Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson won’t say what Lumon does on Severance, but they do think it matters.
The series, which Erickson wrote and created, is executive produced by Stiller, who directed most of the Season 1 episodes. The series follows Mark Scout (Adam Scott) and Helly Riggs (Britt Lower), who are among a group of employees who have agreed to have their work and home lives split into two distinct mental states, neither of which can remember the other. Their work for a company called Lumon involves sorting numbers — but we have no idea why, and neither do they. It’s an exaggerated, darkly funny and occasionally too familiar reflection of the lives of many corporate employees.
In the latest MovieMaker podcast — available above, on Apple, and on Spotify — we asked Erickson and Stiller if it matters what the mysterious Lumon does. We also asked if they even know what Lumon does.
It does, and they do.
“We do have an answer in mind for it,” Erickson explains. “And it’s something that we sort of tried to weave into what’s already there in the show… the themes and stuff that are being explored from the very first episode. How do you take that and expand it to a macro level where it feels like the show is all about one thing?”
Still, he doesn’t think the show, which Apple TV+ has already been picked up for a season season, will succeed or fail depending on the eventual reveal of what Lumon does. He joked that the show could go for 18 years, including “our underwater season and our space season.” But that what people will remember most will be “our characters sitting in a in a cubicle together and talking and trying to figure stuff out.”
“I don’t think people are going to be talking about the big twist of what the company was doing. You can make it important and resonant, but I don’t think it’s the main thing,” Erickson says.
“I tend to agree,” says Stiller. “I think ultimately — even within a season you learn — that that people get engaged with people, and characters, and you grow attached.”
Stiller notes that given the cold world portrayed on Severance, “human interaction doesn’t necessarily seem like it’s the main thing in the show.”
But it is.
“That’s what I’ve always liked about the show, is that it’s sort of a lab for this sort of stark kind of stage for these people to be people and interact with each other. And then for you to hopefully feel something for them, that will help you feel something in your own life — and all that reasons we watch stuff and read and see art and experience art.”
Severance already has a bit of a show-business legend around it, because Erickson worked in several unfulfilling jobs — including delivering Postmates — before Stiller decided that his spec script for the series deserved to become a show. Erickson is now the showrunner of the acclaimed series, after many years of struggle.
Erickson jokes that he encourages the overnight success myth. But in fact, Stiller and executives at his production company, Red Hour Productions, spent years working with Erickson to get the feel and tone of Severance exactly right. Erickson’s original script gained big attention from its placement on the 2016 BloodList, but many elements of it changed significantly when Severance finally aired in February.
Among the biggest changes? It was initially Mark, not Helly, who woke up on that table, completely confused.
On the podcast, Dan Erickson and Ben Stiller go into detail about striking exactly the right tone between mystery, humor and compassion for their characters, played by a murderers’ row of actors including Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken. And Stiller explains what made the version of the Severance pilot that he first read, years ago, stand out from other projects. It had come highly recommended from Jackie Cohn and Nicholas Weinstock, who became executive produces of Severance.
“I love, as a director, finding a piece of material that I can engage with, and that doesn’t come along that often,” Stiller says on the podcast.
Severance is now streaming on Apple TV+.
Main image: Britt Lower as Helly on Severance.