Severance: Behind the Scenes at Lumon with Ben Stiller

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we think is worthy of recognition. In partnership with Apple TV+, for this edition we look at how production design, score and direction came together to create the hauntingly mysterious corporate world of Severance.

The ingenious premise of “separation” — in which office workers agree to a process of “separating” work experiences and memories from those outside of work, so that personal and professional lives can remain completely separate — has proven to be a testament to an audience irritated by the issues irresistible proven and opportunities. The premise was equally compelling and challenging for crafters who needed to figure out how to bring Lumon Industries and its surrounds to life.

The show’s unique tone and genre that sits somewhere between sci-fi, satire, drama and psychological horror created intriguing opportunities and obstacles for the filmmakers, who were tasked with finding the right balance. In the following videos, production designer Jeremy Hindle, composer Theodore Shapiro and director Ben Stiller explain how they created the two worlds of Severance and discuss the emotional impact they hoped their work would have on audiences.

The Production Design of “Severance Pay”

When it came to creating the look of Severance and Lumon’s corporate headquarters, production designer Jeremy Hindle said he couldn’t think of any other show or film to reference. “The hardest part for us was the audio,” he told IndieWire. “It had to be a world of its own, and we didn’t know it was going to work until it was almost done.”

Hindle eventually found inspiration in the fantastical worlds of Stanely Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, as well as more down-to-earth sources such as the modernist John Deere headquarters designed by Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche in 1964. “It’s an amazing building,” said Hindle. “It’s spectacular and I’ve always loved it.”

Using the John Deere building as a model fitted Hindle’s desire to take the world of ‘severance pay’ back to an earlier era, when a workplace was for work only and offices were not cluttered with plants and pictures of employees’ families. “I took it back to the 1960s when you had the nicest desk, the most perfect pen, a Rolodex… it really was designed as a workspace.”

For the exterior, Hindle faced another unique challenge, related to the fact that director Ben Stiller didn’t want Severance to look like any other show, “so it couldn’t be locations anyone was ever filmed in,” said Hindle. “Well, good luck in New York finding an office that nobody’s shot less than 20 times.”

Amazingly, Hindle found another Saarinen building, the Bell Labs facility in New Jersey, which had never been shelled and suited his needs perfectly. “It’s kind of funny when you put things out there, other things come to you,” he said. “It was just a happy coincidence that this building was restored.” Watch the video above to see how Hindle’s locations and sets find just the right tonal balance to create the eerie world of Severance.


The Score of “Severance Pay”

The main idea of ​​”Severance” opens up the obvious scoring opportunity to separate the musical styles of the “Innie” and “Outie” worlds and play up the tension between them. Composer Theodore Shapiro eschewed these simple distinctions, embracing the series’ mysterious conspiracies and the way they bleed through (or in Irving’s case, seep through) life, the life the characters believe they live both in and out of also lead outside of work.

The score revolves around a central theme, which also became the main theme of the title. Minute variations and distortions of this piece, sprinkled throughout the soundtrack, act like musical ripples on the otherwise tranquil visual facade, signaling the unseen, unknowable forces beneath the surface and behind Lumon’s Severed program. “Radical minimalism was our friend on this show,” Shapiro told IndieWire. “Sometimes all the work that needed to be done was playing a few piano notes and making them sound.”

Shapiro’s job wasn’t to create a massive collection of themes, but to find just the right way to fray, distort and frame the show’s core musical ideas. “There’s a variation on the theme that we associate with Helly starting in Episode 4 as she moves towards a suicide attempt,” Shapiro said. The slow, plaintive piano notes, tripping over themselves and ending in dissonance, signal the rising tension of the scene, as does escalating strings, and also tells us a little more about Helly. “Rather than just playing the ratchet tension of the scene, it plays its emotional pain. It’s playing something that’s not necessarily on screen, but it’s definitely there,” Shapiro said. In the video above, see how Shapiro crafted a musical language as rigorous, strange, and compelling as the world of Severance itself.


Directing “Severance Pay”

The worldview of “Severance” is woven into every cinematic choice of the show, from the music to the look of the Lumon offices to the way the camera moves through the bare and Byzantine corporate corridors. Beyond the visual and audio information, Executive Producer and Director Ben Stiller wanted a tactile sense of being watched. And that’s not something that stops when the characters clock out for the day. “Something we really had to think about stylistically was trying to create tension in the outside world, which I felt was a little bit more difficult,” Stiller told IndieWire.

Anonymity within an office building seems almost natural, but it’s much more difficult to build into entire neighborhoods and photograph homes in a way that doesn’t convey a sense of familiarity to the audience. By making both the inside and outside world alien, Stiller and his colleague Aoife McArdle bring the viewer closer to the characters’ experience, especially Mark’s.

“In a way, filming is almost more personal [Mark in his apartment]because it shows his isolation, but it’s more subjective,” Stiller said. “Because I think about the rules at Lumon, there we often try to remain very objective.”

Whether taking a more objective, observational view of the characters, with the camera panning like a security camera to watch the little people in their vast office, or taking a more subjective, emotional point of view, there’s a haunting sense of surveillance that that characterizes a world disturbingly controlled in ways we don’t understand. “When you’re in the world of Lumon, you have to feel like you’re being watched,” Stiller said. Check out how Stiller created the unsettling feel of the world of Lumon in the video above.

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Lindsay Lowe

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