Severance director and executive producer Ben Stiller knew he had something special with Dan Erickson’s pilot script about five years ago. Initially, he signed on only to direct the pilot, but the material kept pulling him in, to the point where he directed six of the nine episodes of Apple TV+’s sci-fi series, which has now scored 14 Emmy nominations.
The show stars Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Christopher Walken and Patricia Arquette and follows employees at Lumon Industries who agree to a “severance procedure” to separate their work lives from their personal lives. “I read it and I thought it was just so unique in terms of its tone, and it just jumped off the page to me,” says Stiller.
The director talks to THR about what drew him to the project, why he wanted Adam Scott to play the lead character and the meaning behind certain decisions in the show’s haunting production design.
How did you first get involved with the project, and what drew you to it?
It came into our company [Red Hour Productions] a long time ago as a writing sample from Dan Erickson. In my mind, it seemed funny and interesting and weird, but it was based in this comedic structure of this office workplace comedy. That’s what I really responded to, and then Dan and I met and we got it set up at Apple. At that time, Apple wasn’t even really a thing yet. It was a long process of them working on ideas for the season. And I reached out to Adam Scott right away, but it took about three years to put together.
What did you see in Adam Scott that convinced you he would be your Mark?
Sometimes, it just comes to you when you’re reading something. Maybe it was because of this office workplace thing that I was thinking about, and I worked with Adam on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a while back, and I’d really been a fan of his for a long time. Something about it just jumped out at me that this is taking this workplace situation, but this character is living his life and not really thinking about what it is that’s going on around him in his innie world, and then on the outside, [he has] so much more baggage in his life going on. I thought it would really be interesting to see Adam do that, because I felt like we’ve seen him a lot in these comedies and he’s really amazing at that, but I also knew he was a really great dramatic actor, too, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Later, when I talked to Dan about it, he told me that Adam was someone he had thought about from the beginning, too.
Was there one specific character that was harder to figure out?
The rest of the characters were all these interesting archetypes, in terms of the office and workplace culture. I love the show The Office, and it was hard not to think, “Oh, [Dylan] relates a little bit to Dwight in a way.” I’d seen Zach [Cherry] in Succession and some other stuff, and I just thought he was so funny and unique. For Irving, Rachel Tenner, our casting director, one of the first people she suggested was John Turturro. His character goes through the biggest change because his world is shattered, his faith is shattered, in the cult of what it is to be working at Lumon and the religion of it. And so he just added a whole other level of grounding to it and intensity underneath the softness that Irving has, also.
Patricia [Arquette] and I worked together before, on Escape at Dannemora, and I’m just such a fan of hers and I thought this would be an interesting one for her. I just liked the idea that it was a totally different character from what she played in our show. And also in The Act — there’s a real sharpness, and also it’s hard to really see what’s going on behind her eyes. She has so much going on and she can do very little and be so fascinating and so intimidating. She was one of the first people I thought of also.
What were some things in the production design that were important for you? I know that you had the actors train on old computers so they could get the feel for that.
On their workstations, we just wanted to make sure that they actually worked so that when they’re doing this refining and getting a bunch of numbers and dragging them down into bins, they can actually do it. Everybody started to do it on their own, and it really helped, I think, just because they were actually doing real things while we were shooting these scenes. In terms of the production design, it was just knowing that we were going to be creating a world that we’re going to spend a lot of time in and which had to be bland but at the same time interesting in some way. It was things like, “What shade of white is it and what kind of texture do the walls have?” Or “What kind of finishes do we have for the vents?” The one thing that we really wanted to do is route the show in some sort of a grounded reality so it didn’t feel too science fiction-y. We didn’t want to make it feel like it was some other world, but yet it had to have an interesting feeling to it. So we always made sure that you could see outlets in the wall and things like that to plug stuff in — things that were a little retro and very analog.
And the hallways …
We had a lot of hallways. The fun thing about the set that Jeremy [Hindle] designed is that it’s all connected. Actually, the very first shot of Adam, when he comes downstairs for the first time, is just us tracking him through our entire set. And that was really fun to be able to have that maze to work in, and then figure out ways to reorder it so that we could use it and reuse it. [We’d take] a wall down so you can go in and out and then put the wall back up, so sometimes it was hard to find a way out. Six or seven months in, everybody was like, “When do we get to go outside?” We cherished the times we got to go on vacation. Also, the idea of the ceiling being super low. It’s very off-putting when the ceiling is that low in such a wide room.
Why do you think the show resonated with so many people?
It’s interesting because [things] changed in terms of availability and this melding now of when people are around to work — even the Way we made the show, because we edited it completely remotely. Geoff [Richman] and I would edit for six hours, both at our homes, and then he’d say, “I’ve got to put my kids to bed, but I’m available from 9 to 10:30 if you want to do some more work,” and we got really used to it. We didn’t know how people would react because [the show] actually is so much about going from to a 9-to-5 job, going to the office and then leaving, and leaving that [work] behind. We were never obviously contemplating the environment that we’d be in when the show came out. Who would’ve known that there was going to be a pandemic or, as we were going into making the show during it, not knowing how people would respond to a workplace show. I don’t know why people have responded that way other than the idea of just severing from your own identity, or severing from your memories or being able to cut off from painful experiences, whether it’s a job you don’t love, that fantasy idea of, “Oh, if I didn’t have to spend eight or nine hours a day doing something I really don’t like.” Ultimately, I think the show is about a person who’s dealing with their own identity and their own grief over the loss of his wife, and I think that’s something that we all can connect with. That, to me, is the core of what the show is, as much as the workplace situation.
Did you always know that there would be multiple seasons?
I always hoped it would be, and we designed the first season really with no other choice. To end the first season that way and not come back would have been frustrating for fans of the show. And I think Apple, to their credit, never really questioned it. Everyone was like, “If it works, it needs to work for multiple seasons.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.