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Room 104 Interview: Mark Duplass On Mythology Building In HBO's Wild Anthology Series

Room 104 Season 3 Poster HBO

Season 3 of HBO's wildly imaginative anthology series Room 104 began recently, and series co-creator Mark Duplass, along with executive producer Sydney Fleischmann, spoke with Screen Rant about how much the series has changed over the years, where it's going, and how the mythology around its setting continues to grow. Part of Home Box Office's risk-taking Friday night lineup, the series is one of the more unique anthologies on television right now, blending a Twilight Zone-like sensibility with the intimacy of a one-act play in a black box theater - though, in this case, the theater is a nondescript hotel room.

That room is home to some of the most imaginative, surprising, funny, beautiful, and sometimes horrific stories on TV right now, all of which are served up in a clean 30-minute package by Duplass, his brother Jay, Fleischmann, and an array of talented actors, writers, and filmmakers. That list has included the likes of Mahershala Ali, Michael Shannon, Philip Baker Hall, Amy Landecker, Sonequa Martin-Green, Brian Tyree Henry and more. Meanwhile, filmmakers such as Macon Blair, Megan Griffiths, Anna Boden, Mel Eslyn and more have contributed stories.

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With season 3 underway on HBO now, and season 4 having just recently wrapped filming, Duplass and Fleischmann discussed the series' ambitions in the new season and beyond. They also spoke about how Room 104 has become a unique gathering place for some on the most interesting voices in independent cinema, making the series more than just a fascinating anthology to tune into on a Friday night.

Luke Wilson in Room 104 Season 3 HBO

What was the initial conceit for the show and how has it changed as the seasons have progressed? Have you become more ambitious as each season goes by? 

Duplass: Yeah, it has changed through the years. I actually came up with the show idea a little over 10 years ago. And back then it was just a basic anthology show that was set in a motel room. That's all I really knew. And it was just at a time where anthology shows weren't being made and I was nowhere near popular enough to get it made. And I got lucky enough a couple of years ago to get it off the ground. And I think that the major growth element for me about this show has been realizing that in a way, this show's a lot of like... A lot of doing little one act plays in a room. You can tell these very specific stories over the course of 25 minutes that you don't really get to do in a lot of other forms particularly that reach so many people. 

And now that we're heading into season 3, I think that the thing we really wanted this thing to do is I guess push the boundaries of what the room can be and how it's perceived. In particular the kinds of stories we can tell in there. So we have these sort of music based mood pieces, we have vampires and gorillas and weird Spanish language, mythical melodramas. And we even have a documentary episode and chasing the experimental and chasing sort of risky episodes is really what it's all about for this season. 

I'm very curious as to the process of beginning a new season and then breaking that down into individual episodes. Do you start with a general concept for the season as a whole and then whittle it down or is it more like a creative free for all with a lot of voices just sort of tossing out ideas? 

Fleischmann: It's definitely more like a free for all. Mark and I work with Mel Eslyn who runs Duplass Brothers and our composer Julian Wass, who has become more of a creative voice on the show. And the four of us will just sit in the attic in our office and really throw ideas at each other. And I think the first step is sort of to revisit the idea that we had in previous seasons that never came to fruition. We sort of start there and then someone will tell a weird story and it'll spark something and we just kind of follow the path of where these ideas go and we let them lead us and then we sort of start to curate and figure out what episodes will sort of become this 12 episode season. 

You have some interesting filmmakers onboard in season 3. How do you go about attracting these filmmakers and getting them to contribute ideas and their vision for an episode to the series? 

Duplass: Well everyone is different. In the case of Macon Blair, who's such a fully formed and unique filmmaker, you know, we try not to give him too much. You know, we said, look, we want to make an origin episode. Here's the basic concept, here's the tone and the feel we're going for. And we let him run with it and giving that trust, not only makes him excited to work with us because we're honoring his vision, but it also helps keep our show unique and not feeling like we're the same people making the same kind of episodes over and over again. 

That being said, there are other episodes where I will write them and I'll pair it with sort of a new director to television, give somebody their first shot. And a lot of times it's about saying, Oh gosh, this episode is really, really well structured and really kind of traditional. So let's hire someone like Sarah Adina Smith who does these wild visuals and has this creative take on things. So it will make for interesting mix. It's a lot like a like playing the match game, but just as a romance. 

Michael Shannon in Room 104 Season 2 HBO

Do you want to make Room 104 a showcase for independent artists who might not otherwise have an opportunity to do this kind of work and get their artistic vision seen by a wider audience? 

Duplass: You know, it is that, and it has becomes that. I wouldn't say it's a totally altruistic endeavor on our part. We do love to give people their first shot and we do love that it's tough to break into TV that I feels as good as people who have survivor's guilt to reach back and bring them up. But selfishly speaking, we're getting way more than we are giving. We're getting people who are incredibly excited to be there, incredibly positive with their attitudes. They work their asses off because it's their first job and they want to really make good on that opportunity and then we have their loyalty forever to stay with us and they bring us their other projects. It's more than just mutually beneficial, I think we really, we prefer to do it this way because we get more out of it. 

Going back to the season premiere for a second and Macon Blair's contribution. You mentioned that you wanted to do an origin story for the room. What was the idea behind that, and was creating a mythology around the series ever part of the plan before now? 

Fleischmann: I think with this one we went to Macon and basically said that they want to do an origin story, we want your weird, goofy, strange twist on it. And then we kind of laid out the elements and then really let him shape it into what it is. We talked a lot about the mythology and we're keeping it very close to the chest. 

I think the way to say it is, we know what it is and we are going to reward those viewers who stick around with little Easter eggs here and there. Also the show is built to work on its own and you can just watch one episode and you don't have to see the whole thing in order to enjoy it. 

Has there ever been an idea that just wouldn't work, be it budget or content or et cetera? 

Duplass: So many.

Do you have a slush pile of stuff that you'd like to revisit? 

Duplass: It's a graveyard, but it's a living graveyard. Something dies, but then they get resurrected. There's an episode this year called 'Itchy' that deals with a skin rash. And I was trying to crack that fucking thing for season one and it's eluded me. And then when Syd brought up the idea of Arturo Castro, we kept this idea that it could be a video diary episode and we finally got it. So we try to hang in with them and add to the the ones that haven't made it because they've been either too expensive. There are quite a few of those, but even some of those have come back around because using the constraints of the physicality of the room and the budget has been endlessly inspiring to us to try and find ways around them and it's part of what keeps the show feeling fresh and keeps us coming back to it. 

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Tell me a bit about the bit about your approach to writing an episode of the series and then  finding the right director. When do you know that you want to direct the episode that you've written? 

Duplass: Yeah. You know, I've only directed two episodes or I guess now three. We just finished shooting season four, but usually I'm not that interested in directing episodes that I write because the show, at its core, is about collaboration and it's about celebrating new voices and, and finding out what my storytelling strengths are when they're combined with someone else's storytelling strengths. And speaking candidly I've collaborated closely with my brother for the last 15 to 20 years and we make a certain kind of art and I'm really more interested in dealing with different kinds of people right now we're both doing that and it's been really fun to make new things. The most common form of collaboration is me coming up with an episode, me writing it, and then trying to pick the director who I think is so wildly different from me or will bring such different energy that it would make something beyond what I, myself would be able to tell. 

Mahershala Ali in Room 104 Season 2 HBO

The series has attracted some pretty big stars - Mahershala Ali and Michael Shannon come to mind. How do you go about seeking them out and getting them interested in taking a part? 

Fleischmann: It really depends on the actor. Mahersha Ali was somebody that we've been wanting to find something to work with him on and we basically said to him, what kind of character do you want to play? And we went from there. We really tailored that episode to him. There are other actors where we make an offer and hope they want to do it. But the big thing for us is that then, being totally honest, it's not a lot of money for the actors. They have to really want to be there, want to try out some new character, a new tone or role or something like that so that they're excited about being there and it's only two or three days of shooting. It's low commitment and we think high reward for them. 

Duplass: Yeah, it's a perfect spot for, in this industry there's this what I call the longterm flirtations of, you'll be a fan of someone that'll be a fan of you. And for 10 years you've been trying to find a project together but hasn't worked out. And Room 104 is a perfect first date to figure out whether you have chemistry and whether you want to continue the relationship. 

Are there any episodes this season that you think that the audience should be particularly aware of and keep an eye out for? Is there anything that you're most proud of? 

Duplass: It's hard to say. We always say we love all of our children equally, but I would say where my pride comes in this year is some of the really wild swings we took, and trying to make like a mood piece that's based upon songs that a girl was going to make up on the spot with projections on the wall. And we didn't even know it was going to turn into an episode and that became one of my favorites and the documentary episode that all of us were terrified to make. I think that the things I'm most excited for people to see this season are some of the riskier things we try like those. 

The series really embraces experimental filmmaking and taking bigger and bigger risks. Where would you like to see the series go in the future? What sort of ideas has it not yet tackled that you'd like to see it, that you guys would like to creatively take a stab at? 

Duplass: Yeah, and we've done a lot of that already in season 4 which we just wrapped and any of the others on set we kind of want to kind of want to keep tight to the chest so that we can keep surprising people, which is tough to do with this show because we only have about 350 square feet. I will say this, and we always say this, and it's really true. this is the only piece of art I've been a part of creating that I feel like could literally go on forever. I can't imagine not having more, and do interesting stories. 

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Room 104 season 3 continues next Friday with 'Animal For Sale' @11pm. All episodes of the series are available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.

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