Creator Dan Erickson tells IndieWire all about the development, working with Ben Stiller, and the Music Dance Experience.
Welcome to It’s a Hit! In this series, IndieWire speaks to creators and showrunners behind a few of our favorite television programs about the moment they realized their show was breaking big.
There was a moment when “Severance” creator Dan Erickson had to pinch himself.
In reality, there were several: The moment when, after missing their deadline to lock scripts, the show finally went into production; the moment when Christopher Walken strolled on set and performed lines Erickson wrote; the moment the first reviews went live and did not declare his psychological thriller dead in the water.
But the moment when this first-time TV writer knew something had shifted was when he saw the meme.
“I remember at one point scrolling through the internet and seeing a Milchick meme,” Erickson said to IndieWire. “It was not someone I knew that it posted it, it was just a different unrelated thing. I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s in the culture now.’ We’ve been infused into the bloodstream and it’s part of what people are talking about.”
The AppleTV+ series about office workers who have undergone a surgical procedure to separate their personal and professional consciousness premiered on February 18 to positive reviews, then gained a massive audience leading up to its April 8 finale. It has what MetaCritic calls “universal acclaim” from both critics and viewers, a voracious subreddit, and a second season on the way. It is austere and hilarious and sinister and has yet to answer for its baby goats. There is, simply put, no show like it. The following Q&A has been edited for concision and clarity.
IndieWire: Talk me through the process of having this idea when you were working at a desk job.
Dan Erickson: I was working at a company that makes and distributes doors and gates in the greater Los Angeles area — really, really was grateful to have a job, and it was a small business run by good people. But I had finished grad school, I had come here, I’d gotten the first Craigslist job I [found]. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, and it was kind of mind-numbing work a lot of the time. The idea for the script came because I was walking into work one day and just found myself wishing that I could skip the next eight hours entirely, and I could just disassociate.
I was like, “I would totally do that if I could,” and realized that was kind of a messed up thing to catch yourself wanting, so the idea for the show kind of germinated from that. I wrote the pilot and revised the pilot numerous times over the next couple years. During a lot of that time, I was taking it out, I was using it as a sample. During most of that time, I was working in a string of office jobs, and one of them in particular was at a company that was a big international chain. That’s where a lot of the sort of corporate doublespeak came from, and the weird core values and stuff like that that ended up permeating the show.
What do you remember of the initial pitch?
Well, it was actually a pretty easy show to pitch. As a writer, you hope that you’ll find an idea that no one has done but that somehow feels kind of intuitive, because those are the easiest ones to get people interested in. At a lot of places I would start with the premise: What if you could totally separate your consciousness and memories between work and home?
Inevitably people would have usually one of two reactions: “Oh, my God, I would totally do that,” or “That’s terrifying, why would anyone do that?” I think that even there, that was my first sense that there was something special about the idea, because there were these two equally common and equally passionate responses to it that were totally opposite. So I was like, “OK, we’re hitting on something there.”
And did that inform your writing as you honed in on the final draft?
Yeah, I think so. The original draft of the script that I was taking out was much more heightened and stylized in like a Terry Gilliam way, like the movie “Brazil,” where there was some silly magical realism happening. The response that I got from people to the concept inspired me to scale that element down and trust the inherent strangeness, and play other elements of the show a little bit more realistic to highlight the insanity of this basic central idea. The show got a little more grounded and a little more character-based. And that only increased once I met Ben Stiller and he got on board because he [also] related to the human element of it and wanted to tell as grounded a story as we could in this obviously askew universe.
Is there something that was particularly easy or particularly hard to translate from this big idea that you have into the script?
I think just the separation of the main character of Mark and the degree to which [he] is and isn’t the same person was sort of hard to wrap my head around. There was an early version where he was much more different, like he was this really nice, pleasant guy on the inside and then on the outside, he was almost more like a sociopath. But ultimately, that was something I just had to figure out through writing. I think it’s more interesting if he feels more like just two alternate versions of the same person; He’s the same person at his core, but has had two very different life experiences.
This show was in development for years. What was Ben’s role in the development?
It did take a really long time, and there were a lot of reasons for that. The main one, I think, was that [Ben] was very fiercely protective of whatever it is he initially saw in that first pilot I wrote. I feel like from our first conversation, he had it in his head that there’s something special here, and he knows at this point in his career that he has the clout to protect something like that and make sure it doesn’t get watered down, make sure it doesn’t — in the translation to the screen — start to feel more like something we’ve seen before.
We had a writers’ room where we wrote the majority of the scripts, during which Ben was working on “Escape at Dannemora,” and he would check in every now and then. After they wrapped post on that, he came and got a little bit more involved in a day-to-day way, and quickly looked at the scripts we had… and sort of broke it, for lack of a better word, in a way that at the time for me, this being my first job as a writer, I was like, “Oh, he hates it, and it’s not working, and we’re not going to make it.” I literally thought that.
We blew past the [production] deadline, and it was something that if I had said we need more time, it might not have been given at that point. But to have Ben Stiller say, “No, we have something special but we have to get it right, and it’s going to take a little longer but it’s gonna be worth it” — they believed him. I think you can’t deny anymore that he’s one of the most gifted directors working and one of the most interesting directors working right now. There was some weird cosmic fit with him and this show, where he just got it right away, and so it was a joyful process. It was a scary process, especially at first, but I realized he’s going to give these notes and he’s going to break bones knowing that they’ll regrow in a better place.
It does sound like maybe he believed in you a little more than you believed in yourself at certain points. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, that’s very fair to say.
So what was the point where that confidence kind of set in and you thought, “OK, I think we have something special.”
It’s hard to pinpoint one moment — it was a gradual process. To an extent I’m still grappling with the idea that this is something special. Certainly in the script phase, just talking to the other writers and seeing how excited they were getting and hearing them literally say, “This is different. This is exciting. This isn’t like other stuff we’ve worked on before,” — that gave me a sense that it was something, but…. how much of that is lip service, you wonder. When we were shooting it, I remember somebody came up to me on the crew, and he pulled me aside and was like, “I didn’t like your scripts, but now that I’m seeing it, I get it.”
To an extent it truly wasn’t until it came out, because even when I was seeing early cuts, I was like, “OK, I think this is really special, but is this going to be super niche? Is this going to be something that a couple of people really love, but it’s a little too weird to break into the mainstream?” It wasn’t until it came out and we actually started seeing reviews and started getting a really cool dedicated fan base online, people who are inspired to make art based on it and all this other stuff like that.
What was it like for you being on set, getting that footage back and then seeing it come to life?
There was an overload of surreal-ness, to a point where it became numbing. It was wildly exciting at every stage, but at a certain point I felt like I couldn’t even process it because it was just so much. Like the first time I heard Christopher Walken saying my lines that I had written, or the first time that I got to watch dailies, or the first time that I got a finished cut of an episode that I had written. I mean, literally every day there would be something like that where a few months ago, this would be the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.
It’s funny because on one hand it’s so exciting and you’re so grateful for it, but I also at times felt so overwhelmed that the human mind can only take so much. It was a very weird experience and a weird time in my life. I felt like as I’ve gotten a little distance from it I’m actually able to enjoy it more in a way. I look back so fondly on those memories on the set, even though I was terrified and stressed for a lot of it.
Speaking of memories, though: Let’s say it’s the night before the release on AppleTV+. What are you feeling?
Well, let’s see. I was cleaning because I was gonna have some people over. I think by that point there had been a couple of reviews, a couple of people had pre-screened the show and were saying there’s actually something really special here. But again, before it’s actually come out and become real, you have no idea. This may fly completely under the radar. There’s so much TV.
So I was sort of preparing myself for this idea that it’ll be well-liked, and I hope that somewhere somebody I’ve never met — this will be their favorite show. I was like, “That’s good enough for me,” but of course secretly hoped that it would also blow up and become something bigger. I didn’t know how excited to let myself be because I really didn’t know. Even with everything I’d seen, I was like, “Maybe this is just how people talk about every show?” Maybe everybody thinks every show is going to blow up and change the world, so I didn’t know what was real. I didn’t know what was real until it came out and then I feel like the fans made it real.
Was there a specific point during the season when that happened?
Certainly the Music Dance Experience was a big moment, the Milchick scene in Episode 7 — and that by the way, I sheepishly admit, was a scene I tried to cut in the script phase. I was like, “I don’t think we need it.” I had some dumb reason. But as soon as we were shooting that scene, everyone was in stitches. Everyone was like, “This is amazing.” As soon as Tramell [Tillman] started moving and doing whatever utterly insane thing he was doing, everyone was like “This is brilliant.” Somebody was like “Every shot of this is going to be a meme,” and then it was!
Memes are phenomenal cultural currency — even for a bad show.
I know. And it’s so weird how it is so much of how we communicate now. But it’s fun. I heard somebody talking about the show out in the wild recently. I was in a hotel lobby and there were these two bros, one of them trying to explain the show to the other, and I [thought] “Wow — I don’t know these guys!” Unless they were somehow paid by the studio to make me feel good, this is just out in the world. It was really fun.
So looking back now, how would you answer if someone asked what makes the show special?
I think the secret sauce is the is the humanity, and dare I say the kindness at the center of it. It’s a show that you go in and the first thing you feel is cold and afraid and sort of dehumanized. You feel like this is going to be a show that’s going to make you feel really bad — and it does to an extent, in some ways. But I always felt like what makes it work is Mark, Helly, Irving, and Dylan, that work family at the core, who help unearth each other’s humanity and help get themselves through this hellish situation. People recognize that and I don’t think the show would have worked if there weren’t that humor and that heart at the center of it.
“Severance” Season 1 is available to stream on Apple TV+.
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