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How Dan Erickson Keeps the Retro Futurist World of ‘Severance’ Weird and Crazy

'Severance' creator Dan Erickson recently spoke with Script about collaborating with Ben Stiller, how this story idea came from a very personal and intrusive thought, world-building, staffing his writers' room, and above everything else, keeping it weird.

Mark Scout (Adam Scott) leads a team at Lumon Industries, whose employees have undergone a severance procedure, which surgically divides their memories between their work and personal lives. This daring experiment in “work-life balance” is called into question as Mark finds himself at the center of an unraveling mystery that will force him to confront the true nature of his work… and of himself.

Who is Dan Erickson and where did he and this twisted, emotional rollercoaster, and weird world that is Severance magically come from? My overall summation for this answer post speaking with Dan is that he is a unicorn - it's really that simple. 

While in the middle of filming Season Two of Severance, Dan, who just recently broke into the TV scene with his now Emmy-winning series, took some time to speak with me about collaborating with Ben Stiller, how this story idea came from a very personal and intrusive thought, world-building, staffing his writers' room, and above everything else, keeping it weird.

[L-R] Tramell Tillman as Milchick and Britt Lower as Helly in Severance, now streaming on Apple TV+. Courtesy AppleTV+.

[L-R] Tramell Tillman as Milchick and Britt Lower as Helly in Severance, now streaming on Apple TV+. Courtesy AppleTV+.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Well, first things first. How do you do it? There are some shows that you're OK with watching once. But this show bares rewatching and finding and reconnecting all these neat storyline threads you’ve woven through the first season. Plus, how you're handling grief and loss and this discovery that is the twinkle of hope. Hopefully, we'll see more of that in Season Two. Kudos to you and everyone on your team for knocking it out of the park.

Dan Erickson. Photo by Frazer Harrison

Dan Erickson. Photo by Frazer Harrison

Dan Erickson: Thank you so much. That's incredibly kind of you. I think I definitely lucked out. It's so hard to make anything, it's so hard to make any kind of a TV show, obviously, and the idea of being able to make something that really feels sort of unique and special and undiluted is especially challenging. I feel like I really won the lottery in that I got to work with Ben Stiller, who not only is an incredibly smart and talented and gifted person with a really creative sense all his own, but he also happens to be an industry juggernaut who has the clout to be very protective of the tone of this thing. And I remember in our very first conversation, he was like, ‘I want to do this, but I don't want it to become "too TV." I don't want it to be familiar or get put through the process and turned into something that we've seen a million times before.’ I have this powerhouse in my corner, who has allowed it to stay really true to itself. But then at the same time, we have partners at Apple who are very much of the same mind and who are supportive and letting us keep it weird and keep it crazy. So, I'm really glad that what came out on the other end is something that people respond to.

Sadie: The weirder, the better. How long was this story idea ruminating for you until you began writing? And were you pulling from personal experience for this one?

Dan: Yeah, it was. I've told this story before, but sadly enough, the idea first occurred to me not as a TV show, but as something that I would actually like to do to my own brain. [laughs] I was literally walking into work one day at a job I really hated and caught myself thinking, 'What if there was some way to just disassociate, and for my body to do whatever it needs to do over the next eight hours to earn this paycheck - to not have to consciously experience it?' And once I sort of unpacked that, I was like, ‘Oh, that's a messed up wish to make.’ [laughs] And that probably means you're doing something wrong with your life. I think that's one of those ideas that everybody has kind of had that idea of like, 'Oh, I wish I could work but not have to experience it.'

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As soon as that idea came, it was like, ‘OK, there's definitely a story there.’ And then, of course, things like how the company would use it on their end and how that could be worked into corruption and secrecy and conspiracy, it lent itself to the more thriller aspects. But it was also just such an inherently sad idea at its core on a human level, that I just felt like a lot of the tones in the show, that you see now, within an hour of having the idea, a lot of those tones were already established, where it's like, ‘OK it's going to be scary, and twisty and mysterious, but it's also going to be really sad, and it's going to be really surreal.’ So, it came pretty quickly. And then I worked with my manager on writing the first iteration of the pilot, which was somewhat similar to what you see now, but it was a bit more heightened, a bit more like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil type of thing. And so, I worked on that for a long time. And then quite a bit later when Ben got involved, we really worked to hone it down to the more grounded, still very strange, and very askew, but slightly more human-focused version that it is today.

Sadie: There’s certainly an emotional connection and universal thread in there for those of us that have worked the 9-5 slog. How much outlining had you done ahead of time in terms of building out these two different worlds and keeping it all tonally specific and consistent?

Dan: Yeah, that was the challenge, because I think, from my perspective, the Innie side is the easier side to write, because that's its own unique insular world. And that's where in a lot of ways, the conceit of the show becomes much more at the forefront. And we can explore it in a much more immediate way, because it's literally people who don't know who they are outside. The challenge then was in conceiving the outside world, and how to make that feel in the same universe, but separate, and how to make it as engaging as the inside world.

One thing that we talked about a lot was that you're never really outside of Lumon, like you can be outside of the building, but their tentacles are still everywhere. And it's in a slightly more insidious way. And it's in the same way that a lot of corporations or institutions will insinuate themselves into culture in a way that's not often obvious. So, it's like if you're watching the show, and you've seen both sides of it, you can see that all the companies have the same name as the CEOs, you know, the Eagan CEOs that you see in the perpetuity wing. But that's not something that might be obvious to somebody on the outside who's not super familiar with the company. So, we tried to have this sort of creeping sense of dread with the company that it's always there, even if you can't see it watching you, it's probably watching you.

[L-R] Jen Tullock as Devon and Adam Scott as Mark in Severance, now streaming on Apple TV+. Courtesy AppleTV+.

[L-R] Jen Tullock as Devon and Adam Scott as Mark in Severance, now streaming on Apple TV+. Courtesy AppleTV+.

Sadie: It reminds me of, and I'm sure you're probably familiar with this as well, Disney built their own town in Florida called Celebration, and just reminds me of that. It's all really creepy.

Dan: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] Which is amazing. Something that we really focused on was the overlap. And in some cases, like the direct overlap between a corporation and a cult, and how there's a lot of similarities in terms of like, ‘You're part of the family now. You're part of the collective.’ And that there is often this corporate lore or a cult of personality around a founder or somebody like that. But then you get instances, like the Disney town [laughs] where it just sort of it stops being like a comparison you have to draw. And it's kind of like, ‘OK, yeah, they're just making a cult now.’

Sadie: [laughs] Right? It’s an odd Truman Show experience. How much influence did you have over the production design in terms of the use of technology in the world-building?

Dan: It was very collaborative between myself, Ben, and the many, many different artists who work on the show, including our production designer, Jeremy Hindle, who was really hands-on with creating the weird, unique retro futurist version of the office that we see. It was something where we wanted it to always be informed by the logic of the concept where you really don't want anything with a digital signal down there where they're going to be able to make contact with the outside. So that sort of necessitates some of this more retro stuff. But also, it's all kind of a head game. I mean, you get into it from the perspective of the company, and that they are trying to sort of make the workers feel disoriented in time and space, and not quite tethered to any particular era or location. So, it all sort of came from that.

A lot of it ended up very similar to what I envisioned the MDR office, the main office where we spend most of our time is almost exactly like what I had in my head 10 years ago, which is really creepy. It's a very surreal thing to suddenly be walking around in a place you've been imagining. And then there's other stuff that ended up totally different and surprising me and didn't end up looking like what I thought it was going to be. There was never a point where I felt like it was a compromise. At every stage it was either, ‘Oh my god, this is exactly what I thought’ or, ‘Oh wow, what a cool surprise.’ [laughs] I've lucked out..it's always been as good or better than what I imagined.

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Sadie: Did you ever find yourself living in that physical space, seeing the four walls, and thinking about how you can write scenes better or differently?

Dan: Yeah, it's really interesting how different it is writing the second season versus the first for that reason. It's like, ‘OK, now I know how far away the coffee machine is from the printer. And I know that if Mark is going over there, he then can swing by there, and it's going to take 10 seconds or whatever.’ So that changes it. And then even more than that, it's having the actors and having their voices in my head. It's such a different experience now writing Dylan, having Zach Cherry's voice in my head, able to sort of imagine his delivery on the lines, as opposed to when Dylan was this amorphous-looking person that I had in my head, and it makes it just that much more of a joy. It's like, ‘OK, I can imagine Britt Lower saying this line, and it makes me so happy.

Sadie: When you were putting together this writers’ room what were you looking for in terms of voice to round out the tone of the show?

Dan: It was very interesting, because it's not a show with a lot of easy comps, creatively. It's not a show where you can be like, ‘Let's get somebody who worked for this show, because that's a very similar tone.’ There are shows that certainly have similar things about them. We've read through a ton of samples and for the most part, I was really keeping an eye out for humor and that sort of specific kind of dry humor that it's almost anti-humor, where there's a darkness to it, and the punch line isn't in there - it's like a joke with its head ripped off. It's that kind of humor that I love and that I'm always drawn to. And it's pretty rare to find, I think, people who share that sensibility. And so, we were able to find some really great people, some of whom had done TV, one of whom had only done plays at that point. I read a sample of hers that was a play and was just like, ‘This is what we're looking for.’ I would say that's the main thing. And you need somebody, obviously, who has the dramatic chops and who can build a really compelling story. But I feel like the hardest and most unique thing that we were looking for was that askew serial comedic sensibility.

Sadie: It’s a special breed of writers. It’s like playing Cards Against Humanity, but don't be offended.

Dan: Exactly. [laughs] Yeah, I just went to the park and played Cards Against Humanity with people for hours until I found the writers' room.

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Sadie: [laughs] That's one way to staff a room. What inspired you to become a writer?

Dan: I always wanted to be a writer. There's a home video of me when I'm 10, and I say I want to be a director, which clearly, I was a misguided youth back then. [laughs] But fortunately, I found my way back to a respectable career as a writer. Going back to like second grade, I remember the first assignment we got to write a story and I was like’ OK, this is what I'm going to do.’

In undergrad, I went to Western Washington University, and while I was there, I wrote a play called Convention that had a lot of sort of connective DNA to Severance, it's a different story, but was also this sort of surrealist tale told in an office. And really fell in love with that process and was writing plays for a while, and then went to NYU for grad school, and really was surprised to fall in love with TV, because you pick a track – it’s film, TV, or theater - and I was pretty much all in on film. But this was from 2010 to 2012, so there were all sorts of really exciting things that were starting to happen in TV. I got into Breaking Bad during that time, and was just like, ‘Oh man, there's so much cool opportunity for long-form storytelling here.’ And I kind of got addicted and wooed me away from my plan, which was to do film.

Sadie: Now that you’re knee-deep in production on Season Two, what is something that you learned from the first season that you're carrying over into the next?

Dan: I mean, so much. I am in a really unique position, because I had never been on staff before. I had never been staffed in a writers’ room before. So, I had to learn how that worked. I had never been on a film or TV set before, outside of Lip Sync Battle, which I did do some work on.

One thing is learning to trust the other elements of storytelling - not everything has to go on the page. And I've been surprised. A lot of the time I will write more into the scene, dialogue-wise, than ends up in there, because Ben will be going through and he'll be like, ‘Yeah, let's try it once without this line,’ or an actor will be like, ‘Hey, I think I don't need to say that line.’ And I'll be sitting there like, ‘Wait, no! My perfect thing.’ But you watch it, and you're like, ‘Oh, it's all still there.’ And it's just being conveyed in a different language. And it is better, 99 times out of 100, they are right and it's better. And so, it's learning to trust that. And I also, I briefly learned not to write night scenes, like night exterior scenes, especially set in winter. But apparently, that message didn't stick in my head, because there's a bunch of night scenes that we're gonna have to go out and do - so everyone's mad at me, including myself – but that's the way it goes.

Severance-AppleTV+

Watch Season One of Severance now on AppleTV+.


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