HBO’s Room 104 is already one of the most inventive shows on TV, but for its third season, creator Mark Duplass wants to see how far he can push fans checking in for the latest installment of the anthology series.
Duplass, along with his brother Jay, has recruited a new cast of familiar faces and talented newcomers and tapped fresh talent behind the camera to tell stories of familial betrayal, murder, supernatural mysteries, heartbreaking separations, and more — all taking place in a nondescript motel room that may or may not be the connecting thread in a bigger mythology. Duplass won’t really say, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t try to dig into the strange link between these genre-bending episodes. We spoke with the showrunner and his producing partner, Sydney Fleischmann, about the new collection of stories in season three, the likelihood of more musical episodes, a Creep follow-up, and what a Mark Duplass talk show might look like.
You told us you wanted to get even weirder back in season two. How strange did you take things this time around?
Mark Duplass: I think if there is a theme to season three, it would be about pushing the boundaries of what the room can be and what it can do; getting a little more experimental with it and taking some risks. You’re going to see vampires and gorillas and strange rashes, but also things like, a music-based episode that is all most a mood piece. You have a documentary episode; we have an episode that may or may not even take place in Room 104. We wanted to try and stretch it a little bit.
The first episode is proof of that. It’s sort of a supernatural origin story for the motel. Is that something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
Sydney Fleischmann: We’ve always talked about doing an origin story that explains something but maybe raised a lot more questions than answers. That’s how we landed with that. We had a rough idea of it and then he brought in Macon Blair, who’s a filmmaker we love and we said, “Make this the Macon Blair version of the origin story.” And he really ran with it and made it bizarre and weird and interesting.
So, there is a mythology to the show? Should we be reading into that first episode?
MD: There’s definitely a mythology to the show. It exists tightly locked in my mind and in Syd’s mind and this show definitely works episodically. You don’t need to be thinking about that to enjoy it, you can just watch them as one-offs. But we do plan to reward the serialized viewers who stick around, and depending on how many seasons we get to make of the show, will depend on how far we take it.
One genre this show does surprisingly well is musicals. You’ve got another one this season. Do you set out to have at least one musical entry with each installment?
MD: Well, it hasn’t been that so far but you’re not wrong that we love making the musicals. We’ve actually just wrapped shooting season four of the show and we have our largest-scale musical episode, yet, in there. This one was really born out of my very close relationship with Julian Wass, who is our composer for the show. We’d been talking about the idea of making music together for a while and one day we were up in our attic, just writing stupid songs and it all came together. Hopefully, we’ll get to do a lot more of them.
You guys like working on a smaller scale. What are the benefits of that and the challenges?
MD: I think the biggest challenge is that we don’t have money to throw at problems that a lot of the shows have and we don’t have the luxury of reshoots. But for me, the good far outweighs the bad because we have a little bit of a smaller crew. We’ve given most of our department heads their first time as a department head and we’re hiring a lot of first-time directors so you’ve got this level of excitement. There’s a feeling of … we all want to be here, we’re all feeling thrilled and honored to be here, and there are certainly actors included. No one is there for the money. It weeds the people who, honestly, might be a little fussy on set and it just creates this wonderful, familial vibe.
SF: I think the challenge of having limitations both with the room and with the budget, it creates the opportunity for really creative problem solving, and I think that a lot of our best ideas come from the limitations that we have.
Are there any story ideas you haven’t been able to make work, because of the budget or scale?
MD: We have scraps that we come back to. I’ve wanted to write an episode about somebody getting a rash in the room since season one and I could never crack it. We finally figured it out [this season] and got Arturo Castro and that was really exciting. We’ve been toying with the idea of “‘Why haven’t we done an episode about prostitution yet?” That happens in hotel rooms all the time. We can’t find the right one that’s surprising or interesting enough. We had an episode that my brother Jay was dying to make with us and then we realized it was just going to be so expensive. We couldn’t do it. We’re still trying to find a way to do it. So yes, the answer is, there are hundreds of logline for episodes in a Microsoft Word document on my computer that we are hoping to figure out how to crack at some point.
Patrick Brice directs a few episodes this season so I’m only assuming you guys talked about the possibility of Creep 3. Is that happening any time soon?
MD: To be honest with you, we’re struggling with it a little bit. From a scheduling standpoint, we’re both incredibly busy and, from a creative standpoint. We had an idea that we liked but then we realized it probably wasn’t going to be good enough, so we scrapped it. We don’t want to just make a sequel to make it and get it out there. Our fans are so nice and dedicated and loving that we feel like we owe them the best. The hard truth is that we are not good enough yet to give you that sequel and we’re not going to do it until we get there.
Are you at a place right now where you enjoy building the art, rather than controlling it and taking the reigns behind the camera?
MD: Yeah. I have gotten to do and say what I want with my own particular vision about 50 times in this industry and I’m so grateful for that. I think the best thing that I can do, right now, to make good stories and be good for the whole ecosystem is to support people that aren’t getting that support in other places and give them that belief and get behind them as much as I can. Part of that is because I have younger kids that I like spending time with and part of that is because I have survivor’s guilt. I really feel like I need to give back. It keeps it fresh and it keeps me from making shitty art.
You’ve said you’re not worried about running out of ideas for this show, but, and I’m almost afraid to ask, where do they come from?
SF: That’s usually the question on set. What’s Mark going through right now?
MD: [laughs] Really. I mean, I think that the reason there are so many of these, just speaking candidly, is every feature film that I have tried to write but I realized wasn’t enough story for a feature, they all make great Room 104 episodes. The graveyard of the other ideas is perfect for Room 104 and then, secondarily, the show is built to be an expression of all of the wildest and things that I would like to do, but they don’t fit in the “Duplass brand.” And that is what makes it so endless.
It’s definitely an interesting look into your psyche.
MD: “Interesting” is a kind word. I appreciate it.
You’ve got two projects in the pipe, both oddly enough about talk shows. Do you have enough experience now to host your own?
MD: I would love to, honestly, and I have thought about it because I like talking about my feelings, and I like talking to people about their feelings. I’m interested in a show that’s just, maybe it’s about feelings. Who knows?
I’d watch that.
MD: Feeling Feelings and The People Who Feel Them with Mark Duplass.
HBO’s ‘Room 104‘ airs on Fridays at 10:00pm EST.