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'Severance' creator thought the mind-bending Apple TV+ series was too weird to ever be made
Director Ben Stiller, star Adam Scott and creator Dan Erickson dive into the brain drain with SYFY WIRE.
Who doesn't want to check out of their life sometimes? Well, how about 8 hours everyday, minus weekends?
The new AppleTV+ original sci-fi series, Severance, reflects a near-future existence where a venerable tech company has created a procedure that lets its employees choose to sever their work life from their personal life. With a simple zap to the brain, you too can enter the Lumon Industries corporate elevator and then forget everything in your messy outside life that could distract you from your paycheck tasks. Adam Scott plays Mark, a recent widower who makes that drastic choice to cope, but then finds both his existences starting to bleed through.
With the act of severance a subjective heaven or hell depending on the person prompted to make that choice, executive producer/director Ben Stiller and creator/showrunner Dan Erickson took a chance to dive into the repercussions starting right in the pilot episode, "Good News About Hell," with SYFY WIRE.
***Spoilers for the Severance pilot episode below***
Originally written as a spec script meant to get him work, Erickson tells SYFY WIRE that he never actually expected Severance to get made. "I thought it was too strange to ever get made," the writer laughs. "And with that in mind, the original, original draft, that I wrote before Ben ever saw it was actually a lot more bombastic and surreal. At one point, there was a pair of disembodied legs that runs by, and it was never explained what that was."
But there was actual interest from Stiller's production company, which prompted Erickson to get deep on the specifics of this world where tech separation of self is a thing, certainly, a controversial thing, but still a viable procedure for those who want it. However, Stiller who has done a lot of surreal already with The Cable Guy and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, wasn't interested in smoothing out Erickson's odd too much.
"If you were working with a director that didn't have the credentials that Ben does, we would probably have been watered down a lot more than we were," Erickson admits. "And then at the same time, Ben's aesthetic has just always been off beat and just so interesting and different. It sounds like lip service, but I really don't think that you could have done this with anybody else. I felt like it was really a perfect storm of perfect chemistry."
Developing this story took five years. Stiller tells SYFY WIRE that he felt lucky to find such a unique concept on his desk. "I was so excited to first of all just to get in there and to work with the actors after hearing it in my head and reading it and visualizing it. There were so many fun moments like seeing Adam interact with Patricia (Arquette) in those first Peggy Cobell and Mark scenes, which were really fun to look at and to do. It was honestly just getting into the world and doing it."
Starting the episode sobbing with grief, Scott's Mark is clearly not alright which is why the sodium lit, brain numbing cubicles inside the belly of Lumon Industries can be seen as a weird respite. Scott agrees and the interesting place that Mark finds himself in both his inside and outside lives is what drew him to the project.
"They're both in this place of stasis," Scott assessed. "Mark on the outside is as checked out as when he's checking out for eight hours a day. While grieving his wife, he can't figure out how to move on and has chosen not to move on. As a protest to the cruelty of the world, he's deciding that, 'F**k it! I'm just gonna disappear for eight hours a day. My life will consist of waking up and driving to work and driving home and going to sleep. And that's it.' Whereas Mark on the inside, isn't aware of any of that. Some of those feelings are brought in, but he doesn't know what they are. He's a bit more innocent, for all intents and purposes. He's like two years old. But he's also in this stasis where he's not questioning much around them. He senses that there's something going on here, but is choosing to just push it aside and do what he's told."
In getting to know inside Mark vs. outside Mark in the first couple of episodes, the bigger question of what remains of who we are no matter what happens to us? Erickson says that came up frequently on the set with Scott and the other Lumon team members including John Turturro (Irving), Britt Lower (Helly), and Zach Cherry (Dylan).
"They asked how different are the innies and outies? And what carries through across the severance threshold? If you're depressed on the outside, and then you walk into work, does that depression go away? Or is there a lingering shadow of it? Or, if you've just had a horrible day, or you've just had a breakup, how much will that carry over?" Erickson says. "We had these great conversations about how similar the characters were on the inside and the outside, but they do come to see themselves as different people, certainly. I think the innie especially. There's this growing resentment of who the hell is my outie to put me in here? Why do they get to go and walk the earth and have a whole life and then just push all of their work onto me and keep me in this prison? It's a weird form of self loathing that develops where rather than blaming the company, they're angry at themselves, which I think is kind of by design."
The first two episodes of Severance are streaming now on Apple TV+. New episodes will drop every Friday.