Ben Stiller and the folks behind ‘Severance’ break down that wild season finale
When the Innies broke out for “Severance’s” season finale, all hell broke loose with them.
Chaos reigned narratively, emotionally and very much stylistically for Apple TV+'s dystopian workplace drama. The previous eight episodes’ skewed but highly controlled presentation of life on Lumon Industries’ Severed Floor required rethinking to evoke Mark (Adam Scott), Helly (Britt Lower) and Irving’s (John Turturro) disorientation when their on-the-job minds — which have been surgically disconnected from their nonwork consciousness — jumped into their Outies’ bodies.
“This episode needed to break the rules because they’re experiencing something they’ve never experienced before,” says Ben Stiller, “Severance’s” executive producer and director of the episode “The Way We Are.” “So we were thinking about point-of-view and trying to be subjective. Up to that point, the show’s frames were pretty rigid and we tried only to move the camera when needed.”
Stiller and director of photography Jessica Lee Gagné gave up the series’ signature surveillance camera viewpoints for almost all Steadicam shots, despite (but also because of) how uncomfortable that made them.
“We wanted it to feel like you’re moving with the characters through space, experiencing their energy and stress,” says Gagné, who prefers the lighting control and editing options derived from multicamera takes. “There was no better way to do that than Steadicam if you didn’t want it to look gimmicky. Even if we don’t like something, if it’s right for the episode we’ll do it.”
The director and his star learned much about perseverance and trusting each other while making the dystopian series.
As the out Innies must quickly get their bearings, then try to deliver warnings about the horrors of working at Lumon, editor Geoffrey Richman built up an urgent, ticking-clock pace. Cutting to fourth co-worker Dylan (Zach Cherry) — who stayed behind in a Lumon control room, pushing the switches that enable his friends’ escape — facilitated some transitions.
Then there were the efforts of domineering bosses Cobel (Patricia Arquette) and Milchick (Tramell Tillman) to end the disruption. And other stuff (missing baby, anyone?). It all converged toward simultaneous storyline crescendos in the 40-minute show’s breathless second half.
“The strategy was to make it feel like one continuous action,” Richman says. “We focused on keeping the camera moving and making the scenes blend together. In the intercutting of scenes, we were looking for outpoints and inpoints where they would seamlessly blend as graphically as possible.”
Theodore Shapiro’s continuous, pulsing score was key to the episode’s flow.
“It’s completely through-composed,” Shapiro notes. “At the top of the show, the music is driven largely by the heartbeat-like, undergirding percussion, but by the time we get to the end we’re at a full-throated statement of our main theme. If anything, we’re building from adrenaline and momentum into the more emotive elements of the music.”
Music was just one sonic element. Milchick’s pounding steps as he tears through Lumon’s long, well-trudged corridors were literally made by foley walking. Loop groups contributed the 360-degree melange of conversations that surround Helly at a company gala — shot inside the Eero Saarinen-designed New Jersey Bell Works building that also provides Lumon HQ’s exterior — where she discovers her Outie is a corporate heir who’s scheduled to speak in favor of the controversial severance procedure.
“Ben wanted the sound to have an anxious, roller coaster, stomach-lurching feeling,” supervising sound editor/designer Jacob Ribicoff recalls. “It was a throbbing, low, almost moving rumble. Some of it derived from underwater recordings of waves. We tucked that motif in with the music, which was doing similar things.”
Such noise adds to Mark’s confusion when he awakens in his sister’s previously seen house, not knowing the floorplan or who the people there are. Sound effects blend with Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” as Irv tries to orient himself in his clue-packed townhouse.
Helly is further unbalanced when she sees images of herself cycling on giant cubes throughout the Lumon ballroom.
“That was an idea from our visual consultant, Jeff Mann,” Stiller says. “He found a company that makes them. We blew up all of those photos; that was one of my favorite script payoffs from when you see Milchick taking pictures all the time. It wasn’t just a photo display, it gave us sort of this trippy quality.”
The giant images all but place Lower inside Helly’s head, a sublime visual representation of what her character’s experiencing. Stiller also praised the way Turturro performed how Innie Irv, determined to find his workplace crush Burt (Christopher Walken), applies his Outie’s muscle memory to the unfamiliar task of driving. And putting Cherry in a strained physical position throughout the show was an act of Lumon-like absurdity.
“We spent a lot of time measuring exactly how far he could stretch,” Stiller notes. “I always look at how his glasses are coming down the bridge of his nose. We’d shoot until Zach’s like, ‘I gotta do it, I gotta fix ’em!’”
Though filmed concurrently with the other episodes over the course of 10 COVID-disrupted months, “The Way We Are” is its own distinct beast, revealing much and culminating in multiple cliffhangers, which the recently greenlit second season hopefully resolves.
“We took a risk on this one; it is structurally different from any of the other episodes, it almost takes place in real time,” concludes series creator Dan Erickson. “‘Severance’ is such a meticulous, sometimes slow-moving show that we wanted to reward people’s patience with a really cool ride of a last episode. It was this much more visceral, fast-paced version of the show.”
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