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Interview: Room 104’s Mark Duplass and Sydney Fleischmann

by Leora Heilbronn

Room 104 has always had a special place in our heart because of the season two episode Arnold, starring Brian Tyree Henry and Ginger Gonzaga. The musical episode with Michael Shannon and Judy Greer was also a personal favourite. Sadly, this is the fourth and final season of the cult favourite HBO show, and to mark this occasion, Brief Take was the Canadian exclusive outlet selected to participate in an international roundtable with mumblecore hero (and hero of ours), Mark Duplass, as well as up-and-coming director Sydney Fleischmann, who, fun fact, once worked as an assistant for Mark Duplass.

While it’s a difficult show to classify, the official synopsis does it exceptionally well: The late-night, half-hour anthology comedy series created by Mark and Jay Duplass (HBO’s Animals and Togetherness), returns with 12 new episodes, each telling a unique and unexpected tale of the characters who pass through a single room of a typical American chain motel. While the setting stays the same, every episode of the series features a different story, with the tone, plot, characters, and even the time period changing with each instalment.

The following is a condensed and edited version of our Zoom video call with the multi-talented duo of Mark Duplass and Sydney Fleischmann.

Brief Take: You’ve worked together on some of my favourite projects from the past few years, including Togetherness and Blue Jay. As craftspeople who have collaborated together for over five years, what do you like best about working with each other? 

Mark Duplass: That’s such a great question.

Sydney Fleischmann: That is a really good question.

MD: I tell Sydney this all the time. I have what people like to refer to as extreme Dad energy, so I’m always sending emails of “I just deeply appreciate you and everything that you’ve done for me!”, but the relationship that I have with Syd is particularly special because Syd started off at the company as my assistant and then quickly showed all the wonderful promise and sensitivity and all the things she has. So she started to come up more quickly than the average assistant would, doing co-producing roles and taking on more and more responsibility. Then when we went to make Room 104, and not a lot of people know this, Syd was still my assistant when we got green lit for this show.

SF: [laughs] I think it was after the pitch that you said, “Oh I guess you probably shouldn’t be my assistant any more.” [laughs]

MD: “I don’t think you should be my assistant anymore because you’re going to be a co-showrunner with me on a show on HBO.” It sounds corny but Syd has such a good way with me of allowing me to express all of my creative whims and come in heavy at the show at times, and then sometimes I have to pull away a little bit and go act on The Morning Show, and she always is there covering everything. It’s just wonderful to have someone who you have a creative kinship with who is also deeply responsible and trustworthy. She’s the fuckin’ best.

SF: [laughs] Well I could say the same thing. I think for me, the biggest thing is just the trust that Mark has given me over the years to just figure things out. So much of this show was just “we don’t know exactly how to do it, we don’t know the best way or the most efficient way”, but just the trust and the freedom to figure it out and make mistakes has been huge in our partnership.

In this fourth and final season of Room 104, is the recurring theme throughout “is art literal”? 

MD: [laughs] That’s funny. I wish I could say I was smart enough to come up with a theme for the whole season and then follow it, but really we just kind of follow our bliss when making them. As it relates to this season, if you do start to track what the through lines are, you sense that we felt that this was going to be our last season, even though we didn’t know for sure. We’re trying to get in everything we want to get in before it’s over and I think you’ll see things like: oh, so there’s a musical that takes place outside of time and place, and there’s an animated episode, there’s an episode with dolls. We were really trying to squeeze it in before we were kicked out of the room. I think that was the biggest leading factor. But to your point in regards to the first episode, I am very fascinated by the relationship between artist and fans, in particular when an artist has a lore about them, like we tried to create with Graham Husker. It’s like a documentary like Searching for Sugarman, people become obsessed with them when they’re elusive, and in particular, the fanboys claim to love the artist and claim to understand their pain and all these wonderful things, but I think when confronted by them, they’re really just sycophantic and vampiric and just want to suck them dry for what they are for selfish purposes. Honestly, that’s not something that I’ve experienced a lot because I’m not an enigmatic artist, I’m just a guy in a shirt, but I do find that the fanboy culture can be a little off and strange, so I think we wanted to inject that episode with that ickiness.

Where does the inspiration come from in terms of the humanity at play in each episode? 

MD: I think one thing that we’ve always examined is that when people are trying, when people are in motel rooms or hotel rooms, they’re often a slightly different version of themselves because they’re away from their home, they’re out of their comfort zone. If they’re alone, no one is watching, and they allow themselves a little bit of that more unhinged side of themselves to come out. So that’s a really great springboard for a lot of where our stories come from. And then, if I’m being perfectly honest, when I started this show, it was an opportunity for me to tell different kinds of stories that weren’t normally part of the Duplass Brothers brand and to stretch out and get weirder and more strange. But I think if you look closely at our shows, a lot of the time these characters go far out and there are terrible expressions of terrible parts of themselves, but there’s often a sweetness and a centring towards the end. I think that is really how I am as a person – I like to be brutally honest about things and then give a hug at the end of it.

What new elements did you bring in in this last season? 

SF: I think a big thing for us, when we start to talk about each new season, is how to keep the show from getting stale. It’s four walls that we adapt and we change slightly, but for the most part it’s the same set every single week, so a big part of that is ‘how do we keep evolving? how do we keep things exciting?’ and I think a lot of the season is taking bigger risks, different risks, and seeing what we’ve learned from the other seasons and building on that and growing as creators and collaborators. It’s just been this happy place of growth, I think.

MD: I would add to that by saying that when I first started envisioning this show, I imagined that it would be a place where I could do a lot of different things that I hadn’t normally done, and I did quite a bit of that in the first season. But then I quickly realized that the opportunity here was to collaborate closely with other filmmakers, other voices, other actors, and in particular people who don’t often get the chance to have a starring role or people who don’t often get their first chance at directing for whatever reason. You often them that opportunity and not only is that great for the ecosystem as a whole, it’s really great for keeping the show fresh. Syd and I don’t have to author every episode to make it good. Sometimes we just turn the room over to someone like “Hey, Jenée LaMarque, you’ve done such good things for us. Do you want to make an episode?”, and she’s like “I want to make a feminist episode about how every woman, when they want to make change in their life, starts with a haircut”, and we said “great! let’s do it!”, and she brought us Bangs. The less Syd and I try to make the stuff that we definitely want to make and the more we try to bolster others to use Room 104 as a platform to do their thing, I think the better the show has become.

Are there any episodes that you’ve wanted to turn into feature films?

MD: It’s funny, we have talked about that. There were a couple of episodes that could have gone on. I think the FOMO episode…did that open season three, Syd?

SF: Uh, yes. I can’t remember. [laughs]

MD: The episode with a good friend of ours, Jen Lafleur, that Ross Partridge directed, and that character Karen, people just fell in love with watching her. She was the original Karen, she was just insane. There was a moment where we were all like, “can Karen have her own show? What would that mean?”. The only other thing I would add, and this sounds bad, but Room 104 has actually been a great place to put feature ideas that I’ve had or Syd has had through the years that we’ve explored and realized “there’s not enough here for a 90 minute movie”. It’s such a great place to put the failed or short movie ideas and compact them in the room. [laughs] It’s been more beneficial than harmful to other ideas that we’ve expanded.

With the worldwide quarantine going on right now and lots of different scenarios taking place at any given time in different rooms, have you thought about new ideas for a potential new season in the future? 

MD: Yes, we have.

SF: I think the ideas for Room 104 never cease. I think people are always thinking about what happens in one space, especially when you can’t leave or go anywhere. It still feels limitless even after 48 different stories.

MD: I still have a small space inside of me that hopes that we get to tell more stories somehow somewhere someday. At the same time, you have to give it up to HBO, and I’m not just saying that because there’s some HBO people on this call listening right now, for letting us make 48 of these episodes. In this eco-system, if you’re not a hit after one season then they cancel you. We have a bunch of people who are loyal fans of this show, but we are not Game of Thrones. [laughs] They let us make three more seasons and that’s something we are very aware of and very appreciative of.

BT: Is there a scene or moment either on screen or off screen during production that you’re proudest of from your respective episodes that you directed this season? 

SF: That’s a really good question. This is my first time directing so it was a very new, very profound experience just stepping into that role that I’ve now watched so many different directors in Room 104 and see how they all work with actors, the crew, and what their visions are. The whole experience of directing was a very eye-opening experience.

MD: The one thing I would say, and this isn’t about an episode I directed, it’s an episode I thought about directing, the episode that stars Jillian Bell and that large furry person is a weird, little brain child of mine and I was really excited about it. I thought “maybe I’ll direct this, maybe I should”, and around the same time Karan Soni reached out to us, who had been in the show as a lead actor. He had his first acting job with me in Safety Not Guaranteed, we’ve been friends for a long time. He said “listen, I really want to expand my career and I really want to get into directing”, and I couldn’t help but think “ok, I’m a more experienced director than he is, so what are the chances the episode would be better if I do it? But he’s hungrier than I am, he’s probably going to prepare a lot more than I will because I want to hang out with my kids. He’s been in the show, he’s in the family, he knows what this is, and if he gets this opportunity, not only will he swing the bat a lot harder that I would, he’s going to get his first directing credit on an HBO show and be able to expand his career beyond that.” And that was the best decision I made. I think the episode, and I’m not just saying this, turned out so much better by having him do it with his special relationship with Jillian, and how hard he worked in editing to make it what we could. That was probably the best directing decision I made the whole season.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers who are looking to direct their first film or episode? 

MD: That’s such a good question and I talk about this a lot because I really do believe in what I call ‘using the sword that is in your hand’. Don’t dream about the big movie that you might make one day, don’t wait around for someone to give you the money to do it, try to creatively work within limits and use those limits to your advantage. That’s what Room 104 has done for us. Those same four walls – we could have looked at that and said “oh God, what a pain in the ass. We gotta do another one in here”, but we tried to say “let’s allow these limits to inspire us and see what we can do.” My brother and I made our first movie that got into Sundance in our kitchen with our parents’ video camera for three dollars. We get so convinced that we need big things and big budgets to make good art and I think that we hide behind that a lot. Right now I’m encouraging people to find unique stories that you can tell if you happen to be in a place that’s in quarantine and work with that. We’re making movies that are shot solely by video conferencing and now is as good a time as ever to be creative because people don’t have the capability to go out and do a standard production right now, so you actually have the chance make something at home that can really win.

Room 104 was a springboard for up and coming talent, and now with the show ending, who will give young tv professionals their first opportunities?

MD: We will.

SF: Yeah, I hope we will!

MD: We will. It’s funny you bring that up because we’re all talking in our company now about “how will we bring meaningful systemic change right now?”, and we don’t have the answer but we have all identified that there’s something in the DNA of what we did with Room 104 that is important and needs to expand and more forward. I would love to say that we designed Room 104 that way, we didn’t, we kind of fell into it, and not to get too in the weeds here but we know one thing – we’re not the biggest brand in the world. We’re not Bad Robot, we’re not that. But we do have some element of power in this industry and as long as we keep things modestly priced, places like HBO will support us, at least for a little while. So we need to leverage that power in whatever way we can to tell new and interesting stories of people in front of and behind the camera. That is not because that’s what needs to happen right now or we need to fulfill some quota, we need to do it meaningfully and systemically. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen yet but I think the secrets are inside the Room 104 sauce, so to speak.

Room 104’s fourth and final season airs on Fridays at 11pm ET on Crave

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