Watch production designer Jeremy Hindle, composer Theodore Shapiro, and director Ben Stiller discuss how they built a fascinating, labyrinthine office space and an outside world that's just as unsettling for "Severance."
Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Apple TV+, for this edition we look at how production design, score, and direction came together to build the chillingly mysterious corporate world of “Severance.”
The ingenious premise of “Severance” — in which office workers agree to a procedure in which work experiences and memories are “severed” from those outside work, allowing personal and professional lives to remain completely separate — has proven irresistible to audiences tantalized by the issues and possibilities. The premise was equally irresistible, and challenging, for artisans who had to figure out how to bring Lumon Industries and its surroundings to life.
The show’s unique tone, and a genre that sits somewhere between sci-fi, satire, drama, and psychological horror, created intriguing opportunities and obstacles for the filmmakers tasked with getting the balance exactly right. In the videos below, production designer Jeremy Hindle, composer Theodore Shapiro, and director Ben Stiller explain how they created the two worlds of “Severance” and discuss the emotional effect they hoped their work would have on the audience.
The Production Design of “Severance”
When it came to creating the look of “Severance” and the Lumon corporate headquarters, production designer Jeremy Hindle said he couldn’t think of another show or movie to use as a reference point. “The hardest thing for us was the tone,” he told IndieWire. “It had to be its own world, and we didn’t know it was going to work until it was almost done.”
Hindle ultimately found inspiration in the fantastical worlds of Stanely Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” as well as more grounded sources like the Modernist John Deere headquarters designed in 1964 by Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche. “It’s an amazing building,” Hindle said. “It’s spectacular, and I’ve always loved it.”
Using the John Deere building as a model fit with Hindle’s desire to take the world of “Severance” back to an earlier era, when a workplace was just for work and offices weren’t cluttered with plants and pictures of employees’ families. “I took it back to the 1960s, when you had the most beautiful desk, the most perfect pen, a Rolodex… it was really designed to be a workspace.”
For the exterior, Hindle was faced with another unique challenge connected to the fact that director Ben Stiller didn’t want “Severance” to look like any other show, “so it couldn’t be locations anyone’s ever shot,” Hindle said. “Well, good luck in New York finding an office no one has shot less than 20 times.”
Amazingly, Hindle found another Saarinen structure, the Bell Labs facility in New Jersey, that had never been shot and perfectly fit his needs. “It’s kind of funny, when you put things out there, other things come to you,” he said. “It was just a lucky accident that that building had been restored.” In the video above, watch how Hindle’s locations and sets strike just the right tonal balance to create the eerie world of “Severance.”
The Score of “Severance”
The main conceit of “Severance” opens the obvious scoring possibility of separating the musical styles of the “innie” and “outie” worlds and playing up the tension between them. Composer Theodore Shapiro avoided those easy distinctions and embraced the series’ mysterious conspiracies and the way they bleed through (or ooze through, in Irving’s case) the lives the characters think they’re living both at and away from work.
The score revolves around a central theme that also became the main title theme. Minute variations and distortions of that piece, peppered across the soundtrack, act as musical ripples on the otherwise placid visual facade, signaling the unseeable, unknowable forces beneath the surface and behind Lumon’s Severed program. “Radical minimalism was our friend on this show,” Shapiro told IndieWire. “Sometimes playing a couple piano notes and letting them ring out was doing all the work that needed to be done.”
Shapiro’s work lay not in creating a huge library of themes but finding exactly the right way to fray, distort, and frame the show’s core musical ideas. “There’s a variation on the theme that we link with Helly, starting in Episode 4 as she’s moving toward attempting suicide,” Shapiro said. The slow, plaintive piano notes that trip over themselves, ending in discord, signal the rising tension of the scene just as much as escalating strings would and also tells us something more about Helly. “Instead of just playing the ratcheting tension of the scene, it plays her emotional pain. It plays something that’s not necessarily on the screen but is clearly there,” said Shapiro. In the video above, watch how Shapiro crafted a musical language as austere, strange, and engrossing as the world of “Severance” itself.
The Directing of “Severance”
The world-building of “Severance” is bound up in every cinematic choice the show makes, from the music to the look of the Lumon offices to the way the camera moves through the stark and Byzantine corporate corridors. Beyond the visual and aural information, executive producer and director Ben Stiller wanted a palpable sense of being observed. 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 think was a little bit harder,” Stiller told IndieWire.
Anonymity inside an office building seems almost natural, but it’s much harder to build it into whole neighborhoods and shoot homes in a way that don’t give the audience a sense of familiarity. By making both the inside and outside worlds alienating, Stiller and fellow director Aoife McArdle bring the viewer closer to the characters’ experience, especially that of Mark.
“It’s almost more personal in a way, filming [Mark in his apartment], because it’s showing his isolation but it’s more subjective,” Stiller said. “Because I think of the rules at Lumon, inside there we’re trying to stay very objective a lot of the time, too.”
Whether taking a more objective, observational point-of-view of the characters, with the camera swiveling like a security cam to observe the small humans in their giant office, or taking a more subjective, emotional point-of-view, there’s a haunting sense of surveillance that characterizes a world that is unnervingly controlled in ways we don’t understand. “When you’re in the world of Lumon, you have to feel observed there,” Stiller said. In the video above, watch how Stiller crafted the unnerving feel of the world of Lumon.
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