[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Severance” Season 1, including the finale, Episode 9, “The We We Are.”]
From the moment Helly (Britt Lower) was born to the severed floor — sleeping on an oval office table, a speaker cable serving as her umbilical cord, about to come screaming into a frightening new world — “Severance” has used its acute visual palette to inform the mysterious story within. Created by Dan Erickson, the Apple TV+ series builds each piece of its narrative with extreme care. Everything from the Perpetuity Wing, where employees gaze upon wax statues of Lumon Industries’ CEOs, to the blue erasers, given out as incentives for a job well done, all of it has been considered, designed, and captured by a team of artists led by Erickson, as well as director and executive producer Ben Stiller.
But that attention to detail isn’t solely driven to inspire fan theories or hide Easter eggs. “Severance” is not a mystery box series — not really. At the core of its gripping first season are the people who work in Macro Data Refinement, one division of Lumon’s severed floor. Mark (Adam Scott), Helly, Irving (John Turturro), Dylan (Zach Cherry), and even Burt (Christopher Walken), who’s part of Optics and Design, are all tethered to Lumon Industries; they’ve all given up half of their lives in order to work there, and deducing why isn’t a simple game. Great empathy is shown in depicting the pain that drives Mark below ground every day, where he won’t have to think about the wife he lost.
That Season 1 ends on this very point proves how its careful construction is already paying off. Yes, we desperately want to know what happens next. Yes, there are plenty of questions left open for Season 2. But the excitement and fulfillment felt as the MDR team fights to unite their Innies and Outies illustrates the investment “Severance” has earned in their escape. More than answers, we just want Mark, Helly, Dylan, Irving, and Burt to be OK.
To help with that assurance over the long months ahead, IndieWire spoke to Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson about the meticulous design of “Severance,” the significance of the Outie’s winter world, intended and unintended connections between Stiller’s past projects, Season 2 planning, and one key cameo. Oh, and of course, waffle parties do come up.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
IndieWire: I wanted to start with a broad question and then try to narrow it down as we go. How did you establish the look of the Lumon office space?
Ben Stiller: Dan wrote this amazing script that was so evocative, and triggered all these images in my mind. What I loved about it was it reminded me of other shows and movies that I’d seen, but it also was very much its own tone. So I felt like the show had to have its own world. It became about: When was this office building built? How long has Lumon been around? I had a lot of questions Dan would answer, but it was really about finding this office building structure that he said was “a nondescript office building” — do you remember how you described it in the pilot?
Dan Erickson: Yeah. The building itself, the exterior, I think, was large but nondescript.
Stiller: It became about trying to figure out, “Well, how big a corporation is Lumon? How big a building would they have? Is this the only headquarters? Were there other branch offices?” — all that. But we just started looking, knowing we were shooting in New York. I’m in Westchester, and there are a lot of nondescript office parks with buildings with mirrored glass. And they’re just always so strange to look at, nestled in a hillside, especially in the winter with these dead trees around them.
We found the Bell Labs building in Holmdel, New Jersey, and that really informed everything because that was such an architectural gem. It turns out it had not been really used in any movies or television that I had ever seen, except in ad campaigns and commercials. But the actual details of that building and the mid-century architecture really ended up informing how we designed with Jeremy Hindle, our production designer. And then we extrapolated from that what would be the underground aspect of it.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Erickson: We wanted to create something that was of a piece between the writing and the design and everything, where it was all really working in symphony. We had a sense of the aesthetic, and we had a bunch of references — some of them real buildings, some of them interesting photography, some of them film or TV references — but the big question was always: Why? It’s not enough to just have this space that is strange for the sake of being strange.
What became really fun was that in designing the space, we had to get in the heads of these psychotic corporate overlords. So it’s like, “OK, we’re designing this giant, wide room with this tiny little cubicle island, but why? Why would the Lumon designers have done it that way? What psychologically are they trying to instill in the workers? Why is Helly waking up on a table as opposed to in a chair?” There were all sorts of questions like that, that we were just constantly asking each other throughout the process.
My colleague, Sarah Shachat, spoke to your D.P., Jessica Lee Gagné, and she mentioned one of the reference points was Lars Tunbjörk’s photography book, “The Office,” which served as an inspiration for the Lumen aesthetic. I can see some certain similarities.
Stiller: It’s so funny you say that because I literally have that book on my desk right now. I’m working with Jessica on a movie, and she told me I stole this copy of her book. I have to give it back to her.
He’s an amazing photographer, and there are other photographers, like Lynne Cohen [that inspired us]. The idea of this drabness of the office, yet finding some sort of beauty in that, I think was really important. Jeremy Hindle was a huge part of that. He made an amazing look-book with references of lots of different imagery, trying to not settle in on a specific timeframe in terms of when this show was happening. The rules Dan set forth in the script were guiding everything in that, “OK, there’s a justification for why there’s no digital technology down there even if digital technology exists” — because they wanted to keep the people on the severed floor cut off from the world.
It was all there in the logic of what Dan had created; in this idea of a severed floor and how they would control people down there. Then it was just getting together with Jeremy and Jessica, and kind of going, “OK, well, aesthetically, what can we do that really feels appealing and interesting within a very bland interior?” We knew that a bulk of the show was going to have to take place in the MDR room, and that was both exciting and also a little bit scary because it was like, “All right, we’re just going to be in this room with white walls and this weird cubicle in the middle.” I love the idea that Dan had written that everybody was at a cubicle in the center of the room. Jeremy proposed this idea of a large room with a lower ceiling that felt very oppressive.
Right, it would have been pretty straightforward to create an ugly, boring office space — those are everywhere — but you’re making a TV show, so you have to make it visually appealing. The cubicle design is really brilliant.
Erickson: Having the walls that can be raised or lowered was also, I believe, Jeremy’s idea. It was just an absolute stroke of genius because there’s so much choreography that you can do with that. The dance of the rising walls.
Stiller: And that came out of a practical concern: How are we going to shoot scenes between everybody with these high cubicle walls? So Jeremy said, “Well, we could raise and lower them.” And then for me that became the key to almost every scene. We had the ability to go, “OK, this scene they’re going to be completely down,” or “This scene they’re going to be half up,” or “This scene, Irving’s is going to be up and Dylan’s is going to be halfway down.” But we could literally block the scene out according to what we needed and then decide where we wanted the cubicle dividers to be, which did make a huge difference.
The other thing was that it was a completely working set. At each workstation, the actors could actually refine numbers. They could gather numbers and drag them and bend them. I think it really made a difference to the actors. When you have John Turturro and he has the ability to raise and lower Irving’s divider, that wasn’t written in, or directed, or anything. It was just sort of John finding his Irving in the way that he would work his divider.
Erickson: –to that point it was so funny to watch. As the season progressed, each of the actors, as their character, sort of developed their own refining style that if you were watching over time you could see. “Well, OK, Irving is a little bit more cautious with it, and Dylan really goes for it.” He’s grabbing a big cluster of numbers and pulling them in kind of willy-nilly. It was this really weird, subtle thing that informed the characters.
Moving outside the Lumon offices, the winter weather really played a part in distinguishing Mark’s personal life, without feeling too foreign or distanced from his professional one. What was important to you about that side of things?
Erickson: That was a big challenge: How do you make this feel like one show? How do you make it feel all of a piece? I had always thought about it in a winter setting — a cold, empty looking world. At least for this first season, it gives the sense of Mark and his psychology. He’s very alone. He’s not in a vibrant, alive world right now. He’s kind of in this winter time of his life, for lack of a better term.
Stiller: The reality is the show was delayed so much because of COVID. It was going to be winter, and then we got delayed the first time, and then all of a sudden it was not going to be winter, which I think would’ve been a really big mistake. But then COVID delayed us again and we caught winter. [Shooting began in January 2021.]
In terms of the world, there was this question I thought about: We’re going from the cold world of inside the office, which is different, but it’s still not emotionally that warm, to then the outside which is also very cold. So there’s a version of the show where the outside would be very different than the inside, but in a way they’re both very stark environments. It was important to commit to that for us because I’d say the outside world needed to be generic, almost as if was less inviting for Mark. It couldn’t have been a place that was more inviting, I think. So we really wanted to maintain that throughout the show. We all were aware of wanting to create something on the outside that was as distinct as it was on the inside.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Ben, it struck me that your last two projects, “Severance” and “Escape at Dannemora,” are escape stories. And in both shows, you shoot each space to create a sense that they’re trapped — like they’re stuck in a corner of the frame and almost have to fight to get out. I was just curious if you thought of each project in any similar ways, or if there were techniques that you brought from one to the next.
Stiller: Well, to really be honest with you, because I’m so dense I did not think about it that much until about.. I swear to God, until about a year into making the show. I think we were six or eight months into shooting, and we’re in the hallways, and I’m like, “Oh God, this is reminding me… oh my God, this is like a prison story!” I swear to God, it took me that long to really figure it out because, in my mind, I was always thinking of “Severance” as being so different than “Dannemora” just aesthetically, and in terms of the ideas of the show, but the storyline definitely does become an escape story.
I did start to think about it when we were shooting these scenes where they’re planning and talking about getting out, and even in the last episode where everything is very connected, and moving, and very different stylistically than the rest of the show, because they’re sort of moving through this. It’s almost like it’s a drug trip for them because they’re out in the world, but there was a tension that I did relate to one of the episodes that we did in “Dannemora” which was the episode before they escaped the last day.
So there were [similarities], but it wasn’t something that really hit me until much later in the process. I guess that’s also because you don’t usually analyze why you want to do something. Or when you’re making something, you just respond to your gut feeling about it, and for me there were so many different ideas happening in “Severance” beyond the escape aspect of it, which developed over the course of the series. That was not what I was initially drawn to, but it does make a lot of sense. So I guess subconsciously, I was in the same place.
The human element is really interesting; to watch when human beings are in a position where they’re forced to do something, and how human beings react. Human beings in artificial situations — like prison or being on the severed floor — are still going to be human. Exploring those elements of being a person are really interesting, I think.
I read that Adam Scott came to mind for the role right away, but you two last worked together in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” where he’s the opposite character: a total jerk who mercilessly wields the power given to him by a big company. What did you see in Adam then that made you think he was right for Mark now?
Stiller: I’d say that as an actor, we sometimes get put into roles that people have seen us [play before]. Adam’s really good at playing that kind of role [from “Walter Mitty”]. But in my mind, what I love about him as an actor is that he’s so insightful. He understands how this culture works, and he’s also a very deep person and has a desire to do different things as an actor, which I really can identify with. So I was like “Yeah, this is perfect. Let’s let people see Adam in this role.” It was an opportunity for him to bring so many different aspects of what he does so well to something [new]. It was really clear to me that he was really right for the role.
Erickson: It’s so, so funny to me that Adam plays such a brilliant douchebag in various things, because he’s the nicest man in the world. He’s so kind and professional. But yeah, I think it just comes down to his sensitivity, and this is a role that let him play with the dark side of it. He was always very adamant that we not paint Mark into too sympathetic of a light, where we understand this guy but at the same time we’re watching him make these bad decisions and alienate people. I was so excited having seen him in stuff like ‘The Vicious Kind” and other darker roles. I was so excited to just let him loose on this story.
A couple of quick questions: When Helly completes her refinement in the eighth episode, and there’s the animated video of Kier Eagan flying around and talking to her, Ben, is that you doing the voice?
Stiller: [laughs] Yes! It is. And the reason I did it, when we were editing, I just recorded it as a [temporary track]. And then I think Dan and everyone were all like, “OK, maybe we should just keep it in there.” But the idea is it’s an act. It’s obviously not Marc Geller who plays Kier Eagan — you know, the real Kier Eagan, when we hear his recorded voice in Episode 3, in the Perpetuity Wing. So the thought was, “Oh, they’ve hired an actor to do this for when they refine a file.” So it was like, OK, it could be an actor — not necessarily me, but it could be an actor. It shouldn’t be the actual Kier Eagan. That was the justification for it.
Erickson: This isn’t canon, but I like to think it is Ben. I like to think that in the universe they hired Ben.
Leading up to that episode, the “waffle party” is teased a lot — and pays off huge. Is there anything you want to say about how you came up with what the waffle party actually is? Your thinking or inspirations?
Erickson: The idea sort of came out as we were developing it. We were like, “OK, but we’re not actually going to do that, right?” We didn’t want to do something that was shocking or strange just for its own sake, but we talked about how all aspects of humanity are commodified and incentivized in this world — from coffee creamer to, it turns out, sex. We’re in this world where Irving and Burt are told that they’re not supposed to be drawn to each other or form a relationship. To me, it was about Lumen taking ownership over the idea of sex. It’s the ultimate perk. It’s the ultimate finger-trap, for lack of a better word. So it ultimately made sense that that would be the ultimate thing Lumen would be dangling in front of people.
Stiller: I think I was the one probably lobbying Dan the most to do it. I kept on saying, “Hashtag Waffle Party, Hashtag Waffle Party!” — because, come on: you can’t not have it.
Atsushi Nishijima / Apple TV+
Is there anything you can say about the status of Season 2? [Shortly after this interview took place, Apple TV+ renewed “Severance” for Season 2.]
Stiller: Season 2 is looking good, and I am on my way — Dan and I, and the other writers — we’re all going to talk about ideas right now, as we speak. Right? Right Dan?
Erickson: Yeah! That’s why I’m in New York.
Stiller: Yeah. So, in process.
After that ending in Episode 9, new episodes can’t come soon enough.
Stiller: People are into the show, which is great. It seems there’s people who are really into it, and we feel responsibility to that — to not have the show be continual unanswered questions.
Stiller: That balance is what we have been trying to look at within the show. I hope that within the first season, there are little mini answers to certain questions that are posed during the season. You’ve seen the whole season, so you know not all the big answers are answered. And there is the cliffhanger at the end of the first season, but I feel like we have a responsibility to the fans in that way.
Erickson: It turns out it’s easier to ask interesting questions than answer them, but exactly to Ben’s point, it’s so exciting and we’re so grateful that people are engaging with the show to this degree and asking these really detailed questions about the world and becoming excited about it. So to us, that’s a responsibility. We want to make sure we’re telling a story that’s satisfying and propulsive and interesting.
“Severance” Season 1 is available to stream on Apple TV+. Season 2 has been ordered.