'Severance' Creator Dan Erickson Knows Exactly What the Goats Are For
But he's not saying.
Dan Erickson's pilot script for Severance, Apple TV+'s sci-fi thriller series about office employees who undergo a procedure to completely separate their work lives from their personal ones, was never supposed to turn into an entire show. The script was good—it ended up on the Blood List, the sci-fi/horror equivalent of the Black List that showcases unproduced screenplays—and Erickson was shopping it around the television world as a sample to get staffed in someone else's writers room. It caught the attention of none other than Ben Stiller and his company Red Hour Productions, all of whom were sucked into Erickson's creepy, stylized fable of a corporate office gone very, very wrong.
"I remember walking down the spiral staircase into the basement and seeing him standing there, and it was just like, 'Oh, God, there he is,'" Erickson told Thrillist, remembering his first meeting with Stiller. "But he immediately was like, 'This is the type of pilot that most people would be impressed by, but then pass on, but let's just do it. Like, fuck it, let's make the show.'"
Its irresistible mystery-box format and dynamic cast of characters made Severance a sleeper hit—just a few days ago it was officially renewed for a second season, a surprise to absolutely no one who has become a fan of the show. The finale gives us the cliffhanger of cliffhangers, with Helly (Britt Lower) finding out the truth of her sinister identity and Mark (Adam Scott) uncovering a huge revelation about his other half's not-so-dead wife just as the episode ends, but it's safe to say we haven't seen the last of the "innies" of Macrodata Refinement or their villainous corporate overlords. Erickson chatted with Thrillist about his future plans for the show, the wildest Reddit theories he's seen, and whether or not we'll find out what the deal is with all those goats.
Thrillist: There's been a hugely positive reception of the show. People really seem to love it.
Dan Erickson: Yeah, it's so crazy. It's so exciting. I had never worked on a TV show before this. So, the whole thing has been a huge education for me. And I think that when we were making it, we had a sense that we had something really good and special. But of course, you never know until it's out there. It's wonderful, obviously, to have the good reviews, but especially just the way that people are engaging with it, and that fans are interacting with it online, and theories and art and discussion. I cannot imagine a more fun version of the response.
I have a friend who's been watching it who will send me weird stuff from the subreddit.
Somebody told me don't open the Reddit door, because you won't be able to close it. And for a while I didn't. Finally, one day, I opened the door. And I haven't been off Reddit since then. But it's so fun. I know these things can grow toxic over time, which I really hope it doesn't. Because right now it's just beautiful. People are creating all new art and having different ideas that had never occurred to me.
What is the craziest thing you've seen so far on there?
Oh, man. Let's see. I mean, I think the theory that Ms. Casey is a goat that's been transformed into a woman. There's the fan art and some of the shots of Helly doing the "LET ME OUT" thing. Nobody's gotten a tattoo yet. I will say that. I'm not encouraging it. But I am curious when the first Severance tattoo will happen.
You conceived the idea for this show some time ago. How does the final product compare to your original plan?
It's different for sure. But, I'm amazed how little of it I had to compromise. The very first draft I ever did of it felt more like Brazil or, you know, Being John Malkovich, where there was even a little bit more of a surreal weirdness to it, and a heightened reality to it. And I think that that was the biggest change that came about through working with Ben [Stiller] and working with Red Hour [the production company]. The more we talked about it what we found the most interesting was the quiet sadness at the center of the conceit, which is that these are all people who chose to do this, it wasn't forced on anybody. These are people who, for whatever reason, decided that their life would be better if they didn't experience it all at once, and instead segmented it.
The initial ideas came to me while I was working a really bad office job and going through a somewhat depressive state. And so I wanted to really protect that the humaneness is at the center of that idea, and Ben, fortunately, was all in on that. That was the thing that he was most drawn to about it. So, we pulled back a bit on the surreal stuff, and the sci-fi stuff and the thriller-y stuff. And we're sort of like, okay, what's the best way to use those elements to serve the story and to serve the characters' stories? Once we had that general philosophy for what we wanted it to be, there was very little that we were forced to compromise or cut. It was incredible that we got to make this as unique and weird as it turned out to be, because I kept thinking they were going to come in and sanitize it, but they never did.
I definitely saw those shades of Brazil in this. What other things influenced you in creating this show?
There was certainly a lot of speculative fiction that we've seen in the last couple of years, the Black Mirror, the Ex Machina. It's not new, but it's very near-future or uncomfortably close to our reality. There's a collection of movies that all came out around the late '90s, like '97 to '99-ish, where a lot of movies were about questioning reality. You've got The Truman Show, you've got The Matrix, you've got Dark City, which is a movie I love. Even stuff like American Beauty that was kind of about this idea that we're stuck in this play world, and we want to get beyond it to something more real.
And Office Space came out around that same time, which, again, there's not really a sci-fi element to that, but it's about being stuck in this grotesque system, and then realizing you're stuck in it and then breaking out of it. That collection of movies came out when I was falling in love with movies when I was a teenager and getting really into this kind of thing. So, those played a big part. And then, certainly there are literary influences like Kafka, and theatrically something like No Exit or Waiting for Godot. There's just so much. That's where I think a lot of the really, really strange, fun, surreal stuff came in. I'm a big Kurt Vonnegut fan. Cat's Cradle I read a bunch of times as we were writing and producing the show.
I spoke to the set designer Jeremy Hindle, and he told me that he asked you to draw a map of Lumon and you ended up giving him this huge thing that shows all these other parts of the show that we haven't seen yet. How much of the background do you have planned out?
I remember he told me, "Have a glass of wine, sit down, and just just go crazy, just draw something." And so I drew this giant ridiculous maze, basically. But he was right, it was really helpful to have it even though it wasn't totally accurate to what is really on the show. There's some stuff known and some stuff unknown about what's on the floor. I know what the purpose of the whole Severed Floor is and what the company is trying to do and what the alpha plan is for that. But we wanted to also give ourselves room to play as we continued on.
For the most part, of the departments that are on the floor, the ones you've seen, when we wrote Season 1 we didn't have any ideas for other departments that were out there. We had ideas, but we didn't have it solidified. The goat room, for example, we know what that's about. And the goat room is part of a bigger thing. We already had ideas for a lot of that stuff, and then we'll discuss it further as we've been building out ideas for Season 2. There's plenty of stuff that we know, and then there's plenty of blank maze space that we're excited to put other weird things into as we go along.
I'm glad that you guys have a definite answer for the goats because that really has been keeping me up.
A lot of people want to know what those goats are. That's a big thing. My mom really wants to know that the goats are okay.
I do too!
I will say you don't know if those are good or bad goats. They could be evil goats.
That's true. They're the board. I'm going to log on to Reddit tonight and post that.
[Laughs] The goats are the board.
I love all the stilted corporate language and all the terminology, like "Music Dance Experience." How did you come up with all of that?
Well, I didn't come up with it. It's mostly, in some cases, it's actually a watered-down version of real stuff I encountered in the corporate world. Because there's just so much insanity there. The Lumon Core Principles are taken largely from a couple places I worked at that had their own version of that, these empty words that were thrown out to give a sense that there was a deeper philosophy to the place.
There's a Sizzler ad that I love that I've talked to a couple people about, but it's an internal commercial that was sent around to Sizzler employees in I think 1991. It's about six minutes long. It's this really Reagan-era, hyper patriotic, soaring music, explanation of why Sizzler is the key to American freedom. And why Sizzler's more than a restaurant, it's a revolution. I've known people who've worked at Starbucks, and there's similar language of, "Do we make coffee? Or do we make a better world?" Sometimes that's sincere and earnest. And other times it's deeply off-putting and manipulative, because you get the sense that sometimes these corporations are trying to make a cult of personality, and trick you into feeling like you're family so that you then think, oh, what you would owe a family member? That stuff is everywhere. It's just a matter of recognizing it and repackaging it. I think what we were going for with that stuff is it was so insane, but also felt like something you could totally be offered by a boss.
There are tons of revelations in that final episode, while still leaving an ending that's open for more. How do you find that balance while also saying, okay, here are a bunch of answers for you that you've been waiting for for nine weeks?
It's an ongoing conversation. And we talked about what is the exact right moment to cut out on, and what is the exact amount of information. Because if the audience is climbing up a cliff, you want to give them a ledge to sit on for the next ten months, or however long it's going to be. You don't want to leave somebody hanging precariously and uncomfortably. We don't give away a lot of the big answers in Season 1, but we're hoping that we give enough. We give it in pieces, so that you start to have a little bit more of a sense of, okay, this is the playing field that we're operating on. And this is where maybe things could go.
In the original version of the season that we had planned, the overtime contingency was going to be the second to last episode. And then we were going to have a whole other episode that was dealing with the fallout and ramifications of it. We went over that version, we went over other versions, and we landed on the last episode is the overtime contingency. We're discovering things along with the characters, and we're confused and disoriented along with them. We started to think of it as this almost real-time episode. We've been so meticulous about slowly setting up beats before this, and now we're just gonna go, and we're gonna have this more visceral experiential version of the show for the finale. Once we figured that out, the rest was easy.
I have so many questions for you that obviously you can't answer because of the nature of the show. But, going forward, are there any big revelations you're really amped about?
I think we have a really exciting answer to what Lumon's big alpha plan is. And it's possible that that could change as the series progresses. But I don't think it's going to. We've got it in mind now and it's going to be the direction we move toward. The challenge but also the fun thing is what is the macro version of what they're doing to individuals with severance? The idea is you can be more comfortable if you're separate, if you're breaking yourself down into more manageable pieces, you can be happier. We just tried to look at that philosophy, and how that could be an accident on a macro level. What is the natural evolution of this philosophy? Once you've said that, you know, a grieving widower can cut his brain in half so that he doesn't have to experience it half the time, where does that go? Where does that naturally lead us if we keep going down that path? I think we have something that is fun and scary and interesting, and also puts our characters on a compelling journey that will be recognizable and make sense.
I'm honestly excited to find out what the goats are for. And I want to know what Ricken's whole deal is. Because he's weird.
He's such a weird guy. It's kind of a reverse spoiler, because I'm spoiling that something isn't the case, but I think it's okay. Somebody asked me about the beds [in Ricken and Devon's baby's nursery]. They were like, "I can't wait to see how the beds play out." Because he's got the three beds across the room for the baby in the first episode. Somebody was like, "I can't wait to see how that ties into the mystery." And I'm like, "Oh, that's too bad. Because it definitely doesn't."
This interview has been edited and condensed.