Film is a mammoth collaborative effort combining a range of disciplines and talents honed over many, many years. One such talent is Theodore Shapiro, an American composer who’s work in film and television includes 'Tropic Thunder,' 'Jennifer’s Body,' 'We’re the Millers,' 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,' 'A Simple Favour,' 'Trombo,' 'Yellow Jackets' and 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye.' We sat down with the American composer and musician to talk about his most recent collaboration with Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson, the Apple TV+ comedy suspense thriller ’Severance.’
Screen Times: When I first got the screeners for Severance, the first thing that really struck me was your work. And I think it’s really important, especially during this time, that we focus on the collaborative nature between those that create the films and those that, bring the film or TV show to life. Can you tell me a little bit about the creative process and what conversations you had, between yourself, Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson and the sort of mood they wanted to create with the music and the composition?
Theodore Shapiro: Yes, and thank you very much, I’m so glad you're enjoying the music. It's funny because I flew to New York in February of 2020, just as the pandemic was starting and I had read the first two scripts at that point and we just talked about the show.
Ben [Stiller] showed me a lot of the production design ideas and storyboard ideas and with that I Started to immerse myself in the visual language of the show. But even before I went to New York, I had started writing. I had written a couple of ideas just based on the scripts, and when we were in New York we were listening to some of them and he sparked to this one middle section of a much more electronic piece of music. I thought maybe there's more we can do with that middle section of that piece. So when I got back I was playing around with this four chord progression and start at the piano and started playing this idea that ultimately became a piece that I called ‘ruminations’ - just because it was the word that popped into my head.
I sent it to Ben, didn't hear back from him for weeks, and I just thought, okay, so that wasn't really the thing he was looking for and just kept exploring. At a certain point he called me - and to my surprise - he told me “I really liked this ‘ruminations’ piece. This is really cool. This feels like the direction of the show.” I was thrilled because I was excited about it too. And that essentially became what the main title is, and in turn it informs the entire language of the music of the show. Once Ben and I had that conversation, I started gearing all of my writing towards expanding on that idea and [exploring] how we can pull that theme and those chords apart and just extract as much from it as possible.
Based on that, I really just continued writing a large library of ideas, because in a show, the way that the process works, it’s so nice to be able to present the director and the picture editors with a large body of sketches that they can start laying into picture as-they-go and just bypass the whole idea of putting in music from other sources. That was how we got started and it really just ended up being very fruitful and the musical ideas were always part of the body of the show. There was never a process of taking some other score and then figuring out how to adapt that to be this score? This music lived with the show from the beginning.
ST: The main show theme is mainly paired back piano, which I know is an instrument that you played as a child and how you developed your love for music and what would eventually lead you to become a composer. Dis you find yourself drawn to the piano on this project because of its simplicity and the show’s theme of isolation?
TS: Well, first of all, it is true that it's nice to write for an instrument that you know how to play. I sort of know how to write for the oboe but having never played it, there's just a level that I'll never get to and a level of guesswork that I will always have to engage in. [Laughs]
In addition there was something about the starkness of the solo piano that really pushed us in a good direction. I think Ben [Stiller] who at other points in our collaborative career together has been drawn to sort of maximalist ideas - let's just throw the kitchen sink at it. He really embraced the idea of minimalism here and just sort of how spare can we make it and how simple.
I think that it absolutely does get to the isolation in the show. Certainly, Mark's isolation as an ‘Outie.’ I think it’s somehow or other, the simplicity of that sound and the spareness of it that reflects the mystery at the heart of the show. I think in some ways it hearkens back to scores like the great Coppola film ‘The Conversation.’ I think that the kind of alienation shown in that movie in particular - but also a lot of other films of the seventies get at - is definitely a reference point in my mind at least for the kind of alienation that exists in this show.
ST: You've also had a lot of fun with this collection of music, including ‘Labor of love,’ which is very different from the rest of the score and acts as one of the first introductions to Lumon corporation. What were your inspirations, and where did that come from?
TS: Well, in addition to the whole score palette in the show, Lumon also has this source music palette which draws from the sort of fifties jazz exotica sound. So there are places where I’m being guided by that sound whilst doing my own version of it. Places where I'm taking our main theme and surrounding it with elements from that exotica palette.
But, you know, the first two pieces of music and the entire show are, Mark entering Lumon, but or the first time we see him entering Lumon which pretty much plays out our main theme and then immediately transitioning into this very sort of upbeat exotica sound and it lays out the whole world of music for this show and how those two elements play off each other and bleed into each other.
ST: The music also fills a lot of silent scenes of people walking or thinking, or just moving around. Do you watch the footage to make it work and make sure it matches what's happening on screen? What is that process, because I think a lot of people sometimes take that element of the film-making process for granted.
TS: Yeah. Well, my favorite Maxim about scoring film is that the picture will tell you what to do. In a lot of these cases, you have scenes that are silent or walking down very, very long corridors and at various times you want to underline different things about what those moments mean.
You might want to underline the degree to which the scene is relating back to the main theme, the mystery of Lumon. You might want it to underline the idea of a jarringly happy workplace, like in the exotica ideas that we talked about, and in some cases you might want to have it straddle those two worlds.
So a lot of times what I'm doing when I'm looking at scenes like that is just trying to find the tempo. Oftentimes the way that picture is cut will suggest a tempo and I usually start from there and then build around it. Finding the tempo could mean that it's something rhythmic, but it also could just mean that it defines what the flow and the pace of the music is, even if it's not pushing a rhythmic idea.
ST: Speaking of rhythm, obviously the show takes a very interesting approach to work life balance. How do you approach it?
TS: [Laughs] Well, I have two kids and I like spending time with them, so my approach is to come to the office and just squeeze in every ounce that I can while I'm here and then zip outta here and get home. It's not always an easy fit but that's what I try to do.
Soundtrack courtesy of Lakeshore Records and Apple Music
'Severance' is now streaming globally on Apple TV+. This transcript has been edited for clarity.