Anyone who has experienced the mundane day-in, day-out drag of the 9-5 office life will immediately identify with AppleTV+ series Severance. Perhaps, even more so now, in a post-pandemic world where workers are expected to essentially check their personal lives, emotions and any lingering fears stemming from a two-year shutdown at the office door. To trade in the comfort of home and family for stark white walls, water coolers and ticking clocks. For those eight hours a day, your job owns you – even if you don’t always see the value or purpose in the work you’re doing.
But beyond relatable, Severance is deeply inspirational in its humanity and exploration of our need for connection to others. Starring Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Zach Cherry and John Turturro as a team of office workers whose outside selves (“outies”) have elected to undergo a surgical procedure whereby their work identities are severed from their personal ones, the show is character-driven, intellectual, witty (yet terrifying)… and engaging on multiple levels.
The irony is that creator Dan Erickson first wrote the story years ago, long before COVID was on the horizon. The concept of worker disillusionment is not new, even if it might seem like it’s at an all-time high. I spoke with Erickson about the long process in getting Severance to the small screen, the support of Ben Stiller, and the cast and crew… and about why working humanity into writing is more critical than ever.
Tell us about your journey in getting Severance made. I understand it was a bit of a process and a long time coming – what were some of the challenges you encountered along the way?
I think I wrote the first draft of the show in 2013 or 2014. So it’s definitely been the better part of a decade getting it from that point to this point.
There is a play that I wrote when I was an undergrad student, even years before that, that had a lot of the same DNA of what would become Severance – that was a play called Convention. I wrote that when I was around 20 years old, and it was about my fear of going out into the workforce… and getting sucked into it and swallowed up by it. So you could say that it dates even back to 2006 or whenever that was.
But I wrote the first draft and showed it to my manager, who I already had at that time. We talked a lot about it and finessed the tone and everything… and then we kicked it around into a bunch of different places.
Fortunately, I think it’s a fairly “grabby” concept and you can pitch it pretty quickly. People understand. So that allowed us to take a lot of meetings for it. And eventually, because of that, it landed on this publication called BloodList which has very exciting sci-fi and horror-specific scripts. I think we were the first TV script that they ever had published; it had been just film up until that point.
When that happened, it immediately kicked it up to the next level where suddenly we were getting other people reaching out and potentially interested in doing it. It ended up on Ben Stiller’s desk through Jackie Cohn, a producer at Red Hour. I had met with her previously for a different project, but she read this and felt that it would be perfect for Ben.
So, I was called into a meeting – and I think I was driving for Postmates at that time! I had worked for this company called Super Deluxe, and done some development through them… but that was basically the extent of my professional success at that point.
I came in to Red Hour and I met with Ben. I was immediately struck by how thoughtful he was; he’s the opposite of this idea of the celebrity who sort of comes in and is like, “Yeah, OK, that’s great, I’ll put my name on it,” you know? He wanted to know every single answer. And fortunately I had been thinking and sitting with the script for so long I had most of the answers to give him. So the meeting ended up going really well.
The crazy thing – I mean, first of all, was that it was Ben Stiller – but also that most of the meetings I had taken about this up to this point had been pretty general. They’d say “oh this is great… come work on this other show”. But Ben immediately had this gung ho, “let’s make this” perspective. He really wanted to do it. He was like, “I know it’s a little weird…it’s a little idiosyncratic… it’s not the type of thing that you normally see on TV… but that’s why I want to do it.” I think it took somebody of his clout for us to have the freedom to do that and keep it in its sort of weird tone… but he was also somebody who really did get it. I think he read it and immediately understood its unique tone and wanted to defend it at all costs.
So it’s been far from smooth sailing, but it’s been good. It’s been good sailing with somebody who really gets the project and will protect it.
The world changed significantly over the course of those years and the content feels even more relevant now. The sense I had while watching it was it was dystopian but relatable and empathetic. Would you describe it in a different way?
I’m glad that you also used the word empathetic because I think that that’s a really important piece of it. Because it is dystopian. It’s a really scary concept and a world that’s not that dissimilar from ours, for the most part. The severance procedure is the only major piece of technology that’s really different than this new world we’re in.
You see how it’s sort of emotionally dystopian, because all these people have surrendered themselves over to it and created this workplace, where these people never get to leave. But I have said that I think the show’s secret weapon is kindness and that it actually is a very empathetic show. A show that recognizes that we need each other to get through this and that it is a nightmare out there. And it may only get worse, but we’ve got each other and there’s power in that, and there’s comfort in it.
It was important from the get go for the characters that that they really be people that we can empathize with, even if they are a bit childlike. We recognize pieces of ourselves in them, and people that we’ve known and loved… we see how they could come together to form this sort of work family. That’s really at the center of the whole show.
Am I overanalyzing, or are there some philosophical themes underlying the story and script?
I think so. I mean, so much of it is about identity and how much of us is constituted by our experience versus something more innate. How different people in vastly different circumstances, or the same person in different circumstances, might turn out quite different. I think there’s a lot of that in the central conceit.
And then there are little allusions to Plato’s Allegory of The Cave, and this idea of people who only see this one very small sliver of reality before the light starts to seep in from outside.
We didn’t want to make it as simple as a show about how we’re all different people at work. We wanted to look at the different ways in which we separate from parts of ourselves that we’re not comfortable with or that are painful… and why we do that, both as individuals and as a society. So we tried to have it where the more you’re willing to dig, the more you’ll pull out philosophically from it.
Tell me about the Severance TV writer’s room.
It was absolutely wonderful. We were actually able to do the first season’s writer’s room in person because it was already prepared. And that feels so long ago now. I look back at old pictures of us and we’ve all got our arms around each other. It was a fantastic writers room.
But it was a strange process, because I then started working more closely and directly with Ben. He was coming off of Escape at Dannemora, which wrapped shooting while we were in the room. He came on and was able to contribute more time to Severance, so he and I discussed and reworked some things.
And then, after 8 of what were then 10 scripts (note: final season has 9 episodes) were written, the pandemic shut us down. Three weeks before we were supposed to go into production. I remember being at the table read; everybody was there, John Turturro, Adam, everyone… and then we were on break and someone said, “This COVID thing seems real.”A week later we were shut down.
But that time did provide us many, many more months to rework the story, which is to say there were basically two writer’s rooms – the original one and then the more intimate one, which was just me and Ben and Mark Friedman (producer). The three of us went through and reworked everything, much of which happened over the pandemic.
So it was this very weird, specific situation, but it was all lovely. It’s such a fun show to work on and everybody at every stage was so enthusiastic about the show. It was never not fun, even when it was crazy and stressful.
There were a lot of Easter eggs worked into the show! What has it been like to watch people analyze each scene and discover them?
Yeah, it’s really satisfying! A lot of them are just little things that you throw in and don’t think anyone will ever notice, but it’s just to build out the richness of the world. You think, “Well, maybe one person will notice and it’ll be cool.” A lot of the things that people picked up on were intentional.
And a lot of them weren’t! But that’s not to say that that they weren’t intentional by somebody. We have so many people working on this show, and I wasn’t in every meeting or privy to every single prompt that was played in the background. We had this amazing props person, Cat Miller, and production designer, Jeremy Hindle… they knew the scripts in and out. I think it’s something that Ben fosters in everyone. Everybody is aware of the overall story, and it’s like we’re all working together.
So there were things I didn’t even knew about until I went on set. Which is not to say that they’re not part of the story, because they are now. There are so many people and so many hands on this thing. And so many different ways for those Easter eggs to play out. It’s part of what makes it so fun.
There are several unanswered questions to explore in Season 2. Was it always meant to be a longer series, or have you had to expand and develop it over time given its success?
I think that I always wanted it to be at least a several season series. We did, in the very early days, talk about doing it as a feature or as a miniseries. Ultimately, the existence of this technology opened us up to so many other cool avenues. We’ve kept it in the workplace for season one, but there are things that happen that give us “ins” elsewhere. There are a thousand different weird, scary applications that we’ve discussed, so there was always going to be a lot more to explore.
I think that my impulse is always to prove that I know something if I know it. Ben and the others in the process would often exercise more restraint and say, “We can hold off on some of those things… we have a lot of time to tell this story. And if we do our job and get people invested in these things, there will be plenty to talk about without having to wrap all these things up nicely.”
Is there anything that stands out from this experience that you could pass on as advice to another writer?
It’s hard… I try to be cautious when asked that question because there can be a confirmation bias when something works for you specifically. And you think, “Oh, that’s the secret. Why doesn’t everyone just do that?”
Obviously everyone’s path is different and certain things happened to me because of luck or other things. But I did find that, for me, creating a “high concept” thing that is easily pitchable, and has a concept that feels like a heightened version of a human helped a lot.
For me, it was starting with this weird feeling I had when I was working an office job. I realized that I wished I could skip the next 8 hours and would totally have done that if I could have. Keep an eye out in your own head for weird stuff like that that can maybe turn into a story. Because we all have thoughts like that. We have thoughts that are fleeting…but if you can grab onto something that might seem like a weird thought, I bet other people have that same weird thought. So, is there a story that I could tell to explore that weird thought?
That’s how I got to an idea that I feel was sort of heightened yet relatable and that I could explain to people. Don’t be afraid to make your story funny and human and kind and sympathetic… because we need that right now.