‘Succession’ Behind the Scenes: How a Jesuit church (and priest) were cast for a pivotal episode
The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola is located in the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. It is not at all unusual in this section of New York City to encounter television and movie film crews whose caravan of vans occupy the most sought-after commodity in Manhattan, parking spaces. For some, the inconvenience is tolerated, if only to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or to have bragging rights that an episode of a popular TV series or movie was filmed in the neighborhood. But most people around here do not even take notice that anything out of the ordinary is happening at their doorstep.
Because of our prominent location and the classical façade and interior beauty of St. Ignatius, production companies regularly contact us to request filming inside the church. We also receive frequent inquiries about the use of Wallace Hall, a function space below the church, as a holding area for crew and actors when they are filming elsewhere in the neighborhood. Film and TV companies are willing to pay a generous amount for such uses.
As a pastor responsible for the financial condition of the parish, my eye is always on the bottom line. Rental income is an important revenue source for an operating budget. It can make the difference between breaking even at the end of a fiscal year and using red ink in the bottom line. The temptation to allow filming inside the church is considerable. However, other factors come into play before a decision can be made.
Because of its beauty and location, our church regularly receives filming requests.
There are understandably stringent guidelines in the Archdiocese of New York for a pastor to consider when deciding whether to allow filming on church property. The first is that subject matter being filmed is not scandalous or a source of embarrassment for the church, or that it puts the church in a bad light. The decision about filming is at the discretion of the pastor. Questionable cases are brought to the attention of archdiocesan officials.
I considered these factors when approached by the HBO production company looking for a church to film a scene with a funeral Mass. No mention was made that they were from “Succession.” Even if it were, it would have made no impression on me. At that time, I had not watched any episode of the show. (If you have not seen it, “Succession,” starring Brian Cox, is essentially a fictional version of the Murdochs.) When the film crew arrived on site to begin filming, the buzz was already around the parish house that the show being filmed was “Succession.”
At the end of the first day of filming, I went into the church to make certain everything was in proper order. My eyes were immediately drawn to two out-of-the-ordinary features. There were four floating balloons, the size of small dirigibles, that were placed high above the pews and provided lighting for several hours of filming. Then I looked at the sanctuary of the church. Whereas the floating balloon lights were unobtrusive, the floral arrangements in the sanctuary were a sight to behold. They were morbid red and more fitting for the Victorian era. They were certainly not typical of the aesthetic we are accustomed to at St. Ignatius. Plus, the flowers were artificial.
Guidelines for filming on church property include that the subject matter not be scandalous nor an embarrassment to the church.
I met the next day with two of the assistant directors who wanted to check in on whether I had any questions about their use of the church. I expressed my concerns regarding the flowers that were flooding the altar. I also mentioned that the extras who would be acting as priests concelebrating the Mass were dressed in the oddest assortment of vestments, some of which would be unrecognizable to Catholics and most of which were ill-fitting. The assistant directors were gracious in listening to my comments and said that they would bring them to the attention of the show’s director.
The following day I was asked if I would meet with the episode’s director, Mark Mylod, who wanted to have a better understanding of the order of a funeral Mass. During our meeting he agreed to change the vestments of the priests to make them more uniform. They could not do anything about the flowers however as those scenes had already been shot. At the end of our conversation, Mr. Mylod asked me if I would be interested in taking the role of the cardinal celebrating the funeral. He said that even though he had three actors in mind to play the role, the complexity of the liturgy would be a better fit for someone who has actually presided at funeral Masses.
Given the complexity of the liturgy, the role of the cardinal would be a better fit for someone who has actually presided at funeral Masses.
Thus began my rapid succession from consultant to actor without the need of any screen test. I was flattered. I told him I would give it some thought, and before he left the meeting I signed on.
My first day on set was at Woodlawn Cemetery, where the character I played, the cardinal archbishop of New York, presided at the committal service. A private driver took me from the parish house on Park Avenue to the set in the Bronx where I was greeted by my personal makeup artist, my personal wardrobe assistant and my personal props person.
I must admit, except for the damp and cold weather of January and being outside wearing no overcoat, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There were multiple takes of the same scene and a good deal of idle time until the cameras were ready to roll. During the breaks I had the opportunity to talk with many of the film crew and a few of the main characters—all but one who remained “in character” even when the cameras were not rolling. Guess who that was? Hint: He may or may not have been alive.
Thus began my rapid succession from consultant to actor without the need of any screen test.
For three additional days, multiple takes of the funeral were filmed in the church where 600 extras filled the pews, many of whom came up to me during the breaks and identified themselves as actual parishioners of mine. Everyone, including the crew, was required to take a Covid test before going on set. Periodically throughout the day random tests were also taken. My last day of filming was equally as enjoyable and interesting as my first day, even if my lines, or the entire scenes I was in, end up on the cutting-room floor. (As of this writing, I have not seen the episode yet.)
After the production company packed its gear on the final day of the shoot, I thought I should at least watch an episode of “Succession.” After viewing it, I asked myself whether I made the right decision to allow the filming inside the church. The dialogue itself is undeniably coarse and vulgar. Is a Catholic church an appropriate location to film the story of a dysfunctional family whose unfiltered conduct is ruthless and whose grasp of morality is tenuous at best? Perhaps it is not, if only seen through those lenses.
Now having viewed all the episodes of four seasons of “Succession,” I see a family tortured by a lack of self-esteem, including Logan, the Rupert Murdoch figure played by Brian Cox. He is struggling to find value and esteem in what he does, not in who he is. His crippling addiction infected the lives of the children he strangely loves but cannot allow himself to admit. The entire cast of characters in “Succession”is entangled in a web of lies and deception, and I believe there is an aching cry for something greater than what they believe they are achieving.
In simple terms, Logan’s children are hungry to be affirmed in who they are, warts and all. They thirst for a love that would bring them peace. What better location to bring the story of a family that is desperate to resolve the mess they find themselves in than the church? I know I made the right decision in opening the doors of the church for the filming of an inflection moment in the storyline of“Succession.” Where else can one look for redemption?
[Read next: “Death Comes for the Archvillain on ‘Succession’”]