Room 104: Behind the HBO series' twisty, wild first season
The motel suite at the heart of Room 104 has a lot bigger problems than dirty sheets: The HBO anthology series, created by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, spotlights different visitors each episode, ranging from a woman diving into the darkly funny process of joining a cult to a babysitter facing an unexpected (and very, very creepy) challenge.
Mark wrote seven of the first season’s 12 episodes, while he recruited other writers — like Silicon Valley‘s Carson Mell — and directors to take care of the rest. “I’m just rushing things out, moving really quickly, trying to stay in my subconscious brain, and let everyone else’s smarts elevate it,” he tells EW of the scriptwriting process for this collaborative series.
Ahead, Mark and some of those directors and writers break down how they built the episodes that make up season 1. All 12 episodes of Room 104, which has been renewed for a second season, are now available to watch via HBO GO and HBO NOW.
A babysitter (Melonie Diaz) signs up to watch over a little boy for an evening — and instead gets stuck with much more than she signed up for. (Written by Mark Duplass, directed by Sarah Adina Smith)
SARAH ADINA SMITH: To be able to articulate what drew me to “Ralphie” would take many years of therapy [laughs]. I think in “Ralphie,” what was kind of the most special for me was the room itself had this force, and the feeling that the episode leaves you with at the end is really like, is Meg crazy? Did this thing really happen? Was it really Ralphie who was the evil one? Is Meg the evil one? Or is there something about the room itself that caused this very tragic and uncanny and surreal thing to happen? So I love stories that play with reality and that make you question your protagonist’s sanity and get you lost in that surreal web and the possibility of the unknown or the supernatural seeping in.
MARK DUPLASS: I just brought the character Meg into the room and I knew there was going to be a weird little boy in the bathroom, and I didn’t know if it was going to be funny, if it was going to be touching, if it was going to be dramatic or downright scary, and I literally shut my brain off and followed my instincts, and that one really worked out.
SARAH ADINA SMITH: The thing that popped into my mind more than anything when I first read the script was that closed bathroom door and what’s going on in that bathroom and the power of magic. But also, is Meg who we think she is, or could the possibility of madness be planted from the very beginning? If you rewatch “Ralphie,” I’ve hopefully planted enough seeds where you think, “Ooooh, maybe I should have seen this from the beginning.”
A pizza delivery guy’s (Clark Duke) night goes awry when he gets tangled up with an eccentric couple (James Van Der Beek and Davie-Blue). (Written by Mark Duplass, directed by Patrick Brice)
MARK DUPLASS: The idea was to turn the trope of late-night television in on itself a little bit, which is usually things that air at 11:30 p.m. on a cable channel involve a pizza boy coming in and actually having sex with someone. I’ve watched a few of those in my youth [laughs], and we wanted to play with that and do a comedic twist on it to let everybody know early on what the style and the vibe of the show was.
One woman (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) begins the fraught process of joining a cult under the guidance of its charismatic leader (Orlando Jones). (Written by Carson Mell, directed by Sarah Adina Smith)
SARAH ADINA SMITH: When I first read “Knockandoo,” I loved it so much, I almost felt guilty, like I was cheating on “Ralphie” with “Knockandoo” [laughs]. People try to get me to try and describe this episode in terms of genre, and I don’t think it fits in any sort of genre box, at least not neatly, because it’s this incredibly dark comedy in some ways that is about coercion. It’s about these really real stakes for these people in a very strange situation. … And at the end, it’s kind of like nose rape when you think about it. We were really looking for, what is that sexual dynamic between the two of them? And, again, that’s where the word “coercion” is really important to me. Part of joining a cult or being part of a cult is that you need something so badly that you allow yourself to be coerced and do things that are not safe or healthy for you, so it’s about her finding her own inner voice and standing up and saying no to that.
“I Knew You Weren’t Dead”
A man (Jay Duplass) going through marriage problems encounters someone from his past he thought was gone forever. (Written by Mark Duplass, directed by So Yong Kim)
MARK DUPLASS: It’s based on an experience that both my brother and I have. We’ve both lost people who are very close to us, and they continually visit us in our dreams, and we talk about it all the time. I had never written anything for Jay to act in — he kind of got his acting start outside of our brotherhood — and we wanted to do something that was a collaboration just in that way, just the two of us. So I built that role for him based on that shared experience we had of being visited by the people you’ve lost.
I very specifically borrowed from the classic Christmas Carol form, which is you get visited by three ghosts. And what we did in this episode was, it’s the same ghost but it’s three different times and they’re all wildly different experiences. We wanted to build an episode that at first felt like it might be real but then you come to realize that it is a dream, because that’s the way we feel when we have these dreams. It’s very common, people who’ve lost someone that’s close to them, you cannot tell that the dream’s not real. And it’s usually only when something really small and odd happens — their voice will start to crack or their face will start to melt — and you realize in that moment, “F—k. This is a dream.” If you’re anything like us, you sort of actively try to get yourself back to bed and see if you can re-enter that space because you want to be with them.
It’s 1997, and a writer (Karan Soni) just realized he left his novel on his computer… that’s hundreds of miles away at home with his technologically challenged mother. He calls her hoping she can email it and finds out some life-altering information in the process. (Written by Mark Duplass, directed by Doug Emmett)
MARK DUPLASS: “The Internet” is the most true-to-life story of all the ones I’ve written. It’s based on an experience I had with my mother where I had left a very important document on her computer that I forgot to email to myself and it was while I was playing in a band and we traveled away and I didn’t realize until I was 500 miles away. So I called to try to get her to email the document to me. And this is 1997, and this is a woman from the suburbs in New Orleans who has never used a computer before, and over the course of the next five hours, we almost killed each other [laughs]. I always wanted to do that story, but it felt like it needed something else and something beneath it and behind it to make it deeper and not just a superficial, 10-minute short, which is what that was, really. That’s when we built up this story of the American Dream and first-generation immigrants and what they hope their children might become and ultimately the big twist in the end.
Told entirely through dance, this episode follows a maid (Dendrie Taylor) as she explores a particularly messy room and discovers someone special (Sarah Hay). (Written, directed, and choreographed by Dayna Hanson)
DAYNA HANSON: Writing a dance-based episode was pretty strange [laughs], because it really had to be a story first. Dance is strange for people. A lot of people have this preconception that they “don’t understand dance” — that’s a phrase in quotation marks — so to make a story that uses dance as its language was a really interesting challenge.
This came from the idea of spying on someone else’s stuff and where that might take you. When I’m in a hotel room, I often think about the person who is going to come in there and clean up after me [laughs]. I always feel really weird; I don’t want anyone in there while I’m staying there, so I just put the “DO NOT DISTURB” sign up. It’s very intimate, and also, I have found things that have been forgotten by the housekeeper in hotel rooms that a) really creep me out or b) really intrigue me, but what’s happening is that I’m just becoming interested in someone else’s life and someone else’s story and their stuff, so that idea of casting a voyeuristic eye on a guest in a motel room without really thinking about the implications of that or who that person is, who that person is to you, is it a stranger, is it someone you know or someone like you. Voyeurism and empathy have a very interesting relationship.
Nothing like this episode has ever been seen, at least on American television. Dance has never been more present on television than it is now, it’s just that we see it in these specific forms — the competition dance programs really get a lot of viewers, but their people are looking at dance in this one particular way. There’s a ton of room for dance to be integrated more in television and I hope that this episode kind of points in that direction so that other doors can open.
Two young men (Nat Wolff and Adam Foster) take a break from their strict lives as missionaries to rebel for one night. (Written by Mark Duplass, directed by Megan Griffiths)
MARK DUPLASS: “Missionaries” took more drafts of the script because the first draft that I wrote accidentally came across as a little more exploitative than I wanted it to be. One of our producers, Xan Aranda, actually comes from the Mormon church — she was raised that way, and she had all these wonderful insights and all this great information. That was my least successful first draft of a script, and she really helped me get that thing together and find the beating heart of it and turn it into more than just another joke, honestly — I mean, it wasn’t that bad, but it was missing stuff.
MEGAN GRIFFITHS: What I liked about the episode was that I felt like the takeaway was that it’s okay to experience doubt as a religious person, and these boys kind of were looking at their faith with a little more scrutiny than they usually had, and I thought that was a really relevant, interesting topic to take on these days.
[Aranda] had reached out to another friend of hers who had gone on a mission who could advise on trips. There was a very detailed document that he sent back with all of his notes and we tried to be respectful. I know that Mark and Jay and certainly not me, we’re not interested in making something that’s mocking religion. People have strong faith and they take it very seriously, and I’m not trying to make any kind of grand statement about the validity of anybody’s religion, so we really wanted to try to get the details right in this story. And I think that, as far as I can tell, we have done that.
DUPLASS: I really like the idea of subverting a trope. Everybody has heard that story, of, “Oh my god, these two teenagers got into a hotel and they went crazy and there were hookers and blow and all this stuff,” and I wasn’t really interested in telling that version, but the story of relative hookers and blow to Mormons, which is just boobs on television and beer, felt really cute and sweet and exciting to me.
GRIFFITHS: [The scene of the two boys masturbating as they watch porn] is my favorite scene in the episode [laughs] because those two play it so beautifully and hilariously. It just became about, how can we do this in a way that is believable but a little bit heightened, and we have these [laughs] dildos, these sort of stunt boners is what we kept calling them, and so they were trying to play this discovery that they were having individual from each other while also knowing that the other person was there with them and going through the same thing. I love how they both play the scene. It’s like the sweetest dual masturbation scene ever [laughs].
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The sole survivor of a plane crash (Amy Landecker) tries to figure out what to do next as a mysterious woman (Mae Whitman) pressures her to make a move. (Written and directed by Ross Partridge)
ROSS PARTRIDGE: It was basically brought to me as this idea about a woman who is in a plane crash and she ends up at the motel. Then it turned into this story about a woman who is just kind of stuck in this purgatory. I’m not afraid of planes [laughs]. I’m fascinated by planes. I think it plays into this visceral fear inside of us that we all have to contend with every time we step on a plane — how does this exist? And I’m kind of fascinated with plane crash documentaries: We put so much technology and so much money into planes, and with so much technology, how do crashes actually happen? There’s something so physically visceral about it that makes it kind of consuming. This story is about the difference between life and death, of our conscious state and our subconscious state. At the end of all this, the two becoming one was always fascinating to me and how that might play out with the ideas of memory and the ideas of reality coming into play and basically combatting one another.
A Croatian tennis player (Konstantin Lavysh) revisits his traumatic past with the help of a kind housekeeper (Veronica Falcón). (Written by Ross Partridge, directed by Chad Hartigan)
ROSS PARTRIDGE: I wanted to explore somebody who is at the end of their rope and all the pressure that someone who’s been ripped from a war-torn country who is put into the tennis world and had all these expectations of him being able to rise above his reality and become something, and yet, as much as he was destined to be a star, he never made it and he never can move on.
There’s a couple players that Boris is kind of an amalgamation of — Novak Djokovic is one of the players who during the Bosnian-Croatian conflict was basically trying to practice as the war was happening around him. There was a story I heard about him practicing in a swimming pool and that was kind of like the catalyst for this story of just this guy during the war, and there were planes going overhead and bombs being dropped, but he still was destined just to keep playing and playing his way out of his miserable life. I took that story, and there was also a bunch of these players from some of these Eastern-European countries, whether it’s Estonian players or Czech players, they’ve all had these sort of hardships. You go to Florida and see these tennis camps that are very affluent and a lot of these collegiate players who come up into the world tour have a much easier time of it, so the contrast is really quite incomparable to any other sport, really. It’s just a lot of variation in the players and their journeys.
[I want viewers to] have a little bit of empathy and compassion for some of these players who dedicate their lives to this — it’s really hard to try to be a professional athlete. It doesn’t always work out. Just shining a little light on the dedication and some of the history behind these players and what they do to dedicate their whole lives to a sport and have to come to a place where they have to give up that dream.
Two female MMA fighters (Natalie Morgan and Keta Meggett) team up to throw a fight. (Written by Mark Duplass, directed by Megan Griffiths)
MARK DUPLASS: That one was birthed in a group think tank session in my dining room with a bunch of people who were just friends of the show and also producers on the show and we had written like 10 episodes already and we were like, “We have to do something different.” I wanna see the room clear, I wanna move the furniture, I wanna just shake up the energy. And so I had been reading a little bit about how female MMA fighters are really undervalued, and they bring a lot of value that they don’t get paid for, so I felt like this is a story that applies to other industries as well right now, so I like that. But I didn’t want to make them that whole hooker with a heart of gold thing where you just make them the most perfect people in the world. I liked introducing their ego into the fact that, yes, they had this plan to throw a fight, but neither one wants to be the one to throw the fight because they’re fighters, and they like to win. That made them really human to me.
MEGAN GRIFFITHS: We ended up hiring fighters who could act as opposed to actors who could learn to fight, and that level of authenticity was something that I know Mark was really pushing for.
We had some fight rehearsals in advance and they’re such professionals and such amazing athletes that they just took really took to it. They sort of memorized the choreography as if they’re memorizing lines for the scene and just worked it. They’re used to really fighting, so the challenge for them was to pull back and to make it look like they were fighting but not actually be kicking the crap of each other [laughs]. That was something we had to work out in the rehearsals and really when we got on set, they just kind of threw themselves into it, and by the time we got to the final round, the overtime round that’s in the episode, I don’t know if they were holding back anymore. I think they were really fighting [laughs]. They were so passionate about it, I think it was more fun for them that way.
[Natalie Morgan] had never been on a set a day in her life; she had no interest in acting. I found her through a friend, and she had recommended her because she met her at a gym. She came in and she said she only came in because it was on her way home from work [laughs]. To be able to walk into a situation like this and just really put it all on the table the way they both did I thought was really impressive.
An elderly couple (Philip Baker Hall and Ellen Geer) return to the room where their relationship began. (Written by Mark Duplass, directed by Marta Cunningham)
MARK DUPLASS: I’ve come to know a couple of older couples who have been together 60, 70 years, and they’ve been really inspirational to me through the years. I’m sort of an intense romantic and my wife is an intense romantic, and we’ve had that model, and in particular, we always think, it can’t have been easy for them. How the f—k do they stay in love and do this for 60, 70 years? Are they just turning a blind eye toward the negative? Are they accepting the negative, transcending it? Is it a generational thing where they’re just happy they didn’t get blown up in WWII? And we never could understand it. It was a wonderful mystery to us.
What I decided to do was tell a story just from my own completely uneducated perspective in a way that it might be understandable to me. Most longterm relationships have endured some kind of affair. You look throughout history, and it has happened to most people and the idea that love can persist and understanding can persist in the wake of mistakes and that someone might be able to take the mistake of their partner and understand it and turn it back into love to give back to them is so inspiring to me. And honestly, I just don’t see old people being intimate on screen. I never see it. And if you do, it’s a joke. I wanted to see what it feels like to look at true nuanced love with octogenarians.
We wanted to show a sex scene, but we didn’t want it to be exploitative in a way that’s like, “Look at 80-year-old people having sex, crazy!” And we wanted to be respectful. The rule there was, let’s just show this and shoot this exactly how we would shoot a scene in a regular romantic comedy or something like that.
MARTA CUNNINGHAM: Mark made me cry [with this script]. I’m not a crier. I read stuff all the time, and I’m like, “Oh please. So sentimental.” And I read this script, and I was a mess. I was a snotty mess [laughs]. It’s so beautiful. And then I had my husband read it and he was a snotty mess, and he’s British, so I knew it was good.
I was raised by my grandmother and my mother. My dad passed away when I was very young, and I was deeply, deeply connected to my grandmother. My mom worked as a professor and my grandmother took care of me, and I have a really special bond with her, and so for me, telling stories about elderly people is just so unique and so special because we don’t really do that. We don’t honor our elderly enough, our grandmothers and our grandfathers. We don’t tell real stories about them and make them real people. We make them butts of jokes. This doesn’t do that. It’s so elegant the way Mark wrote that.
I think marginalized communities are always one-sided events. I’m an African-American woman, so a lot of the storytelling that I grew up watching was one-sided. You get one type of story. I think sometimes our senior citizens, our people who are over 65, the same thing happens. It’s a one-note story. They’re usually the butt of jokes, or they’re someone that’s angry all the time about the young. What’s so amazing about “My Love” is I’ve never seen this story told before, ever. We get to tell a story that doesn’t get to be told.