It was words and words are – what? Nothing. Complicated airflow.
The first thing you have to ask when you are publishing a screenplay is: what is the essential version of the script?
Screenplays continually shift over a film or TV show’s development. Countless drafts are authored during pre-production. New ideas get dropped in by writers, actors and directors while on set. Even once the shooting stops, it isn’t over. Not only are cuts made in the edit, but new lines of dialogue are craftily dropped in.
Given there is no single moment when the text is stable, which version do you publish? What do you do?
Succession posed this question particularly acutely.
Succession’s grand plot can be subtle then suddenly brutal, with many interweaving lines for the audience to track. Much of its brilliant dialogue, ‘as heard on TV’, has been quoted and memed to the point that it has become part of our cultural consciousness. Even the camera operators, with their whipsmart throws of focus, seem to be offering their own take on events.
Initially, then, I wondered whether the best publication might be a reconstruction of the episodes as they went out on air.
Maybe with the occasional deleted scene dropped in for flavour. Many screenplays are published like this. There’s a lot of sense to it. It provides fans, students and film-makers with a trusted map of the show’s world. So this was the direction that I first proposed.
Then Jesse Armstrong, Succession’s creator, shared the shooting scripts with me. These are the final drafts prepared by the writers prior to filming, before any changes are made on set or in the editing room. As soon I read them, I knew these were what we had to share.
Many screenplays, even of great works, are startlingly spare.
The action is reduced to the most basic of movements: ‘He drops the knife.’ ‘They close the door on her.’ ‘A look.’ But here were pages where the characters and their environment were already fervently alive. Whole story threads that never made it to air, which complemented and counterpointed the themes of the series. Dialogue bristling with the writers’ quirky punctuation, hair-triggers for the actors to deliver now-famous lines.
And the written direction was rich with psychological insight – sometimes heartfelt, sometimes sly. Moments that I had taken to be solely the result of actors’ brilliant performances were revealed to be embedded within the words on the page.
Here’s an example from the series’ pilot:
Logan hands Kendall a pen. Beat between them. Can son trust father? The father clearly wants this – and the son wants to be liked, to demonstrate his trust—
Logan is making an assessment too. Kendall takes the pen.
Already in place here is that destabilising air of uncertainty that watching Succession instils in you. The sense of a world always on the turn. Where every action is both loaded and judged.
Thankfully, Jesse and his team were willing to open up these shooting scripts – these working documents – to public view.
It’s a generous decision on their behalf. It means the artful mechanics of how the show came to be are laid bare.
The editing process on the books since that decision has been unique. Alongside the usual duties of ensuring sense and structure, I’ve found myself becoming a kind of multimedia archivist of the show. Headily toggling between screened episodes, shooting drafts, and discussions with the creators to ensure we release the most lucid version of these scripts. Identifying little ret-cons and subtle variations in the dialogue. Noting points where plot turns had been introduced early, then redacted, as the writers bided their time before they pounced.
For some crucial junctures where the script and show deviate, Jesse Armstrong has offered footnotes that reveal how the decision got made. Many other details, though, we have chosen to leave as Easter eggs for attentive readers to discover. There is great fun and insight to be found in hunting these out.
Jesse has also provided introductions to the first and last season that explain how the four-season arc of Succession was conceived and completed.
Executive producer Frank Rich, in the second volume, gives his view on the series’ place in the pantheon of American dynastic dramas.
Lucy Prebble’s introduction to Season Three invites us into the inner workings of the writers’ room.
Reading all this offers a kind of parallax view on Succession. The version that got aired overlaid on the one that was envisioned and developed over time. But what has become most apparent to me, having curated these remarkable documents, is how clear-eyed the vision for this most essential show of our times was before the cameras even rolled.
These books are a map not only of the world of Succession, but also of its creation. I really hope they will inspire future writers and film-makers in the years to come.