to that kind of wealth.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, I guess that is true probably, right? The sort of-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I mean, when they were building the sets for Fleischman, I was enraged. There would be a dressing room inside your bedroom in a Manhattan apartment. I’ve never even been in something like that.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, I guess that’s a bit it Fitzgeraldy, isn’t it, the people having a look in through the glass.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Well, there you go.

Jesse Armstrong: Being pretty fascinated how it all works. I think I can confirm your fear that I don’t know all of that stuff.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Thank you. That’s very generous of you.

Jesse Armstrong: But I’m also going to say that I think you shouldn’t try… I think you need to understand, we did have consultants and I did read a lot of business, not hardcore MBA kind of textbooks, but the more easy Barbarians at the Gate, Disney War, the sort of secondary literature of business, and especially media business I read a lot of. I knew what a deal shape looked like, I knew what a realistic thing to happen in media was, and I knew some of the words and I tried to read the FT and the Wall Street Journal all the time we were doing the show. So I sort of knew what the media climate and media business was.

And then within that, I could say mainly to Marissa Marr, who was our leading business and financial and media consultant who’d worked at Wall Street Journal and other places and new media inside out, “Oh look, if we did this deal and I wanted there for there to be some debt to become apparent that people didn’t know about, how would that work?” And she’d say, “Well, look, that would not be possible in the public part of the company, but the trust structure that you got that is analogous to a Redstone or a Murdoch family, then you could have some secret activity there that then could come to light in the wake of the stock price changing.”

And so then that would become quite a fun dialogue of like, “Oh, fuck.” Because almost all areas, when you’re talking to an expert, they’re like, “Oh, that would never happen.” You propose a situation, “That would never happen.” And you go, “Well, what about if you change this and that?” And they go, “Yeah, then that could easily happen. That happens every day.”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: They don’t have to same will to make it work.

Jesse Armstrong: Well, yeah, they just don’t… They come at things from a different angle, don’t they? And my feeling is always like everything has happened in the world, the most extraordinary and terrible and marvelous things have happened, so there will be a way to replicate this, we just have to find out what the architecture is that makes it possible. Not in a kind of force it way so that you can change gravity, but if we want to put people in a certain emotional situation, there will be a way to achieve that, to put the business or bureaucratic architecture in place.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. And I was watching an interview of yours yesterday to prepare for this and-

Jesse Armstrong: You’ve done so much homework.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I have done so… Thank you for… I’m a professional.

Jesse Armstrong: I mean, geez, I also want to know what it was like… Well, it sounds like a leading question to get you to say really nice things, but I’m fascinated what the experience of watching the show again was like.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Well, I’m going to say some really nice things.

Jesse Armstrong: Okay. Well, I’m going to have to bear that. I think I’ll be able to bear it.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, it was really interesting to watch. It really looks so intentional. Wait, the thing I was going to finish saying was that while I was watching an interview with you on the side, on the YouTube side, there was an economist explaining what a bear hug is and all of these sort of new terms that I never knew until I watched, and then rewatched and then rewatched again. What it was like to watch it is so interesting, because it looks completely intentional. My theory, my sort of global theory about the show now, which I almost, this is kind of what I hate about what I do for a living, is finding out the things I thought were wrong in the sort of most romantic way. But I’m a professional and we’re both here to be professionals. We were watching a show where the main characters were not main characters in their lives. We were watching a show that at every single turn showed us that we were actually watching like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or that we’ve gone off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Jesse Armstrong: Well, the meeting, that the kids were never in the meetings that mattered.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That of course when you’re done with it, of course none of them are going to take over this company. They’re not serious people. Their father doesn’t love them or like them. Their father has no respect for the fact that they are rich kids.

Jesse Armstrong: No, that’s true.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right?

Jesse Armstrong: That’s an essential terrifying fact for them.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. Who could it have been? And at some point, I feel like you utilize all of the… It’s this postmodern show in that you utilize all these years we have of the family succession drama, anything from Six Feet Under to the Sopranos, and you take it away from us and you say, “Of course this was never going to happen.” Which of these people was capable of running this company? And then an additional knife twist is actually the company is already run. We don’t need any of it. You don’t need any of these people, you just need a figurehead. And Tom is maybe the only one who knows that. He knows it from the beginning. And the reason it looks so intentional is because it is played for such sad laughs in the first few episodes or even in the second season in the summer palace, “I thought we wanted that for me. Are you going to go in there and ask for me?” And it is so horrible to watch, but the answer is he was just trying to figure out the mechanism, because he was getting it.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’ve got lots of things that occurred to me to say about all of that, which I think is really good analysis. A couple of things that occurred to me. One is that there are some things you maybe have to hide from yourself as a writer. I think that I had to be able to invest in certain scenes in the possibility that Kendall could do it and that Shiv could do it. And there was never a cosmic joke of these people are just such fucking disasters, they could never do it. That’s not true, right? Harry Redstone has stepped up and done it. I’m not a media analyst enough to know whether she’s done a great job or a terrible job. That’s a tough her part of the media industry.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I mean, the New York Times is a family business that just…

Jesse Armstrong: In some parts of it, it’s the tide going up or down. And it’s tough being a smaller media company right now, and it’s tough being in print media. And if you’ve been doing it in 1980 or 1910, if you’re a paper, then all the papers are doing great and all the advertising is rolling in. So I’m getting ahead of myself. But I guess one thought is you have to hide from yourself a little bit, some essential truth so that you can invest in the possibility of the reality of the alternate universes that could exist for the show.

But I do think there’s a thing, which is that the kids were never really in the meetings that they would have needed to have been in to be serious contenders. But an addendum to that is that I’m not sure that even those meetings are that important. I mean, they are, all the meetings we go to everyday feel important. But if you zoom out, that media company is fucked and Paramount is going to have a hard time. Everyone who isn’t a tech giant right now is going to have a hard time. And if you’re in one of the tech giants, things are probably going to be easier. And those big essential economic grinding truths have to be around, but you can’t make a scene out of them on the whole can. You can make a texture. Is that useful?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It is very useful. It is very useful. But I guess I believe you. What I’m going to say is I believe you, because I think that sometimes you get to the end of something, and the only question is, how does this story obviously end, right?

Jesse Armstrong: Yes.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Like that you get to the thing and you say, “I don’t know exactly what I was intending, but I have all this material.”

Jesse Armstrong: Yes.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: How does this inevitably… Were there alternate endings?

Jesse Armstrong: Well, there were alternate endings considered, not in a really considered like, “Oh, shit, which way should we go?” Way. No, there were things tossed around and mornings where you might say, “Is this right? Should we consider? Could Kendall be the one who come through?” But never, not in a serious way. I mean, I keep on very aware that you are interviewing me, but I admire your work, and I keep on thinking about Fleischman and the ending of that, especially the pre-ending where you have… We’re doing spoilers all over this podcast. But there’s a big and very bracing and important perspective shift, right, before the end of your show and book. And yeah, I guess that’s like an exciting egg you know that you have to hatch, right? When you’re writing that show, you always knew that was going to come right before the end.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I knew it had to. You’re talking about the second to last episode?

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No. When I wrote the book-

Jesse Armstrong: Oh my God, this is huge. Now we’ve got some breaking news on the podcast.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yes, you do have breaking news. Very few people know this. But in the first draft of the book, I handed in the book, it was a third-person book. I handed it to my editor. He said, “I love it.” And I said, “Do you like the way It turns out you were reading a book that one of the characters wrote?” And he said, “Oh, I didn’t really get that.”

Jesse Armstrong: That’s a brave person, by the way. I think that’s-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: He’s the greatest.

Jesse Armstrong: That’s a brave person. Because that’s the sort of note that you’re reading somebody who you really admire’s work and you’re like, “Oh, I’m feeling embarrassed to say this.”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No.

Jesse Armstrong: I don’t understand what the hell is going on.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I come from magazines. I worked at women’s magazines. There’s actually nothing you could say.

Jesse Armstrong: That would surprise you.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That would surprise me. Or there’s nothing, literally, you can’t think of anything cruel enough to even jolt me here.

Jesse Armstrong: Good. But that was a realization that, whoa, what I thought I was doing isn’t obvious to the audience.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I thought it was so obvious that I was worried about it. And then the other thing is in the book, you never found out where she was.

Jesse Armstrong: Okay. Did you think that was obvious too?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And I thought it was so obvious that she went off and had a nervous breakdown and everyone said, “She just seems so evil.” And this proxy character I had who was asking these questions like, “What if she isn’t so bad? What if I’m seeing more of myself in her as time goes on?” People didn’t get it. I mean, I’m not called a subtle writer very often, but I guess nobody got it. So the things I changed where I changed it to a first-person book, and then I changed it to the scene where she is. But I’ll tell you something really interesting about… And by the way, it was so important, the casting of it, everything about it once we got to a show was so important, because that was the ball you had to hide, that you were going to be hearing from her. And we got there. There were supposed to be nine episodes of Fleischman. This was always the seventh episode, and we had two episodes following it. And we did this table read. I don’t know, were your table reads at all during the pandemic?

Jesse Armstrong: We had to do a couple on Zoom. I hated it.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: They were so undignified. It was during lunch.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, especially if there’s anything comedic.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It was terrible.

Jesse Armstrong: The Zoom experience is not good.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: We were all on the same terrible wifi. We were in offices, it was during a lunch hour. And we had this episode that we table read during this terrible wifi lunch period. And everyone was so shaken by it.

Jesse Armstrong: This was seven?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It was seven. And Claire Danes was just reading for the first time off the script. And everyone was so shaken off from it that we removed one of the episodes at the end right within hours after it, because we knew that after that we couldn’t sustain for much longer, that this was… I thought the emotional peak was going to be Lizzie and Jesse on the floor, but it turns out it was just going to be this extended emotional peak and he had to get out.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: So I had that. But the thing I was most excited about at the end of the show and the book was that you had this scene between Rachel and Toby that you didn’t know if it really happened, right? Was this Libby just finishing the thing? That was always there, and that was the first thing I wrote.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh, wow. Wow.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: So in terms of ending, I guess I always think in terms of endings, because I also think that you can’t be efficient unless you know what you’re writing toward. But I guess I’m wrong.

Jesse Armstrong: Well, some writers certainly like that journey of discovery, don’t they? I think you need, or I need something on the board. And that’s what we would always do in our writers room. The work of when we assembled the sort of primary… I think the primary job in my mind, although I would never state it, because it would be a bit chilling of the kind of vibe, would be, what’s the end? Yeah, what’s the end of the season? Where are we getting to? Because once you have that I’m, yeah, I was going to say pretty confident that we can fill in the blanks.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: So did you know it was four… So at the end, by two, you knew it was four seasons?

Jesse Armstrong: No, no. I don’t know when. Maybe in the third. Certainly before the fourth season. I hope this is interesting, all this season.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: This is all writers want to know about. I have listened to every podcast you’ve been on, and I think it’s in the 700s, am I right? And it is like all I want to know is about the structure and about… And I hope I’m speaking for our fellow Guild members.

Jesse Armstrong: Let’s see. Yeah. Well, it was the beginning of… Before we’d started the room in earnest of the fourth season, I think whoever was around in London, Lucy, Tony, John maybe, and Will, Tracy might’ve been there to, I think this is it. And it was a sort of heavy, depressing thought to this endeavor. I think this is maybe how it ends. And so I wanted to, in a way, before I did even more on my own thinking, I wanted to sort of do a gut check with them, whether they were like, “Oh, you’re tired of going to New York and this is crazy, and you’re blowing up something which… You’re doing something for the wrong reasons.”

But they didn’t. Some of them, there were some cheerleaders for more seasons, but even the cheerleaders for more seasons were like, “Oh, no, I think there’s one more before the end.” And the majority, and especially I think Lucy was like, “Yeah, this is…” When I said, this is the shape of it where we could have an election and we would end and Logan would die, she used a phrase about it being a muscular version of it. And I think that was what really appealed to me, the like, yeah, let’s fucking go out with a bang and let’s do all our best stuff and see if we can have a really thrilling final season, which I hope it is.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It is.

Jesse Armstrong: Well, I teed you up. You had to say that. You had to say that then.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, no, no, no. I’m telling you.

Jesse Armstrong: They way my intonation suggest. You couldn’t say, “Yeah, well…”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Actually, actually.

Jesse Armstrong: Anyway, thank you.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The skeptic’s version of this. No, what’s so interesting is how much the last season has to give that you go from, I remember watching it the first time and screaming, screaming actually after I realized in the episode after he dies, that she’s pregnant, right?

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: You did that in the first five minutes after that episode. “Motherfucker.” Is what I screamed. And I meant it with love for you and everyone. But the idea, I think sometimes it’s so easy to be stingy with story, because that’s such a big thing for Shiv to be pregnant was such a big deal. And I know that she was pregnant in real, that Sarah was pregnant and that there was something to deal. But wait, would you have done that if not?

Jesse Armstrong: No, we wouldn’t. It is one of those hopefully happy creative… We talked about her being pregnant in the room, and it was weird one where when Sarah… This gets kind of personal, but I don’t think Sarah would mind us talking about this interrelationship. When she wasn’t pregnant, it felt like a kind of slightly, it had a melodramatic whiff to it. I find accents difficult, I find wigs difficult in TV shows, and I find those fake bumps, even the best-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: They’re the worst.

Jesse Armstrong: Even the best are… And women look lots of different ways pregnant, right?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: But never like that.

Jesse Armstrong: But never quite like in TV shows. So there was a bit of me that was like, “I really don’t want her to have to…” That was a tiny bit of the thinking. And then somehow, once I knew that she was, and we were talking about how to accommodate it, which would’ve been, we could have just about done. But once it was real, it started feeling so much more real. And so it became a very organic part of the drama of the show. And it ends up being quite crucial to the ending, which hopefully is another example of how, if you’ve got the tone right and the character dynamics right, that things start to feel organic, which are made up, which are inorganic in a certain way.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Or the thing that writers say, which is that the characters are telling you what to do, which is just you building good characters.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Interesting. Yeah, that baby, you got your money’s worth from that. I hope you paid that baby. I hope that baby got a-

Jesse Armstrong: That baby drives such a hard bargain. I wish I’d never met that baby.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I heard about that baby’s agent. That’s amazing. Another about thing that you’ll probably think nobody wants to hear, but actually everybody wants to hear. The room was structured as you all met together.

Jesse Armstrong: Yep.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: You were all in London and you all met together.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: How many of you were there?

Jesse Armstrong: I mean, on the first season when it wasn’t of such a hot ticket, sometimes only two people would show up. So the British, and this is maybe just a little bit useful for this podcast, the British writing world, we have our guild, it’s not as strong for lots of historical reasons, and the industry isn’t as large and well funded, so it has to be different, which is a long way round of saying the portfolio careers that all writers are used to everywhere is even stronger in the UK. And there just aren’t many staff jobs on shows.

So if I wanted a bunch of about half-and-half American and British writers. But for a lot of the British writers, they had other commitments. I couldn’t buy them out or they weren’t available or they had to do stuff. So some days they just couldn’t come in and probably other days they just didn’t want to. So sometimes the room would be much smaller and thinner. And also I was prepared. I had to do a little bit of luring people in. And some people I never quite managed to get, like Lucy Birch, who’s a brilliant… Some people I can never quite get in, Alice Birch, who’s a brilliant British playwright. I always was trying to tempt into the room and say, “You could just come in for a couple of days, Alice.” And she would show up, but I never fully integrated her into the room, likewise, Lucy [inaudible 00:29:23].

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Is she home drunk right now regretting every…

Jesse Armstrong: No, she’s doing lots of great shows and stuff. Anyway, so on the first season though, it was a little bit more ad hoc. It always kept that. And if John Brown or Will Tracy or Lucy Prebble were doing a show and they couldn’t be there the whole time, I would say, “Look, I’ll take as much as I can get off you.” So in the first season it would be between six and eight of us. And by the final season it was more like between 10 and 12 of us.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Wow. And what were the hours?

Jesse Armstrong: We tried a few different things, but we would do normally about a short day, 10:00 until 2:30 or 3:00.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Wow.

Jesse Armstrong: Partly to accommodate other people, people being able to keep at their projects cooking, partly so that I could go away and review the previous day’s notes and sort of fix. And I would often what I kept an ongoing document of I’d fill it the previous day’s notes like this stuff I think we keep, this goes into a document of a running commentary on what I thought we were doing. You get on a hot streak in the room if you know, that can come late and if it came late in the day, we would maybe stay a bit longer. But I think every day, knowing that you’re going to be in a room from say, 9:00 until 6:00 I think is too long to sustain the kind of enthusiasm and focus that I like when it’s really working.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Why do you think people do it for so long? I agree with you. We had the same system in my mini room and it seems so demoralizing.

Jesse Armstrong: What, to be in for so-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: To make it into the way at the times we work from 9:00 to 5:00, right? It’s so demoralizing.

Jesse Armstrong: I think it is a bit demoralizing. It’s a bit too long, right?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It also feels like you’re juicing people in a way. It feels cheap.

Jesse Armstrong: I totally agree. And I’ve talked about this elsewhere or other people have talked about it. It was never like a tactic or a fake thing. But we’d always begin with just a chat of what everyone had been up to the night before. And I’m also nosy and a lot of Americans in the room, they were telling me about restaurants I didn’t know about.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: But they were in London.

Jesse Armstrong: They were in London. I like it if you can make it feel like it sneaks up on you, that it isn’t a job, that it’s delicious. And that feeling that all writers get sometimes of sneaking stuff under the wire or over the wire or behind people’s back, I think that’s a really good feeling for a room and for a writer, right, that they think they’re getting X, but I’m fucking giving them Y, they’ve got no clue. They’re idiots. Which it’s a delicious feeling. And I think that feeling in the room of it of not being a bunch of 1950s IBM people, but being somewhere closer to a garrote in Paris in 1920 is a good feeling. If you can be on the HBO money in the garrote, that’s the dream combination.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh my gosh. What those guys would’ve done with that.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, we should have drunk a lot more cocktails.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: With that HBO money. Yeah.

Jesse Armstrong: Sorry.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That’s so funny. You had an assistant in the room taking notes?

Jesse Armstrong: Yes.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Okay. And where was the room?

Jesse Armstrong: Moved around. The most unglamorous version was in Brixton where I’ve got an office, in South London. And then there was sometimes we were more in more service kind of quite depressing offices. But I quite like the depressing service, you’ve got some people doing a marketing presentation next door feeling. Because again, it encourages that kind of something slightly naughty that hope they don’t know what we’re doing in here feeling.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. Like, “Those suckers.” How did you assign episodes for credit? I think that’s a big question people have.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Me, meaning the people.

Jesse Armstrong: So yeah, this is a really fascinating area to us, right? And anyone who’s been in a room, they’re quite… The question of how much credit the showrunner takes versus the people you’re in the room with can be a sort of hot topic, a fraught topic, a difficult one, because the showrunner often gets a lot of attention. And so making sure that everyone else gets appropriately recognized financially and in the culture and the discussion of the show is important. And I guess it’s the credits are somewhat a reflection of whose written what, but they’re also a reflection of who deserves to be recognized for their input into the show. And finding that balance can be a little bit complicated.

On the very simplest level, I would try and make sure that people knew at the beginning of the room if they were going to be assigned to an episode that would have their name on it, sometimes co-written as it was in the last season when I had a strong feeling that I wanted to write a number of the episodes. And in earlier seasons, they were more single credits. So I would try to let people know roughly whether they were likely to be writing an episode credited or in the larger group of producer-writers who might be associated with the show and have their input recognized but not have their sole name on an episode.

And then in terms of who was going to write those first drafts of the episodes, it was a good mixture of somebody’s going to be away, so they can’t do this episode, this person seems to have a particular affinity for this material. And also, we’d also assign extra research on top of the stuff we got from consultants. It might have been like in John Brown in the first season, “John, will you research sex parties?” And this weird world of… It became kind of smaller in the episode, that element of it but, “Will you do that? And Georgia, will you think about what Thanksgivings or parties or family do’s?” And so the area that you did some research on might become the episode which you were the lead writer on.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. Who came up with eating the bird with the…

Jesse Armstrong: Waterland. I don’t know. I think it was one of those things that got discussed in the room. I don’t want to give credit.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Is it real?

Jesse Armstrong: Oh, yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh. God.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh, god.

Jesse Armstrong: And I think we discovered that while we were… Somebody said, we tried never to think about it, but I think the billions did the same thing in a season that might have been ahead of us. We certainly didn’t take it from them, but at a certain point during the production, we became aware that they were either doing the thing after us or before us.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I mean, there are only so many proteins, right?

Jesse Armstrong: Exactly.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I read the screenplay you wrote that is what Succession is either based on or was your first-

Jesse Armstrong: Was an important antecedent. Yes.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yes, your important antecedent. And it’s interesting, it was the first time-

Jesse Armstrong: I’m fascinated. I’d love to hear what you’re going to say right now. What do you think about the relationship?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I think the relationship is interesting in terms of, I’m also a journalist and I remember people ask me because I’m a journalist if I want to do adaptations of nonfiction books all the time, and mostly the answer is no, because I get to write all this nonfiction. Also, because I know what it is like to have a relationship with somebody in the world who knows you’ve written about them, and it’s horrible for me, right?

Jesse Armstrong: Complicated. Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I mean, I’ve written more than 100 I bet, profiles of actors. And why was I rewatching Succession when I was sick? Because there’s a lot I can’t watch anymore. Because the last thing a flu delirium needs is someone you’ve interviewed coming through the screen and yelling at you. I guess what I think about it is that Succession freed you. I loved that screenplay and I see all of the DNA of Succession in it. And it’s so funny the way you imagine these people talking, but it’s so audacious that you imagine these people talking. And I guess you have enough experience with it, right, from everything you’ve done in your career leading up to it. It feels like Succession set you free to do things that weren’t… I mean, it’s not really libel, right? If they’re under the-

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, they don’t do anything particularly. Yeah, sure.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: In the screenplay. But I mean, I didn’t even know that his first name was Keith Murdoch. I didn’t know that if your name was Keith Rupert Murdoch, that you would choose Rupert, for example. I didn’t know that. But what was so interesting to me is to see some of the things I’ve always wondered about in Succession written, which are some of the vocal tics that I wondered. I wondered if they were-

Jesse Armstrong: If they’re there in the-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah.

Jesse Armstrong: They are.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The way they say, “Uh-huh.” The way uh-huh is this loaded… And it’s even spelled in… I don’t know if that’s a Britishism or if that’s you just saying, “No, I spell U-H-H-U.” Without the last H that a copy editor here would affix to it. But yeah. Yeah, exactly. But those loaded, uh-huh. And the way the fuck-offs, the things that were little things we say that are now just Successionisms.

Jesse Armstrong: Sorry.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Exactly. No, no. You can’t stop yourself.

Jesse Armstrong: I can’t stop myself.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Let’s do it.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, I’m fascinated by that, because I haven’t gone back to it for a while, partly because yeah, it feels too much.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, you should read it.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh yeah, no, I certainly won’t. You can be sure of that. But I think everything you say is true. I think it’s an incredibly important antecedent. It got me thinking about the media and in particular about Murdoch and Fox and his influence on UK media, which is obviously huge and very apparent. But in a technical way I’d not read all the stuff of his life, so that it was incredibly important to the life of the show, but also to be released from the responsibility of the relationship with those real people who, some of them don’t have much effect on the world, some of them have huge effect on the world, but nevertheless, even if I have a critique of their power relationship to the world, I don’t have any personal animosity to them.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: You’re just obsessed with them.

Jesse Armstrong: No, I’m not. I’m not. I’m not.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It’s a little hard to convince anyone here.

Jesse Armstrong: I’m not in the way that some people have… There was a famous… I guess it’s dangerous to compare, but I think Orson Welles really wanted to hurt Hearst’s feelings with and I think that not because we’re the same, but because it’s another media satire or another media piece.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh, I don’t think you’re personally obsessed.

Jesse Armstrong: So I never wanted to… I wasn’t like, “Let’s get these fuckers. I really want to hurt them.” And if I ever heard gossip about not just the Murdochs, but other people, I never wanted to put that in the show. I wanted it to be a very affecting and emotionally engaged piece, but not in a roman a clef kind of dirty way. I wanted to keep it a clean piece. And that’s why it was really important to get research from everywhere and then to make up our own foibles, particularities, failings. I’m not afraid of the fact that Murdoch’s ownership of Fox and its UK media holdings and its Lachlan’s relationship that is so central to the meat of the show. So I don’t want to play around and be disingenuous about that. But it is also true that it was really freeing for them not to be the people of this show, and that if you watch Brian’s performance, there’s more of Maxwell, who’s Robert Maxwell, British media. There’s probably more of Maxwell, and in the relationship with the kids, there may be more of Redstone. Those people just became very important.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That’s so interesting, because one of, actually my favorite Succession podcast was the Slate Succession podcast, and they are financial people, Felix and Emily, who would sort of sometimes just try to figure out where the origin, because they knew everything about it. And it was interesting to watch because to take all of that, to make art out of it. Wait, I want to go back to how could you take gossip that you’d heard? Was there any gossip that you’d heard, this is the better question, that you could not believe you were not using?

Jesse Armstrong: No, I get it more in a way now, people coming up after some public event and going, “Oh, I used to work for this family.” Often not the Murdochs, “But you should know this.” Or I kind of don’t… I recoil a bit from that. I mean, I love gossip. I like gossip. I like hearing stories, but I don’t like the flavor of those insinuating people who come up and want to create a bond through telling usually… You must get this enough as a [inaudible 00:42:44], right, you can tell those stories which are being… They’ve got a little husk, a little grain of truth that’s been pumped up through the hours and years of retelling of some these potentially slightly pathetic connection to wealth and power that gets turned into a story. And it’s like, you know what? That’s no use to me.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And you can smell it.

Jesse Armstrong: You can smell it right away.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Every time.

Jesse Armstrong: The real shit might be interesting. And also you may be a dick, you may be worse than the people you’re talking about.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. The question is always, why are you telling me this? It’s either to buddy up to me in this way or to just sort of broker yourself. Because the truth is, is that if it’s good enough to keep telling that story, it’s been conflated and it’s been inflated and it’s not true anymore.

Jesse Armstrong: It’s not true the way that you’re telling me. Or yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: But I do love after… Well, I love and hate that after a story that I publish in a magazine, people will come up to me and then tell me something they know about that person, because it’ll inform me about the artifice of interviewing and whether or not that’s any way to get to know anybody.

Jesse Armstrong: Yes, which is it?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No.

Jesse Armstrong: It’s not.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No. I had this crisis after what I’ve done. I sort of retired from profile writing because-

Jesse Armstrong: We’ve got another huge breaking story.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah, I know. Another breaking story here is its sort of buried in this Taylor Swift essay I wrote in October, and my bosses wanted me to sort of tamp it down. I tried to do sort of a big retirement announcement. But I no longer think that asking people a question is the best way to get an answer. I mean, you have displayed enough news to know that what you’re doing is… Now that I’ve been interviewed, I’ve been on this side of it and I know how I answer questions. And I answer questions either to entertain or to please.

Jesse Armstrong: Sometimes tell the truth, or sometimes the opposite.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, I’m never lying. But I’m, I’m always trying to please. I’m not even a professional at being interviewed. And the first time I ever took the cast to dinner, which I did a lot before we shot, because we weren’t allowed to do, Disney wouldn’t let us do rehearsals. So I just took everybody out. We went to the Odeon all the time just so they wouldn’t… I know, it’s great there. Just so they wouldn’t be playing spouses or best friends for their first time ever on set.

Jesse Armstrong: Right. Come on, Disney. I think you should have been doing this.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Come on, Disney. I know, Disney.

Jesse Armstrong: Iger. Come on.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Come on, Iger. At a different table. Not really at the Odeon.

Jesse Armstrong: Good. Anyway.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: So the first time we sat there, they just started talking. And I was crushed, because I saw people being real with each other in a way-

Jesse Armstrong: This is a scene. Don’t put this in the podcast. You’ve got to write this in a show. That’s a great realization.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I mean, if anyone wants to option the scene, my lawyer, you could contact me, my lawyer’s on my website. It was really crushing to me. It really was this existential, have I ever written anything real? Is this question I have now. And I guess I instinctively knew some of it, because I never asked people fact-based questions. I was never digging. I was digging for sort of emotional things. I don’t know. I have a crisis around it now.

Jesse Armstrong: Do you think there should be a big binary box at the top of all interviews, which says, “In my opinion, this person was interested in me liking them, yes or no?” Because there’s very few people, right, and they sort of become famous, like Lou Reed maybe didn’t really give a fuck about whether people liked him or not. And therefore he was notoriously a very difficult interview subject. Maybe they’re quite interesting interview subjects, the people who don’t care if you like them or not.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Do you ever believe that?

Jesse Armstrong: Well, you think that Lou Reed’s difficultness was a complicated way of making people…

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I mean, no. I’m thinking about an interview I once did with a very famous woman who kept asking me if I would ask a man these questions. And I said to her, finally, “You could do this, you will look cool to a bunch of…” It wasn’t to get me to like her. It was to get the audience.

Jesse Armstrong: Yes, the audience, yes.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I think we’re always working to be liked. I think you and I are doing a million things right now where we’re hoping to be liked in a way. I think Lou Reed was doing it. I think everyone is doing it.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, right. Oh, God, now you’re sending me into an existential spin.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I know. It’s really horrible.

Jesse Armstrong: Is there anything you can say in this world that is true?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I guess I don’t think any of it is a lie. I think you have to just know that when you’re interviewing somebody, they never forget why they’re there, even if you do. They know why they’re there.

Jesse Armstrong: Do they? Yeah. I think that’s an interesting point. I think that’s really a useful thing to think about. I mean, I can get a bit reductively Marxist about these things, but when you’re listening to anything, this person is promoting this movie, and therefore this is the context of this whole interaction. This person does not want to be in this room. Or this one, it’s a different context, right? I am here because I like talking to you. I like talking about the show. I want to be liked by the audience [inaudible 00:48:16] like a good person.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: But also, this is what you want everyone to know about you. That’s a totally legitimate thing. The problem is an interviewer-

Jesse Armstrong: We could go into, I don’t know why I’m here folks, can we stop? I’ve got no clue.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: We should just leave. We’re going to go to the… Is it okay if we just end this and go to the Odeon and have a real conversation? So wait, let’s go back. So it’s very interesting. I don’t actually think that you’re… What I always thought about you and your relationship, especially to American media and American wealth, is that you have this perfect journalistic distance sort of observing it, and your room is in London. It’s so easy to look at this from there and see it as a whole in a way I can’t because I walk into too many living rooms where Fox News is playing. But you can see it very clearly, and I think that’s where… If you had to say what succession was trying to say about the media, and then I’ll follow up and ask what it was trying to say about wealth and the children of wealthy people, of uber, uber, uber, wealthy people, what would you say are those answers?

Jesse Armstrong: I’d refuse. I mean, I’ve done a lot more podcasting and chatting about the show since it’s been over than I did when it was on. I was possibly paranoid beyond reason about sort of corralling the audience’s responses, because I was so pleased that people had any response at all that it felt crushing to say, “No, this is, in my opinion as the showrunner, this activity happened.” So I was very reticent about doing that. Now I kind of, it seems rather disgustingly, love talking about the show. And now it’s all over and people are interested in other things I want to maybe remind them of it.

But I would still refuse to say to answer those questions, because that just does feel reductive. To go intellectually fancy for a moment, there’s a Walter Benjamin quote about, “I have nothing to say, only things to show.” Right? And it’s definitely a lie. I mean, Walter Benjamin was saying things left, right and center. But it’s a really important discipline.

I think it’s a bit like being a historian and trying to be objective or a journalist and trying to be objective. You’re not going to be objective ever, obviously, you’re coming out with the most extraordinary amount of cultural and political inheritance. But if you don’t try, then you’re really fucked. And also, you’re just artistically screwed if you’re going to be like, “Well, this is what I think and this is what I’m trying to say and this is what I’m going to try and persuade people. So this is how I can smuggle it in. Or I’ll do 50% drama and then I’ll get them to say the thing which I want people to believe.” You are so fucked if that is your approach to your artistic endeavor. But you are also totally fucked in your artistic endeavor if you don’t have anything to say.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. What’s the cure for what you just said? Because you just sense a bunch of people into a spiral.

Jesse Armstrong: So you go back to Walter Benjamin, and you go, “I have nothing to say, only things to show” is my credo. So I will show you all this stuff which will demonstrate my beliefs about the world. And you put all of that completely behind you and then focus on what’s in front of you, which is hopefully that your characters, your situation, and then you make them real and humane. And humane doesn’t have to be the nice version of humane, just human. So is that a sufficient answer? I think that’s what you have to do. That’s what you have to do.

And I was just taken with your thought about the Britishness of it, which sometimes I feel is really important, and other times I feel this light a red herring. I think you can get the same feeling as being a New Yorker arriving in LA, being an LA person arriving in New York, being an American and going away for a trip and coming back. But a lot of it, so you don’t have to be an actual non-US citizen as I am. Just that feeling of flying in, right, when you look down on a culture on a society, either literally or metaphorically, and you sort of see it and you see the swimming pools and the extravagance of American material life and you feel it, and it’s both very real, but completely intangible and un-writable in a detailed way, but can really usefully inform you.

So that feeling of distance that all of us writers can sometimes get slightly even akin to alienation, it can be a really important clarifying feeling in a way of approaching a topic, right? The aboveness, the looking downness. Then you need to get in the room and forget your… Because being above can also have a level of looking down, of patronizing, of feeling yourself other or above. And that aboveness needs to go. Because if you think you’re any different from the people down there who have a nice swimming pool and live in a big house, you’re also fucked because you’re not morally superior to them, you just got a different way of looking at them.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: [inaudible 00:53:29]. Yeah. Yeah.

Jesse Armstrong: Which often feels morally superior.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I know. I does feel. I feel so good about that. You had been on sets before. I remember my first day on set thinking, “It is so strange this is the natural conclusion for a writer.” Because every single piece of being on set was opposite of what made me into a writer. First of all, logistically-

Jesse Armstrong: So just talk about that for one more second, because as a writer you want to be alone, and you can create these words.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: As a writer I’m alone, I’ve never managed anyone and suddenly there are 350 people and it’s a machine and you just want to be liked. I mean, the reason any of us are writing is because we just want everyone to love us.

Jesse Armstrong: Because we can’t be in bands.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I know. Because we can’t sing. Because we can’t sing and make people love us that way. What was it like? Was it natural for you to be on set and were you on set? What was your relationship to the set?

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, I was always on set. I mean, I was always on set pretty much. I always lived in the UK, so sometimes I’d go home for half an episode or an episode, but the vast majority of time I was in the US, and the vast majority of that time I would go to set and I would watch the first take, few takes of a scene, either give some thoughts or not give some thoughts depending on what was appropriate. And then usually I would retreat to somewhere where I was rewriting the next episode or helping to re-break one subsequently, sometimes on my own and then sometimes with some of my fellow writers. And a couple of people would remain on set, writers, to work with the director and the actors.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Did you ever have a fantasy that you would be done writing before you started production?

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. Yeah. You can get in the room.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah. That doesn’t-

Jesse Armstrong: It didn’t work for me. And I would love that to be… I think that can work if you have a very complete piece and it’s more crystalline. And ours was more messy. We have the comedy element, the wanting to incorporate new lines, jokes mainly. And there seemed to be something, although I resisted this feeling about it evolving, the season evolving during the shooting of it and the rewriting of it. I never had been anywhere near writing the final two or three episodes during production, and it felt pretty important to write them during production.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Why?

Jesse Armstrong: I don’t know. I think you feel this momentum, you feel the drive, you feel where the story wants to go. You feel a little bit what the audience, including yourself and your fellow writers, or how much of each story they need to know at the end where they want it to go. And also, honestly, it feels easier in the things that you could obsess on or circle around in the abstract, this clarifying nature of the action and the terrifying arrival of the deadline, which cuts the noodling, and the, “We could do this.” And becomes very clarifying of what the story is and what has to happen.

And so although I’ve been more unhappy and anxious than I’ve ever been in my writing life trying to do those final episodes. I remember pretty much, I felt quite on the edge when we were… I had to write, I was writing the finales of this season and we were shooting in a hotel in Midtown and I didn’t even feel like I had the time to get a car back to where I was staying in Williamsburg because it felt like the 20 minutes in the car were going to be too much time out of the writing schedule. And yeah, those were my worst writing times on the show. Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah. Yeah, totally. How long is an episode written of succession? I will say that-

Jesse Armstrong: How many pages?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yes. I would like to know, because we had shared directors, the wonderful Shari Springer Berman and Bob Pulcini, who in post would tell me how good you were at killing your darlings, which-

Jesse Armstrong: In the edit.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: In the edit. But the implication was that a lot was shot and that maybe the episodes were longer.

Jesse Armstrong: Yes.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: My episodes, which were, I didn’t even know it was an option until they said that to hand in a long episode.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh yeah, they don’t want to tell you that.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah, I didn’t even know that. So what was it like?

Jesse Armstrong: I guess 70 pages would be like the aim. And then usually I would push that and sometimes… Well, in the weird technical way, right, at a certain point the pages get locked and then it’s always magically remains at 70 pages. Even if you write 10 more pages, they will become A’s and B’s. I know that-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I know. And they’re double salmon, double salmon G.

Jesse Armstrong: I think you have to be a little bit… What do you have to be? I never want to be duplicitous. And I think it’s always best with your key collaborators to be completely honest, because you want them to tell you when there’s not enough money. You want that to be a truth and not a game that they’re telling you there’s not enough money because they’re hoping that you’ll do something that then will mean… You can get into those games in a production.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Is that you and the network? Is that you and the…

Jesse Armstrong: It’s everyone. The network is trying to make everyone happy and give you the right money, but they would rather it was cheaper rather than the more expensive, and then the producer and line producer doing the same thing, they want to serve your vision, but they also want to make sure in case you change your vision that they’ve got a little bit of money for down the road, because they know that sometimes it’s happened that you’ve changed your mind.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. Right. Right.

Jesse Armstrong: So there’s a bunch of games you can get into, try not to play them, but do try to make sure you don’t cut when you don’t need to, right? Because sometimes people-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That’s the opposite of what Bob and Sheri said.

Jesse Armstrong: Sometimes people think that if you cut the number of pages, that helps. And sometimes it does. But writing an extra half a page of dialogue on a day when you’re in a set, when you’re somewhere and you’re already rolling and got everything cooking, nothing, it’s nothing. It’s a cup of tea, it’s a joke around the monitor. It is nothing. Cutting a helicopter landing in Alaska is something. So I think you have to both be really… I always, always want to be amenable and not say, “This is what I want, let’s just do it, make it happen.” That’s not a good way to approach it in my opinion. But similarly, being too amenable and pushing down that page length when it’s a technical makes everyone feel a bit better that the script is 71 pages rather than 74, but you’ve cut a bunch of jokes, which would’ve been the things that we are now going to talk about on a podcast and the things which give that texture and human quality to the show. That’s not really a saving at all, that’s a total failure. So I think lots of good reasons to write long.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Can you tell me if there is a scene that you think about that didn’t end up in there because it couldn’t work?

Jesse Armstrong: Well, yeah, we did. We did the same scene a bunch of times that it was always Matthew’s character, Tom. This is classic. It was a thing that really happened, it’s in Disney War, of an executive joining a new department, having a meeting with all his key figures and asking them what their dream is and everyone goes around saying, “Oh, what would you really like to do if you could do anything?” And there’s one guy who’s got some dream of a creative endeavor within the company, and he fires him, because it’s like, you should be wanting to do your job.

And it just struck me as such a cruel kind of Roman Empire kind of fake-out, bullshit sort of thing that it always seemed so funny and awful. So we put that in. But the truth was, it never demanded to be… We never needed to see that Tom was a prick in that way. It never needed to be demonstrated. And the guy who got fired was always a guy, never satisfyingly came back in a cool story shape. So it was always this egg, this horrible egg of disgusting fun that you could either leave in or cut. So we shot it certainly two times, possibly three times in different episodes, but we never aired it because it never demanded to be in the story.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh, well, I demand. Is it too late for me to demand it? I would’ve loved to see that. So now talking about endings in a more global way, you’re at the end of this. I mean, or one day you will be. One day people will not ask you to take these victory laps. But also you’re not, like there’s the Writers Guild Awards coming up. You are nominated. I’m sure you was shocked to be nominated. You’ve won every award. It really blows me away what your accomplishment was here. Do you sit and think, “What am I going to do next?” Are you already doing it? Where do you put this? I know that whenever I was writing a story that I felt like might be big, which is not the same as Succession, four seasons big.

Jesse Armstrong: Sure. Sure sure. Same feeling. Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The thing was to be on the next story already.

Jesse Armstrong: Really? Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That when I revised my book, it was while we were making Fleischman, because I knew that whatever was going to happen, a show on television would be something I helped to make. It would change me in a way that I wanted to preserve whatever I was.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Where are you right now?

Jesse Armstrong: No, yeah, a little bit different. I now realize it’s almost a year since we finished shooting. I’ve done almost no actual writing since. It may be that I’ve retired without notice. I don’t feel like it. I feel like the bit, something we touched on earlier is that I need to get that feeling of the little secret thing going, the like this is the thing I can smuggle, and because of the success of the show, it may not be right away that that’s another TV show in that.

So I might try and write some prose again. I might try and write a film script. I think I would love write another… I’d love to give it another go at another show of more than one season and I let myself kind of enjoy that thought without… Yeah, I guess the bit that’s impossible is to think I want to do another show as good and big as that, and I’m quite comfortable with not… I don’t feel like I want to top it. I feel like there’s other things I’d like to write in prose and solo as a film writer, and I feel like, oh, but there’s crevices, there’s places that TV shows can go that I could go into that will be thrillingly… That I can feel are worth doing and are really great and surprising, don’t challenge me to feel like I have to knock Succession off its little pedestal in my life or in the culture. That sounds, I don’t know, it sounds like one of those boring answers you get in a magazine article.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, that’s a good answer. That’s a good answer, because the only thing I asked anyone who read this second book is, is it better than… I’m just trying to… But I’m more craving [inaudible 01:05:01].

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, I guess I feel like, oh, I can’t go bigger, maybe I can go deeper into something. I don’t know. So it doesn’t scare me too much, although it should do.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Well, I’m glad. I’m glad it doesn’t scare you. I mean, sometimes I am watching television and I am scrolling through the endless scroll and I’ll see the little box of the TV show I made and I’ll have this kind of out of body…

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. It’s very weird that.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And I miss it. I miss my show sometimes. I don’t know what I miss. I don’t know if I miss the daily thing. I don’t know if I miss the sort of city of it. I don’t know if I miss the purpose of it. I don’t know if I miss the people. But I have this feeling that I miss it sometimes. Are you there yet with Succession or are you still just hanging out with everyone and winning awards?

Jesse Armstrong: I still see my close writer friends. I’m in New York now. I don’t live in New York. I’ve come here to sort of to be in the city in a way that I never could be when I was doing the show and go to the movies and go to galleries.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: We’re going to Film Forum.

Jesse Armstrong: Going to Film Forum. My God. Yeah. You know, I had an extraordinary revelation during a Tarkovsky movie the other day, a phrase you often have on this podcast.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Sure, sure.

Jesse Armstrong: I realized that in his film Nostalgia that he… There’s a famous, people who know, Tarkovsky scene where, not to me, I don’t know his work that well, there’s a scene where he carries a candle from one end of a Roman bath, a spring, a bath, to the other. And it’s the same location we shot in Bagno Vignoni, in Tuscany for Tom and Shiv have a fraught discussion walking around the outside of this spring and it’s the same spring in his film looking much… It was in the ’80s in Italy and the fabric of the country looks so much poorer and in terrible disrepair. Anyway, it was fascinating to see that. It was very, very, very dreamlike.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah.

Jesse Armstrong: Anyway, sorry.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That you’re there. No, I mean, I’ve shot in New York and I walked through Central Park and I either sing the Madonna song, This Used to be My Playground, or something worse. I feel like I have to ask, you are so good at giving awards speeches. I’ve watched up close now.

Jesse Armstrong: Thank you.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Beta blocker?

Jesse Armstrong: No, I think I have known people who’ve done it and I think maybe I might try it. I might try it in my private life first.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: But why? I’m telling you you’re good at it.

Jesse Armstrong: But it ruins the entire period around that, certainly ruins the whole night for me. All I’m doing is thinking of the little speech I’ll give and then trying to think of a little joke to put in as well. Because I always go through the same thing of, this is a nightmare, it ruins the whole week for you, it’s stupid. It should be fun, you’re with all these people don’t… Because the bit that worries me is, A, forgetting people’s names or not mentioning someone who’s been important or who you want to mention at that point, or doing a little joke which goes wrong and either isn’t funny or you, in the moment, seems to be something other than it is and seems like anyway it goes wrong. And so I always think, well, don’t do the joke, that’s fine. Just get up and do a Joe Pesci and just go, “Thanks.” It was Joe Pesci, wasn’t it? Who walked off and just did, “Thank you.”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh, did it?

Jesse Armstrong: If you’ve never see it, watch it.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No. Merritt Weaver did something similar. She just maybe screamed, “I have to go.” Or, “Goodbye.” I mean, I love those speeches.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, just a thank you is enough. But then on the day I’m also, well, but I’m kind of like, I still come from a comedy writing background. I feel like I should give them their money’s worth.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: You did. You gave them, or you gave us our money’s worth.

Jesse Armstrong: So it has to be a little, just even if it’s nothing. And then that ruins it, because you’re like, “Oh, is that all right to say? And is it okay?” Anyway, so I find it ruins it all for me and yet that’s what it is. But no drug says yet, but I’ll think about it.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Okay, and let me know.

Jesse Armstrong: Did you take one in case of victory?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I didn’t. I didn’t, because I was too afraid that I’d be walking around saying, “I took a beta blocker and didn’t even win.” And I wanted to feel emotions about it. And I was glad. I just knew that I would spiral, that it would be the sort of a worst-case scenario to win. I felt like, what was I doing at the Emmys? Maybe next time if I ever get there again, I will feel entitled. Lord knows I have not won the National Magazine Award and here I am on a podcast expressing my umbrage about it. So I clearly have no dignity or humility. But that was just like, I can’t believe we’re at the Emmys and the only thing that could have ruined it was winning, because I was afraid of how many names there are. You know that if you win for a Disney show, you have to name all the Disney princes. You know that, right?

Jesse Armstrong: Or will you just [inaudible 01:09:59] carriage.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The Bear people are in a lot of trouble. I just want to tell you, the Bear people are in a lot of trouble for not naming all the Disney princes in their-

Jesse Armstrong: Are they? Oh, shit. Are they going to get another season?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I probably shouldn’t say anything. I don’t know. Honestly, they’re in discussion over at FX. I’m sent here with a question, is Shiv the youngest or do you answer that question?

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. So complicated answer to that, yeah, Shiv is the youngest in my mind and in-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: This gets me a Succession Pulitzer, because everyone wants to know this.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, she is. And Sarah is younger than Kieran, and that was the original breakdown of it. I think sometimes, this is an interesting thing in terms of what matters and what doesn’t in a room and tone, I think some of the writers used to feel that Roman was the youngest and they kind of wrote him as the youngest. We never say that in the show, I believe. I don’t think we say precisely.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I mean, I just checked, you do not say it.

Jesse Armstrong: Good. Because that’s fine I think, right? There’s a way in which Roman feels like the youngest.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: He feels coded as youngest to me.

Jesse Armstrong: He feels like the youngest, and that’s okay, because sometimes that can happen in a family. And she has a certain maturity and baring, and her womanness somehow informs it to his needy motherlessness. In actual fact, Shiv is the youngest. I don’t mind though if people are like, “But Roman is the youngest.” I know what they mean. And I think some writers have sometimes had that in their heads when they’ve been writing him, and that’s also been not something I had to expunge and go, “Oh, no, no, no, remember.” Because there’s a way in which it is true.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I also think in a family raised in that much sexism, the woman, it has nothing to do with anything. It’s between the men.

Jesse Armstrong: Exactly. She could be like 15 years younger and they still will be going, “Have you got dad a… I haven’t got dad a card. Could you help me pick something?” Like, “Who’s going to go… Oh, mom’s ankle’s bad. Have you rung her? Because I’m busy.”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: My last question is, do you have a, I’m not going to ask for a favorite, but a line or a scene or a moment that is sort of proof of concept of Succession, like the most Successiony moment of the show.

Jesse Armstrong: I guess I feel proud that we achieved all the endings of the season and they all have their different merits. Because when we did the second season, and for me it’s an encapsulation of maybe my training as a sitcom writer and then hopefully achieving a drama breadth of emotion is when they have to choose, right, who’s going to take… In the second season, they have to choose who’s going to take the rap for the corporate wrongdoing, and they’re all on a yacht and it’s a bit Agatha Christie, and it’s very sitcom, like I’m going to get all my principal figures around and they’re going to have an argument about who’s going to take the rap for breaking the vase, or in this case, serious corporate wrongdoing. Achieving that with some comedy. But then it turning into, I found, very emotionally affecting encounter between Logan and Kendall. When we did that I was like, “I think that’s it. I don’t think I can write another episode of Succession as good as that. I think that’s how I want the show to be.” And it has a nice plot turn at the end as well of the season. And so-

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The biggest upset in the… Yeah.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. And I didn’t necessarily know that we could do that in this show, have something sort of exciting, a plot turn. So that was certain kind of news to me. You write it, but it also, because of Jeremy’s committed performance, it also really lands as a… Anyway, so I always think of that as that was pretty good.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And with the siblings, the way they come right close to having this moment and then they do their sibling thing.

Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I like the end of that episode, I think.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Jesse, I love you, but you’re not a very serious person.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh, the kicker.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for being on this podcast. I had a million other questions to ask you about pitching the show, about your career. I’m sure everyone would love to know it.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh, I’m going to be doing this for months.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: But I guess we will be following up soon.

Jesse Armstrong: Thank you, Taffy.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And congratulations. It’s such a pleasure.

Jesse Armstrong: Oh, I really enjoyed chatting to you. Thanks for the great questions and congratulations on your brilliant show. And I feel bad we didn’t talk about it more, but maybe I can interview you next week.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Probably will do that. Thank you.

Jesse Armstrong: All right, thank you, Taffy.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. The series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producers are Molly Beer and Tiana Timmerberg. Our designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Taylor Bradshaw. To learn more about the Writers Guild of America East, visit us online at, or follow the Guild on all social media platforms @wgaeast. If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for listening. Until then, write on.

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