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Ben Stiller Explains How ‘Severance’ Became The Rare Streaming Show That’s Actually Good

US actor Ben Stiller attends the premiere of Apple TV+'s "Severance" at the DGA (Directors Guild of America) theatre in Los Angeles, April 8, 2022.
Photo by Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images

The fictional world of Severance is not unlike the fictional world of Hollywood. In the case of the Apple TV+ series, employees at the biotech company Lumon Industries are “severed”—a chip is implanted in their heads which separates their work selves (innies) from their outside selves (outies). In the case of Hollywood, there is the outside version we see and the inside version we often don’t. We see what is shown to us on screen and on the red carpet, but only little of what is behind that. And with the mega-corporatization and ultra-consolidation of both the media and Hollywood, there is not much room to demand anything beyond the crumbs we are offered. That’s why press tours these days often have the same handful of publications asking the same handful of questions.

The discourse around Severance has been slightly more elevated, including coverage on the subject of labor issues, being that the innies at the center of the story—played by Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, and John Turturro—stage an uprising. This isn’t an overly radical show, but its ideas are radical within late capitalism and match a wider global unrest. Still, queries tend to revolve around the pristine execution of the show’s fictional characters and the world at its center, which first-time showrunner Dan Erickson conceived while disassociating from his boring desk job. This includes Severance’s various influences, from the photographs of Lars Tunbjörk to Office Space to the video game The Stanley Parable to the minimalist analogue set design of the Lumon offices that keeps the innies cut off from the outside world. “Every desk in the ‘60s, ‘70s, up to the ‘80s, everything was pristine: You had a pen, you had a phone, you just went to work,” production designer Jeremy Hindle told Thrillist. “And then it all got fucked up. You brought your home life to work, and now everybody’s a mess.”

For Severance to turn out the way it did, however, it had to be secured at Apple first. Erickson originally sent in the script for the pilot as a writing sample to Red Hour Films, Ben Stiller’s production company. Usually in Hollywood unsolicited scripts end up on the slush pile. This one was turned by Apple into a pitch-perfect piece of art, a nearly impossible feat in the saturated streaming era. At a recent Severance panel discussion, moderator Judd Apatow joked, “it makes it worth watching 10,000 hours of shit to see a masterwork like this.” And an article in Gawker about the central labor plot was promoted with the line, “Finally, a show that doesn’t suck.” Executive producer Stiller—he also directed six episodes, with producer Aoife McArdle helming the other three—has stressed how much the pandemic helped improve the show because of how much time the shut downs bought them, noting to Entertainment Weekly, “every time we had to stop on this project, I think it only helped us in the creative process, because there were always questions we were trying to figure out the answers to.” But plenty of series were made in the pandemic that are not half as good as this.

It seems part of this success story is related to how young Apple TV+ is. Severance, so acclaimed by fans and critics that a second season was announced two days before its finale, was commissioned by the streamer in 2019, the year it launched. The streaming wars had already started by this point, and Apple TV+ was sauntering onto the battlefield with no content library or proven intellectual property in hand. Fortune reports that Apple's subscriber base is about one-tenth the size of Netflix’s. It has also reportedly lost a couple billion dollars since starting up—though, on a net income of $95 billion last year, Apple can afford it. Especially since Ted Lasso, an early purchase from Warner Bros., won seven Emmys last year. Even if its original shows, from For All Mankind to Servant to Pachinko, aren’t all breakout hits, they have the kind of smooth prestige that fits the brand. Apple reportedly spent up to $15 million per episode on its first wave of series like The Morning Show and offers around $10 million on average. (Meanwhile, Netflix reportedly invested $130 million in two seasons of its most prestigious show, The Crown, which sounds like a ton but only comes to around $3 million an episode.) It is estimated Apple plans to spend $8 billion on content in 2022. And having just become the first streamer to win a best picture Oscar with CODA, which Apple acquired at Sundance last year for a record $25 million, that suddenly seems like a lot less of a gamble. Regardless, CEO Tim Cook said in a January earnings call, “We don’t make purely financial decisions about the content. We try to find great content that has a reason for being.”

When I emailed Ben Stiller (long story) to ask if I could talk to him for this piece, he said yes without even knowing what Defector was. Part of this story is that Stiller is kind—no small thing in Hollywood and no doubt a big help when you are looking to do good work. We were supposed to talk on the phone for 15 minutes, but he gave me 30. Alone in his car, driving on the West Side Highway, we talked about how the best show on television came to be.

(The interview is condensed for clarity, mostly on my end because apparently my brain malfunctions when I talk to Ben Stiller.)

Thank you for doing this at the last minute. You have spoken a ton about making the show in terms of the way it looks and all that kind of thing. But my question is more, how do you actually make a good show right now, in this climate of terrible streaming shows? How is Apple different from other places, because they seem to be doing a lot of good shows? This is a huge preamble. But my question for you is how did Severance end up at Apple? And how were you able to do what you wanted?

I remember Jackie Cohn, the creative exec at our company, read it and loved it. It was a writing sample from Dan [Erickson]. It wasn’t meant to be something to actually produce. But I really, really connected with it. And then our company pitched it out. There aren’t that many real buyers out there. I mean, there are more now, but in terms of places that you feel could make something at the level you want to make it. Apple were the ones who stepped up. This is five years ago when they were really just starting up and it was all a little bit unclear what it was going to be at that time. It’s like, “Oh, Apple is going to do a streamer also.” It was like this idea of a place, like this idea that wasn’t a reality.

By the way, do you have some time? I mean, I have some time to talk to you, like more than 15 minutes?

Yes, I have time for you, Ben Stiller.

OK, cool. I sometimes get stressed about these things because I know they have to be a certain amount of time.

So, just, overall, I know very little about how they work at Apple. I can surmise, knowing that they were starting up, they have to start from zero. So, there must be so much development that they have to do. They had the general idea of not going for quantity, but going for quality, knowing that they couldn’t compete with Netflix on that level and that amount of content. So, I think they had to pick and choose. But even in that world, they still have to create a lot. I think, from the beginning, they had a real need to make a mark in some way. And so, they reached out to a lot of very recognizable actors and creators, because they knew they had to kind of jump in and get noticed. I can’t understand how you start something like this—it’s just really hard to imagine how you would come in with the responsibility of having to start, like, a brand-new huge platform.

I mean, I think you start with having several billions of dollars that you're willing to lose.

Exactly, exactly. But the scale of that is really hard to imagine for me.

The experience I’ve had with Apple has been very positive and, weirdly, very personal in terms of the way that the people running the company have reached out to people who are creating for them. Because they were starting from nothing, I think they were figuring it out as they went along. So, from the beginning there were creative conversations with them about the story and about casting, which we went back and forth on for a while. But what I found was they always had a respect for the people they were working with. Like they really made a point of saying, “We want to work with you because we want to tap into your creativity.” So that always felt genuine. I know that they must be having so many conversations similar to the ones they’re having with me with the creators of all their other shows, but they do genuinely connect with you in a way where you feel like, “OK, they care what we’re about and what we want.” And sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no.

It’s this kind of interesting thing of being in from the ground up. We’re, I guess, Apple’s second generation of shows, but it kind of reminds me a little bit of The Ben Stiller Show at the early-stage Fox Network back in ‘92 or so. It didn’t quite go as well—that was a more old-school mentality. I think that Apple really embrace people who have a point of view. I’ve sometimes wondered how much they’re having to manage in that way. Because I feel like with this show, we sort of learned on the job.

What do you mean?

I mean, basically this is the first thing Dan Erickson’s had produced. So, he was thrown into a traditional situation of running a writers’ room. For me, I don’t come out of that world, believe it or not. Like the writers’ room thing for me has never been something I’ve had a lot of experience with. I haven’t particularly ever really loved that process. I get what it is and it’s necessary when you have to create a lot of scripts. But Dan hadn’t run a writer’s room before. And so what Dan and I decided to do, after looking at a number of his scripts, was to go back to the drawing board. We had Dan basically rewrite almost all the scripts of the first season, and work with the writers, who are all really confident writers, but making sure that his voice was in them. That was something we all agreed on. All those writers contributed a lot and are actually coming back for a second season, but it was very important for Dan’s voice to be the main voice in there. I felt like the show needed to kind of go in its own direction, it wasn’t anything from Apple at all. And they have always had very smart notes, and they’re very sharp, but at the end of the day, this comes down to, basically, subjective choice in which way you want to go. And there was a freedom there. For whatever reason, there was the freedom that they gave us to explore that.

I think the smartest thing that you probably did was to allow Dan Erickson to keep hold of the key to Severance because that’s what gives it cohesion. That’s what makes it so good.

And maybe that’s something that gets lost in the television system these days, because sometimes it’s not as streamlined, and it takes a little longer.

It seems like everything you need to make a good show—money, time, and the freedom you’re talking about—you don’t have that when you work at, say, Netflix. So, there's a lot of real cheap looking stuff there now.

No matter what, I’m sure all those people making those shows are trying to get as much time and budget and creative control as they can. And sometimes you’re just not lucky enough that they will give you those parameters and you’re trying to get your thing produced.

Right. You’re not like Christopher Nolan or something.

Yeah, exactly. And I think, you know, the creative instinct of Christopher Nolan versus somebody who’s making one of those shows might not be that different. It’s just he’s allowed that leeway. And I think we were lucky enough to have that.

I’ve been told Hollywood is an industry that’s almost entirely based on precedent. That’s why they’re doing all the IP stuff—because it’s pre-existing. How do you get Apple to say yes to a guy who has no experience?

Well, I think it might have been circumstantial. They were starting up and they were looking to work with people that they knew. And they knew me, and they knew Red Hour, obviously. But I think us shepherding the project and saying, “Hey, this is something we’re really excited about,” they were open to. I mean, honestly, I have to give Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht [heads of worldwide video for Apple TV+] credit because they read the thing. I didn’t know who they were at the time. I learned they had worked at Sony Pictures Television, but I had never worked with them. They were just a couple of guys, executives on the phone who I was talking to a lot early on. And they were genuinely like, “We think this is a really cool concept.” I think they honestly thought, “Oh this is something that could be universally relatable to people.” Nobody knew the world that we would be in when the show finally came out, of course. But I think it was something that in their mind could be a really interesting and successful show. So, I give them credit for that.

Does the show look like the sample pilot Dan Erickson originally wrote? He mentioned in other interviews it was a bit Charlie Kaufman-esque and a bit weird.

Honestly, I haven’t looked at the original for a long time. In my mind, as I remember it, I feel like the pilot is kind of close to what was written originally. But I was talking to Dan the other day, and he said there was, like, a pair of legs running around with no torso attached at one point in the hallways? I was like, “Really?” But he has that kind of mind where sometimes you have to go, like, “OK, well, what can we actually believe in reality here?” But that’s what I love about him is that there’s a rationale in his head for what it is. It was really the development of the story that went through the most evolution.

You’ve mentioned that the hardest thing to balance in Severance was the humor and the seriousness. But I feel like that’s kind of your thing. What was so hard about it here and how did you end up balancing it?

I think I might have said this in an interview, but I really do feel like it might have been funnier on the page, and I might have made it less funny. I think I got more interested in the tone and the feeling of the place and the weirdness and the undertones, than just the humor. But I always responded first to that first scene. [Not quite the first but in it, Mark (Adam Scott) arrives at the office to coworker Dylan (Zach Cherry), greeting him with, “You’re breathing shitty—you sick?”] It just felt to me like such a classic office comedy tone. In terms of what made it hard, it was more in developing the twists and turns of the plot, so that it felt like a consistent reality in which you could buy the funnier, weird things that are happening. It was really more just jumping in and saying, “OK, gut feeling does this work, does this jive with what’s happening in the rest of the show.” But the other thing is, I think when the actors came on board, when we got John Turturro, someone who invests so much in the reality, even the funny moments, it just gave it a weight. I felt like that started to define the tone a little more. It was definitely not something that I knew how it was going to turn out—I had an idea. But then as I started to watch the actors do their thing, it was like, “Oh, yeah, I believe this, because they’re believing it.” It’s sort of an obvious thing in acting, but if the actors are believing it, then you as an audience will believe it. And I saw that start to happen.

Yeah, particularly the way John Turturro quotes the office handbook, like he’s having a religious experience.

He’s not fooling around, John Turturro. I felt like it got me excited when I started to watch what he was doing.

Everyone keeps talking about the lack of adult stuff to watch. And there’s this really nice, quiet maturity to Turturro’s romance with Christopher Walken [who plays another Lumon employee, in a separate department] in Severance. It’s just kind of sweet. Was that always there?

That was in Dan’s scripts from the beginning. You might have read that John suggested Chris for the role and I think that made a difference in their chemistry, because they really have a great friendship. That was something that had this sort of whimsical, and sort of very sweet nature about it that was juxtaposed to a lot of the other stuff that was going on. But that, to me, is what Dan does. And it was really exciting when John read it, and then Chris read it and liked it. I think that’s such a good indication too, when you’re working on something, when the actors are attracted to the material, because I think they saw that opportunity in it for this really beautiful connection. I liked that about the show, too—it’s not the most action happening in the world, but I think those things are really special.

The most action-y things are the most boring things.

I know. I love action, actually, when it’s justified. And when there is a chance to have action happen in the show, I really enjoy that too. But that isn’t what our show is.

When you did the talk with Judd Apatow, there was, kind of a hint at the irony of doing a show about labor rights at a huge corporation at a place like Apple. In terms of not compromising what you want to do, I was wondering if that did occur to you? Or if that’s just a thing in late capitalism you have to ignore?

Yeah, I mean, it’s really hard, because you want to have the opportunity to create the show and make your art and do your thing. But the reality is you’re working for a big mega-corporation. I think this show was going to exist wherever it was going to be, whatever platform it was going to be on. I think the reality of Apple and a lot of these big companies is that it’s all very complicated and you have to make your own moral decisions for yourself. The cynical side of it is, a lot of people will say, “Oh, you’re just selling iPhones.” I don’t look at it that way, though. The creative interchange of people seeing the show makes a difference to me, and how people are affected by it. Whether they have feelings about Apple or any other corporation, they’re allowing us to make the show on their platform. And we’re obviously not censored. So, I had to reconcile that with myself. And it’s not uncomplicated, but, where I come from now is that I want to be making a show and getting it out to the world. It’s also kind of interesting that this show, in particular, is on Apple and not an old network. I think they’re not not self-aware.

I'm sure they understand what's going on.

What are you doing this piece for?

Defector. I don’t know if you ever read Deadspin but the guys who defected from that site—that was actually a labor story too—started their own site. It’s basically a sports site, but I do culture stuff there. I didn’t actually know you would talk to me when I pitched this, but I knew I was going to write a piece about how you make a show right now.

I think it’s actually a really interesting idea for a piece too, because that is a good question. In this day and age, it really has changed so much in terms of this vast need for content that exists. I do think that, as creators, no matter how smart the platform is, or your partners are, you have to self-police more—in a good way. I love getting good notes, but I hate bad notes. I think if you have the ability to really look at your own work and be self-critical in the development stage, you should probably be doing that. It can sometimes let something go off in a direction if the person making it is not really thinking that much about it. It’s good to have that freedom but you also have to take that responsibility on yourself and go, “OK, are we really asking the right questions?”

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