The Directors Guild of America rolled out the green carpet on Friday night for the landmark season finale of Apple TV+’s Severance. Hot off their Academy Award for best picture, Apple TV+ is betting heavily on its freshman series from director, executive producer, and Emmy winner Ben Stiller.
And by all metrics, rightfully so — the series has garnered significant critical praise and audience appreciation for its originality and genre-blending of mystery, sci-fi, romance, comedy, drama, and thriller elements.
The stars and creative braintrust of Severance arrived right on schedule, eagerly engaging with their fans as well as television academy members and the press.
Absent from the event was lead actor and future Emmy nominee Adam Scott (Parks and Rec). Due to a COVID diagnosis, the actor was left in isolation and elected to send a video for the audience, expressing his apologies and immense gratitude for their attendance.
The packed crowd soaked up the finale, loudly applauding as viewers witnessed the emotionally stunning cliffhanger that closed season one. Thankfully, that cliffhanger will soon be resolved as Apple TV+ has wisely renewed the series for a second season.
The evening’s host and moderator, Judd Apatow, quickly brought the cast and Stiller on stage to delve into season one. Apatow took his time with the half-hour panel, making sure to highlight the brilliant work of each actor while marveling at the quirky mind of creator, writer, and executive producer Dan Erickson.
Apatow made sure to reference Adam Scott’s nuanced work as both “innie” and “outie” Mark S., as well as scene-stealers Christopher Walken and John Turturro. “Did they have COVID too?” Apatow quipped to Stiller.
At the close of the panel, Apatow marveled at his thirty year history of working with longtime friend Ben Stiller. “It’s like your whole career was preparing you for this moment and this project,” Apatow said of Severance.
What follows is Awards Focus’ interviews with Erickson, Stiller, and the cast of Severance which includes spoilers.
If you have yet to join the Lumon Industries bandwagon, enjoy this trailer and get your Apple TV+ subscription to find your true “innie.”
First on the carpet was Ben Stiller, who directed the finale episode as well as the majority of the first season. Beyond directing, Stiller was the one responsible for finding the pilot script by Dan Erickson and developing it into the groundbreaking AppleTV+ series.
“For me, I didn’t want to look at this as a sci-fi piece,” Stiller says of his initial perspective. “In many ways, it’s ‘low-fi’ in that this technology is just a little bit in the future. It really feels more akin to The Office comedy genre in terms of the four people interacting in a blank space.”
Stiller worked closely with creator and fellow executive producer Dan Erickson as he added a more abstract and surreal quality to it the series. That’s not to say that the initial script didn’t need some toning down.
“I wrote this as a sample so I wanted to get maximum attention, which means some bold choices were made,” Erickson jokes. “In the early draft, there was a scene where a pair of disembodied legs runs through the background and no one reacts in the office… it was very Terry Gilliam.”
“As we worked together to refine it, we really leaned into the quieter, sadder human elements… what would make somebody do this brain splitting procedure?” Erickson says.
When it came to the romance of Bert and Irving (Christopher Walken and John Turturro), there were questions of how sexuality works via severance. Could it change between an innie and an outie? Could one be straight and the other be bisexual or homosexual?
“That’s something we did discuss,” Erickson says. “We decided that the procedure of splitting the brain doesn’t effect your sexuality. You can’t change what you like, but someone could be a closeted ‘outie’ and more open about their sexuality as an ‘innie.’”
Stiller reflected on the rather long journey in getting the series made, even before COVID complicated matters.
“We got this five years ago and it really took that long to mount it, but Apple was into it right from the beginning,” Stiller shares. “They really believed in what we were doing back to when the streamer was just starting up.”
In terms of actor interpretation, Stiller was completely open to seeing what his cast had in mind. “Dan’s writing leaves room for the characters to be interpreted,” Stiller says. “He doesn’t want to include something that would limit an actor’s creativity.”
For Tramell Tillman who plays Milchick, he reveled in the relatively undefined role. “It was about finding the intersection of Tramell (me) and Milchick, and answering the question of, ‘Why does he work at a place like this?’” Tillman shares. “I wanted to create a character that wasn’t an immediate villain, I wanted a character that the audience can see as funny, as someone you can trust, but he’s ambitious and fierce.”
In one of the only instances of violence in the series, Milchick gets tackled by Dylan (Zach Cherry) and subsequently bitten. The obvious expectation for many viewers was an equally violent retaliation from Milchick… however, the show went in another direction.
“Instead of reacting with fury, you see that Milchick was actually hurt by what Dylan did,” Tillman says. “I love that Ben allowed for his vulnerability to exist in this world.”
With the production occurring during COVID, it was challenging for the actors as they often filmed scenes from four or five different episodes in one week’s time.
For Britt Lower, who plays Helly, she was able to devise a rather unique way to deal with jumping in and out of her character’s arc.
“I’m a visual artists, so I drew out all the action sequences that Helly goes through in the season,” Lower shares. “I wanted a clear visual so I could pinpoint the emotional context and have clarity on her frame of mind.”
During the panel, Patricia Arquette joked that she couldn’t keep up with Tramell Tillman in an office dance off. While the Academy Award winning actress may doubt her dance moves, there isn’t a single actress or actor who could match Arquette’s performance as the captivatingly psychotic and yet devout Lumon employee known as Harmony Cobel.
“She’s a real odd duck, this lady,” Arquette jokes. “Dan Erickson wrote this incredibly rich world with a backstory and history of the company, the ethos, and my character, which Ben Stiller then took and translated his vision into the sets, the clothes, the visual DNA.”
When it came to wardrobe, Arquette revealed that there were certain garments and colors that only the Lumon upper management could wear.. “The rules on heels, pantyhose, everything was defined visually in the show ,” she says. “I did get to learn some of the backstory for Harmony and why she is the way she is, but until Dan reveals that to the audience it’s my secret.”
Severance, the entire first season, is now streaming on Apple TV+.