It’s been well established that Mark and Jay Duplass love working together, even if, as younger brother Mark—who stars in Manhunt: Unabomber—put it recently at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, they “spiritually and emotionally unabomb” each other. But what excited the writer-producer brothers the most about their latest HBO project, Room 104, was the opportunity to work with and amplify the voices of lesser-known filmmakers and actors. Their anthology series is set in different periods—from Flashdance to the dial-up modem days—with a revolving cast, but all contained in one motel room. Some directors had a script from Mark Duplass to work from, while others came in with their own premises, but they all had free rein. The results are mixed, but that’s the nature of this anthology series, which actually provides the kind of “genre-less” setting the brothers were seeking. The A.V. Club had a similarly free-wheeling talk with the Duplasses about babysitters, specters, and the “democratization of storytelling.”
The A.V. Club: Mark, you wrote all but five of the episodes. Did you just then decide to make it an anthology series to lighten your load a bit, or was that particular format always the intended one?
Mark Duplass: I didn’t write the episodes until we decided to make the show, until we had it all set up and ready to go. I think the idea in terms of making this show was definitely, “Yes, let’s tell wildly disparate stories. Lets try something totally different.” So the plan was always to be a little bit all over the map, to be a genre-less show, and see what that would do. And so it was always kind of experimental in that way.
AVC: And were you both sold on a more conventional or episodic anthology series, or did you consider a season-long arc, like what we’re seeing so much of on FX right now?
MD and Jay Duplass: Yeah.
MD: But that [season-long arc format] felt new to us.
JD: Especially coming off Togetherness, where it was such a very narrow, specific world that we were exploring. Part of the appeal here was, let’s bring in other people. Let’s get other energy in here. Let’s change it all up, let’s change up the genres. Anything is possible. That’s exciting to us as creators and as viewers, too. You know?
Everyone is having this experience right now, where your friend comes over and says, “Have you seen this?” And you’re like, “No! Get off my back!” [Laughs.] I can’t watch everything, it’s impossible. It can be a big commitment to watch shows that carry over the course of six years, and the idea that we could curate something, where, if people think we’re cool and they like what we make, they can show up whenever they want and watch any episode, out of order. We both have young kids, and we stay home on Friday nights, and sometimes, you only have 23 minutes to watch something. This is that thing.
MD: And the Russian roulette nature of it is really fun. You don’t know really, what you’re going to get.
AVC: That’s true, right down to the episode titles, which give very little away. Seeing a title like “Voyeurs,” you don’t know if the observer’s going to be in the story, or if it’s you as a viewer. And you wouldn’t have known you were going to be treated to a ballet.
MD: And you might not have clicked on it if you knew you were going to get that. Not everyone would. So, we want to invite people in for some surprises. And admittedly, it’s not lost on us that this is not done often for a reason. People like to know what they’re showing up for. We’re gonna take a chance and a gamble that people might be interested in some surprises. We don’t know if we’re right.
AVC: Then you have something like the first episode, “Ralphie,” which plays out almost like an urban legend: Something’s going terribly wrong during this babysitting gig. Was that at all informed by your own anxiety as a dad?
MD: Not really. The way we approach these [episodic] stories is often very instinctually and very childlike. When Jay and I write feature screenplays as adults, they’re very thought out, they’re very planned. And that’s not to say they’re not creative. But there’s a lot of curation and pre-thought that go into it. When you’re writing a 25-minute episode that can be anything, sometimes you just start with a character, and you let them walk into the room. Then you let your instinct guide you. That’s how we made art when we were 15 years old. And that’s so fun to us. So when I sit down to write something like this, I’m just thinking of putting the babysitter in that situation, and I don’t know if it’s going to be funny or scary or dramatic or touching or anything. So let me just see what happens. Sometimes, it’s the song I happen to be listening to at the time that dictates it. And we’re looking for a little bit of that chaos and that energy in our lives. Particularly after a show like Togetherness, which was on thin-lined rails for quite a while.
AVC: What prompted the motel room setting? Everyone who’s ever stayed in a hotel has probably wondered what weird gross things might have occurred before they checked in, right? Or had a sense of what was left behind?
MD: The ghosts.
JD: Everything happens in hotel rooms. I mean, that’s the great thing about it—people let themselves go a little bit, in hotel rooms. And I think we all, when we’re in a hotel, we become aware of how unique and how different everyone else is. Right now, if you walk down this hotel’s halls, and you’re looking at door after door, and you think about how much humanity is here. And that’s really what Mark and I have always been obsessed with. We’re obsessed with human beings, and how funny and weird and tragic, and specific that they are. And a hotel room is a perfect container for that. It’s almost like this weird portal. It’s like your home outside of your home, where anything can happen.
MD: Yeah, and it was an organic way for us to explore a lot of things we’ve been wanting to explore, which is to employ a lot more female directors, a lot more persons of color, in terms of representation not just behind the camera, but in front of it as well. You know, an average, banal, corporate American chain motel is the perfect place for that. It was also exciting for us to give leading roles to people that are often sort of stuck with limited or side character roles. And so celebrating that has been really fun.
AVC: It’s almost like its own Project Greenlight, in that sense.
MD: Yeah, and what it is for us is an extension of what we’ve been doing as producers of independent film, where we partner with young filmmakers that we like, and we mentor them, and give them a chance. And that inspiration they bring to it, and new energy is beneficial to us. Our mentorship is beneficial to them. It’s a love fest. It all works out. So each of these episodes you’re gonna look at as mini-versions of some of the films we’ve produced for young filmmakers.
JD: And because we are making the show cheaply, and we have a great relationship with HBO and they trust us, they’ve given us their blessing to cast whoever we want. And to tell stories about people you don’t normally see on screen. And also hire directors whose voices have been marginalized in the past. That’s been pretty incredible and empowering, to be supported by HBO in doing it.
AVC: In speaking with Marta Cunningham and Sarah Adina Smith, they mentioned that they were brought on as directors much earlier in the process than is normal for TV. Why was their immediate inclusion important to you?
MD: Because it meant they would get much more creative control than they would as an average episodic director. On an average episodic show, you’d see Jay and I as the showrunners, just looking over people’s shoulders constantly. And the directors just turn into puppets, basically. This was not the case. I would have an episode—maybe one that I’d written—and we would have a big meeting, and I would communicate very clearly what my vision is, and what the important elements are to me. Talk about the elements that I hadn’t curated yet, and that they should weigh in on. And then it was just, “Go away and make your thing,” which did a bunch of great things for us.
JD: But, I mean, it is worth noting that it’s not the traditional TV model where the showrunners are ruling the visual aesthetic and the way the piece is unfolding. It’s actually the opposite, where we’re relying on individual voices to differentiate the tone, and to differentiate the style, to bring as much of themselves as possible to it. Because that’s what we think is exciting about the show. It’s a hotel room, and everything is different. So the more diverse and the more unique the voice, the better it is from our point of view.
MD: There’s an episode called “Red Tent,” that’s written by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who are friends of ours from 13 years ago at Sundance. They’re such incredible filmmakers, and we respect them so much, so we just called them and asked, “Do you want to do an episode?” And they asked what we wanted, and we said, “Do whatever you want.” And they just wrote whatever they wanted, directed it, casted it—we were just there as their support system. That’s what’s really fun.
AVC: Given that you both work in the two mediums, what are your thoughts on the “line between film and TV is blurring” discussion? What do you think is shifting? Are people really just making “eight-hour movies” now?
MD: Jay and I are pretty unfussy when it comes to what a TV show should be, or what a movie should be, you know? A lot of people are trying to maintain the theatrical experience for films. That’s not really who we are or what we’re about. We come from this fundamental understanding that we’re just blessed that someone is giving us any money to make something in this town. We never thought we would be here, and there’s so much stuff out there that people aren’t getting funded. And we’re so privileged that we’re among the select few that get to continue to make stuff. So for us, we don’t feel we have the right to be fussy about that. We have been invited into this club to make stuff, and we’re just gonna keep making things and challenging ourselves to make them more cheaply and more renegade and more interesting. That’s the only thing we might challenge ourselves to do in the age of so many movies and so many TV shows. We’re aware that we’re asking time of people to watch stuff, and that there’s so much stuff to watch, so we’re gonna try to offer you something unique. And it may not always succeed, but it will definitely be different.
JD: Yeah, I mean, it’s just like the continuing trend of the non-binary reality of life. And in this particular case, of broadcasting. You know? I think it’s just the more we get out of the mindset of, “Which box is this?” “How can you possibly have a 30-minute drama, or a 60-minute comedy?” It’s absurd, if you think about it for two seconds. I get why the rules are in place. They weren’t generated out of absurdity, but what we’re interested in is making art as a form of communication and communion with audiences. And to me, the more that that breaks down and gets varied, and the possibilities become greater, I understand that it does present problems in the short term—
MD: But we’re not making Dunkirk.
JD: We’re not making Dunkirk. It does make problems in the short term for awards shows and stuff like that. But it’s so small in the scope of what I see as the democratization of storytelling, you know? Of the voices that can tell stories, of the ways that stories can be told—I mean, that’s thrilling and exciting. And to me, I don’t know, there’s nothing more interesting than that.
AVC: To wrap on a slightly less heady note, what’s the grossest thing you’ve ever found or left behind in a hotel room?
JD: That’s a great question.
MD: Umm, it’s not gross, but it was unsettling. We were in a hotel north of Austin at SXSW one year, when we couldn’t afford to stay downtown where the expensive hotels were. And we checked in, and left our stuff. Went into town, did a bunch of screenings. Came back, and in our room was a small female sweater, laid out on the bed. And it was not one of the housekeepers’, because we checked, and they wore uniforms there. And the mystery has yet to be solved.
JD: I don’t even remember that.
MD: I think about this all the time.
JD: How did that sweater get there?
MD: That’s season two.