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.”