Ben Stiller takes us inside that wild ‘Severance’ finale

When the Innies broke out on the season finale of Severance, all hell broke loose with them.

Narrative, emotional and very stylistically, chaos reigned supreme for Apple TV+’s dystopian workplace drama. The warped but highly controlled portrayal of life on Lumon Industries’ Severed Floor in the previous eight episodes required a rethink to conjure up disorientation for Mark (Adam Scott), Helly (Britt Lower) and Irving (John Turturro) as they arrived at the Workplaces were – which were surgically severed from their off-the-job consciousness – sprung into the bodies of their outies.

“This episode had to break the rules because they’re going through something they’ve never experienced before,” said Ben Stiller, executive producer of Severance and director of episode The Way We Are. “So we thought about viewpoints and tried to be subjective. Up to that point the frames of the show were pretty rigid and we tried to only move the camera when needed.”

Stiller and cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné eschewed the security camera angles typical of the series for almost all of the steadicam footage, although (but also because) it made them uncomfortable.

“We wanted it to feel like you’re walking through the room with the characters and experiencing their energy and stress,” says Gagné, who prefers the lighting control and editing options that come from multi-camera footage. “There was no better way to do that than steadicam if you didn’t want it to look like a gimmick. Even if we don’t like something, if it fits the episode, we’ll do it.”

As the Out Innies quickly find their way around and then attempt to warn of the horrors of working at Lumon, editor Geoffrey Richman set up an urgent, ticking pace. The cut to fourth colleague Dylan (Zach Cherry) – who stayed behind in a Lumon control room and flipped the switches that allowed his friends to escape – eased some transitions.

Then there were the efforts of domineering bosses Cobel (Patricia Arquette) and Milchick (Tramell Tillman) to end the disorder. And other stuff (missing baby, anyone?). Everything converged into simultaneous plot crescendos in the breathless second half of the 40-minute show.

“The strategy was to make it feel like a continuous action,” says Richman. “We focused on keeping the camera moving and letting the scenes flow into each other. When intercutting scenes, we looked for out and in points where they would flow as seamlessly as possible graphically.”

Theodore Shapiro’s continuous, pulsating score was key to the episode’s flow.

“It’s completely composed,” notes Shapiro. “Early on in the show, the music is driven largely by the heart-pounding, underpinning percussion, but by the end we’re down to a full-bodied statement of our main theme. If anything, we build adrenaline and momentum into the more emotional elements of the music.”

Music was just a sound element. Milchick’s pounding footsteps as he hurtled through Lumon’s long, well-trodden corridors were literally created by loud walking. Loop groups contributed to the 360-degree mix of conversations surrounding Helly at a corporate gala — recorded in the Eero Saarinen-designed New Jersey Bell Works building, which also features the exterior of Lumon’s headquarters — where she discovers, that her outie is a corporate heir who is due to give a speech in support of the controversial severance deal.

“Ben wanted the sound to have an anxious, stomach-churning roller coaster feel,” recalls senior sound editor/designer Jacob Ribicoff. “It was a throbbing, low, almost moving rumble. Some of this is from underwater footage of waves. We put that motif into the music, which did similar things.”

Such noises add to Mark’s confusion when he wakes up in his sister’s previously seen house, not knowing the floor plan or who the people there are. Sound effects mingle with Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” as Irv tries to navigate his clue-crammed townhouse.

Helly is even more unbalanced when she sees images of herself pedaling through the Lumon ballroom on giant cubes.

“It was an idea from our visual consultant, Jeff Mann,” says Stiller. “He found a company that makes them. We blew up all these photos; That was one of my favorite script payoffs, seeing Milchick taking pictures all the time. It wasn’t just a photo exhibition, it gave us this funky quality.”

The huge images almost place Lower in Helly’s mind, a sublime visual representation of what her character is experiencing. Stiller also praised the way Turturro performed as Innie Irv, determined to find his crush Burt (Christopher Walken) at work, applies his outie’s muscle memory to the unfamiliar task of driving. And putting Cherry in a tense physical position throughout the show was an act of Lumon-esque absurdity.

“We spent a lot of time measuring exactly how far he could stretch,” Stiller notes. “I always look at the way his glasses come down the bridge of his nose. We shot until Zach said, ‘I gotta do it, I gotta fix her!'”

Despite being filmed concurrently with the other episodes over the course of 10 COVID-stricken months, The Way We Are is a beast in its own right, revealing much and culminating in several cliffhangers that the recently greenlit season two will hopefully resolve.

“We took a risk here; It is structurally different from all other episodes, it takes place almost in real time,” concludes series creator Dan Erickson. “‘Severance’ is such a meticulous, sometimes slow-paced show that we wanted to reward people’s patience with a really cool ride of a final episode. It was this much more visceral, fast-paced version of the show.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-06-20/severance-season-finale-breakdown Ben Stiller takes us inside that wild ‘Severance’ finale

Sarah Ridley

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