Ben Stiller was gearing up to shoot a new dystopian television show six weeks before Covid-19 reached the United States. When production finally started, some crew members ended up doing their jobs from home, clouding the traditional separation between work life and domestic life.
"The lines blurred," Stiller told NBC News in a recent interview.
The experience proved to be relevant to Stiller’s project: "Severance," a genre-melding series — equal parts paranoid thriller, black comedy and corporate satire — that debuts Friday on Apple TV+. (Stiller directed six of the show’s nine episodes and served as producer.)
"Severance" imagines an alternate reality where select employees of the fictional Lumon Industries can participate in a "daring experiment in work-life balance" — a "severance" procedure that surgically divides their memories between their professional and personal lives.
If that strikes you as an appealing proposition, "Severance" offers an unsettling corrective.
Adam Scott stars as Mark Scout, a corporate drone who remembers nothing about his "outside" life (including the recent death of his wife) while he toils inside Lumon's sterile, labyrinthine walls. He soon finds himself swept up in a mystery that forces him to seek the truth about the "macrodata refinement" job he barely comprehends.
"He carries a lot of the emotion of the 'outside' world, but he doesn't know what it is or how to identify it," Scott said of his mentally bifurcated character.
"Severance" combines familiar conceits — "Office Space" meets "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," with a dash of "Black Mirror" — to hypnotic effect. But the premise of "Severance" is especially resonant in an era of professional burnout, the Great Resignation and homes turning into makeshift workplaces.
"It definitely shaped the show, the whole experience of the last few years," Stiller said.
The recent unrest over working conditions in the entertainment industry itself weighed on Stiller’s mind during the "Severance" shoot, too. In the fall, a union representing Hollywood production workers reached a tentative deal that averted what would have been the industry’s largest walkout since World War II.
"I think the crews felt the pressure of working under these [pandemic] conditions, and you saw what happened with some of the unions getting to a point where they said, 'You know what? It’s time we don’t have to work these crazy hours,' which I think is very healthy," Stiller said.
Work-life balance out of whack
Of course, achieving "work-life balance" was a difficult (if not impossible) feat for many workers well before Covid hit the U.S., and the lines are frequently blurred in virtually every industry.
"I think it’s an occupational hazard for many professions, not just the performing arts," said John Turturro, the Emmy-winning actor who plays Irving, one of the workers at Lumon. "It’s a challenge that people constantly face. Hopefully, you get better at it, or you have someone slap you and say, 'Hey, snap out of it.'"
The show’s premise reminded Turturro’s co-star Zach Cherry (“Succession,” “You”) of an unusual chapter in his own career when a job threatened to overtake the rest of his life.
“I used to have a job where nine months of the year it was an office job in New York, but we ran a summer program, so for three months every summer I had to move to a campus and be completely sucked into the job for basically 24 hours a day,” Cherry said. “In that situation, the balance was very, very off.”
I believe working in that kind of environment served the story, creating a space that was sterile and very separate and very cold.
actor Tramell Tillman
Tramell Tillman (“Hunters,” “Dietland”), who plays Lumon’s resident disciplinarian, said the show’s Covid-safe set — masks, contact tracing, social distancing — helped prepare the actors for the antiseptic chill of Lumon Industries.
“The producers worked very, very hard to make sure everyone was safe,” Tillman said. “I believe working in that kind of environment served the story, creating a space that was sterile and very separate and very cold.”
Stiller and production designer Jeremy Hindle drew inspiration for the Lumon set partly from Jacques Tati's 1967 film “Playtime,” a French comedy crammed with maze-like architecture and elaborate background detail.
"['Playtime'] is set in an airport, so everything is pristine, but there are extras in the background that are cardboard cutouts. It’s beautiful, playful and it’s fun to watch," Hindle said in a statement.
Jessica Lee Gagné, the director of photography on all nine episodes, likewise found inspiration in Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk's deadpan portraits of austere cubicle spaces as well as in the work of photographers Lynne Cohen and Bill Owens.
Patricia Arquette, who plays the inscrutable Lumon executive Harmony Cobel, said the experience of making a TV show under strict Covid safety protocols also limited personal interactions on set, mirroring the way the "severance" procedure prevents workers from being their authentic selves at the office.
"There’s no room for chitchat and relationship-building and humor [on set]," said Arquette, who earned an Emmy nomination for her role as real-life prison employee Joyce Mitchell on Stiller’s seven-part Showtime series "Escape at Dannemora."
"You go from this workplace where you’re very isolated — say your lines, put your mask on, go back to your space, stay away from everyone — then you go into lockdown at home [and] you can’t see anyone. But it did serve [the series], because it was present all around you," Arquette said.
"It kind of drove me a little insane," Arquette added with a laugh.