Room 104: Mark Duplass and Sydney Fleishman Dish on HBO's Curious Anthology

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Room 104 premieres on HBO Friday night at 11:30 pm.

That's a weird time to premiere, and an even a weirder time to air on a weekly basis, right? Not when you're talking about a show that feels like a cross of The Twilight Zone by way of Plaza Suite. 

When I talked with Executive Producers Mark Duplass and Sydney Fleishman at the ATX Festival this fall, they gave me the impression they embraced the weirdness behind their anthology show, and I don't expect they mind the time slot one bit.

Mark Duplass for Room 104

Duplass said the initial genesis of Room 104 was an idea he and brother, Jay, had ten years ago. At the time, one of their reps thought they should better establish their brand before forging into such a "weird television show" let alone an anthology. "I think at the time the concept of making anthology TV was a little out there," he said.

By now, not only are Mark and Jay a known entity, but Fleishman is a great part of it. "We're known for the awkward comedic, sensitive, dramedy, and we love it," Duplass said.

But when Duplass and Fleishman "started to really talk about something that could just break through our skin, and be completely different, and not so curated to exist within our brand" The old idea behind Room 104 was the first thing that came to mind to resurrect.

One of the best things about Room 104 (and I've had the pleasure of seeing two episodes) is that you don't have any idea going into it exactly what it is. According to Duplass, that appealed to him and Fleishman as well.

"I think what we loved about it so much was that obviously, the anthological nature meant that we could tell any kind of story, any night, but in particular as we started talking to people about it, they kept saying, 'Well what's the tone? What is it? Is it comedy? Is it a thriller? Is it horror? Is it discomfort?' Our answer was 'Yes, yes, yes, and you're not really gonna know.'

What's That Noise?

"Then what we posthumously discovered, after we had shot them and started testing them to people, is we would sit in the back of the room, and watch people physically lean forward in the first five minutes, trying to discover what kind of story we were telling.

"I'd like to say we were smart enough to have engineered that from the front, but that was kind of a happy accident. We were like, 'They don't know what they're getting. They're coming here because the name Duplass is on it, and we've earned that now.' It was very exciting to us."

There is some thought behind the setting of the motel room, and that most of us have had the opportunity to stay in one certainly adds to the appeal

"I think at the core of our show is this idea that you go on a road trip, or you're driving to see your family, and you pass these sort of banal, corporate hotels like Holiday Inn Express, you look at it, and our expectation is just like, okay, it's just regular with regular colored walls and carpet. And our experience and our belief is inside of the most mundane thing possible is the biggest element of magic if you pay close enough attention.

"Once we started talking about that, we're like, 'Oh, this is fun.' Okay, so we take just the most boring thing, a 400 square foot boring box, and fill it with the craziest, most magical stuff that we can imagine, and that got really exciting," Duplass explained.

Sydney Fleishman for Room 104

Fleishman enjoyed the excitement their idea brought out in others. "Yeah, it was fun when we first started telling people the idea. Right off the bat, everybody would have three stories. This happened to me in a motel, this happened to a friend of mine, or what if this happened. It just sparked something in people, because everybody has that experience. Everybody has stayed in a hotel or a motel."

When they started cracking stories, the ideas kept flowing. They realized Room 104 could go on forever, whereas the leading cause of early death of television shows is having nowhere to go.

It's a familiar theme in independent film and something that has to be endearing to HBO. Duplass had a lot of experience in the film arena but is calling the other low-budget television. He's never seen any that works but considers Room 104 to be on the leading edge.

"These shows, make no mistake, are made at a fraction of the costs that your average television shows made for. We shoot three episodes inside of a set that we built, and because of that, I think that you run up against this wonderful obstacle, which is how do we make something that is interesting in the era of peak TV.

"How can we offer something beyond the 50 shows, or you probably 400 shows, in your queue? The way we feel is, we are genuinely interested in watching them. So how do you become relevant here? What is the answer to that?

It's Like the Twilight Zone

"We really don't know. We approach this show with an essential humility that is like, 'We're actually sure that the show is totally gonna work. Maybe you are going to get bored by being in the same room for a little while, but we're going to try our damnedest to surprise you, and throw things at you that you never would expect, and see where we go.'"

"We drop little Easter eggs throughout to give you a sense of what you might be getting. Early on we devised this thing with our composer Julian Was, who is a big, long-time collaborator with us, where the melody of the show is the melody of the show," Duplass said about connecting the thematic elements of Room 104.

"You will always hear the in the opening credits, but there are clues in the way that it's played, and the way that it's orchestrated, and the tempo that it's played, that let you know what you might be getting yourself into. Or maybe they're there to thwart your expectations. We're trying to engage a little bit of activity in our viewership in those regards."

However, the similarity from episode to episode might just end there. At least that's what the duo attempted to do with the staging of the backend of the production.

Duplass explained, "It's the most intensely collaborative piece of art I think I've ever made where, as Syd and I really started to build this thing together, I wrote seven of the first season's episodes, and we made a decision.

"I'm not going to direct these because we kind of know what's going to happen if I direct these, but what if we make an alchemical experiment by saying, 'Okay, this episode is a little more straight, so let's find the craziest director we know, and let's see what happens when we put ourselves together.'

Amy Acker from Room 104

"It's hard to explain but when you're an independent filmmaker, your way of thinking is, what's my best chance to make this great, I'll do that. You get a little trapped by that because you're just scared you're going to get kicked out of Hollywood, and you want to make something that you know can be great.

"This was the opposite. This was, let's explore. Let's take a risk. If we have an interesting failure for an episode, fuck it, so be it. We're trying something out new, and that spirit kept the show very vital throughout the process."

Ever mindful of the business aspect of things, Duplass didn't take advantage of the great relationship he had built up with HBO. Instead, he almost did the opposite.

When speaking with the network, they went all in, he said. "We basically came to HBO And said, 'We know it's scary out there right now, and we know that in the era of peak TV, you have to make something that you feel is worth your money." So rather than say here's your next Game of Thrones, we said, 'Give us the catering budget on one day of Game of Thrones and let us make something cheap for you, and this will be a lottery ticket.

I Hate This Motel Room

"We'll try this out together, and we'll give you our best foot forward.' The first experiment with that was Animals, and it's proved to be this wonderful show for us, and for HBO where, it's very specific, but they have a slew of passionate viewers who show up and order HBO Now specifically to watch that show."

"I guess the feeling that Syd and I feel as artists, that our whole company feels as artists, is that we feel humbled by how hard it is to make a really great piece of art, and we don't believe that we have all the solutions and answers of how to do that.

"What we do believe is, we can take a huge swing at something kind of wild and see how we do. That's really what the show is about."

Don't forget. Room 104 airs Friday at 11:30/10:30c. You really don't want to miss it.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA), enjoys mentoring writers, wine, and passionately discussing the nuances of television. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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