Ben Stiller and Adam Scott: Eternal Sunshine of the Severed Mind

February 17, 2022
In futuristic dark comedy series Severance, Scott plays the lead role while Stiller called the shots behind the camera.

Having issues finding a work-life balance? In Apple TV+’s dark comedy series Severance, one company offers a solution – its employees undergo a “severance” procedure to surgically divide their memories between their work and personal lives.

With Patricia Arquette in the role of Lumon Industries boss, she sinisterly monitors her employees – all of whom have all elected to undergo the experimental procedure for various reasons, including depression, grief or bereavement.

However, this dubious experiment in ‘work-life balance’ is called into question when Adam Scott’s newly-promoted office boss Mark Scout finds himself at the centre of an unraveling mystery, forcing him to confront the true nature of his work… and of his real self.

Mark and his colleagues work on a restricted floor at Lumon where, in Lumon lingo, severed employees become “innies” when a special elevator delivers them to the subterranean “severed” each day, featuring endless fluorescent-lit hallways, secretive personnel and office equipment that is way more sophisticated than it appears.

At each day’s end, the innies revert to “outies”, remembering nothing of their Lumon day, not even each other. What happens at Lumon stays at Lumon.

In 2016, Dan Erickson’s pilot script for Severance became the first TV script to make the annual BloodList, a genre-specific top ten of un-produced screenplays, á la the Black List.

With six episodes directed by Ben Stiller, this nine-part workplace thriller features a stellar cast including John Turturro, Christopher Walken, Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, Tramell Tillman and Dichen Lachman.

FilmInk talked work-life balance with Adam Scott and series director Ben Stiller.

What appealed to you about Dan Erickson’s script?

BEN STILLER: It was original, which I definitely appreciated. I felt that it was a specific tone and world that felt familiar yet different to me, like I was exploring a great concept with such a specific voice which made me laugh but also felt unsettling. I just loved how much possibility there was within the show to have a mix of different feelings and the environment of the show felt at times unsettling but also really funny, and I loved that about it. It was something I wanted to see. It’s about life and human nature. Mark is trying to make sense of his life – the pain, the drudgery, the monotony – and severance offers him an opportunity to shut off from a lot of that. In different contexts, different aspects of his personality come out. He’s ultimately trying to become a whole person but his two severed selves need more than they have to be complete.

ADAM SCOTT: I had never read anything like it, certainly not something that I had an opportunity to be a part of and it was exactly my taste; the big hooky idea which is the kind of science fiction that I love that introduces you to a new idea but also reflecting things about the world that we’re living in now – and I desperately wanted to work with Ben again [The Secret Life of Walter Mitty]. And also, the world that Dan had created felt like it had a history to it and it’s really three-dimensional and many feet deep as well. You feel like this company has been around for a long time and ingrained in everyday culture of America in the way he wrote it and was skillfully able to get that across.

Ben, why didn’t you want to act in this yourself?

BEN: I just didn’t want to act in it because I haven’t been doing that for a little while – acting and directing – so I appreciated not doing both at the same time and enjoying just doing one thing at a time. And I loved the idea of what this show could be in terms of the concept and the first person I thought of was not myself at all – but Adam Scott and his unique set of talents which I thought would be perfect for this world. He so skillfully has this ability to create a tone in his characters that can operate both comedically but also dramatically. He captures the essence of a character that you feel you almost know but there’s also so much other stuff going on inside of him. I felt like this gave him an opportunity to explore a lot of things that he does so well in one role.

Were you able to draw upon any office drudgery experiences of your own?

BEN: I haven’t had that much drudgery in the workplace. I’ve been lucky enough to do what I love doing for most of my life. And anytime I was doing a job that I didn’t love, I was really bad at it so I either quit or got fired.

How good are you at balancing your own work and private life?

ADAM: I would say that I’m getting better. With a family and kids, I was always trying to leave the phone in another room because I think in show business, as well as in most industries now, work doesn’t end when you leave the threshold of your job. There are emails and texts and people are communicating 24 hours a day, and so I remember when the kids were little, really trying to get that phone in the other room because I didn’t want to have them wait for me to finish writing an email to my agent or something. But I didn’t always do it perfectly. But now that my kids are teenagers and they don’t care what I do or say, it’s actually quite easy.

What were your inspirations for designing the look and style of the show?

BEN: It was a bunch of different influences which came up just in reading it, unconscious and subconscious images and ideas of everything I’ve watched and read, and photography I’ve looked at; all the things that you bring whenever you go into a project. And then it just became about sitting down with our production designer [Nick Francone and Jeremy Hindle] and cinematographer [Jessica Lee Gagne] and looking at some movies and photography and talking about the ideas as to the reason why this place is the way it is. One of the biggest things was finding the location for Lumon Industries and the building but once we’d found that building, it felt so right for me in terms of what the aesthetic of the show was, that we took the design cues from that building in creating that set. We wanted it to be simple and stark.

What specific qualities does Adam Scott bring to the character of Mark Scout?

BEN: Adam is a really great actor, and you see the emotions cross his face, reacting to the environment around him, and I think a lot of this story is about Mark trying to really connect with himself in this world, both the inside and the outside world which are both pretty cold and austere. We’ve always looked at the show as the two halves of Mark trying to reconnect with each other. There are definitely some elements of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in that, which is a brilliant movie. In our story, Mark is more in a world where he’s trying to also figure out who he is on the inside. But the exciting thing is his work as ‘outie Mark’. He’s a complicated character dealing with a lot of grief and depression. Adam brought that in a sensitive way. He never asks the audience to like him. The juxtaposition of those two selves is great to watch, especially as the season develops. Also, Adam is an amazingly consistent and disciplined actor and he’s beyond professional. He was the rock of this shoot which went on for many, many months in very tough conditions.

Severance speaks directly to the reality of our current day experiences where work intersects with our lives. What do you think about the idea of “severance” being an option in order for us to achieve some kind of balance?

BEN: I have to say that the way that work and life has really melded, just in making the show and editing it – we edited the show 80% remotely. So, it’s changed the way that I would now come home and still work; my editor and I would talk on the phone, and he would say, ‘Hey, I’ve just put my son to bed so we can work from 9 – 10.30pm’, or ‘Let’s work tomorrow for half an hour here and half an hour there’. It used to be that you’d go into work and go into the editing room and spend ten hours there, so all of that has changed. And I think the way we are at work – like to be one way with somebody and to turn and talk to your family and be in a different dynamic is almost schizophrenic sometimes. It makes you feel like you’re living in two different realities, sometimes right on top of each other, and we do compartmentalise in a way that I think we haven’t done that before because I think we’re going in and out of it a lot during the day, so it’s a strange thing.

Severance premieres globally on Friday, February 18, 2022 with new episodes premiering weekly on Friday thereafter, exclusively on Apple TV+


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