Though there have been episodes about teleporting music teachers, invisible monsters, and intimate moments of cannibalism, the general conceit of the Duplass brothers’ HBO series Room 104 is fairly straightforward. Each episode in the anthology series can be about anything, and can take place during any time period, but it has to take place inside the confines of the show’s titular motel room.
There are other self-imposed rules, too, about shooting schedules and character counts, but the room itself is the largest creative constraint the Duplass brothers put themselves under. Each episode seems to burst at the seams of its own creation, and we wanted to know why they set these rules, and how enforcing them affects the entire process. So we sat down with writer, actor, director, and Room 104 co-creator Mark Duplass to find out.
“This is a show I’ve wanted to make for years,” Duplass explains, saying that deep down he’s really a playwright (which is what he studied in college). From that mindset, he considers Room 104 more of a collection of one-act plays. There was also a pragmatic side to his urge to create the show, explaining that he was searching for a way to make art “that felt the way I used to feel, making shit in my twenties with my friends.” Even back then, constraints were blessings for Duplass. “We had very limited resources. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were excitable, we had no time and no money, and we would just go.” Duplass says that frenzied need to just make something underpins the entire creative process for Room 104.
But for Duplass, making a show as wild and varied as Room 104 isn’t just about hearkening back to a simpler time, it’s also a reaction to how he and his brother Jay Duplass are perceived by audiences today. “For better or worse,” Duplass says, “as you progress as a filmmaker you start to develop a brand. Audiences start to develop a sense of who you are. And we, up until we made Room 104, were known for making these introspective comedic dramas based in reality, and we love that, but it’s not all that we want to be.” So they set out to create a space where they could tell all types of different stories in an attempt to break away from what they’re known for.
But why make a show so laden with self-imposed rules and creative constraints? “There’s this story about Igor Stravinsky,” Duplass explains, “once he learned how to compose and arrange all the instruments for an orchestra he became paralyzed because there were too many options. And Jay and I always call that ‘swimming in the sea of infinite possibility.’” Duplass says he often feels that way as a writer, when he’s staring at a blank page full of potential. “When you can do anything,” he says, “you often find that you can’t do anything. And so by squeezing the walls around you, and giving yourself something to fight against, giving yourself something to be frustrated about, you often find new ways to be creative that you wouldn’t have thought of before.”
Duplass goes on to explain the other, less-lofty reason for imposing so many constraints on Room 104. “I wanted to make a show that was super, super cheap and super fun, and rag-tag, because that’s the way I used to make things and that’s the way I’ve always felt most vital and most alive, is when I feel like I’m with a small group of my friends trying to make something out of nothing.”
But why set the show in a motel room, anyway? Why choose this setting over another confined space, like an airport bar or a bus stop?
“Everybody passes through these kinds of places,” Duplass says. No matter one’s socioeconomic background, sooner or later everyone has to spend a night in a motel room, making it a sort of melting pot. “There’s another thing that I’ve always felt, that is not something I’m super proud of,” he continues. “I’m always a little bit more gross, disrespectful, and strange in a motel room than I am anywhere else. I’m like the 10 to 20 percent more unhinged version of myself when I’m in a motel room. And I don’t know why that is but I love that about them.”
Duplass says that, when it comes to scripting each episode of Room 104, the show’s never employed a traditional writers’ room (where a “showrunner” guides a group of writers as they create storylines, plots, etc.). “Part of that is by design,” he explains, “and part of that is because this really is my pet project. There’s a joke on set; when all the crew members are getting the scripts they say, ‘Jesus, what psychological issues is Mark going to be working out this year?’”
Duplass says this is a fairly true assessment, and he spends all year thinking about and dreaming up story concepts for Room 104. From there, if there are concepts or ideas he doesn’t feel he’s the best one to tackle, he brings in a collaborator. “We call it handing the room to somebody,” he says, “because really it’s a one-off episode and they can come in and do whatever they want to it.”
Even though these creative constraints have led Duplass to tell incredible stories, the process isn’t always smooth. “There have been many, many times where I’ve felt the constraints of the room or the budget or the timeframe,” Duplass explains. “It’s safe to say I feel that at least once an episode.” But he says that he’s never, in all the episodes he’s written, failed to come up with a solution that he wasn’t completely thrilled with. “This really is the one show that’s always felt limitless to me, in terms of story potential, either in spite of — or perhaps because of — the intense limits with which we create it.”
Regardless of the constraints, or the various plots and solutions they find for each episode, there’s a unifying tone to the entire series. When asked how to account for that in a show where every episode is completely singular, Duplass pauses for a moment in thought before diving in. “It’s really hard for me to analyze it,” he admits. “But honestly... it’s me. That’s really what it is. I am the only unifying principle. I think what you’re feeling is some of the deeper, darker, more secretive sides of myself that I’m allowing to spill out inside this room.”
Duplass says the entire vibe of the show is predicated on a careful balancing act that is two sides of his own personality, where he describes himself as “an anxious and depressive person” with dark ideas swirling in his mind, but also “kind of a sweet little boy at the same time who wants to see people love each other” and who wants to help nurture a world where people understand each other. “I think there’s something in there, the dark and the sweet combination is a little odd. And it comes from me.”
To see the result of all this conflict between creativity and constraint, catch Room 104 Fridays at 11 p.m. on HBO.
Giaco Furino is Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo