Emmy-Nominated “Succession” Editor Ken Eluto on Cutting the Roy Family Down to Size
HBO’s glorious tragicomedy Succession went on for four riveting seasons and finished at a creative zenith. The acerbic squabbling and venomous backstabbing amongst the narcissistic Roy family — led by savage patriarch and leader of the media giant, Waystar Royco, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) — culminated with the end game promised in the series title playing out in a most unexpected way. In the final season of creator/showrunner Jesse Armstrong’s powerhouse family drama, a potential merger with Norwegian tech giant GoJo is complicated by the merciless power struggle amongst Logan’s children: the forever-denied heir apparent, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), vulnerable and sadistic younger brother, Roman (Kieran Culkin), and their conniving, complicated sister Shiv (Sarah Snook).
Just like the rest of us, editor Ken Eluto – Emmy winner for NBC’s now iconic 30 Rock – was floored when a major character was eliminated early on in the final season. “The biggest surprise was seeing Logan killed off so early in the season. I didn’t know it was happening so early until I got the script for that episode,” he says of the shocking twist in the chaotic, heartbreaking third episode. That was before anyone knew that season 4 would be the last. “I was thinking, how are we going to do another season without Logan because he’s such a strong character? I was amazed that people were able to keep it a secret for so long before it aired. They were writing different names [code name: “Larry David”] into the script and having Brian Cox come on set to fake people out,” he continues. In an effort to keep the spoiler a secret, Cox showed up on location during the days when they were filming Logan’s funeral scenes at Manhattan’s Park Avenue landmark, the Church of St. Ignatius.
Once again, Succession leads this year’s Emmy nominations with a whopping 27 nods, including in the editing category for Eluto’s work (his third for the critically acclaimed series). The editor who has worked on the most episodes by far – editing 16 episodes across all four seasons – is very used to the visual palette and shooting style. “It’s shot very differently. Every episode is shot on 35mm film, which gives it a different look. It took two days to get the dailies,” he reveals of one of the few TV shows still shooting on film these days. “Adam McKay, who directed the pilot, shot on film, and everyone liked the look of it.”
Maintaining dramatic tension in a ferociously dialogue-heavy drama is harder than it looks, but thankfully, the show’s dynamic shooting style goes a long way in the edit bay. “They usually shoot on two cameras, all handheld and always moving, so it has a lot of vitality to it. You never know who or what the camera is going to land on, and it’s fine for a character to be off-camera at times,” Eluto says. In terms of establishing the tone of the show, “sometimes we would debate whether there should be more humor or less humor to a particular scene? But after the first season, we found the right balance,” he adds.
In the seventh episode entitled “Tailgate Party,” the growing animosity between Shiv and her estranged husband, obsequious social climber Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), erupts at a party in their penthouse when the couple has it out on the balcony. “There were six takes between the two of them, each lasting six to seven minutes. They shot it straight through with two cameras, but they couldn’t shoot opposite each other since the balcony was too small. So, they had a wide and a tight. Some takes were a little tighter than others. Their performances were just amazing – the fight has such a great build to it until they get angrier and angrier. Then, at the end, it has that sadness when the music comes in.”
Composer Nicholas Britell’s score (for which he won an Emmy) is crucial in sustaining momentum and tension. “I always put in some of Nick’s temp score while I’m working on the cut. The first season was more difficult because we obviously had less of his score to play with,” Eluto shares, referring to Britell’s score that has accompanied each of the 39 episodes throughout the series. “Sometimes Nick will give us a new cue for a section he is thinking about in advance, like the final scenes in the series finale or some of the scenes in Italy in Season 3. As we go through the director’s and/or producer’s cuts, the cues I use could change. Then, when the episode is almost locked, we have a music spotting session with Jesse and the music department to talk about the temp cues, which are eventually revised before we get final approval.”
The ever-changing loyalties among the three siblings can often feel vertiginous, with each one ready to sell out the others at any moment. But ever so rarely, there would also be moments of adorable, genuine kinship, as demonstrated in the “meal fit for a king” sequence in the series finale (which was two hours long before Eluto whittled it down to 88 minutes in the final cut). After prolonged negotiations, Shiv and Roman finally agree to support Kendall for CEO in order to stave off the sale to GoJo. To “anoint” their big brother’s ascendancy to the throne with a juvenile culinary experiment, they come up with a nasty concoction of a smoothie – throwing everything from whole eggs (with shell!), Shiv’s spit, and a ton of Tabasco sauce to frozen bread, cinnamon, milk, and pickles – into a blender.
“First, they were fighting, and then they’re in the kitchen and all kind of happy and having fun. That was actually the very last scene they shot for the whole series,” Eluto recalls of the emotional moment, adding that “It was very moving – the camera at the end panned over to Jesse and Mark [Mylod, director] hugging each other. It was pretty emotional.” With six takes of the sequence, each running anywhere from five to eleven minutes long, it was challenging to cut and match continuity. “It took me a couple of days to get through the first pass. With every take, their ad libs and what they were throwing into the blender were a little different. Continuity-wise, it was a real challenge to match up every take. Sometimes Jeremy would have his hat on, and sometimes he wouldn’t. But it was a great scene to show the dynamic between the kids.” The most intriguing question to viewers must surely be: did Strong actually drink that gnarly cocktail? “He drank whatever they were mixing! There was no camera cut at all.”
Perhaps the saddest takeaway from this family’s saga is that no one – not even the all-powerful Roys – can defeat fate. After four seasons of scheming, treachery, and heartbreak, a crestfallen Kendall is yet again defeated by his father’s Machiavellian machinations (Logan had crossed off Kendall’s name in an undated will naming him as the successor after dangling the prospect for years) and his sibling’s repeated betrayals (Shiv’s vote against Kendall ultimately cost him the throne). In the final scene, he is in the same place as when we first saw him in the pilot, desperate to finally sit at the helm of the Roy empire but never getting there.
In the final moments, we find him gazing aimlessly into the Hudson River, sitting on a bench in Battery Park. “I love the fact that he’s looking into the water, which reminds me of the Season One finale [when Kendall accidentally killed a waiter as his car crashed into a river] when he couldn’t rescue the waiter, which Shiv brings up now as a reason why he can’t be the CEO. So, it kind of reflects back to that for me.” Strong also tried another take of that ending, which took some people by surprise. “Jeremy always likes to try different things. He did a take where he tries to jump into the water, and Colin [the bodyguard] stops him. Jesse and I did consider that take, but we both thought the moment was better with him just sitting on the bench so that we’re all wondering what’s going to happen to him.”
You can stream all four seasons of Succession on Max.
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Featured image: Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong. Photograph by Claudette Barius/HBO