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The nine-episode television series Severance, which debuted on Apple TV+ in February to glowing reviews, came out at an interesting time: as millions of homebound workers were contemplating their return to office life, and confronting just how enmeshed their personal and professional selves had become over the past couple of years.
The show follows employees of a mysterious corporation that compels workers to wear microchips that make them forget everything outside the office the moment they enter it. In Severance, this translates into a 9-to-5 existence where the inanities and frustrations of the office become suffocatingly all-consuming and even menacing.
To convey this dystopia, cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné found inspiration in the work of photographer Lars Tunbjörk, whose deadpan images of office life are marked by ultra-saturated color and biting humor. Filming in a New Jersey office building that once houses the legendary Bell Labs (it’s now called Bell Works and houses a number of businesses), Gagné used stark lighting that makes the company’s sparse, windowless rooms seem, by turns, eerily antiseptic (when brightly lit) and unsettlingly murky (when not).
Gagné, whose credits include Mrs. America and Escape at Dannemora, also challenged herself to think beyond the static shots used in traditional workplace shows. Instead, she found setups that often channel the look and feel of surveillance footage, offering a sense of employees under constant watch. She worked closely with director Ben Stiller and the cast (which includes Patricia Arquette, Adam Scott, John Turturro, and Christopher Walken) during rehearsals to find these unexpected perspectives.
Gagné admits that it took some convincing by Stiller to get her to work on an “office show” (she felt she didn’t “connect with that world”), but his ability to find “dark humor” in workplace horrors won her over. She cites the penultimate episode’s office party, awarded to a particularly industrious employee, as an example. As the scene moves from surreal and comical to frighteningly cult-like—with the cinematography becoming darker and more disjointed—viewers get a sense, she says, of “just how weird ‘work perks’ can be.”