Around ten years ago, Mark and Jay Duplass had an idea: make an anthology TV show set inside a single room, with every episode veering into a new genre. But as Mark Duplass explained, they weren’t popular enough at that point to pull it off. “Our agents were like, ‘You can’t make this show. This is an anthology show. People don’t really watch anthology shows that much. Nobody’s going to buy this,'” so they shelved the idea for nearly a decade.
Then, after a string of critically lauded films helped to establish their voice, the Duplass brothers revisited the idea, which became Room 104, set to premiere on HBO this Friday night. With the series taking place inside one hotel room, they hope to redefine their narrative voices and stretch the limits of what they’re known for. During the ATX TV Fest last month, we got the chance to talk to co-creator Mark Duplass and producer Sydney Fleischmann, who explained why now was the perfect time to bring this idea back to life.
Let’s start off with the basics: How did this all come together?
Duplass: It was something we always wanted to do throughout the years. I think the real impulse of it was to kind of just try something that really took off our skin that we’d become known for. We’ve become a bit of a brand. [So] we were starting to slowly push against that with some of the movies that we had made, like The One I Love or Creep. We’re not just a sensitive dramedy people. We like other things.
Also, honestly, I’m a little bit afraid that there might be some rejection from people who know us for that. I think that, for whatever reason, we were like, “We’re popular enough to make this show right now. People will let us do it. We should just go kind of hog wild and try out new stuff.”
Did TV’s current evolution help open up some possibilities for you?
Duplass: I think so. As much as it was wonderful to make Togetherness, to a certain degree, Togetherness was not a show that appealed to a lot of people. I don’t know that there’s many places for that right now on TV.
I’ve got fifty shows like that on my queue. They’re all going to be good. It’s great. As to the Peak TV component of it, we were like, “What if we just allow ourselves to explore all the weird stuff that we were wanting to do? Maybe that will cut through for a small group of people.” If we make it cheaply enough and we take a bunch of chances, worst case scenario we make an interesting failure, which I’ve never allowed myself the possibility that could happen. I’ve always been like, “No! You can nail it or else don’t do it!” This one was just like stepping off a cliff, [and] we had a great relationship with HBO. It was like, “Yeah. Let’s try a Friday night crazy late show. Let’s see what sticks.”
And HBO agreed, obviously.
Duplass: We took it easy on them. We were like, “We’ll do it somewhat cheaply. You don’t have to be in pain if it doesn’t crank the way we want it to.”
Is that where the idea of doing it all in one room came from?
Duplass: Yeah, it wasn’t consciously this, [but] we talked about just exercising limits, and the creativity that can come out of that, which we’ve been doing quite a bit in the film world. Like Tangerine. It’s a $100,000 movie. What can you do with that? We had limits. We shot it on our iPhone, [and it] turned out to be a very interesting thing. The theory of limits inspiring creativity led into that.
I started out as a playwright. The idea of telling these little twenty-five minute one-act plays inside of a small space was really exciting to me. We built this set. We gave everybody three days to shoot an episode. A lot of it was born out of this growing sense of collaboration. It’s weird to say this but we have a company now. We have a thing. What we’ve been realizing is I could write and direct all the episodes for Room 104. Actually, I think I wrote seven of the episodes.
When I write them and then we go out [we asked], “Who’s the best director that could elevate this and do something with it beyond actually what I do?” I think we made better stuff, honestly, than me seeing it through the whole way or me and Jay curating it through the whole way. The whole spirit of, “Well I’m going to write this straighter script, I’m going to hire this really weird director to come on, and our alt-chemical thing might make it better than if I had done the whole thing.”
Fleischmann: We built a container and then realized anything can fit in it. When you put lots of different things in it, you get this really weird, cool recipe that all seems to work.
When was the idea brought to you?
Fleischmann: I guess it was about a year and a half ago. [Mark and Jay] came to me and were like, “Here’s this idea. Let’s just start writing log lines. Here are all these episodes that I have.”
Duplass: I’m notoriously irresponsible with stuff like this. I’m like, “We’re going to make this show. We’re going to make it for this price. I know we don’t have a green light yet, but we’re doing this.” We kind of start building it, like kind of backing into a price point that I thought was responsible, that would make a place like HBO really happy to have this show, but also a price point that I could go in to HBO like, “Don’t make us make a pilot. Trust me. I’ll go in, and I’ll make it at a fraction of the cost you’re making other shows for. Let’s make all twelve of them.”
They [said] okay. I was like, “Good. You canceled Togetherness. You fucking better do it.”
What have some of the reactions been? When I first learned about it, only knowing you and your brother were behind it, I had an idea going in about what it was going to be like. And after the first episode it was very clear this was not going to be what I expected.
Duplass: Wonderful. This is what we want. Thank you for saying that.
That’s not to say that there aren’t episodes that seem a little closer to your wheelhouse. What’s in store rest of the season?
Duplass: It sounds cheesy, but expect the unexpected. That’s part of why we want to encourage people to come to the show. It’s an active viewing experience. You’re actually not going to know what you’re getting into probably until about five minutes of each episode. Each one can go any different direction.
That said, we’ve done fun things where we try to clue people in as you watch episodes continuously that there are small, subtle threads that will help you kind of orient yourself as to where you are. We have the same melody in the score that opens each episode. As you watch them, you start to realize that the way that that melody is played, its tempo, its instrumentation are giving you little hints about what kind of episode you might expect coming up.
For us, the excitement of this very specifically was it being highly unbranded and highly explosive [so people who say] “Shit man. I don’t like scary stuff. Why did they do that to me?” Or, “Did they really give me a dramedy with these old people?” I like challenging audiences like that.
Was pulling this off a challenge in any way?
Duplass: It was a joy. Honestly. It was really unbridling myself.
Fleischmann: It was wish fulfillment.
Duplass: It was wish fulfillment. I would send these scripts. She would just be like, “That’s real weird. Where’d that come from?”
Fleischmann: There were a lot of conversations. “Alright. We’re learning a lot about Mark.”
Duplass: It’s weird, I’m just discovering this now: This show is a little bit about a filmmaker who makes a big, successful movie. Then they go off and make something weird because they feel they have their license to. We’ve been running Duplass Brothers for twelve years now. We’re here. I got one freebie. I get a chance to do something a little bit weird and different, that expresses a different side of ourselves. This is it.
Now that you’ve been dipping your toes into a myriad of genres for these vignettes, are there ideas in place here that you want to revisit for bigger projects?
Duplass: It opens me up. Also, as we’ve begun to collaborate with more and more filmmakers, if something happens to you specifically as an independent filmmaker… you struggle so hard to become a success. When you do, consciously or subconsciously, you protect what you do well. It’s the one thing you do that works. You don’t want to change it. You’re scared that you won’t be successful if you do. We’ve done that for a long time.
This is us kind of saying, “Let’s get out of that for a second and in particular the collaborative element of, let’s just work with all these new directors we haven’t worked with before and see what the alchemy is.” Maybe we’ll birth new films out of this. Maybe there will be whole shows that birth out of one character that came out of the room. That will be a pilot for some other weird seven season thing we do later on.
In that regard, I guess we don’t have the full plan to where this will go. That’s part of the fun of it I think is cascading into it a little bit and being like I don’t know. We’ll see what it does.
You mentioned the score will give us some hints every week, do you have any other plans to link each episode together, like how Jim Jarmusch did with Coffee and Cigarettes?
Duplass: We talked about this in the car on the way over. We had a concern making this show that if you’re making an anthology, what incentivizes people to come back every week? We spent a lot of time thinking about that. Then we had this other thing where we were like, “We have fifty serialized shows on our queue that we want to watch, some of which we watch, some of which we get behind on. Once we get behind, we feel like we almost can’t come back. We’re playing catch up.” Then there are shows I watch, like John Oliver, [where] if I missed a week, it’s fine. I can pop in.
Fleischmann: Yeah. Pop in.
Duplass: We’re kind of looking at this almost a little bit differently. We’re actually not asking you to be religiously tuning into us every Friday night. We’re saying, “This is a fun bottle of weirdness. Show up when you want to show up. If you miss us for a week, you can always come back. You’ll be fine.”
It’s an interesting option given how differently people consume TV now.
Duplass: Room 104 really is the Tinder of the TV world. You can just casually try [it] and see what happens.
Was there a lot of discussion as to how to arrange the episodes?
Duplass: We had ideas. [Like], “This is going to be a great closer episode.” Then we shot it, [and] we’re like, “Oh wait a minute. Hold on a second. Put this here. That does this.”
Fleischmann: I think it was just seeing them all, like having seen them all completed and seeing which ones play off each other, and doing one that is completely unexpected and totally crazy and maybe one that’s still weird in its own, but way more digestible.
Duplass: It’s similar to pacing a record too. I used to be a musician. You’re like, “Okay. I think these are the songs.” Then you’re like, “let’s put this one in track three and throw people off.”
From a mythology of Room 104 standpoint, we did have a lot of conversations as a company of like, “Who do we want to be here? Are we going to open up this show with our broadest episode to invite the largest audience in? Are we going to open up with something weird to raise questions? Do we want to send the message of, ‘I see how this show could be really entertaining to a lot of people.’ Do we want to send the message of, ‘I don’t really know what I just watched. It was kind of crazy. Check it out.'”
We leaned into the latter. I think that part of the reason for that is that it’s kind of the reason we made the show in the first place. If we’re being kind of brutally honest about the landscape, it’s my belief that specificity is key right now, that trying to create a CBS four quadrant might be doing you a disservice by broadening out that much. You might not get anyone. If I’m a subscriber, [paying] $15 a month for HBO, I’ve got to be really passionate about something to get it. Not like, “I kind of like this show. If it’s good, I’ll just go to Netflix for that.”
Fleischmann: Yeah. I think starting with the broadest episode is dishonest about what the show is.
It does seem like, with all the choices viewers have now, this could be filling a void.
Duplass: If there’s a message we want to send about this show, clearly and simple is we took a big swing. We’re taking a lot of risks. If you want to see us do the thing we’ve been oppressing for ten or twelve years, do the thing that’s been lingering under there and we haven’t let out, this is what you want to come see.