The idea of separating work and personal life has been a pipe dream for many, but given the current state of the world, where work and home life have been inextricably intertwined, it’s something many are thinking about a lot.
Between the pandemic and working from home, where it’s common for most to get out of bed, walk to our desks and start working for hours and then hitting the sack without even leaving the house, life becomes mundane and work becomes a pain, or vice versa. There’s hardly a chance to escape one life or the other and given the chance to disconnect many of us would.
Including the employees at Lumon.
“It’s an experience that is universal, that people can identify with. This idea of wanting to cut off when they go to work every day and do the things they don’t want to do and not experience the pain of life. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just flip a switch and not have to experience boredom?” said director Ben Stiller in a roundtable interview with Geek Culture.
Stiller’s latest Apple TV+ series Severance questions how far one would go to achieve a perfect work/life balance. It centres around a man named Mark Scout (Adam Scott), a leader of a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives, through a medical procedure known as ‘severance’.
A sci-fi, thriller and satire series, Severance is unlike any other project Stiller has worked on, of which most tend to skew towards light, family comedies. Whilst some might call Severance’s premise outlandish, or far out in the future. Stiller begs to differ. In fact, the 56-year-old actor/director had done plenty of research in preparation for the series and learned that such a procedure could potentially happen.
Referencing Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s ‘Neuralink’ brain microchip, Stiller said, “I guess it was semi science-fictiony, but not really because this technology exists. I mean, I just saw Elon Musk promoting this new company, that’s doing this exact same thing. It’s actually a thing so it’s not that crazy!”
“We consulted with a neurosurgeon and a couple of doctors to talk about what this reality would be. It could happen in some form,” he continued.
What pulled Stiller to the project, however, wasn’t just genre or the topic that was being explored and discussed. It was simply the script.
Written by Dan Erickson, Severance is a world that unveiled what is both familiar and strange. It is pristine and brightly lit, with perks for high achievers, homey slogans to foster conformity, and a voluminous compliance handbook to clarify the rules. But there are also enough shadows and gaps in this hidden world to trigger suspense, dark humour and a surprisingly tender forbidden relationship.
The unsettling duality was undoubtedly fascinating for the director, and gave him the opportunity to expand on an already popular ‘office-based’ genre that many have grown familiar with like The Office and Office Space.
Interestingly enough, Stiller didn’t think to take the lead role for himself. When presented with the script, the actor immediately thought of Scott.
Maybe it has something to do with doing too much work and finding some sort of balance. Like not acting and directing at the same time.
“I was just really drawn to it because I thought it was a fascinating, well-written script. And as a director, that’s where I was first drawn to it. Adam immediately came into my mind – I never thought about acting in it. Adam was the dream casting for this character,” explained Stiller.
“Tonally, I think there’s like a comedic sense that he has that he can play within these office work spaces that he’s really perfected. But then there’s this whole other level to it. This whole other deeper level that, you know, is going on both at work and at home that I knew he could bring to it also – there was no question in my mind, he was the guy.”
Many sitcom lovers would easily recognise Scott as Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation. The actor was twice nominated for the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. Also another workplace comedy, Parks and Recreation focused on a parks department in a small town instead of a secret, mysterious company like Lumon.
And just like Stiller, Scott was equally attracted to the script. To him, viewing each episode of Severance is like cracking open a much deeper, more sinister mystery behind the light workplace comedy.
“I also feel that the story is something that everyone will relate to. It’s something that we’re all sort of feeling right now. And I think you know, on its surface, it’s feeling like a fun workplace comedy when you kind of enter the story, but there’s something else lurking underneath, and getting in there and cracking open that mystery is a lot of fun,” said Scott in the same interview.
Working with Stiller was another plus point for the actor.
“I think it’s unlike anything else that’s out there, and I think Ben’s vision and the visuals of the show are just unbelievable. He and our DP, Jessica [Lee Gagné] just really went to a whole new level for television,” continued Scott.
“Just being on the sets was unbelievable and then seeing what they did, how they shot them, and how they shot the characters and the overall tone and look of the show is unbelievable.”
Stiller and Scott frequently mention how Severance is highly relatable to audiences, despite the sci-fi elements in the series. And perhaps, there is some truth to it. Without even realising, Stiller had unconsciously given in to the pressures of the job, and even struggled to attain a work-life balance himself… all whilst directing a series about the lengths one would go to to achieve that balance.
“It was nine episodes, and originally I was just gonna direct the pilot. And then as we were working on it, I became more and more connected with it and then I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll direct three’, and then we kept on going and I was like ‘Alright maybe I’ll direct more’,” confessed Stiller.
“I honestly was trying to figure out how to not take up all my time. Of course, it never works like that. We ended up not shooting the show traditionally. We ended up shooting all of the episodes in what we call block shooting, so we would shoot everything in one location for every episode and everything in another location for every episode, over the course of nine months,” he continued.
“It was a long shoot so I ended up probably not saving myself any work. But um, that’s how that happened!”
So it seems that there is no balance to be found.
Severance premieres on Feb 18, 2022, exclusively on Apple TV+.
This article was first published in Geek Culture.