This story about “Severance” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné got the call from director Ben Stiller asking her to come on board a deeply conceptual science fiction series called “Severance” for AppleTV+, she said yes immediately. They’d had a terrific experience working on the Showtime limited series “Escape at Dannemora”. But unlike the gritty ’70s feel of that ripped-from-the-headlines prison-escape drama, “Severance” was a purposely rigid-looking mindbender often set in claustrophobic offices. With only four walls in view, its characters—led by Mark (Adam Scott), the grief-stricken, brain-altered Lumon Industries rep—go about their day blissfully unaware of a greater conspiracy at play. (Or are they?)
“I wondered, ‘How am I going to create something that’s fun for me here as a cinematographer?’” Gagné said. “I felt I was going to be trapped in this world, day-in, day-out. It’s opposite to how I like to work as someone who wants to approach every scene with a different texture. But that’s why Ben and I collaborate well together, because we both kind of have that goal and say, ‘Let’s do something different here.’” But it took quite a bit of trial and error to work things out, especially since Gagné’s process was often at odds with the challenge that was presented to her.
“I did struggle as a cinematographer because I always base myself off reality in my work. Everything we did was very much anchored in reality, no matter how we shot, so if you go back and watch the (more initially puzzling) sequences, it’s actually pretty straightforward and logical. You just have to put it together with what’s happening to the individual character.”
”Severance” caught hold of critics and viewers this past spring with its darkly funny, uncompromising look at a corporation’s quite-literal use of mind control. The series comes straight from the imagination of Dan Erickson, but it required Gagné’s sensibility to create a visual language that depicts the characters’ “Innie” (their surgically enhanced work state) and “Outie” (their out-of-the-office state, unaware of the other persona).
“Dan’s weird, weird world of Lumon was so unique and had so much space in it to do something with a lot of visual potential,” Gagné said. “We really had to push ourselves and not take things exactly how they’re written.” The team used various lenses and lighting designs to make these worlds come to life, resulting in a lush frame that’s as inviting as it is foreboding.
“Panavision is a huge partner with Ben and has always been very collaborative with us, and they’ve given us access to some really cool stuff,” Gagné said. The crew used a large-format 50mm C series lens, nicknamed “the Silver Bullet,” for close, portrait-like shots. And then there was the Primo 70, used for eye-popping scenes such as the “Defiant Jazz” office dance party, in which pink-and-white overhead panels illuminate a brief but jaunty get-down in which the camera moves through the ensemble in a sensual swirl, almost as if it is one of the swaying participants. “When we shot that sequence, it was about doing things differently than we had, because we really wanted it to be this uniquely surreal moment, if only for a minute,” Gagné said.
“Severance” has been renewed for a second season—and even if Gagné said it’s too early to tell if she will be working on it, she’d welcome the chance to reteam with Stiller. “Ben really respects cinematography,” she said. “I think it’s something he even wanted to do before becoming a director. He loves images and photography, and so do I.”
Read more from the Comedy & Drama issue here.