How ‘Succession’ Creates a Billionaire’s Paradise Through Production Design

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Photo Source: Graeme Hunter/HBO

A show like “Succession” loses all credibility the moment the audience stops believing its world is genuinely inhabited by billionaires. Production designer Stephen H. Carter (“Spotlight,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) feels that pressure with every lavish-looking detail with which he dresses the HBO hit. Here, he shares the ways he fashions the ultrarich homes of the Roy clan (as well as the Waystar complex), and how he sends “millions of subliminal messages” about character through his work.

What drew you to “Succession”?
When I was hired, I was sort of given marching orders to protect the validity that this is a billionaire’s world. Everybody at the table, when I was having my very first conversations and interviews, said, “We want this to look right, that everything about it feels right to the people that actually live this kind of life. We don’t want to feel like we’re making up the details.” And I love that. That was one of the big draws of this particular show to me. It sort of fit into what I consider to be my niche, in terms of being able to observe very realistic locations and environments and recreate them very accurately.

Is making sure every detail of the show looks expensive a constant consideration?
It is. One of the ways we’re able to pull “Succession” off is that we really slant toward shooting on location when possible, to the extent that I will push everyone to try it. And even if we need to build a set, [we] build it in a location that gives us certain advantages. We do have some sets on sound stages. For example, Logan’s apartment was built at Silvercup Studios East onstage with the backdrop and all those traditional bells and whistles. But Waystar, the traditional corporate offices, were built in 7 World Trade Center, and that’s where they were housed for the first two seasons.

Since this is your first “series regular” gig, what have you learned about production design for television?
The differences [between film and TV] are huge. From the very get-go, on a feature film, you’ve got the script before you even get the job and you’ve had a chance to really think through it and decide, “Am I the right person to help illustrate the story?” With episodic [TV], you’ve got the concept, but you don’t necessarily have the scripts until sometimes you’re looking into the barrel of a gun, so it’s designing with a sort of negative space, leaving yourself ways in which to maneuver future elements into set design. You may have, say, two or three scripts’ worth of material, and you know the set has to service all the different scenes that appear in those episodes. But once you get beyond that, you may have to add three new rooms that you’ve never thought about. You’re constantly leaving a couple of extra doors to nowhere so that you can develop them into things that are really basic but important.

Does production design, when done well, give the audience details about the characters?
You’re sending millions of subliminal messages of the subtext of who these people are just in the choices of color and objects that are inhabiting their spaces with them. At the same time, I think you’re also trying to set the stage for the audience’s appreciation of what’s in the story. How is this story being told? Is it abstracted in any way? Is it full-on realism? Where does the stylization lie? [For] “Succession,” we do go well out of our way to make sure everything feels realistic, from the technology that we’re constantly updating to make sure it’s of-the-minute to having consultants come in and make sure that we get the details of the procedural work at the Senate hearings in Season 2 correct. However, when you look at the writing and the humor and the way this sort of black comic element comes into play, that also is part of our world. We need to make sure that what we do doesn’t feel so documentary that there isn’t room for that laughter element as well.

In the most basic sense, how would you describe what a production designer does?
The production designer is essentially tasked with conceiving, creating, overseeing the construction and fabrication of all the elements that make the visual world of a production—a film or television show—up until the point that it gets translated to the film or video image. So, lighting for example, becomes sort of a mixed point where I will include practical lighting, but then it’s starting to slip into the photographer’s wheelhouse. Once it gets up to that threshold, that’s kind of the production designer’s domain. Obviously, [you’re] working hand in hand with the costume designer, who handles all the clothes, and the props master, who deals with all the acting requirements, but a production designer is really sort of tasked with the overall visual world. That’s the joy of collaborative art. You’re in the trenches with a lot of great creative people, and they’re relying on me to have their back for solving problems and vice versa.

How do you figure out and then establish the aesthetic of a show?
In terms of creating that balance, I’d say it’s myself and our DP, because we have to make sure that the way in which the shooting happens and the lighting [choices] blend with the aesthetic choices of the sets themselves. And then of course it’s the writing team, Jesse Armstrong in particular, and then the director. You kind of don’t really know until you see the first few episodes if you’re getting it right. There was a point in Season 1, maybe around the fifth episode, where, many of us never having worked with the others, we kind of hit our stride and by then we really observed how all the other team members worked.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue production design?
First, dip your toe into just about any other element of filmmaking that you can so that you understand something about what the art directors do, what the set decorators do. If you can branch out into the world of camerawork or directing, that kind of thing is invaluable. I came up essentially through the art department, and the biggest hurdle for me to move from an art director to a production designer was really understanding the nuances of what all the other departments did. As a production designer, you are the liaison between your staff—on “Succession,” I’ve got an incredible team of really talented people—and the outside world of all the other departments. In terms of fine points that don’t come up in meetings but that come up when you’re scouting [locations], I have to make sure that my team gets those notes and understands them and understands the thinking behind why they’re important. In that respect, the more I learn about all the other departments that I’m teaming up with, the better a production designer I feel I am.

This story originally appeared in the July 9 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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