“What is it we actually do here?” That’s a question posed by Adam Scott’s Macro Data Refinement department head Mark Scout in the new Apple TV Plus series “Severance,” a show about Lumon Industries, a mysterious company whose employees, like Mark, have undergone a surgical severance procedure that gives them a very literal “work-life balance.” It’s also a question that series creator Dan Erickson, director Ben Stiller and stars Scott, Patricia Arquette and Tramell Tillman found themselves asking a lot during the making of “Severance.”
“The jumping off point is so fascinating, and there are so many interesting questions set up by it,” said Stiller, whose Red Hour Productions picked up the script from Erickson and brought it to Apple. “It was a question of, where should we go tonally with the show? Because we didn’t want it to go to a familiar place, necessarily.”
Stiller went on to say that “because the tone was so unique,” and had a “strange humor about it,” the creative team really wanted to establish the “rules” of “Severance’s” world and “that’s what a lot of the time was spent doing.”
“Severance” showrunner Erickson first got the idea to create this world while he was working a stereotypical 9-to-5 job that had him wishing he could block out that part of his day entirely.
“I worked a string of office jobs when I first got to L.A., and one in particular was in this weird little windowless office,” Erickson told Variety. “And I would be doing these sort of weird, seemingly meaningless, repetitive tasks all day long and it was just mind-numbing. And I caught myself one day walking in thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could just totally not experience the next eight hours. I wish I could disassociate and just have it be 5 and suddenly I’m going home.’
“And it occurred to me that that’s kind of a messed up thing to catch yourself wishing for, considering we have limited, precious time on this Earth, and here I was wishing I could give some of it back,” he continued. “It really was born of my own corporate misery.”
Stiller found Erickson’s story to be “reminiscent of certain workplace, office comedies, but then it also had this other strange, dark undertone to it, too.” The vibe made him think of one perfect candidate for the job, and it just so happened it was the same man Erickson wanted to hire: Adam Scott.
“I had severed them and implanted that into their brains!” said the “Parks and Recreation” and “Party Down” alum with a laugh. And if anyone knows about what severing does to a person, beyond making great casting ideas appear in their head from out of nowhere, it’s Scott, who plays “Severance’s” central severed character. It’s key here to Scott and Co. that you do believe that he is only playing one role — Lumon employee Mark Scout — though he has a literal split personality.
“It was really important to all of us that it not be like two different characters, that it’s definitely two halves of one guy and that it feel that way,” Scott said. “It’s just that one half of Mark, who lives in the outside world, has 40-odd years of life experience and is grieving his wife and has a lot going on. And then the inside version of Mark is unaware of all of that and and, for all intents and purposes, is two and a half years old.”
The parts of Mark that Scott is describing here are known as his “Innie” and his “Outie,” the cutesy terms Lumon uses to make the whole severed thing seem more like a clean split that gives someone a good work-life balance and less like a prison sentence for the employee’s work self. Mark is just one of several Lumon staffers who have these double lives, including Irving (John Turturro), Helly (Britt Lower), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) and Burt (Christopher Walken).
“Physiologically, he’s carrying in all of these emotions and feelings and stuff, he just doesn’t know what they are or how to identify or name them,” Scott said. “So it was a constant game of addition and subtraction as far as those two halves go, and depending on where we were in the story and what was happening on the outside and how that affected the inside and vice versa. And we were shooting the whole season at once and just jumping around. So it was always a math problem for Ben and Dan and I to always figure out where we were. A really fun math problem.”
At Lumon, no one but the un-severed management — like Arquette’s Harmony Cobel and Tillman’s Milchick — knows what Mark and his colleagues on the Macro Data Refinement team, or anyone else on the severed floor, do exactly. And even they might not even know the whole story, as a mysterious board of directors above them is calling all the shots. Similar to their on-screen counterparts’ allegiance in the company line, Arquette and Tillman put their trust in Erickson and Stiller to actually piece together the complex world of “Severance” that had been laid out for them.
“Honestly, the hardest thing for me to understand was, what was the tone? And it was a real exercise of faith of Ben’s vision that he understood what the tone [created by Erickson] was,” Arquette said in an interview with Variety. Arquette says “there was so much structure” in the fictional company, but also within the making of the show itself, in terms of “the composition of the shots, in the wardrobe,” which helped establish “the behind-the-scenes working of this corporation and all the years we’ve been in it and how it had informed how we communicate with people.”
Tramell says that when he first read the script he “had no idea what was going on.”
“I was introduced to Milchick and the tagline was ‘enthusiastic company man.’ And you can take that in a myriad of different ways,” Tramell said. “So I took it on as a great challenge, a great actor challenge, to be able to find a way to breathe life into this very mysterious guy. And Ben and Dan were really instrumental and made themself available so that I can sit and talk with them and have a rap session and build this back story of who this guy is and, ultimately, what Lumon is and how he fits into that narrative.”
A good portion of the “Severance” story and the mystery of Lumon is driven for viewers by the filming location that Stiller and Erickson chose for the show: The Bell Labs Holmdel Complex in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, which for decades was a research and development facility first for the Bell System and later Bell Labs.
“It was all sort of dictated by what this company was, and what the history of the company was, and what they were doing, what they actually were doing, how long they’ve been doing this process,” Stiller said. “So we had to get into that history with Dan. And then figuring out what the actual building was, where Lumon was housed, it was sort of written as this nondescript office building in an office park. And as we talked about it more, we got into the actual elements of how long it had been there and when it had been built.”
That’s when they found the Bell Labs building, which was designed by Eero Saarinen in the late ’50s.
“It had such a unique architecture and this beautiful, incredible scale,” Stiller said. “And the idea was that this is a huge, multinational corporation, it made sense that this could be their headquarters and that below it could be where they keep the severed workers. And so the design of the severed floor really came out of finding that location first. And this sort of mid-century architecture, that also would make sense that down below, for the severed people, they never see the outside world, so the company wouldn’t necessarily have to renovate or upgrade or update or change, because these people are never really seeing what’s going on in the outside world.”
Mark, Helly, Dylan and Irving do their macro data refining — don’t ask what that means, “Severance” doesn’t want you to know yet — on some very old-school computers that only allow them to do those tasks. Stiller says this was “a logical inspiration for the tech” because of how much Lumon wants to keep its severed employees in the dark about what they are doing.
“They wouldn’t want them to be connected in any way digitally with the outside world, so the idea was to keep all of the technology very much in-house there and sort of older and a little bit more analog,” Stiller said. On top of that, he wanted the general aesthetic of the severed floor to be “cold and clean and stark.”
“We knew we’d spend a lot of time down there so the subtle textures of the walls and the floor and the carpets and the panels in between them, all that stuff, we thought about a lot because we knew we were going to be spending a lot of time in there.”
Though “Severance” has yet to be renewed for a second season at Apple, Erickson tells Variety he’s already outlined his plans for a 10-episode followup to the drama, which premieres Friday. With Season 1 about to launch, Erickson promises questions about Lumon will soon be answered — but far more will be posed throughout the next few weeks. However, Erickson has so much of “Severance” mapped out that not all of those answers could even make it to screen.
“A lot of the work we did is stuff you never even see on the show, but we’ve got things figured out,” Erickson said. “Like, is it a publicly traded company or not? You don’t even see the company’s board, they are never actually glimpsed, but the question is how did they liaise with their various heads of different departments and stuff on a national level? So there was a weird amount of actual research. I didn’t go to business school or anything, but just a lot of online research about how these things work.
“And then a lot of it we threw out, a lot of it we were like, we’re not going to do that, this is a sci-fi show!”
The first two episodes of “Severance” launch Friday on Apple TV Plus.