The disturbing drama of Apple TV+ Breakup Instantly releases goosebumps. It opens with Helly (Britt Lower) lying face down like a prop on a brown table too big for the drab conference room. She wakes up as a new employee of the shadowy company Lumon Industries, not knowing how it happened or who she is. It turns out that Helly chose to submit to the “Layoff Program,” a medical procedure that takes work-life balance to controversial extremes. A chip implant suppresses real-world memories, so volunteer employees forget about their personal lives while in the office to avoid distractions. Major red flag alert.
Helly’s “Innie” (his working character, as the show puts it) feels violated. Unlike her ‘outtie’, she didn’t pick a weird nine-to-five in the Macro Data Refinement (MDR) team alongside Mark (Adam Scott), Irving (John Turturro) and Dylan (Zach Cherry) , especially not in a clinical office where the all-white walls are adorned only with a minimalist clock. She immediately tries to escape the building, which is full of bright maze-like corridors and large empty rooms.
As Helly struggles to find a way out, a terrible sense of entrapment sets in thanks to the looming space.. Breakup capitalizes on the post-pandemic fear of returning to the office, doubling up as timely satire and a dark metaphor about loneliness and the choices it entails. Decorator Andrew Baseman tells The audiovisual club that working on the show post-lockdown “felt like art mimicking life mimicking some weird circumstance”.
Production designer Jeremy Hindle tells The audiovisual club he always wanted to work on a show with a fun quirkiness. “We quickly realize that Helly, Mark and their colleagues are like children who are born here and discover a perfectly designed playground,” he says. “Stanley Kubrick was a massive reference because his films inherently have the same sterile feeling.” Series creator Dan Erickson, executive producer Ben Stiller (who co-directs with Aoife McArdle), and Hindle were on the same page about the reference to Jacques Tati’s 1967 film, Break, known for its enormous and visually intricate decor. “When I read the script for the show, I said, ‘Okay, that’s it; that’s like my twin peaks.'”
Breakup is a sci-fi psychological thriller that deliberately floats in time. While the technology is clearly futuristic (an elevatorand activates and deactivates memories), the characters use flip and particular phones, oobsolete computers. A biased approach at the time allowed Hindle and Baseman to create a surreal new world from scratch. They were inspired by Illinois-based giant John Deere’s steel headquarters and New Jersey’s Bell Labs, an R&D facility whose exteriors serve as Lumon’s exterior (complete with snow-capped CGI mountains). “They opened in the 60s when no one was bringing pictures or candles to their office,” says Hindle. “You haven’t brought your work home either. It’s not like that now. This show is about work-life balance, so it was appropriate.
Baseman adds that Stiller and Erickson were clear about the interiors not recreating any office space seen on TV before. To that extent they found a contrast to the drab walls and ceilings with lots of greenery (used in the lobby rugs, plush sofas, floor coverings). “Green is reminiscent of nature, but it’s not really popular for decorating. It’s off-putting,” Baseman adds. “I bought every green item imaginable and researched furniture available overseas. I didn’t want iconic pieces normally seen everywhere; we were looking for the unique. He reveals they ordered many pieces from Europe from the East, including enthusiastic floor supervisor Milchik’s (Tramell Tillman) AV cart with a monitor on it.”It was a mix of getting custom stuff and finding unusual stuff.”
The tiny cabins of Mark, Helly, Irving and Dylan are prominent sets. Their small workstations (with sliding partitions) are tied together like a large desk, placed in the center of an “80-by-40-square-foot lobby,” Hindle says. All the extra room around them adds to the discomfort. “I also made the ceiling in this room very low, about seven feet, before adding two inches after a camera test,” he adds. They achieved the goal of making it look like a bizarro jungle gym. The space allows them to do kid-friendly stuff, like melon parties and dance breaks, odd celebrations positioned as perks by corporate overlords.
Lumon’s endless hallways are harrowingly designed; its bright overhead lights cast an eerie glow on anyone walking below (the skinny look is reminiscent of the brilliantthe elevator scene before all the blood spurted out). The team built 600 to 800 feet of lanes on the stage, the longest being around 140 feet. “In fact, it keeps going around in circles,” Hindle says. Baseman also found the task daunting: “For us it was a matter of finding miles and miles of suitable gray and white tiles and hardware, which we sourced from England.”
The symbolism of the corridors is twofold. Its almost prison-like structure is insulating, but according to Hindle, they are also a funnel: “The more the four of them get, the wider the space than when they entered because they explore and discover hitherto unknown departments”, including curious one in episode five, where a single employee feeds baby goats (the dim hallway lighting as Mark and Helly walk away from this discovery is truly gruesome). The team also finds the Optics And Design (O&D) division headed by Burt (Christopher Walken), Irving’s sweet potential love interest. Burt’s team stores biblical paintings that gradually shed light on Lumon’s cult origins.
O&D’s secret workspace has rows and rows of printers, similar to archetypal modern desks filled with computers, with more employees than the MDR. They probably manufacture all Lumon branded items underground. “It’s a billionaire company similar to Elon Musk with financial flexibility. They make everything by themselves, like cups, pencils, erasers, keyboards [procured here by Severance prop master Cat Miller]. They can’t buy these items outside without someone realizing it,” Hindle says.
Mark’s boss, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), actively monitors the team through hidden cameras. Watch angles make employees look even more like experimental ants, or cogs in some ridiculous machine. It’s a menacing environment made worse by Theodore Shapiro’s haunting background score. Together they raise Breakupis the biggest suspense: what exactly is the mission of this company? It is certainly nothing noble. MDR people mindlessly calculate numbers on a screen without any idea of the reason or the impact. They give up their real lives eight hours a day to do this.
Baseman and Hindle always set up character desks to look somewhat custom (see Dylan’s origami animals made from Lumon stationery and sculptures made from paperclips). “That’s how they entertain themselves,” Hindle says. Their outer lives inadvertently sneak into their “innie” universe in odd ways, like Irving visualizing black slime dripping from the ceiling. The public only knows about Mark’s non-professional life: he mourns the death of his wife, helps his pregnant sister, Devon (Jen Tullock), and she gently annoying partner, Ricken (Michael Chernus).
Ricken’s recently published book (entitled the you you are, with a glowing red lid) plays a vital role once it finds its way into Lumon’s basement. Red was a specific choice, Hindle and Baseman confirm. His the bright color immediately counters the sadness of, well, everything else. BreakupThe color choices of in general say a lot about her characters. Devon and Ricken’s warmer existence is marked by wood tones and reds; Helly’s deep blue outfits are also refreshing, a mood-changing hue that disconcertingly reflects That of Harmony.“It was instructive to know how to define characters that way,” Baseman says.
Yet somehow all minimalism actually does Breakup visually appealing. Hindle was up for the challenge of convincing audiences to fall in love with the show’s unremarkable office setting. “Yes, looking at desks and dividers can be boring, but it requires very fine detail. This is not a fast sci-fi show about a spaceship, where everyone immediately understands what is going on,” he explains. “It’s so funny to me when people say, ‘[The show]’is so slow,'” he continues. “We’re so used to knowing something in the first 10 minutes.”
Baseman says that with his experience on heavy projects like crazy rich asians, Gothamand now Hocus Pocus 2, it was fun to shrink for a change. “I’m grateful you can see everything here, from tiny light switch dials to subliminal lamps and frames. In most projects, the characters are enlarged, but [you can] tell the story with the sets too.