The actor, who directed most of Apple's new sci-fi mystery, reflects on its journey: "We put our all into it."

When Ben Stiller first read the pilot script for Severance, COVID was years away, Apple TV+ hadn't even been announced, and Zendaya was best known as a Disney Channel star. Our point is, it was a while ago, and though Severance finally premiered on Friday, a part of Stiller, who shepherded the show's development and directed most of it, still can't quite believe it.

"I think it's the longest thing I've ever worked on," he says of his second prestige-TV directing gig, after Showtime's 2018 miniseries Escape at Dannemora. "And when you work on something that long, you get so used to it just being something that exists within the small group of people who are working on it. But now, it's weird — it feels like it's almost happening very quickly."

But Stiller is grateful the project has finally seen the light of day. "I definitely have that feeling that we put our all into it," he says. "Hopefully, it's one of those shows where people can discuss what they get from it or what stands out to them. I like the possibility of people having different feelings about it."

Severance stars Adam Scott as an employee of Lumon Industries, a mysterious corporation where people can have their office lives literally separated from their personal lives via surgical procedure. For eight hours a day, "severed" workers have no knowledge of their comings and goings beyond the office, while their outside-of-work selves have no idea what they do for a living.

"With any of these characters, there's so much there to explore, because [you wonder], how much are they actually experiencing what their severed self is, and what feelings are coming through subconsciously for them?" Stiller muses. "All those things were part of where the feeling of a scene might go. And that was really fun to explore."

With the first two episodes of Severance now streaming on Apple TV+, Stiller spoke to EW about his long journey with the show, finding its tone and visual style, and what it has to say about the world we live in.

Adam Scott and Britt Lower in “Severance,” now streaming on Apple TV+
Adam Scott and Britt Lower in 'Severance'
| Credit: Apple TV+

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you tell me about how you first encountered this project?

BEN STILLER: It was a long time ago — five-plus years ago. We got Dan Erickson's [pilot script] at our production company, and Jackie Cohn, who is our development executive, thought it was great, and she gave me the script. It was supposed to be a writing sample, but I read it and was like, "This is great. Is anybody trying to make this?" It just immediately jumped off the page to me in terms of Dan's style and his tone, and I thought it was a great pilot. Cut to five years later, here we are.

What in particular struck you about the script and made you respond to it so strongly?

There was something in the tone of it that reminded me of these office workplace comedies I'd seen over the last 20 years in movies and television that sort of developed as a genre unto themselves. To me, it was almost like he was playing with this familiar tone and comedic cadence in the dialogue of people who joke with each other and banter at the office. And yet there was this other layer to it, which was the question of: who are they, what are they doing, why are they there? And none of them even knew that. So it had this surreal undertone. Right from the beginning, I was just taken by that, because it felt familiar yet different. And I started imagining what that world looked like, and that was really exciting to think about.

Tell me about the road it took from there — why did it take so long to actually make it?

Well, it takes a long time to get things that are a little bit different made. When we brought the script to Apple, they said to Dan, "We'd like to have you write a bunch of scripts." So they put together a writers' room, and Dan started working on the scripts. That took a little while, and I think I was working on Escape at Dannemora at the time. And then when they had gotten a bunch of scripts, we spent a bit of time reworking them and really figuring out the tone and pace of the show, and how much to actually reveal in the first season, because Dan had all these amazing ideas. So that [also] took a little while.

Once we were actually casting it and starting to prep the show, it was six months or so before the pandemic hit. We were about six weeks away from starting to shoot in March of 2020, which was when everything got upended for everybody. We eventually ramped back up and started shooting in November of 2020, and then we were shooting through the pandemic and all the craziness that was involved with that; we had to shut down a number of times during the shoot for COVID protocols. So it's been a long and slow process, but 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.

You mentioned that it took time to figure out the right tone. The show has an interesting blend of tones to it — it's funny, it's creepy, it's sorrowful at times. How did you arrive at the proper tonal balance?

For me, what was most interesting about what Dan wrote was that it [gave] the opportunity to have a few different things going on at the same time — the balance of that humor versus the anxiety underneath it, and the questions of, is there a sci-fi aspect to this, or is it a workplace comedy, and how weird is it? The fun of it was trying to figure that out and play with that. Dan laid it out in his writing, but then the casting and the approach each actor took to it really ended up informing that. The hope I had was that we were going to figure it out as we went along: That feels like too much, or this feels like it might be too broad or that might be too weird, or, how do we ground this moment? It was a constant conversation that was going on for a couple of years, really, back and forth with Dan and the actors.

Zach Cherry, John Turturro, and Adam Scott in 'Severance'
| Credit: Apple TV +

In terms of the world-building on the show, how did you decide how much backstory and information to reveal to the audience?

That [process] was just, again, sort of figuring it out as we went along. I felt like you needed to tell the audience a certain amount so that they felt like they're not just seeing all this weird stuff that has no reason for existing. Or even if it did have a reason for existing, we had to figure out a time to give them some answers, while always acknowledging that the questions were really interesting for them to live in too. Dan is such a creative guy, and he has thoughts and reasons for all this stuff that sometimes I wasn't expecting. So I'd ask him, and the actors would ask questions about why they're doing certain things. And he would give his answers, and sometimes I would question those answers, and then we'd go back and forth: If that's happening, then how is this happening? It was a constant dialogue.

But in terms of the world itself, there had to be a reason why everything was the way it was. Even if there was something we wanted to put in there just because we thought it was visually interesting, there was always some sort of a reason for it. Even if that choice was made because, aesthetically, it was the more interesting choice. We wanted to always make sure there was a motivation for it on some level.

Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller
| Credit: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

To touch on those aesthetic elements, I love the retro style of the office, with the old-school computers and all that. How did you arrive at that look for the set?

The first idea behind it was that there was a reason why, on the severed floor, everything is kind of retro: It's because they're being kept cut off from the outside world. Then, because Dan had written this nondescript office building as the Lumon headquarters, we started thinking about when it was actually built. And then we found the Bell Labs building [in New Jersey, which stood in for Lumon HQ on screen], which had been built in the late '50s and early '60s. And that sort of keyed everything in. We started thinking, "If they built the building then, what was on that spot before? Did Lumon always own that land?" We figured out a reason and a sort of mythology for how that Lumon building was built, where it was, and when they built the severed floors. That was fun to think about and get into, but it was fed by finding this really great location, and then we started to tap into all our design elements based on that building.

The cast of 'Severance'
| Credit: Wilson Webb/Apple TV +

How did the discussions that have arisen recently around work-life balance and burnout impact the show and what you wanted to say with it?

Honestly, it wasn't intentionally commenting in any way on what's going on now, because all the scripts had been written before March of 2020. But as we were existing in it and making the show, we started to feel what everybody was feeling in terms of the lack of separation of work and home life. Since we were actually going to work in this really austere, clinical, and kind of disconnected environment that we were shooting in, I think everybody was starting to feel it. But there's always been that question of the work-life balance, and then it started to change as we were making the show. It's interesting to me looking at the show now in the context of where we are, because it seems like [work-life balance] is a lot less delineated [in real life] than it is in the show. I did probably 80 percent of the editing of the show in my office in my house.

And, you know, there was stuff that was going on with the union crews during our shoot, where there was almost a strike with [the labor union] IATSE because of the feeling people were having about working too many hours in movie and television production, which has always been an issue. And that didn't come out by accident. It was because in this environment, people were starting to feel, "What are we all doing here? We're spending so much of our lives working and sometimes to the point of it not being safe. What is the purpose of that, especially when you start to look at what our priorities are in the world right now?" So [that discussion] was kind of impossible to escape in making the show.

Severance is streaming now on Apple TV+.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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