“Severance” Production Designer Jeremy Hindle’s Dystopian Office Space
“Large room, four desks.” That’s the only description production designer Jeremy Hindle had to work with when he came up with this TV season’s most spookily immaculate office, as seen in Apple TV + series Severance. The high-concept sci-fi thriller, partially directed and executive produced by Ben Stiller from a script by first-timer Dan Ericson, centers on the tyrannical Lumon Industries corporation whose employees (played by Adam Scott, John Turturro, Britt Lower, and Zach Cherry) partition off personal memories each time they enter the building.
Managed from afar by creepy boss Cobel (Patricia Arquette), the Macro Data Refinement room accommodates only four computer-equipped desks surrounded by a vast expanse of green carpet.
Designer Jeremy Hindle, who dropped out of film school in his native Canada to work on TV commercials before landing his first feature project in Zero Dark Thirty, gravitated immediately to the surreal Severance story. “I loved the script,” Hindle recalls. “I was like, this is my Twin Peaks!”
Hindle, who also designed Top Gun: Maverick, spoke from his Los Angeles home to offer a deep dive into Severance’s design influences ranging from modernist architect Erin Saarinen’s tractor factory to Fargo and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
You designed a spectacularly stark office surrounded by seemingly endless hallways that seem well-suited to Lumon Industries’ emotionally disconnected characters. People watching Severance for the first time might think “What the hell is going on here?” With that in mind, I’m curious about your first reaction to Dan Erikson’s Severance script?
When I first read the script, I thought “Wow, we’re watching somebody walk down the hallway for two minutes—that’s going to be interesting.” And I remember meeting Ben [Stiller] over the phone and saying “We really have to nail the tone” because this show was just screaming for a well-defined, very particular look.”
You created a lookbook for Ben laying out your visual ideas for Severance. What were the key influences?
Playtime, the  French movie by Jacque Tati was a really big reference for both of us. It’s set in an airport, and everything was fabricated on massive sets with two-dimensional planes going by. And the extras were cardboard cut-outs, which I love. Playtime had this playful mood, and it’s the same with Severance, where we needed to build this world so pretty much everything was custom designed. So yeah, Playtime was a big influence, and also the Coen Brothers.
Which Coen Brothers movie?
Fargo, when William H. Macy’s in the parking lot with all that snow? The opening of Severance starts with Mark [Adam Scott] in his car in this snowy parking lot. To me, snow always makes you feel isolated and alone. So that image of Macy’s tiny little character in a parking lot — that was the first page in my lookbook. Here’s this character [Mark] who’s so severed he can’t even handle the being alone part.
Inside Lumon Industries’ massive corporate headquarters, these emotionally “severed” characters perform computer calculations in the Macro Data Refinement room, which has zero décor beyond desks and computers. How did you conceptualize such a spartan workspace?
When human resources when HR took over the office in the eighties, it became about “Bring pictures of your family to the office, here’s some plants,” which was really so people would stay longer. But if you look at offices in the sixties, you had a pen, a stapler, and a phone. You sat at this beautiful desk, you dressed immaculately, and you went to work. I felt like we had to get back to that.
Did you have a model in mind?
The John Deere company in Illinois, which was designed by Erin Saarinen and Kevin Roche. It’s a tractor office! And yet it was so beautiful, all about the importance of design, the ethics of work.
You bunch this quartet of desks right up against each other in the center of the room surrounded by a huge amount of empty space. Where did you get that notion?
It had to be a single cord, almost like an umbilical cord, from the desks to wherever these numbers go underground. It’s like a tree growing up [through the floor]. For me, the office is a big playroom and the workers are like babies. They don’t know anything and now here they are, born into this office.
There’s hardly any color at Lumon Industries. How did you arrive at the perfect shade of white?
When we did the camera tests, I tested about 50 whites. I laid them all out four by fours, beige white, the grey whites, the blue whites, the green whites, the red whites. We all sat in a room watching them through the projectors with the colorist and two hours later, there were just two colors that really worked.
One color being white and the second color being used for the extremely green office floor?
We tested so many, and one green was disturbingly horrible. It was this fluorescent lime green that you would never think would work, not to your eye, but the way [cinematographer] Jessica [Lee Gagné] wanted to grade it, it was perfect.
The hallways to and from the central office seem to go on forever.
I knew Ben wanted to walk forever and wanted it to be real, so we built hundreds of feet of hallway.
Soundstages in the Bronx. And the hallways would jog. “Let’s go left,” and again, and again, almost like [a maze by M.C.] Escher. The hallways just kept going. You come out of this narrow elevator, go into this little room, the first hallway’s narrow, the further you go, the wider it gets, making it feel less claustrophobic as they move through the space. Then you’ve got the “Break Room” which is really narrow, torturous like there’s no turning back. The language of the hallways took a lot of work, a lot of tests, and tons of concept art.
The monumental Lumon Industries building really puts employees in their place. Did you find a real-life location to represent corporate headquarters?
Yes, that’s Bell Labs in New Jersey. The funny thing is that the same guys who designed the John Deere building in my look book also did the Bell Building. I thought it was defunct, but actually, someone bought the building from the state and turned it into basically an indoor mall, but for living. So we drove out to see it and oh my god. As a designer, you have these moments where you’re like: “If I don’t get this I’ll die. I can’t live without this.” As a bonus, no one had ever shot a film there, ever. We were adamant that everything in Severance had to be unseen by the world, which, in New York, is really hard.
Did you need to tweak the Bell Labs location to fit the story?
There were a ton of visual effects to paint things out because there are houses and trees everywhere now. I wanted it to just be a parking lot, glass building, and forest.
Outside of work, Adam Scott’s Mark and his boss Kordel (Patricia Arquette) live next door to each other in these nearly identical houses. What were you going for there?
It’s Lumon corporate housing. I looked at least 80 locations. We could have done the Pleasantville thing or the Tim Burton [Edward Scissorhands] thing where everything’s perfect. But we wanted houses that were somehow built wrongly. Like Mark’s brain, everything is fractured.
Pre-pandemic, before working on Severance, you designed Top Gun: Maverick. What were you going for in terms of representing the military world?
I wouldn’t say it’s a military movie at all. For me, Top Gun is romance. Not sexually but how it’s lit, and the way it feels warm and emotional. Tom said to me at the beginning. “Jeremy, this movie’s about family.” Navy family, film family, your family. It’s what people need.
Were you tasked with re-creating Navy bases, aircraft, things like that?
Not really. We had real jets all the time and had access across the board to whatever we wanted. What I liked the most about working on Top Gun Maverick is that people from the Navy want to push it to the limit but they’re also trained to look after each other.
Getting back to Severance for one more question: New employee Helly (Britt Lesser) wakes up from her memory-erasing surgery on this gorgeous table. Where did you get that?
We had to build the table like we had to build everything. The computers, the trackballs, the keypad, the touch screen, we even built our own programming for the computers. I felt the show deserved its own look because I think it’s one of the most original things anyone’s written in years. But I do remember asking Dan, “Why is Helly waking up on this board room table?” He says “It’s the birthplace of the office. It’s the womb.” So that’s what you’re seeing there: the birthplace of the office space.
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Featured image: Adam Scott and Britt Lower in “Severance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.