Composer Theodore Shapiro on blending the unsettling dual worlds of Apple TV+’s Severance and why TV music is a leap of faith.
Apple TV+’s Severance was one of this year’s biggest surprises, a sci-fi enigma wrapped in a deeply felt character drama, coated in a thin shell of workplace comedy. The brainchild of Dan Erickson and directed largely by Ben Stiller (who’s already proven himself a deft navigator of comedy and drama with work like Escape from Dannemora), Severance sinks us into the bizarre world of the Lumon Corporation, where employees choose to bifurcate their memories into two distinct selves — the “innie,” whose only life and memory is the antiseptic office decor of Lumon, and the “outie,” who sails through their days knowing nothing of the work they do.
Score of the Worlds is a biweekly interview column from Clint Worthington, host of the movie music podcast Right on Cue.
Its first season is a well-paced, thought-provoking slice of genre television, one as prescient about the vagaries of corporate culture as it is eerily stylish in its presentation. Central to that blocked-off, unsettling feeling is its mysterious, Emmy-winning score, courtesy of frequent Stiller collaborator Theodore Shapiro. Rather than take the easy route and emphasize the split worlds of the innies and outies, Shapiro chose instead to thread both of them through its curious, probing piano-centric score, anchored by a chutes-and-ladders main theme that guides you through the tumbling descent down Lumon’s many secrets. It’s a score that’s sparse, unforgiving, and full of mystery — much like the series itself.
I took the time to sit down with Shapiro to discuss how Severance stands out in his expansive career, his working relationship with Stiller, and how he pulled back from bombast when penning the music of one of television’s most gripping, watchable series.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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You’ve had such a long career, you’re something of a multi-hyphenate. You’ve dabbled in a lot of genres, but a lot of people know you best from your work in comedies and romcoms, like 13 Going on 30 (2004). Severance is obviously a much different mode; is there a different headspace you have to go through depending on genre? Or is it part of the same thing?
It really is part of the same thing. The truth is that my job is to tell the story or to help the filmmaker tell their story. I approach figuring out that sound, or that approach and how to unlock it, in the same way for a comedy that I do for a drama. It’s a funny thing; people watch a comedy, and if it’s done really well, it feels effortless. That it wasn’t the product of the same angst and decoding that you’d go through for a drama, but it really is. In many cases, it’s even more complicated.
I imagine there’s a lot of room to play there, especially in your collaborations with Ben Stiller. You’ve collaborated with him on things like Tropic Thunder (2008), where you’re still scoring for comedy, but also drawing from the musical modes of war films and their attending grandeur. There’s a lot of versatility at play there.
If you listen to Tropic Thunder, as a piece of music, there’s nothing particularly funny about it, except for maybe a couple of explicitly over-the-top moments that feel like they’re drawing on action movie tropes. But it’s not funny music, you know? It was all done really to help tell the story, which is a fun part of my job.
Right, because composing for comedy, you have to play it straight, because the comedy isn’t necessarily coming from the Mickey Mousing of the score.
Yeah, there’s nothing less funny than that. Paul Feig, who’s a wonderful director I’ve worked with a lot, put it really well: If somebody comes up to you and says, “I have the funniest joke to tell you, you’re gonna crack up,” that’s not funny. Music has to work the same way; it has to be the straight man, and deliver the moments without telling you how funny it is.
And Ben Stiller is a really solid example of a filmmaker who understands the difference between those modes. What’s he like to work with as a director of composers, his understanding of the music, and your conversations together?
He has incredible intuition and instincts about music. He doesn’t always articulate exactly why he wants what he wants, but he is somebody in who I just have so much faith in his direction. If he ever gives me a note, and it’s disappointing at first — like, I like the thing he’s noting me on — I always just remember there’s a good reason. His instincts are just that good, and I trust him so much. I credit him a great deal with Severance for helping to steer the direction of the music. I’m grateful to him.
What were those early conversations for finding the musical voice of Severance, especially since there are so many genres it has to slot into — corporate comedy, sci-fi thriller, workplace drama?
We actually found the sound in an interesting, roundabout way. I read the script and thought, “Okay, we should be doing something that draws on the dichotomy between the innie characters and the outie characters,” and started writing themes for him. He liked it, and we kept exploring.
I wrote a piece of music that was very electronic in tone, and there was a middle section of it that he really responded to; he kept fast-forwarding to that spot, and we listened from there. I decided to do something with that material, there’s something interesting there. So I sat down at the piano and took that electronic idea, and started playing what ultimately became the main title of the show — reimagining it as a very spare, solo piano piece.
The minimalism of that theme is really striking to me because as you said, you’re dealing with a world that’s very sparse, fluorescent, and lifeless. And to convey that emptiness and melancholy that comes with that through piano is deceptively simple.
I wrote that theme, and sent it to him, and didn’t hear back from him for over a month. And I thought, “That’s too bad, I guess he didn’t like it, but we’ve got other ideas.” Then one day, he called me and said, “Oh, I love this thing. This is really cool.”
Because he ended up pushing us to follow a singular theme, as opposed to a dichotomy in the score, I think the effect is to underline the mystery at the heart of the show. That’s the most important thing; it’s not about innie versus outie, it’s about the idea that it’s impossible to sever yourself completely. There’s something really effective about the idea that there’s one theme that carries you through all of the worlds of the show. That’s all down to Ben’s instincts.
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What’s cool about it is that the pressure isn’t for you to create two different worlds musically, but instead create two half worlds that have to then blend together. The reason it feels so lonely is that the innies and outies both have things missing in their lives.
The world of the innies, in particular, because their life is so isolated to Lumon, with this perverse corporate culture that’s built up like a religion. What are the aspects of building Lumon’s world, especially with the Egans, that made it into the scoring process?
One of the other things in the musical palette of the show is this kind of language of upbeat, jazzy exotica from the late ‘50s, mixed with Muzak. Some of that is me, and slime of that is actual source music from the period. To the extent that the interior of Lumon has a sound, that’s the language of it.
It was fun to play around with, you know? There are places where we have elements of that sound, including with percussion. But then we hear our theme on top of it. It’s fun to play around with the idea of taking that language and letting it bleed into the language of the score.
I want to go back to what we talked about earlier — this idea there’s no divide between the inner and outer worlds of Severance. One of the few elements of the score that emphasizes that is the electronic, stuttering screech you place in the main theme and at various points throughout. How did you land on that sound?
First of all, that sound is a reverse piano note — but since it’s reversed, the note gets louder as it progresses. So I just started chopping out little sections of the audio file as the note gets to the end, giving it this glitchy, stuttery, randomized effects. I also added more distortion as it gets to the end. It’s made of the same stuff as the main instrument of the score. But I wanted to get to the idea of the fraying of identity, and that felt like a good way to express that in music.
Another element I noticed in this score is this kind of ticking clock progression to it. What was your thinking behind that?
When I first read these scripts, by the time we got into the last three episodes, my heart was racing. I couldn’t put my iPad down, it gets so exciting. We knew we needed to develop a language for the end of episode 8, especially, and the beginning of episode 9. That was really propulsive, but also subtle, you know? Percussive but something that could sit in the background.
So there’s this whole palette of throbbing, low, percussive sounds and high ticking sounds. I should give a shoutout to Christopher Lane, who’s one of my collaborators, a brilliant sound designer who created all these sounds. He gave me this huge library of material to work with, these building blocks I could use as I created the score.
In addition to the piano, what other bits of instrumentation did you really lean on as you built out the score?
Strings are another major component of the score. There’s a solo string component we did, a fully improvisational session with Paul Cartwright, who’s a wonderful violinist. After I had written the string arrangements, the brilliant Rob Moose — who’s a string arranger who works with Bon Iver and Phoebe Bridgers and Moses Sumney and all these amazing artists — and the great cellist Gabriel Cabezas played them. It gave the sound so much life and body; they’re amazing musicians. I’m very grateful.
From there, there are also a lot of electronics that fill out the sound. But it is a really simple palette, where the piano, strings, and electronics are really most of what’s happening.
Were you ever tempted to go bigger, or did it quickly feel like this locked-down sound is what we needed for Severance?
It didn’t feel like it wanted to go bigger orchestrally. There are pieces that get pretty big, but they just get bigger with the addition of more elements within our palette. I don’t think a brass section would have felt like this show, right? It might be in future seasons, but it doesn’t feel like this show to me right now.
Speaking of which, this is an entire season of television you’ve scored, which is obviously a more robust product than a feature film. When it comes to workflow, what do you have to do differently to keep yourself energized and fresh when you’re scoring eight, or nine episodes of television?
It’s hard, because with a feature, by the time you’ve got to the end you’ve gone to six test screenings where you’ve watched the whole movie front to back, and you have a sense of the shape of the thing. With this, it’s really impossible to feel the shape of nine episodes. You just have to take it one episode at a time and feel comfortable that the music is working within the context of each episode. Then, you just have hope and faith.
Faith plays into it a lot; you have to have faith that if you string all these episodes together, there’s a sense of cohesion and proportion. One benefit of the approach we’ve taken, where so much of the material is derived from one thematic idea, is that it never feels like we lost this theme from one episode to the next. It’s really all one big theme and various over the whole season. So there was comfort in knowing we didn’t abandon the theme somewhere; it was all of a piece.
Apart from the main theme is there a scene or cue or moment you’re particularly proud of in this season?
I really like the cue that leads up to Helly’s attempted suicide in episode four. We developed this theme that we often use with Helly that’s like a detour from the main theme. It starts out with the same chords, but then it goes somewhere else. It underlines her emotional pain in an interesting way in this scene, which is so upsetting and propulsive in a lot of ways. I think that that language helped keep the focus on Helly’s emotional state rather than the intensity of the moment, and hopefully added something that underlined something that’s not on the screen rather than something that is.
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Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.