From co-creators Jay and Mark Duplass, the HBO half-hour anthology series Room 104 tells a different story, with every episode having its own genre and tone, for each of the assorted characters who pass through a single room of an American chain motel. The 12 episodes range from comedy to drama to horror, as they tell tales of everyday people striving for connection and meaning.
While at the HBO portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Duplass to talk about what he and his brother wanted to get out of this series, when he thinks Room 104 is at its best, why he ended up writing so many of the episodes himself, designing the motel room, the rules they had to follow with each episode, getting new voices to direct, and where they see things going with the series, in the future.
Collider: This is such an interesting TV series, exploring various genres and utilizing new directing talent. Did you know exactly what you wanted to get out of this, when you started doing it?
MARK DUPLASS: Not totally. This was very much, at its core, chasing something that we hoped would be good, but we were unsure that we could make it good. We were very much out of our comfort zone, and there were a number of reasons for that. We don’t think we’re redefining television in any major way, but we’ve never seen a show where you don’t know the tone or genre of what you’re showing up for every week is going to be. That’s kind of a big ask for audiences, and that’s not lost on us, but that’s also exciting to us, too. We’ve been thinking a lot about curation in pop culture lately. You show up to Netflix and you’re looking for a movie to watch, but you can’t find your guide, or you’re trying to find new music that’s interesting and no one can really tell you what’s good. We were producing lots of different kinds of movies and we found that even though people liked Togetherness, they also liked Creep, this horror movie. We were like, “Is it possible that people would appreciate a Duplass Brothers Presents type of television show, where we offer them all the different kinds of stories we want to tell and surprise them in the Russian roulette of what tone or genre you mind get?” That might be interesting to people. We don’t know the answer to that yet, but that was exciting for us, and that’s where it all started.
I particularly enjoyed Episode 6, “Voyeurs,” and how that entire story was told through dance.
DUPLASS: I think the show at its best is when we’re taking big swings like that. I think it’s great that you connected to it, and I think it’s okay if a Creep fan who loved “Ralphie,” our horror episode, watches that one and is like, “This is stupid as shit! What’s the next one?!” We’re okay with that, too. You probably won’t like all 12 episodes, but that’s cool.
Did you know that you’d write so many of these episodes yourself?
DUPLASS: Yeah, we worked it out because the show is made so cheeply. It was a big ask of HBO to make this. We said, “You’ve gotta green light a whole season ‘cause we’ve gotta build the set.” We didn’t make a pilot, we just went right into it. So, we felt it would be nice to go in and show them, “Here are what six of the episodes look like,” as proof of concept. I don’t know if I will do that, or if Jay will do that, in seasons moving forward. Although, we have so many ideas and I loved writing them, so I probably will. But another interesting thing was that we didn’t direct any of the episodes this season, and that was a specific choice to expand our collaboration to all of these young filmmakers that we’ve been producing with. It was a very exciting marriage, where they would get a little bit of our mentorship and they would get their first chance to direct episodic TV, get an HBO credit, and maybe open up that side of their career. And they were so appreciative, inspired and overly prepared for it. I think the episodes really got better and more interesting than if Jay and I had just directed them ourselves and had done what we do. Also, it’s in the same room every time, so you want a different look and feel to shake it up. It was really organic to help give it variety.
Had you been thinking about any of these ideas for awhile, but just couldn’t find the right way to explore them?
DUPLASS: Some of them are dead movies, yes. Some of them were like, “This would be a great movie idea, but it’s not quite long enough to be a feature.” Some of them have been around for awhile, and we resurrected them, changed them and moved characters around. And some of them were birthed once we had 10 episodes and knew that we needed something to change the energy of the whole season. It’s like pacing a record with music, where you create things to make it a whole.
Are there any of the episodes where you’re most nervous about the reaction?
DUPLASS: I was nervous about “Voyeurs,” but it’s the one people love the most right now. It’s really cool that we’re getting a good response there.
How did you decide on the design of the room?
DUPLASS: We spent a lot of time on the design of that room. We wanted it all to just be very boring, banal and corporate, but that’s hard to look at for 12 episodes, so we designed it in ways that light could catch it in different ways. Our D.P., Doug Emmett, and our production designer, Jonah Markowitz, went crazy trying to get this room done in the right way, figuring out what absorbs light, what reflects it, and what colors can be changed through lightning. They did a really good job, and we owe a lot to them. We ordered a lot of the furniture from the same places that these chains order their shit from.