Six weeks before Covid-19 arrived in the United States, Ben Stiller was preparing to film a new dystopian television series. Some crew members were able to work from home when production began, blurring the line between domestic and professional life.
Stiller said that "the lines blurred" in a recent interview with NBC News.
This experience was relevant to Stiller’s project: "Severance," which is a genre-mending series that mixes paranoid thriller, black comedy, and corporate satire. It debuts Friday on Apple TV+. (Stiller helmed six of the nine episodes and was also the producer.
"Severance" is an alternative reality in which Lumon Industries employees can take part in a "daring experiment" in work-life balance -- a "severance", procedure that divides their personal and professional memories.
If this sounds appealing, "Severance", an unsettling remedy, is available.
Adam Scott plays Mark Scout, a corporate drone that has no memory of his "outside", including his recent loss of his wife. He works inside Lumon's labyrinthine, sterile walls. Soon, he is entangled in a mystery that forces Scott to discover the truth about the "macrodata refining" job he can barely understand.
Scott described Scott's mentally split personality as "he carries a lot the emotion of the outside world, but doesn't know how to identify it."
"Severance" blends familiar concepts -- "Office Space" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" -- to create a hypnotic effect. The premise of "Severance", however, is particularly relevant in this era of professional burnout and the Great Resignation.
Stiller stated that the show was shaped by it.
Stiller was also concerned about recent unrest in the entertainment industry. A union representing Hollywood production workers came to a tentative agreement that avoided the industry's biggest walkout since World War II.
"I believe the crews felt the stress of working in these [pandemic] conditions. You saw the result of some unions reaching a point where they said, "You know what?" Stiller stated that it was time to stop working these insane hours.
Balance between work and life is a mess
It is true that achieving work-life balance was difficult, if not impossible, for many workers long before Covid arrived in the U.S. The lines between the two are often blurred in almost every industry.
John Turturro (the Emmy-winning actor who plays Irving at Lumon) said, "I believe it's an occupational danger for many professions not just the performing and artistic arts." It's a constant challenge. You either get better or someone else slaps you and says, "Hey, snap out!"
Turturro's costar Zach Cherry ("Succession," You") was reminded by the show's premise of a unique chapter in his career, when he felt that a job would take over his entire life.
Cherry stated that she used to work in an office job for nine months. But, we had a summer program. Cherry explained that for three months each summer, Cherry moved to campus to be fully absorbed into the job for 24 hours per day. Cherry said, "In that situation the balance was very, very wrong."
Tramell Tillman ("Hunters", "Dietland") plays Lumon Industries' resident disciplinarian. He said that the Covid-safe set (masks, contact tracing and social distancing) prepared the actors for the antiseptic chill at Lumon Industries.
Tillman stated that "the producers worked very, very difficult to ensure everyone was safe." "I believe that working in such an environment helped the story," Tillman said. It created a space that was very separate, sterile, and cold.
Stiller and Jeremy Hindle, the production designer, drew inspiration from Jacques Tati’s 1967 film "Playtime", a French comedy stuffed with intricate background detail and maze-like architecture.
"['Playtime"] is set at an airport so everything is clean, but there are extras that are cardboard cutouts in the background. "It's beautiful, playful, and it's enjoyable to watch," Hindle stated in a statement.
Jessica Lee Gagne was the director of photography for all nine episodes. She also found inspiration from Lars Tunbjork, a Swedish photographer, and the photographs of Lynne Cohen, Bill Owens, photographers.
Patricia Arquette plays the mysterious Lumon executive Harmony Cobel. She said that the experience of creating a TV series under Covid safety protocols was difficult. This mirrors the way that workers are prevented from being their true selves at work.
"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 leave a workplace that is very isolated. You say your lines, put on your mask, and go back to your space. Then you go into lockdown at your home. Arquette stated that it served the series because it was all around you.
Arquette laughed and said, "It kinda drove me a little crazy."