When “Severance” first premiered on Apple TV+ in February, it hit a nerve.
The sci-fi, dystopian-adjacent series — about workers at a shady conglomerate who have chosen to sever their personal and professional lives — speaks to the current sociopolitical and cultural moment: of burnt-out, exploited employees and the changing attitudes toward what work should look like.
A mystery box show at its core, writer, creator and executive producer Dan Erickson and stars Adam Scott and Britt Lower demystified a bit of the herculean effort involved in getting it made — from Erickson’s personal experiences with feeling unfulfilled at work to the page and beyond — for TheWrap’s “How I Did It” video series, sponsored by Apple TV+.
“I wrote the pilot while I was working a series of temp jobs, on lunch breaks and when I could,” Erickson said of the show, which recently wrapped its first season and has already been renewed for Season 2. “I sort of caught myself having this fantasy of, ‘Man, if there was some way that I could just skip over the next 8 hours of my life and just, immediately, it’s 5 p.m. and I could go home, I would 100% do that.’ And that’s a scary thing to catch yourself wanting.”
Lower, who plays the subversive employee Helly R., got involved in the project after her agent called her and encouraged her to audition for a role that was “really right” for her. Scott and Erickson agreed wholeheartedly, with the latter saying he knew the part was hers as soon as she walked into the room.
To prepare, Lower researched amnesia patients and channeled the “completely disorienting” and “extreme” emotions they feel when they have no recollection of who they are. In one of the pilot’s first scenes, Helly R. throws a speaker at Scott’s low-level office boss Mark to express her frustration.
“I gave him a few concussions, I think,” Lower said of filming the scene with Scott, who said he didn’t remember much of the day. “We did it a lot of times, and I got a concussion every time,” he joked.
Filming, which was usually helmed by director Ben Stiller, was intense; Scott recalled working for several hours on mastering the “switch overs” between the “Outtie” — the workers’ real lives — to the “Innie” — their employee selves — in the duration of one elevator ride.
“The shots where we’re in the elevator, and we actually switch over from ‘Outtie’ to ‘Innie’ or vice versa — doing it really fast like that really helped pinpoint what those things were we were adding or taking away [to our performance],” Scott said. “We had a few different times where we would go in and do, like, three episodes’ worth of switch overs and just do them over and over again and try and figure it out.”
It was Stiller’s idea to get John Turturro involved, and he brought on Christopher Walken afterward. Not for the “star power,” Erickson said, but because of their genuine off-screen connection. “[Turturro] was like, ‘If I’m gonna have this relationship with someone, this closeness and this love, I want it to be with Chris because we really have that and it’ll be organic on-screen.’ And damn it, he was right.”
Ultimately, it’s that love and closeness that drives the show, Erickson maintained. The “secret weapon” for “Severance” is its burning “kindness and heart” in the face of unimaginable obstacles.
“It feels like such a grim, dark dystopian — at times, cynical — story, but it’s not,” Erickson said. “I don’t think it is. I think that it is, basically, this story about these people who manage to awaken the humanity in each other.”
Watch the full episode of “How I Did It” on “Severance” in the player above.