As Mark Duplass makes his "Room 104" swan song, he carries its diverse vision to future projects

Duplass and a fellow EP spoke to Salon about seeking unexpected talent and plans for "contactless" productions

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 24, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

Mark Duplass in "Room 104" (Tyler Golden/HBO)
Mark Duplass in "Room 104" (Tyler Golden/HBO)

If you happen to be reading this on the day "Room 104" kicks off its fourth and final season, you might catch co-creator Mark Duplass live-tweeting a 16-hour marathon revisiting of all previous episodes leading up to the latest premiere. The whole thing sounds exciting and very tiring, but what else is new? Duplass and his brother Jay built their careers on the hustle of independent filmmaking. Now, in addition to co-starring with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in "The Morning Show," Mark Duplass is also co-managing Duplass Brothers Productions.

Out of all of the works incubating at his company, "Room 104" may be his and fellow executive producer Sydney Fleischmann's most liberating and creative. Since the anthology series' first season they've made a point of opening up the production to showcase a variety of voices. Six of the first season's installments were directed by women. Subsequent seasons have afforded a number of emerging or underexposed talents to write or direct episodes – among them Miguel Arteta, So Yong Kim and performers such as Natalie Morales and Karan Soni.

Every creative mind behind the camera lends his or her own singular magic to the the stories about this small, unsuspecting room, a simple box outside of time alchemically transformed into something new week after week. Some "Room 104" stories are hilarious, others horrifying, and many encompass an assortment of emotions, none predictable.

In a moment when so many of us are fearful of travel, the ability for each half hour to morph into an unknown shape or feeling makes this show a departure from nearly anything else on TV.

It's a small tragedy that "Room 104" is closing down for good after this season. But for Duplass and Fleishmann, it's also been a paradigm-shifting experience that's changed their approach to cultivating new voices in TV and cinema. "It became really evident to us in Season 2 and beyond that by deeply collaborating with people who haven't had their shot, either in front of or behind the camera, to do what they can do, that not only is it good for the ecosystem and helps launch their careers, but it really benefits our show and it keeps us from repeating ourselves," Duplass said.

"Whatever sphere of influence we have, and we know we're not the hugest company in the world," he added, "we're trying to do our part to give people that first little lift." 

The premiere represents the first time in the series Mark Duplass stars, writes, directs and performs original music in a story that is part comedy, part thriller and entirely strange. Subsequent episodes include a wrestler's lament; an animated fantasy about teen desire, danger, and power fantasy; a divorced woman's night out that takes a mystical left turn, and other equally odd and wonderful tales. Each is brought to life by a roster of guest stars that includes "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"'s Melissa Fumero, Kevin Nealon, Jillian Bell, and Dave Bautista.

In a recent conversation Duplass and Fleishmann talked about Duplass' purposeful creative decoupling from his brother Jay and the importance of casting wide to keep their productions fresh and original. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I write a lot about representation and inclusion on television in particular, and one of the things that I've noticed about "Room 104" is, it's really not had that problem for most of its run. All the stories have been incredibly varied, which keeps it surprising. But when I also look at the directors list, particularly for this season, and, you know, the stories we see in front of the camera, a variety of voices has always been part of the fabric of the show. Was that intentional from the start, or has your approach evolved particularly as the show has gone forward?

Because honestly, if you asked me a couple of seasons ago, I would not have expected to see Dave Bautista on this show.

Mark Duplass: It was definitely conscious. I can credit a lot of that to one of our executive producers, Xan Aranda, in our first season, who really pushed us to think about that in a more deep way. And I think that is also part and parcel with something that's been happening with our company as a whole: Jay and I looked very closely at our relationship over the last five years, really with the ending of "Togetherness," which I think was also simultaneously the end of our extremely codependent, artistic collaboration, where it was the two of us telling the certain kinds of stories that we felt we were authorized to tell well, in particular male intimacy stories between male friends and brothers and things like that.

As we sort of consciously uncoupled from that, we started to realize that there were all these different kinds of stories that we could tell and tell with authority, if we just partnered with the right people who could tell those stories well for us. We could be their allies in this wonderfully organic way.

With that "Room 104" became less about my vision or even Syd's vision or Jay's vision and became more about, how can we be good partners to these people so they can tell their stories which will in turn, make our show more interesting? So that became really conscious, I think, towards the end of Season 1, and we really leaned into it from there. But Syd can talk to more about how we find those people.

Sydney Fleischmann: It's all kinds of different ways that we find the people who were these different perspectives and new voices to us. Some of them through friends of friends. Somebody like Lila Neugebauer, who is a theater director in New York, came to us when we put out the bat sign for theater directors with one specific episode. She's a prolific theater director who was trying to get into film and TV, and this just proved to be the perfect space for it. We're in this really special, cool space where, because it's a new team of collaborators on every episode – new director, new cast – we're able to just take different kinds of creative risks and, and bring in somebody who maybe hasn't proven themselves in a certain genre. To say "we see the person that you are, we see the talent that you have, and this is a great fit for all of us," it's just been really cool to see that happen with all sorts of different people.

I want to return, Mark, to talking about decoupling from this identity that you and Jay built that yielded a very specific point of view, and ask you to elaborate on the idea of being an ally in terms of elevating which stories are getting told. Through what you're doing on "Room 104" you and your team seem to be speaking to this moment of, as you said, giving people their shot by featuring voices that would ordinarily be skipped over.

You mentioned your efforts to expand your circle. But I think a lot of people are asking right now why hasn't this happened before. From your point of view and a producer and director, as somebody who can bring new talent to the director's chair or to a role in one of these episodes, what's your take on why so little of this has happened until this point in time?

Duplass: And when you say it, you mean the awareness that [lack of diversity] an issue or are you referring to the change itself that's actually happening?

The change has been happening incrementally. The example that you gave in your story is part of that – producer by producer, creative by creative, it's been happening. But I'm curious to know what you believe the main barrier has it been. It sounds like you had a very personal revelation around this.

Duplass: One thing that I have identified for Duplass Brothers and for myself is that I think we have done a good job historically of supporting up-and-coming artists. That has been happening since we got any position of power . . . Here's where the problem lies: historically because of the nature of every privilege that exists everywhere and the systemic nature of it, if you're going to reach out to someone who's got a bunch of filmmaking skills and is positioned and excited to make something but hasn't gotten their shot yet, historically, that person has been a white male because the system has supported that and made them believe that they can get to step two or three and go from there.

And so what you have to do is not reach out to those people that the system has made ready, but you have to reach much further and go deeper and tap someone who either doesn't have the resume or might not even believe in themselves. You have to see it in them and go more long-term to do that. And that is something that I think we failed to identify for a long time.

Go back and look at our IMDb lists and you'll see a lot of collaborations with other white males, because those were the people who were in positions to more readily identify because of the system. And so when we identified that and we identified with "Room 104," that helped us prep a little bit. But I mean, Jesus, we have so much work to do, and we're still figuring it all out as a company right now.

And Sydney, what do you think is yet to be done both as a producer and personally on this front?

Fleischmann: These hurdles, they're such big questions. And I think the way that we've approached "Room 104" is with this openness that I think is lacking in a lot of places. And I think that it's that thing of like Mark and Jay realizing, like "We can't create all these episodes because it's going to get stale, it's going to only be from one perspective." We've tried really hard to keep it as open to new perspectives as possible. Coming at it with the intention of wanting to be as open, as supportive and as diverse as possible, not only with finding the people, but in the stories. And I think that those things are just so deeply connected, that we can't tell diverse stories without having a diverse pool of collaborators.

Duplass: And we would be remiss if we didn't say we were in a better and more powerful position than other shows often find themselves in to do these kinds of things, because we make this show so cheaply that HBO gives us full creative control and full trust to do whatever want. That includes hiring and everything. So admittedly, we don't have to battle anyone else has in terms of, "Oh, you should be hiring this kind of person who has all these credits and all this proof," because again, that can be problematic in terms of hiring the same kind of person over and over again.

Regarding this season, you've always had an impressive guest star roster. But how were you able to draw in some of the big names featured in this season? Did they come to you and say, "OK, I'll do it for actor's scale and not what my usual fee is"? Are they just big fans?

Duplass: I think it's a combination of things. Syd, go ahead, you can speak to this.

Fleischmann: Oh, no, I was going to say, I think Dave Bautista is a perfect example. Nicole [Arbusto], our casting director, I'm pretty sure she found this article or interview that Dave had done, where he said that he wants to do dramatic roles and he just hasn't been given them. Because he was a pro wrestler and then he was in Marvel movies and he was just sort of put in that category. So we were looking for him basically.

Just being able to offer this new role or a new opportunity for an actor is really appealing. And it's only a couple of days, which is a big selling point, that it's not a huge time commitment. It's, "Come have fun with us, come try something different. Know that you're in a really safe, supportive environment, and let's just make something special.

Duplass: And I think that there are other things that are a little bit in a sort of a relationship of like, let's help each other out. Let's both bring like immense value to each other.

Natalie Morales, she's a great example. She was about to do "Abby's," which was poised to be this huge network breakout sitcom, and she comes and works for scale as an actor with us on this show. In turn, she gets a chance to direct an episode and receive our love and support in doing that in a safe space. And we get all this amazing stuff. We got a huge TV star acting in our show, and then we get a really inspired new director. And God, I mean, she worked so hard and so overtime to make her episodes good that whatever she lacked in experience compared to a director like me, she more than makes up for in hard work, preparation and her own vision. That's another way that this stuff can kind of happen.

No TV series that wants to last wants to necessarily speak directly to a particular moment in time, but remain timeless. However, I'm wondering if there were elements of "Room 104" that were created with what's going on with social justice movements right now in mind, but that just in terms of the pandemic might come across differently in this moment than they might have otherwise.

Duplass: Yeah. You know, it's really interesting. I hadn't thought about the sort of things that we have made posthumously having a different flavor or color.

But there is something really interesting that we found over and over again, that is a touchstone for "Room 104" that I think applies to what you're talking about. And it's this major sort of through line of "Room 104" being set in this room, an average motel room, which I think represents for people . . . like you know, when you're traveling, you show up to like either an Airbnb or a hotel, or even if you're camping, you're like a little different than you were at home.

Part of it is because you're outside of your comfort zone. Part of that is because you're just like, "Well, this is not my place." Maybe you'll throw something on the floor, like you've never done before. And you're like, "Ooh, who's that a**hole? I've never done that." It's this way that people find themselves being slightly different, examining some sort of like personal growth, and accepting the paradox that exists inside themselves.

That's something we keyed into really early on, I'd say probably toward the end of Season 1, that I've tried to string out through the seasons. For instance, in a lot of the tones of the show, they seem really, really funny, but they then turn and they become kind of, like, dramatic and sad and strange. And so I don't know if that is exactly related to what you're talking about, but that is this thing I've noticed that people keep coming back to that I think has been a consistent touchstone for all the episodes.

Given all that we've talked about in terms what the show has achieved both creatively but also just in terms of intentional casting, intentional hiring behind the scenes, what are you hoping to take forward into your next projects based on what's been learned and developed in this experience of making "Room 104"?

Duplass: Yeah. I mean, God, I wish we had five hours to talk about this, because it's been such a big part of our company discussions right now as a whole. And I think that the DNA of our next move is a part of the DNA of "Room 104," right? It's leveraging whatever position of power we have so that we can be in control of the hiring, the story, the creation the representation on screen and telling meaningful stories that don't just clutter our queue with bulls**t so we can make money, but with meaningful representation.

We also want to try to expand that from the proving grounds of "Room 104," of "take a shot at a 25-minute episode, because it's done cheaply" into a more meaningful way to feature film directing, and to being able to be your own showrunner. Taking that next step with the people that we have already tapped and mentored and helped to, I don't want to say "mentor," but at least supported and helped to get that first step on "Room 104," to get them to the next level and then find what our next "Room 104" is going to be, which is such a wonderful proving ground for so many types of people.

And, you know, secretly I'm hoping that "Room 104" will get the chance to ride again. I'm hoping that we'll be a hit this season because people are at home and they want to watch it and HBO will let us go again. And we can double down on all the things we're doing. But I'm not banking on it.

So you know, we haven't really announced this yet, but like we're making some secret projects right now that are kind of what I would call "contactless" productions that are very safe. They can be shot from where you are. And some of those are longer format things that are very focused on telling different kinds of stories and trying to support just underrepresented voices. Because that is what we not only should be doing, and it's not only good for the ecosystem, it's just more interesting to us. There's an element of it that's honestly just following our bliss.

"Room 104" kicks off its final season Friday, July 24 at 11 p.m. on HBO. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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