Before jumping into the world of film and television, Cathy Yan worked as a reported for outlets such as Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, working in cities such as New York, Hong Kong and Beijing. Yan attended NYU, where she received a simultaneous MBA / MFA in film production. Not long after, Yan moved into the world of film.
Yan has directed two feature films: the comedy-drama Dead Pigs, inspired by the Huangpu River dead pigs incident, and Birds of Prey, the comic-book adaptation of a Harley Quinn story based on the same name, with Yan becoming the first Asian woman to direct a DC film. This year, Yan will be found at the Emmys on September 12, where she is nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for a season three episode of HBO’s hit drama Succession. Her episode of the series tackles the familial strife being caused by Kendall’s shocking final moments in season two, ending with an FBI raid at Waystar Royco.
I recently sat down with Yan where we discussed the difference between working on feature films and television episodes, the preparation she underwent to get ready for the episode, and the most tense moments of the episode.
Tyler Doster: How were you brought on to the show?
Cathy Yan: I put my hand up. I just told my agents that I was a huge fan of the show, and I live in New York. So if they happen to ever need a director to let me know. And then I spoke to Mark, I spoke to Mark Mylod. I spoke to Jesse Armstrong, and I just felt like a really good fit in the way they shoot, the style. What they think is important, all of it really fit so well with what I love about basically what I do. So it just worked out really well.
TD: Coming off of feature films, what was the difference in doing a television episode?
CY: It was interesting because you feel definitely more like you’re a substitute teacher in a way. And with features, everything takes so long and you could be working easily on a film for a year. And so I was actually looking forward to the experience of coming onto something that I was a big fan of and getting to learn a lot about how it works. And then not being tortured by it. In a way, I think when you’re the director of a feature, everything falls on your shoulders, and you really feel that pressure, and you’re holding up a lot of that weight by yourself, and television is so collaborative and it was really great to have like Jesse Armstrong at the helm of that and just seeing it through. Plus it was season three, so it was really a well-oiled machine by the time I came on.
TD: So what was your prep like to get ready to tell episode three, “The Disruption”?
CY: Well, it was kind of a crazy prep because we were at the height of COVID. A lot of it was digital. We still had to location scout. I also had a lot of locations on my episode. And so it was fun to pick a new apartment for Kendall, for example, and do some of that. I think because of COVID and also just like the grueling shoot schedule of television, I didn’t get as much time with the actors that I would on a feature film.
And so you really have to just trust that the actors, they already know their characters so well. They know how each other works, and you, as the director, sort of have to like seamlessly plug yourself into the system or into this well-oiled machine. And so you don’t get as much prep as I’m used to, certainly, on a feature, but because it was a show that was so well run and everyone already knew exactly what they were doing. It was kind of a pleasure and a cheat, almost, to just plug in there.
TD: Going back to what you mentioned a second ago, what were those early conversations with Jesse and Mark like?
CY: Well, Jesse was fascinated because I come from journalism, and I actually worked at News Corp. And so I think he was kind of interested in my experience there. I think that’s what I love about the show. I mean, they really try to get everything super accurate, even though it’s not based on anyone in particular, it’s based on a lot of people in particular and they really want to get that right. And I really appreciate that. I’m someone like that. That’s the same way. My first film, Dead Pigs, was very much inspired by a lot of news stories coming out of China. And so I liked the way they work, and I was very impressed by the rigor in which Jesse tried to make sure that all the details in the world at large were accurate.
And so that’s kind of what we talked about actually was the journalism world, that the news world, the media world, and that kind of world in particular that is so accurately conveyed in the world of the show.
TD: Your episode features the now-very-famous “Good Tweet, Bad Tweet” game. What was it like filming that scene, in particular, to get the tone right? Because it’s the whole episode. You’re walking this very fine line with Kendall.
CY: I think this whole show does that, right? It’s one moment it’s laugh out loud funny. The other moment it’s so painful or then it becomes awkward. And that’s what I love to explore in my own work as well. And in this, it was really about, I think, one, keeping the energy up in that particular scene, because I think it’s so, you know, especially when you’re shooting television and you’re shooting so much all the time, so much material, like how do you just kind of keep it alive and not stale?
And I think the way that the show likes to shoot, which is a way that I also like to shoot, which is kind of more shooting the entire scene out, capturing little moments, doing a lot of improv… It really allows it to feel alive. And so on this particular scene, because everyone’s cramped into a real limo, it was like playing the music really loudly and then making sure that like almost on every take, feeding new tweets to people. Nicholas Braun is such a good improver. And so he was like coming up with ridiculous tweets on the spot. It really allows people to react genuinely and authentically as opposed to, oh, here we go again with the exact same script and we’re just getting coverage. That’s really just not the way that the show is shot. And it’s not the way that I like to shoot any of my features as well. And so again, it was a really good match, but I think you can hopefully see that it just stays very alive. And that the moments that are funny are genuinely funny, and those reactions are genuinely what they are.
TD: So since you had these extra takes of more tweets, how did you end up picking the ones that you did?
CY: It was brutal. I would have advocated endless tweets. Yeah, you just kind of have to see what works, what feels right. We stuck to the script for the most part, but there was like just some gems that just didn’t make it in. And, and there’s always a whole list of other alt funny lines that the writers prep as well. So it’s just a joy. It’s so fun to see, to play around with that.
TD: What were your hopes for the tone that was trying to be set with the first scene with the journalist?
CY: That’s a good question. I think it’s Kendall trying, really embracing. I think the first few episodes, and in my episode in particular, is Kendall really embracing this new identity as this representative of all things good in the world. Really flipping on that. And I think he really wanted to feel like he was being heard in that way, but not being necessarily self-aware enough to realize how he was actually sounding.
And so I think that was really the point of the scene, as opposed to any of the material pieces of information that you were going to get. And you really got to see Kendall in that light, and as an objective viewer of it and not him, there was always that dissonance between how he thinks he’s sounding and what he really sounds like.
TD: So this episode also features Ziwe as Sophie Iwobi, who tears into Kendall on her show, “The Disruption,” which is where the episode title comes from. How was it working with Ziwe on these pivotal scenes in the episode?
CY: Oh, it was so fun. I mean, she had just… We shot before her show came out on Showtime, but I knew of her, had followed her on Instagram, and she just brought such fresh energy and it was nice to see. It was funny. I remember like we were putting her costumes together and shooting some of the posters that you see behind, like in the hallway and whatnot, and they were so colorful and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is like the most color you’ve seen on Succession.”
And so it was nice. It was fun to bring that youthful kind of alternative energy into the show. I think we all wanted that. And she so encapsulates that in every way, and her own show is so provocative and her own identity was just perfect. And so, I think the original idea behind that character was a bit more like Samantha Bee-like, someone we’ve seen more like a female sort of political talk show host. And it was really nice that Ziwe came around, and I think we all knew immediately, she’s going to bring something different to it.
TD: Th scene at the benefit between Kendall and Shiv, when they’re at each other’s throats. How was filming that? What were those conversations like with Sarah and Jeremy getting ready for the scene and what was the prep like for that scene?
CY: Yeah, I mean, I think it was a really important scene because we wanted to make sure that… So much of the episode is the tension between these two, and they really kind of break up there. Right. And there’s no turning back and they flip, they literally flip. They both kind of represent what they believe and how they believe change can be enacted, within Waystar, in a way. But for me, the essential line is Ken going, “It’s you now.” And the way that it’s taken on Shiv kind of leads us to the rest of the episode and everything that they do to each other. And so I think we played it very seriously. I think it had to be serious. I think it was a real moment of intimacy between them.
And I know we talked about that and I think there’s a lot of history that these characters have as siblings that is their backstory that has been hinted at brilliantly throughout the show. But really you have to get down to the fact that this is your brother, this is the person that you’ve known since you were born. Who’s probably taken care of you and who you’ve probably even seen as the person most likely to inherit the company, right? So it’s I think kind of reminding them of their shared history in a real way so that the emotionality of those scenes can really hit.
TD: During Shiv’s speech, “Rape Me” by Nirvana starts playing. Was that part of the script, that specific song, or how involved were you with picking the song?
CY: Yeah, I think originally it was a different song, and we were all just discussing what song it was. The first original version of it was a little too light. I think it didn’t have the subversiveness that “Rape Me” does. And I don’t remember… I cannot take credit for… It wasn’t me. It was one of the writers, but I forget who that came up with “Rape Me,” but as soon as I heard it, as soon as it was told to me that’s what they were considering, I immediately jumped on board and was like it can’t be anything else. And I made sure of that because I played it over and over and over again in the scene, too.
TD: How was putting that last scene together? It’s a very tense ending to the episode as the FBI raids Waystar.
CY: Yeah. I mean, I feel like it’s a really beautiful, operatic, sad, tragic moment for the family, and it’s designed like a montage, where you’re really checking in with all our different characters. And so I wanted to make sure that it felt as a whole and not like all these disparate pieces. I knew that we were going to use music in a really operatic way, which is already the music. So classical in order to stitch it all together. And we were really trying to make sure that the camera vocabulary was all the same. So it was a total break from, I guess, the typical Succession style. And I used it sort of deliberately in moments throughout the episode, but it was a total break from the sort of more chaotic, frenzied, handheld energy. So we really used a lot of dolly. We use crane, we pushed in and pulled out and used these very smooth classical camera movements because it really did have to feel like an opera.
TD: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today, Cathy. Congrats again on your Emmy nomination.
CY: Thanks again. I so appreciate it.
Cathy Yan is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for the episode “The Disruption” of Succession, which is currently available to stream on HBO Max.