How Kendall's Blowout Birthday Bash Came to Life on 'Succession'
Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, director Lorene Scafaria, and production designer Stephen Carter discuss all the ideas that went into the wildest episode of 'Succession' yet.
During "Too Much Birthday," Sunday night's absolutely bananas episode of Succession featuring Kendall's over-the-top birthday bash, we're invited to enter the mind of a narcissist wanting to throw himself the best blowout ever. Guests enter through a womb. There's a VIP treehouse. There's talk of a "tiny Wu-Tang Clan" showing up. (Tiny Wu-Tang is a group of kids who perform Wu-Tang songs.)
But for all that appears on screen, what's almost more astounding is what didn't make it into the final cut. Some were actual rooms that production designer Stephen Carter built; others were just ideas that actor Jeremy Strong had. "At one point I think I tried to get them, I don't know if it made it into the show, 'Fucked Up Enya,'" Strong tells me. "Basically they were going to have to drink a bunch of bottles of wine and then Ambien and then sing. That was a room I really wanted." Full disclosure: I'm not even sure what that really means, but it's just one of the many ideas Strong says he pitched to the writers.
"Too Much Birthday" is an instant classic of an episode, one that highlights Kendall's hubris while also setting him up for an immaculate fall. It's so full of details that it's worth watching over and over again—from the portraits of Kendall that are in the backdrop of multiple scenes to the cocktails in baby bottles. Pulling it off was no easy feat, so to commemorate it I spoke to Strong, director Lorene Scafaria, production designer Stephen Carter, and Sarah Snook, a.k.a. Shiv Roy, about how it all came together.
Stephen Carter knew Kendall's birthday party would be a huge undertaking from the start of prep for the season, and Strong himself was in the writers' ears pitching potential ideas to execute for this marquee event. Meanwhile, the producers reached out to Scafaria, of Hustlersfame, about making her Succession debut directing the episode. She was already a fan of the show.
Jeremy Strong, actor Kendall Roy: I was very involved in the sense that I pitched Jesse [Armstrong] and everybody ideas for months about what the party could be, and what Kendall wanted it to be, and who I wanted to DJ the party. I had a feeling, like Kendall would, that I had sort of designed the party, so when I walked into it it wasn't really a surprise.
Lorene Scafaria, director: They said they wanted me for a particularly cinematic episode, and then when I learned that it was Kendall's birthday, and so much builds up to this episode, and I finally read the first draft, I felt completely spoiled. Okay, so it's my birthday and I get to play with all this delicious dialogue and this strange bottle episode that takes place in Manhattan. It was thrilling to be part of such an extravagant episode and step into the mind of Kendall Roy and figure out what kind of birthday party he's curating, what kind of experience he's trying to give everyone, or especially his siblings.
Stephen Carter, production designer: Originally, we were sort of spitballing that there might be four or five themed rooms and in the end there were a dozen or something.
Setting the Stage
The first question the production team needed to answer was just where they were going to host this and how they were going to build all the sets. As for the physical location of the party, the crew settled on The Shed, the cultural center at Hudson Yards, which opened in 2019. While Scafaria shot some scenes actually in the venue, including the dance floor sequence and the moment Kendall is searching for his kids' gift, Carter went and built the other theme rooms on the show's soundstage.
Carter: For a long time, the leading contender for where we might stage it was the Clark Art Institute, up north from the city. We didn't have a lot of the scripts until quite close to ground zero delivery at the beginning of shooting the episode, so there were some sets that were quite late in the game surprises—the treehouse being a notable one, the compliment tunnel being another. We spent a lot of time thinking about: What if it's this location? How are we going to handle it? And then ended up pivoting to a completely different concept at a completely different locale.
It was the smart thing to do based on a lot of things, including splitting our company in part to prepare the pretty outrageous theme rooms in multiple places. The Clark is four hours from New York City and we were dealing with COVID and everything else. It just felt like we're going to make ourselves crazy and things will feel thin if we try to spread out that far. Let's try something close to home.
We were looking at multiple locations and thinking of putting them together to make one super location and we saw the photographs of the performance space, the atrium at The Shed and we were like, can we get that? And then suddenly it became like: That's where Kendall would throw his party. He's that sort of Hudson Yards kind of guy. We also had been putting his newest apartment [at the] penthouse at the Hudson Yards property with views over the Hudson and New Jersey. It made sense. It's almost like his apartment clubhouse.
Scafaria: I was really excited to focus on the lighting in the main space. That was a really fun thing to design. I sort of took inspiration from Kanye's Life of Pablo tour, which is what I think Kendall would have done. Kendall would have made requests based on things he would have liked. So in a way I got to fully step into Kendall's mind and decide, he would want this sort of orange monochromatic lighting that feels like something Kanye would have done. That was the joy of this entire episode: It's like Burning Man or something. You see these actors and these characters that are so familiar in this brand new space that you're never going to see again. It's going to be built up, it's going to be torn down, all thanks to this rich guy's ludicrous requests that are actually kind of sad and vulnerable when you look at it.
Carter: We had a phase that was a number of sets [on our soundstages]. Then I basically said, "You guys have to go away and shoot something else for a week." And I think that was the point we went out and shot Adrien Brody's compound. In that time we had a big turnaround where we tore out a bunch of sets, put in new sets. The treehouse was built in that period. The compliments tunnel was built in this period. There had been the future room with magazine or newspaper pages, that was pulled out and became part of the treehouse.
Building the Dream
Carter and his team were getting pages of the script so late that they had to scramble to build key spaces like the "treehouse," a VIP area that Roman tries to break into so he can meet with Alexander Skarsgård's obnoxious tech bro. Other spaces, like the vagina tunnel, required getting an outside vendor that makes inflatables for music awards shows involved.
Carter: There was a lot of back and forth with Lorene and the writers, like, "Where is the entry to the treehouse?" There were lines in the dialogue about, "Is this the one from the summer we spent in Montana?" and things that made it sound like they were really pointing to a literal treehouse, and then other elements that we wanted to be like a VIP club room. The question was where the threshold was between the literal and non-literal, and where is the line which Kendall excludes them from, but how do they get past the line later? A lot of questions about how that all works.
I don't know if you're familiar with the group called Meow Wolf, they have fabulous, very creative, very fantasy oriented environments that were inspiration for some of the party, but the idea was that as you approach the treehouse it feels a little bit like one of their constructions meets sort of theme park version of the treehouse, but when you go inside it's actually much more clubby. There was a big bar at one end of the room and there were projections behind the tree.
Scafaria: I think the [compliment tunnel] might have been my favorite. That was an idea that came from a real party. One of the writers might have known someone that threw a party that had a compliments tunnel. That's what's also amazing about the show: They do their research about people of a certain wealth might explore at their parties.
Carter: I think the key bit of research for the compliment tunnel was from a restaurant in Brooklyn somewhere that had a lot of fake wisteria on the front. What if we do this times 1,000 and create this world of saccharine floral, drug nightmare? You want it to be fun, but you can imagine, if Tom's taken the wrong combination of narcotics, he's probably having a pretty hard time with all the visuals.
Strong: It's a bit of a hall of mirrors, right? It's a very solipsistic birthday party. Everything is reflecting something back at you in a kind of funhouse mirror kind of way. I did a play a long time ago about Frank Lloyd Wright. It was called Frank's Home, and it's about this idea of this man who built houses everywhere all over the world, but what he really wanted to create is a feeling of home and wasn't able to and that a house is not a home. I think what Kendall wanted from this party is a feeling of human connection, I guess? Sure, he wanted to throw a big party with lots of spectacle and bravura.
The Cutting Room Floor
For as many wild spaces as you do see in the episode, there were also entire rooms that were featured in scenes that got cut. And we're not just talking about Strong's "Fucked Up Enya" idea or a replica of Kendall's teenage bedroom that was apparently conceived and discussed.
Carter: We built one set of rooms which included the vaginal hospital entry suite that led into a couple of rooms that didn't even make the cut, like a nursery where you're walking through a giant crib with giant toys and giant art from Kendall's past. You walk through that and then you are in a school room, his sort of private, elite childhood school where the blackboard was like a back rail of Jaegermeister bottles.
Sarah Snook, actor Shiv Roy: We had giant blow-up legs and an entrance through a vagina tunnel: What the heck is that as a description of how you are going to enter a party? We have things that were only passed by in the detail.
Carter: You never really see the scope of the legs. It was sort of designed that you walked out through them and you get the feel of how big they probably are from Roman reacting as he looks around, but the idea was when you walk from that room into the nursery, you kind of see back over people's shoulders and you realize there's this giant set of spread legs that goes 25 feet in the air. That existed, but because the scenes in that were in the nursery room ended up on the cutting room floor, you never really appreciated the size of the legs.
Scafaria: You know, Tiny Wu-Tang was something that we started casting and then kind of decided at some point, "Let's stick with the rules of the show and hearing about this is probably funnier than seeing it." I saw some pictures of kids and thought, "This is a great idea, and if they haven't already employed them, that's a great little business."
The Singing and Dancing
The episode features two performance moments for the Roy kids. For the second time in the show's history, following his epic "L to the OG" rap last season, Kendall takes the mic, this time singing Billy Joel's "Honesty," to open the episode. It's a rehearsal for a party performance that will never happen. Instead, it's Shiv who draws attention, kicking off her shoes and dancing frantically in the middle of the fray.
Strong: I really, really wanted to do that. I really wanted to sing that song. I think it was a stroke of genius on Jesse's part. I think Kendall enjoyed the rap. I think he enjoyed it, and again, it's all part of this newfound freedom. He's blazing this trail and nothing can hurt him. I have three little girls and we watched Mary Poppins a couple weeks ago, and there's that character who's laughing and he floats in the air. If he stops laughing or he gets sad, he falls down. I wish I thought of it when we were making it because it would have helped me. In a way, that's what this is. As long as I can keep it up, I'm okay. But the higher I go, the further it is to the ground.
Scafaria: Jeremy and I bonded over certain other Billy Joel songs that put both of us in the same place. I felt so much for Kendall during this party. Even the scenes that he's not in, of course he's there, his impact is there. What he's going for is a little sad at the end of the day. Throwing a birthday party for yourself just naturally is, but when you're taking such giant swings like this, when you're putting it on this scale you're just bound to have a temper tantrum.
Snook: The dance is equal measure Shiv and Sarah dancing out of frustration. That is Shiv going "fuck this family, fuck this moment, fuck my brothers, screw it all," and also Sarah going "I haven't been in a room full of people for over a year." I love dancing. I love going to a club and throwing myself around. I haven't done that for a year or more because of the pandemic. This is heaven and joy for me right now. Having an opportunity to dance to loud music in a mess of people, bring it on. I am ready.
Scafaria: Sarah herself is an incredible dancer, incredibly loose, explosive dancer. I think that she made the suggestion for the song. Everybody immediately loved it and got on board. Whatever got her to move like that was most important. I was looking at it like: "Okay, we did J. Lo's dance, and now I guess we'll do Shiv's dance?" I can't believe how lucky I am. If it were my show, I think that would have lasted five full minutes.