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Stories That Matter: How Hunter Harris Wrangled the Ensemble Cast of Fall's Biggest Show
Or how to write about TV shows without accidentally leaking spoilers.
Succession is a show so big that if you haven’t watched it, you’ve heard of it. So big, in fact, that it’s getting prestigious coverage for the premiere of its third season; it’s unusual for shows to get any major stories in any season that isn’t the first or last, or going through some cultish popularity (here’s looking at you, Ted Lasso).
That’s why, when New York magazine unveiled its Fall Preview issue, that the cover story was about Succession was a bit of a surprise. Even less expected was that the magazine had gotten access to two weeks of filming — in Italy, no less!
Writer Hunter Harris, who used to be on staff at the magazine and had just written a feature on the new Gossip Girl, was sent to sweat it out (literally) with the cast and crew. We talked about the behind-the-scenes aspects to behind-the-scenes reporting.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Did you pitch or were you assigned the Succession story?
Harris: I don’t pitch as much as I should. From a writer’s perspective, pitching a cover story or a profile is not usually what happens.
I’m too self-deprecating to think about doing big profiles as an idea, but when my editor at Vulture calls me and is like, “hey, I have this opportunity, would you be interested?” Then it’s like, “of course!” But that seems like such an ambitious pitch; I’ve never heard anyone pitch that.
Do editors actually call you on the phone?
Harris: With this editor, we just wrapped the Gossip Girl story and she was like, “I have another idea to run by you.”
And I was like, “um, sure, let’s talk about it.”
“We have negotiated this amount of time on the site of Succession while they’re filming in Tuscany, and would you be available/interested in going?”
And I was like, “um, yea-ah.”
It happened really fast. I got the assignment maybe two weeks before I actually left, so there wasn’t much time to deliberate — not that I would; it was more of a scheduling thing, like I had my own vacation planned, so I had to cancel that.
What was the timeline of the reporting?
Harris: She sent me an email on June 14th, and we talked that same day — I accepted on June 15th. I left on the 25th and I think I arrived on June 26th. And because I flew into Rome, and it’s kind of complicated to get to where they were shooting to get to Rome, I stayed in Rome for two or three days, while I was waiting for my flight.
I filed July 31st. I got the first proof on August 26th.
So your editor had set this all up for you, but how were the logistics of the trip sorted?
Harris: Because of COVID stuff, HBO was really involved. There was a publicist with me all of the time: I met her over email and we were talking; there was one day that I did seven interviews in a day, so we were coordinating that stuff. Because of the logistical issues with being on set, I had to test every three days, and that was another conversation. And there are only so many hotels in Siena, Pienza, or Cortona, so I stayed at a hotel where a lot of the crew were staying, and I would go in an HBO van to go to set every day. That stuff is coordinated by them; it’s not like I’m just dropped into the middle of the city and faring for myself.
Do you have a packing list for reporting trips like this?
Harris: Honestly, no. It was so extremely hot on set some days as they were shooting outside for some parts, so I was sweating through five dresses in a week. I looked a mess as I’m trying to have various conversations; I’m trying to pat myself to not look oily.
The only thing I brought and used one time was a physical recorder — I just used my phone because it’s easier and I panicked at the airport, as I’d forgotten an adapter for my recorder for a USB port as my computer doesn’t have one. Honestly, it’s so much easier to just record stuff with the Voice Memo app — I don’t know if that’s bad; it probably is.
There’s been a lot written about Succession, and you didn’t have much time to prep, so how did you go about it?
Harris: I’d spent my whole life thinking about Gossip Girl — I feel like I know the show really well as a fan and I’d written a lot about it a lot — same with Succession. I over-prepare for everything, and I do like reading everything, but at a certain point, you just have to be naturally curious about someone. I think that’s the biggest part of choosing a subject or accepting an assignment: That’s half of the work right there. The reading and stuff informs all of that, but you can’t fake caring about someone’s work, and you couldn’t fake that I thought Succession was a great show — that’s kind of impossible.
Something to keep in mind, too, is that these are new seasons of new shows, so I went back and read stuff that Vulture had written about Succession — reacclimate myself. I rewatched the most recent seasons, just so I could get a sense of the thread, but at the same time, I’m not writing about season one of Succession, I’m writing about season three of Succession. It wasn’t until I got the scripts, sit with them, that I could think about questions in that way. But as I am not trying to, and could not, spoil anything, there’s only so much of that that’s even helpful, where I’m not asking questions about specific plot choices. I was writing a piece about what it’s like to be on the set of Succession, so if I say, “what happened on page 39 of the 8th episode?” that’s not a very good question — it’s not interesting, and I would not have been able to include it into the draft anyway, because it would have been a spoiler. But if I’m reading about how the cast have talked about one another before, how they express working together before, or the process of their getting cast — that’s the sort of stuff I have on my mind anyway as a fan of the show and as someone who’s watched the show for a long time.
How far ahead of time did you get the scripts and how many did you get given?
Harris: Two, and not until maybe my third or fourth day on set. It was a lot of homework when I wasn’t on set. I was also working on another profile at the same time, so it was more work for a different story, so it was a lot.
Is getting scripts normal for these stories?
Harris: Yea-ah. Yea-ah. I think, for the Gossip Girl story, I had seen the locked cuts for the first three episodes, and they gave me the script of the episode they were shooting that I was observing, so I read it when I got there. But with Succession, the timing was different, because they were still working on the show.
Seeing as you were on location, were you spending time with the cast and crew outside of these interviews?
Harris: It wasn’t like I was having these very intimate dinners with them. This is what I learned on the Gossip Girl set: Someone said, “you’ll see at the end of the day, at eight o’clock, everyone just vanishes” and that’s just how it is. At a certain point, after the work was done, people would just not be available to me, which I felt to be respectful and normal and fine.
Something I did think about and find was that it is difficult to interview someone at the end of the work day — like this. Someone isn’t always as concise, or maybe thoughtful as you would like them to be, but sometimes you also get more interesting observations that way, so it is based on logistics and whatever you can make happen.
Where were you doing the interviews?
Harris: For the bunch of interviews I did in one day, we were in a hotel lounge area talking. Another time, I went to the villa Kieran Culkin was staying in, and that was on location.
I thought interviewing while people are working was distracting for all of us, so I didn’t do so much of that. It’s also not so much “I have five questions for you right now, answer them in three minutes” and they come off set, go back on set, back into character.
But on the Gossip Girl story, because I was on set for only two days, then I was doing stuff in between doing stuff. The showrunner, Josh Safran, he told me this thing, “I have cocaine for blood,” because he likes to be overstimulated. We’d be talking, I’d ask him five questions, and then he’d be like, “hold on,” direct someone, direct an actor, tell someone they missed their mark, and then, “OK, give me three more questions,” answer those questions, afterward, look at the monitor, “Josh, is this OK?” “Yes, it’s OK.”
In between set-ups, I would be writing all these things to come back to — I would cross them out so I would know I had covered in some way. That was really a thinking-on-your-feet situation. This person is expecting more questions from me in 30 seconds, and where does this conversation need to go? What am I missing? What do I have?
What was very instructive to me in both these experiences is that I spent a lot of time while I was at New York magazine — it was only part of my job and something I enjoyed to do — doing party reporting. I mean, it’s kind of the training for any kind of journalism, really. If you’re at a red carpet, at a party, at some kind of event, and you get 30 seconds with Julianne Moore — it’s like, what is something interesting I can ask her that I’m going to be the only journalist on the red carpet who’s going to ask her this question? What is there she’s going to be surprised by? What can I get a good answer or response to? That’s 30 thoughts that go through your mind in like five seconds, for you to ask the question, get an interesting answer, and write it up pretty quickly. Years of doing that sort of reporting was a really good training ground to thinking on your feet and being adaptable, and also how to interview someone who’s doing a job, who’s literally working as they’re talking to you. Whereas other interviews, you get three hours over lunch in Park Avenue, or something like that, or something that’s a really ideal setting to open your heart to someone, right?
As your phone is being used to record, do you take notes by hand?
Harris: I always keep a list of questions on Notes app, so I can rearrange and group by theme. Usually the night before, the morning of, I’ll write them out in my notebook — I just find it easier to have questions written on paper than having to scroll through a phone, especially when the phone’s recording audio.
I always take notes by hand in my notebook. It’s usually on a different page to the one where I write all my questions out, just so I can flip back and forth, and make notes so it’s not getting too crowded on the page.
What things do you take notes about?
Harris: What they’re wearing, how they’re sitting, what they ordered, just a vibe that I’m feeling. If they say something a certain way — is it sarcastically said, if they sound exasperated when they say a certain thing — I’ll write that. Sometimes it is not a full quote, but a timestamp — if I’m looking at my recorder, and I see something at the 17:30 mark, I’ll make a note of that, so I know when to come back to it.
Also, if they mention something, like how Jeremy Strong [who plays Kendall Roy on Succession] told me a couple of book titles he had discussed with [Succession creator] Jesse Armstrong — I made a note of those in my notebook, so I wouldn’t have to go back to the transcription to find them, and when I’m talking to Jesse about them, I remember what the book title was and remember to ask about a conversation Strong had referenced their having.
Do you transcribe all your interviews?
Harris: No. I transcribed a lot of interviews as an intern — I really like it, but I also hate the sound of my own voice, and how I sound when I’m interviewing. It’s not that I hate the sound of my own voice, I’m just like, why did I phrase it that way? I also think interviews are inherently really awkward, or, at least, a lot of really good interviews are inherently awkward, so there’s a pause when you’re waiting for someone to think of something, or for them to change their mind, and I just don’t really like it. So I either find someone to transcribe for me — whom I pay obviously — or I use Rev, which I did for the Succession story because I was doubly, triply, quadruply really nervous about spoilers — so it’s not like someone else is going to listen to my interviews.
It’s a cost-benefit analysis: If it’s going to take me four days to transcribe this thing, that would be better for me writing it, not doing this work that can be done by someone else. Usually, I will ask for a transcription budget. Some places will be like, “our intern can do it,” or “you can send me the audio and I’ll send it to Rev myself,” or if I need it right away, I’ll send it to Rev myself and they reimburse me.
Did you have an outline when you were writing the story?
Harris: I did have an outline — I don’t usually. It was instructive in that it was me throwing out ideas — “I think this is really interesting, I think we should talk about this a lot” — and the editor being like, “maybe we should spend less time on the writers’ room, maybe you should spend more time with specific actors and setting the scene there more.” That’s something that came through on the outline — there wasn’t a lot of space to talk about the writers’ room process, which was something I was really interested in.
It was a real mind puzzle of what is the most interesting version of this. Whereas, for a straight profile of one person, the story does feel a bit clearer, as there aren’t as many directions for it to go because you’re basing it off a few conversations, not synthesizing 30 conversations in one piece, which I felt was very challenging to me as a writer (and something I hadn’t done before).
I knew from when Brian Cox [who plays Logan Roy] talked about being tired of filming in Italy, that I wanted the quote to be the end of the piece because I thought it was really funny. I was writing my way to that end.
Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.
Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Predict: What Happens Next?
The third season premieres on October 17th. Given how careful Hunter Harris was to not give away spoilers, we have nothing further to tell you, sorry. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:
Read: More on Succession
A profile of Jesse Armstrong, creator of Succession, in The New Yorker: “The Real C.E.O. of ‘Succession’,” August 23, 2021
An oral history of the making of the show, from conception through to now, in the Guardian: “‘Why Do I Want to Write About These Awful, Rich, Evil People?’: the Making of Succession,” October 2, 2021
While the Roys are based off a number of media families, reacquaint yourself with the Murdochs, whose lives seem to be reflected in the show, in this New York Times Magazine story: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World,” April 3, 2019
Meet: About the Author
Brian Ng is a writer from Aotearoa–New Zealand living in Paris.