‘Severance’ composer Theodore Shapiro on making the finale feel like ‘one unbroken cue’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Ben Stiller and Theodore Shapiro have been longtime collaborators, dating back to 2004’s “Along Came Polly,” but “Severance” marked their first TV series together. And in the process of figuring out the sonic landscape of the Apple TV+ drama, another unexpected thing happened: Stiller ghosted Shapiro. The composer had initially written an electronic piece for the show’s innie world, where the Lumon workers are separated from their non-work memories, which live in their outie selves. As they went over the piece, the director and executive producer kept honing in on a chord progression in the middle.

“I thought, ‘I should do something more with this. He’s clearly interested in this idea.’ When I got back home to L.A., I kind of went straight to the piano and… started playing it sort of exactly in the manner of the beginning of the main title,” Shapiro tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Composers panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). “And it was just this big Eureka moment because it was like, ‘Oh, this could be just the palette of the whole show.’ It’s not about a dichotomy between innies and outies at all. It’s about presenting the whole show as a puzzle or a mystery, which is really what it is.”

Shapiro sent Stiller a two-and-a-half-minute version of it. “And it was crickets. I heard nothing for, like, weeks and weeks. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I really thought I was onto something there, but I guess not.’ And then finally called, like, ‘This is great! I love this. This is really exciting.’ … He totally ghosted me!” Shapiro says with a laugh. “And it was weird because he had been very, very prompt up until that point.”

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Good thing Stiller finally responded because Shapiro is now a two-time nominee for “Severance,” for the simple but haunting main title and the show’s score. His work is on full display in his episode submission, the finale, “The We We Are,” which is packed with wall-to-wall music. There is not a single scene that is not scored — a stark contrast to the earlier episodes in which music is very sparse.

“I was talking to Jeff Richmond, the editor, and we just had this notion of, ‘What if the last episode is not just wall-to-wall music but really feels like one unbroken cue?'” Shapiro recalls. “So with that in mind, I wrote a tremendous amount of music before I’d seen the episodes kind of all in the same tempo but doing different things… so there would be this ability to kind of stay in the same tempo and with the same propulsive feeling but then just take it to a lot of different places. And Jeff is so good at cutting with music. He was a total partner in this whole process.”

Season 2 begins production in the fall and Shapiro is just starting to pre-write the new score. “It’s a little bit of a terrifying process because we’ve defined the sound that feels like the show and so you want to stay true to that, but you also don’t want it to feel repetitious,” he says. “I’m just trying to find ways to expand the language, maybe take the harmonic progression to new places or reorder it or to find ways to keep it evolving without betraying what got us here in the first place.”

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