“Severance” Season 1 Finale: Director Ben Stiller discusses wild ending

This post contains Spoilers The finale of Season One SeveranceYou can stream the video below on Apple TV+.

Notes I made during my first viewing Severance finale, “The We We Are,”You look like a madman scrawling at characters to do the things they want. But that’s the genius of both the finale and Severance in general. As created by TV newcomer Dan Erickson and primarily directed by Ben Stiller, the show’s high-concept premise — What if a surgical procedure allowed corporate employees to literally separate their work lives from their personal lives? — built and built in tension and tragedy over the first eight episodes, then exploded in the season finale. In “The We We Are,” three of the show’s four main “Innies”The corporate personalities are temporarily able to take control of their bodies in the “Outie”In the hope of finding someone to help them escape their horrendous existence, they travel the globe. For Innie Mark (Adam Scott), this means meeting his Outie’s sister and brother-in-law, and discovering to his shock that corporate therapist Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) is in fact the allegedly deceased wife of Outie Mark. Innie Irving (John Turturro), this is an opportunity to find Burt (Christopher Walken), his would-be love. “retired” his Innie self. And Innie Helly (Britt Lower) discovers to her horror that she is a member of the Eagan family that has run the company for generations — a public family sacrifice designed to make the controversial severance procedure seem palatable enough to be voted into law.

“The We We Are”There are many near misses and unexpected twists. Innie Mark unwittingly reveals himself to his manipulative boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), who appears to kidnap Mark’s niece, but is really just racing back to corporate headquarters to stop the Innies’ rebellion. Helly is on the verge of telling members of the press about the torture they suffer, and Mark is about to tell his sister the truth about Gemma, when Ms. Cobel’s henchman Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman) forces his way past Innie Dylan (Zach Cherry) and seemingly returns control of the other three bodies to their Outie selves. It’s all over. Continue reading?

It’s a stunning finale and season and it is worth talking with Stiller. Zoom was a great way to talk with Stiller about the reasons he decided to end the season in such a difficult moment, especially when Apple didn’t officially renew the show at the time, the casting of all the crucial roles, when we might catch Season Two (which was announced earlier in the week), and much more.

A masked Ben Stiller, left, directing Britt Lower as Helly.


The final is almost too intense. How can you create that feeling?
The way we shot the show, we couldn’t shoot it episode by episode. Cross-boarding was required, where we would shoot parts from different episodes at the same location. But I love it! 24, and in my mind, it’s sort of like our 24 episode. Let’s just hope that everybody has experienced the full impact of what was happening, so that we could then move on to the real-time stuff. But every episode of this show didn’t really come together until we were finished shooting the whole thing. Part of me was worried it wouldn’t be tense enough. And also, I haven’t had this experience before of doing a show where people are wondering what’s going to happen next, and what does this mean? It was all happening in a bubble. We didn’t know.

The Innies are extremely cruel for ending the season in this dark moment. How did you make that decision? 
Early on, we had many discussions. It’s been a five-year process on this. I gave Dan’s script to Adam five years ago. Originally, we were going to go further and answer more questions, but I felt really strongly that there’s something about the mystery of the show that you want to live in. It is the right balance of answering enough questions but not too many. This was because it was emotionally the most appealing idea. It was like, “What are the numbers about?” and what does Mark have to do? This seemed like the pinnacle. I can only imagine how people are going to react, because I’m sure [there will]There are many different opinions about it.

What if you didn’t get a second season? This was a brave decision.
We were all in, I thought. Either we would be the most entertaining and captivating show in one season, or we were moving to force Apple into giving us a second season.

Did you really want Dichen Lachman doing anything in her performance to help seed the idea that Ms. Casey was actually Gemma?
That was something I thought about a lot. It was something we all discussed. You don’t want to give it away, and yet there has to be some idea of what is the connection. I feel like one of the reasons why people weren’t expecting this is because the character seems so disconnected and robotic. It is important to know how this would unfold and what that means for severance procedures. There’s a scene that I added that I really wanted to have, where he gets sent to the break room and she’s leaving it, and they pass each other in the narrow hallway. I was able to see a connection between them in that scene. It’s funny: even the smallest look, I was nervous that was going to give too much away.

"Severance" Season 1 Finale: Director Ben Stiller discusses wild ending

Scott, center, and Arquette, left


Mark is the character that we spend the most time together with the Outie and the Innie. Adam and you had many discussions about the differences between them.
Adam thought a lot about it when he arrived. He did a lot of work on his own that we didn’t talk about. The agreement is that they are two different parts of the same person, so he didn’t want to play them as if they were different characters. So, Innie Mark is that prototypical office guy who doesn’t really question the work. Adam is able to start from where he wants. And on the outside, the idea that he’s carrying so much more baggage, it was important for Adam to know that he would not [have]To be anything else than this guy. He was a person we could trust and like. He’s got a drinking issue, he’s not in a good place. I worried about how people would accept him. It was also important to show him the true state he was in, as someone who would have performed this procedure. Adam’s so good and so specific that he looked at everything on the inside very differently than he did on the outside, including the notion that the guy on the inside is only a few years old. The Innies are almost like children because they don’t have life experience.

The Innie world is unique and very specific to this series. The Outie world isn’t exactly the one we live in, but it’s much closer. Were you ever worried that the audience’s interest in the office scenes would outweigh their interest in the Outie Mark material?
In terms of making the outside world more interesting and distinct than the inside, I am constantly thinking about how to do this. The thing that’s going for the outside world is you have regular people with relationships. Devon and Ricken are particularly important in this aspect. It’s crucial to have actors the audience can invest in. Jen Tullock, Michael Chernus, and Michael Chernus were great examples of that. It should feel both as striking and bland in its own right, but also be recognizable. It was important to avoid seeing specific brands and to not specify the time. Shooting in winter really helped us, because there’s darkness, and that feeling of isolation was really important to the mood of the outside world.

"Severance" Season 1 Finale: Director Ben Stiller discusses wild ending

Tramell tillman as Milchik.


Tramell Tillman is probably the least well known actor in the cast, and he’s giving one of the performances people have most gravitated towards. What was it like working with him to create that character?
Milchick is a complex man. Both the audience and the actor have many unanswered questions. We talked about it a lot, but there were choices that he was making that, sometimes, I wasn’t totally privy to. He hadn’t done a role like this that had so much scope, and it was fun to watch over the course of the shoot how he gained confidence in doing what he’s doing. He’s so precise as an actor. He can be so calm and still that it’s fascinating to see him doing nothing. Patricia’s like that, too, because both of them have so much going on inside.

A friend of mine who is an actor loved the show said that Milchick’s warm performance was something that struck him. “He’s not a guy who’s pretending to be warm; he exudes goodness.”How does he manage to do this while still making it seem part of his character?
It’s a good question. Getting to know him from doing the show, he’s such a warm person and he evokes this great energy, and yet he can also just turn the switch. I don’t know what it is about him that has both aspects going on. I know he takes his work very seriously, and he’s got a great theater background. As a person, however, he is an amazing individual. He has a natural ability that comes out and you will want to be a part. He is able to turn that switch.

Patricia and you have a deep connection. Do you think Patricia has a quickhand that allows her to know what to do at any given moment? Do you have to first break down the character? 
It’s so funny, because we did Flirting with Disaster [in 1996], and then we didn’t work together until [Escape atDannemora [in 2018]. We ran into each other occasionally in between, but I really do feel like I’ve gotten to know her so much more over the last five years. She has a great sense of humor and we share the same laughs. I feel like we are a brother-sister. It’s a comforting feeling to be with her. She’s a brilliant actress, there’s no pretense: “Try this, try that.”This character was discovered by us along the way. I had an idea, she had some ideas, but it’s never contentious. It was all over by the end. That’s what’s great about her. She’s willing to search and try and not settle on something.

"Severance" Season 1 Finale: Director Ben Stiller discusses wild ending

Christopher Walken, John Turturro


What was the secret to the love story of Irving and Burt? How could Turturro or Walken discover the emotions in this relationship?
Turturro suggested Chris to me for the role while I was talking with John [playing] Irving. They have a friendship over the years; they’ve worked together a few times. These two men are so talented and so experienced. Chris is someone I know, but he was a colleague of my dad. [Jerry Stiller]He is a great friend and colleague of mine. I’m a huge fan of his. But I’d never directed him. He’s so prepared. He knows every line, he’s ready to go. John and he just enjoyed being together. As a director, I’m just staying back and maybe offering an idea to try something. But I’m really being an audience with them. John had such a clear vision of Irving. It was so precise that it took me a while to imagine Irving sounding this way. And he said: “No, I really feel like this is the guy.”He is a true talent, and he has mastered the ability to use this accent. It became a character. After about a month of filming, I was unable to capture the effect. [imagine]Irving singing in a completely different style

It’s really remarkable how much feeling comes out of these tiny little interactions, like them brushing their fingers together.
They fill it so full, that I give Aoife McCArdle [who directed the season’s middle chapters]Credit for doing so much of the work on those moments together. I’ve always trusted that, with an actor, if they have an inner life going on, you’re going to see it and you’re going to read it, especially with those two. So the smallest thing means a lot, especially in a world like the one we’ve set up. They never do anything except work so little things can become big. The stories that are small become more significant when you slow down the pace. In this world of strict rules, a hand touch is very important.

What were the different interpretations that Walken gave you of the line concerning baby goats
He did have a few. This was an Aoife Episode. The great thing about Chris is he’s aware that he’s Chris Walken, and that everybody is just fascinated with his acting and his speech patterns and how he does it. But I don’t think it affects him in any way. It all comes naturally. I had the opportunity to talk with him about the show for about an hour, and he was kind enough to share some of his acting process. As an actor, it’s amazing just listening to Chris talking about how he does it. He does the goodbye video [as Outie Burt]Says “Good job, buddy,”It always makes me laugh.

"Severance" Season 1 Finale: Director Ben Stiller discusses wild ending

Dylan is Zach Cherry


Zach Cherry is almost synonymous with comedy. You’re surprised that he could reach the emotional depths Dylan has reached in these last few episodes.
Zach is an exceptional actor. He was the first actor I ever saw on television. Succession. His natural comedy charm was amazing to me. He’s so unforced. I told him, “At the beginning of this season, he’s so unforced.” “How do you feel about where we’re going to go with the character?” He hadn’t had a lot of experience doing scenes like that, but I could tell he was game, and he took it very seriously, figuring out how to approach those scenes. He’s just a naturally low-key guy, so even when he’s being intense, there’s a naturalness; it’s always still him. I think he’s a really special actor.

Zach plays a key role in one of the most memorable sequences of the season, the Music Dance Experience. It starts out as a fun thing but then turns into something very dark and menacing. This was an extremely difficult sequence, both to put together and mentally.
I was so excited. Dan and I discussed it all the time. “Do we do it, do we not do it?”We came up with a way of making it an integral part of the story. It was already there before we could figure out how to make it part of the episode. Dan was always the one I was lobbying. “Let’s do the Music Dance Experience,”It was because I thought it would only be possible in this show. But he wanted a story reason, and then we had to figure out the right music, the combination of the elements, Tramell’s talent as a dancer — which I had no idea about! His moves were so unique, bizarre, entertaining, and incredible. Adam’s white-guy dance, the stiffest thing, that makes me laugh. Everybody had a unique way of dancing and the actors were able bring that to life. One of the moments I really like in that is when Milchick is setting it up and wheeling out the cart and pulls out the instruments, there’s a shot of Mark looking over to see what’s going on, and you could just see for Mark, in this situation, it was almost like a kid, so fascinating for an Innie to see what a Music Dance Experience is.

What did Dan, you and everybody talk about about the Innies’ knowledge of the outside world? Do they have any musical memories? Do they have taste?
It was a constant conversation. “How much is ingrained, and what do they know?” How does Irving know how to drive a car when he’s on the outside? We had to make these decisions, and part of the fun of the show is what bleeds through that they’re not aware of. John spent a lot of time thinking about Irving and his Outie. We will soon see Season Two and learn little more about John’s thoughts about Irving in terms of his Outie.

Helly is our PInnie space character OV. Britt Lower, what did you love about her?
Her reading was captivating. She had a depth and a look that made me feel like Helly was rebellious and is the one who makes the changes. She had this strong quality. I found her funny and Adam had chemistry with her when she read to me. I didn’t realize they had done a couple of episodes of a show [Ghosted]A few years back, she was still in her prime. She was strong, with an uncanny look.

What interested you about Dan’s script in the first place?
Sometimes it’s easy to connect with something when you read it. It brought back memories of the shows I loved. I remember being astonished when I first started to read the office banter. “This is so much that I know from watching The Office and Office Space and this genre of comedy that’s developed over the last 20 years.”He was then adding another layer to it, and flipping it. I thought it was very unique. It is reminiscent of things I have always loved, but it is its own thing. That got me excited. It was just a gut feeling, but he had created a tone I hadn’t seen before.

"Severance" Season 1 Finale: Director Ben Stiller discusses wild ending

Tillman and lower

Atsushi Nishijima/AppleTV+

Which were your influences when you directed this project?
You probably already know that I love Seventies movies. You can watch them all. [cinematographer] Jessica Lee Gagné and I worked together on Dannemora, we looked at photography, like Lars Tunbjörk, Lynne Cohen, and others. I love to look at the pictures. [Alan J.]Pakula movies, just to frame. We had a visual idea of the vibe. Tonally, humor-wise the rhythms Dan wrote reminded of great comedies. Just watched it all. The OfficeWith my daughter. I knew it was great, but it’s so amazing how funny that show is, and how simple it is. There’s a simplicity to that show in terms of these characters in that one environment, so the audience knows that when a situation comes up, you can almost imagine how the characters are going to react to it.

In your twenties, you were already acting. Do you have any experience working in an office environment?
No. It was a job as a talent internship that got me the closest to an office job. Thicke of the NightAlan Thicke, 1983. It was more like Xeroxing stuff and walking the guests out. Charlton Heston would take me to his car. I was a busboy and waiter in a camera shop. My real experience with office culture comes from watching TV and movies.

The show, among other things is a triumph of production design. How did you envision the main office space?
It evoked a sense of nothingness and blandness that was the first thing I noticed when I read it. It was clear that we needed to create a boring environment that would be both interesting and not monotonous. Jeremy Hindle was hired as the production designer. We knew that the exterior needed to be found. It could have been in the Fifties, Sixties or Eighties. It was important to find a stark structure. We found it in the Bell Labs building. [in Holmdel, NJ]We started with the interior details of the building. We didn’t want it to be limited to one year. I think there’s a logic to all of the technology of the show. They want the severed people to stay severed, so they don’t want them to have digital technology where they could contact the outside world. Then you can think back to the last renovation and how they deliberately kept it low-tech. It took a lot of thought.

I was shocked when Helly revealed that she is an Eagan during the finale. What a revelation!
That was something we knew when we cast her. We also knew she would be able to pull it off. She has this sophistication. As we did this show, I thought constantly. “How much is giving away too much?”It was hard to find out. I’m glad that was a surprise for you. Reddit is full of theories and I’m sure some people knew that. I’m amazed at how people react to the show and how much they want to know. It is amazing. I was sure somebody would have been there when we made the show. [would]The license can be frozen during the freeze-frame

Are you unsure when the second season will begin production?
Our goal is to get production underway by the end of this year.

What if that were possible, would you be able to bring the show back in 2023
Possibly, possibly, yeah.


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