Mark Duplass and Julian Wass on the Final Season of HBO’s “Room 104” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, August 15th, 2020  

Mark Duplass and Julian Wass on the Final Season of HBO’s “Room 104”

To Infinity and Beyond

Jul 24, 2020 Photography by Tyler Golden/HBO
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HBO’s anthology series, Room 104, which debuted July 28, 2017, is premiering for likely its final season tonight (July 24). The series, which tracks the happenings of all kinds in a typical American hotel room, was created by Mark and Jay Duplass (aka the Duplass Brothers production team) and has featured guest stars like James Van Der Beek, Rainn Wilson, Mahershala Ali, Luke Wilson and Charlyne Yi. Escapades have centered on self-mutilation, boxing matches, dance-offs, awkward dating scenarios, and much more. Room 104 is truly a different bird in the flock of television programs. There are no recurring characters or plots—the only constant is the room, its two beds, bathroom, television, and single door. We caught up with show creator, Mark Duplass, and his colleague, Julian Wass, who has scored, written, and directed episodes. Together, we talked about the family tree that Room 104 has grown into, how episodes are pitched, and what it takes to create a successful show.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar) How did you two meet and begin to collaborate on Room 104?

Julian Wass: Geez, we’d known each other quite a long time. We actually met because our kids are about a month apart. So we met socially first. Then I started working for Mark and for his wife, Katie, pretty quickly after that, doing some movie scores for them. And we’ve just honestly been at it ever since then. I can’t speak to why Mark gave me an opportunity on 104 but we’d had a long—that was probably, what, eight years into our relationship, Mark, you think?

Mark Duplass: That’s about right. I can speak to why I wanted you for Room 104—because I love you and I think you’re amazingly talented. Julian is one of my favorite people to work with. I remember we talked a lot about, like, what was the theme for Room 104 going to be. It was a lot of conceptualization going on. When we came up with this idea that it would be one musical theme but it would change and the way it was operationalized—whether it’s in the chords that go underneath it or whether it’s in the instrumentation or whether it’s in the pace or the rhythm or even the time signature. I remember in that moment feeling like, “Oh, Julian inherently understands this show. And I have a feeling that it’s not going to be just music on this ride.” And, of course, that turned out to be true.

Mark, can we go back just a little bit. How did you come up with the idea for Room 104 and how did you start developing the show that, to me, is part-David Lynch and part-Alfred Hitchcock?

Duplass: That’s a big compliment and I’ll gladly take it! You know, when I came up with the idea for the show, I didn’t really have any idea intellectually of how meaningful it could become. To me, on what it could be, I was just like, “Cool stories in a motel room, different ones every night. Cool!” Literally, that was the genesis. But I think that once we really got into the first season, I think I started to discover why I really needed this show at this time in my life, which, for me, was a couple of things. I was feeling a desire to go off brand with Duplass Brothers and express myself in different ways and tell different kinds of stories and show some, I don’t know, wilder and stranger sides of me. Secondarily, it happened at a time when there was very much a conscious uncoupling of the kind of codependent long-term artistic collaboration that [brother and collaborative partner] Jay [Duplass] and I had shared and the kind of art we were making was, I think we both realized, started to get a little bit repetitive. But we were scared to break out. And Room 104 allowed me the opportunity to collaborate with different people and bring in different kinds of energy. Once we identified the value of that, we also started to wake up to what was happening around us in the industry and society, which is like—there are a lot of people who are not allowed access to tell their kinds of stories. Whether it’s character actors who have never had their chance to be a lead or whether it’s talented directors who have not had their chance to get their first big TV credit. And that’s been a barrier to entry for them. So, we’re like, “Oh shit. This thing that was supposed to be a fun side project is becoming central in a lot of ways that are unexpected.” And it turned into something that was feeding me personally very well, on a creative and spiritual level. But also it was also good for the entire filmmaking ecosystem, I think, to a large degree. And we’ve watched a lot of the people who got their first start on our show go off and build these amazing illustrious careers, like Karan Soni or So Yong Kim. And then they still come back to us and it’s just really—in an industry that’s all about the bucks, it’s been a really nice place.

Can you speak to how new episodes are pitched, selected, scored, and cast, both in front of and behind the camera?

Duplass: Our last season there were four of us. Me, Julian, Mel [Eslyn], and Syd [Fleischmann] sit up in the attic of our office and we just start dreaming and talking about the kinds of things we want to do. Sometimes that is clear, like, “Oh my gosh! We have this idea and Julian is perfect to write it!” And he goes and runs with it. Sometimes we’ll come up with an idea and we’re like, “None of us are the right person for this.” Either because for one of us to write it would be cultural appropriation or we’re just not good at that type of story. Then we’ll find a partner that we can bring it to. Julian, what else occurs to you about the kinds of things we were doing?

Wass: Yeah, we were dreaming big. We all had these ideas that we were really passionate about. With some, you could tell all four of us wanted to make it happen. Sometimes we did just make it happen but there still are some ideas that I think we were all in love with that we just couldn’t figure out how to craft, you know? That was part of the fun of it, though. Up in that attic, dreaming big about how—especially this season. It was the only one I was involved with creatively this way. But really thinking about ways to push the room as far as its limits and beyond. How could we just do something really unexpected with the room that still feels true to the mission of the show? To tell the stories in a room.

Duplass: Season 4 really is the Buzz Lightyear season—to infinity and beyond!—is really what we’re talking about.

Wass: Can we use that as a tagline, or is that a problem? [Laughs]

It seemed like you played with the form and possibilities of the room more than I was used to this season—there are scenes projected on the wall, dioramas, barbarians fighting on cliffs. Was that intentional?

Wass: I can tell you for sure that the two people you saw fighting in the room—you know, outside the room—I just want to be clear that even though it maybe looked like they were traversing around a square mile, that was so long ago that the continental drift makes it so that entire space now is just inside the room. So, I just want to be clear that was all in the room. Just in case anybody wants to call us on that. That is true.

Duplass: Julian, you just perfectly proved the point about what this whole season was about. Like, what can we get away with and still call it inside the room? And we kind of knew this was going to be our last season, so I think there was a little bit of that senior year—well, fuck it all! They can’t fail us now, we already got into college, you know? So, let’s go for it! There were ideas that we still didn’t get to do that we would still like to do. I still hold a little candle inside of my heart that Room 104 will come back someday, someway, somehow.

Maybe a movie?

Duplass: Yeah, it could be anything. It could be short stories, it could be radio, it could be HBO giving us a new season if we hit so hard! Who knows? But yeah there was definitely—if you watch season 3, you will probably feel us start to stretch and push against what it can be. And season 4 is definitely, like, let’s go all out!

I’m not sure if you’ve spoken about this before—but maybe you can’t talk about it. What can you say about the room’s location?

Duplass: We all know what Room 104 is and where Room 104 is and we don’t feel like it helps you in your viewership to know that. We’re also interested in you looking at all the episodes in a marathon and seeing what you can come up with. But our opinion of that is that it’s much more fun to dream about what it can be than to actually have the answer.

Wass: But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go on Reddit and talk about it a lot.

I think it’s in Pennsylvania but I’ll just leave it at that and I’m probably wrong. The show itself, as you know, is much like a stage play with a minimal, unchanging set. What do you enjoy about this challenge? 

Wass: One thing that I think we got to do this season—well, we’ve done it in the past but one thing that’s really fun is that even though it’s the same room, we play with different time periods. That’s a really fun way to take the same room and think about what it was like, you know, back when. But still staying within what you just said—the defined space, like a stage play. I think it’s also given us some interesting opportunities to not depict—like, when someone leaves the room, you actually don’t follow them. Whereas sometimes you would maybe, if it was a movie, you would follow them and this is a situation where we just don’t do that. And I think that’s interesting, you know? 

Duplass: The only thing I would add to that is that I think the diversification of the stories that happen—partially it is about repurposing the room and stretching the boundaries of what the room means and its limits. But I think it’s also forced us to examine the whole structure of what a television show can and should be, you know? If you look at a traditional serialized TV show, like Mad Men, or something—Matthew Weiner is the author of Mad Men—there may be directors every episode. But it’s Matthew’s vision and show all the way through. But that’s not the case for Room 104. It’s not a Duplass Brothers show in that way. We are, like, the aunts and uncles trying to foster people telling their story in their way and give them whatever tools, experience, support they need to do that. In some ways, I love that we’re almost curating a film festival, or something. And I think by doing that, it has kept us from getting the yips and repeating ourselves.

Julian, how do you write music for such dramatically different episodes with different casts, plots, and tones?

Wass: That’s a really good question. I think one thing I’ve always done is try to lean into whatever each episode needs. The name of the game in TV scoring tends to be that, like, in the first season you write a lot of music that becomes the sound of the show in the library and you keep going back to those sounds. This was not the case with Room 104 and the reason is that whenever I would get a new episode to score, I would maybe think in the back of my mind, “Well maybe something from this other episode could work here.” But my heart would always lead me to just writing a new score for it. Because, speaking to what Mark was saying, every episode really does feel like creative expressions from the filmmakers and the actors and writers behind it. So, every episode just felt like it needed its own individual score. So, for the most part, that’s what I did. That said, there is this overall sound that we kind of settled on, which I think Mark described once as, “late night Cinemax,” or something like that?

Duplass: Yeah. [Laughs]

Wass: It’s this kind of, like, eerie, electronic, like, sort of lo-fi but not super lo-fi kind of sound that we go for. You know, that sounds like—I would say that every episode, no matter what, is going to be, like 50-70% that. Then maybe it’s going to be, like, 30% whatever the main—maybe this is a really emotional episode and maybe there’s a piano. Or maybe there’s some strings to go in that direction. Then, of course, there’s always the little beep. The little flute sound that starts the theme song that spears in almost every episode. If there is a theme, that is the theme. Because that sound always plays just the same note over and over again. Then what comes in around it is what contextualizes it. So, it’s a little bit like the room in that sense. On its own, it doesn’t make you feel one way or the other. But it will be that sound then surrounded by new chords that makes you hear it in a new way. So, that’s been my approach.

Duplass: Julian had such autonomy with the score from day one. Partially because we already had each other’s trust from doing movies together and we were friends. But I think that it’s really interesting—this is the first time that I’ve ever had a musician become a core part of the writing and directing aspects of the work. Part of that is just the special nature of Julian Wass, but I think that it’s really interesting from a music process standpoint, which is—you know, this is a little bit in the weeds, but when the musician comes along, the show is pretty much cooked. And the musician is often looking at what didn’t get done well enough and what do I need to push on to bring out, to help finish the show off? So, in this way, Julian is constantly looking at these episodes coming across, like, “Okay there wasn’t enough connectivity to the protagonist, so I’m going to be doing that with my music.” Or, “Okay, you know what? The tension wasn’t thick enough so I’m going to push on it here.” Or, “You know what? The ennui is gone. So I’m going to make you feel sad with this.” And in doing that, watching those over and over again in the first and second season, he basically learned how to do things correctly in the first place. He’s constantly patching things up with his musical sewing kit as we go. So, it made him uniquely qualified, I think, to come in and do it on the front end.

Wass: To piggyback on that, I really appreciate you saying that, Mark. That’s really awesome. I do feel like I learned through the rhythm of scoring the episodes. I think I started to learn and internalize. Because Room 104—there’s a form to it and I felt like I started to feel the rhythm of it. I think that’s something that happened as a musician, for sure. 

It’s cool hearing stories how you both grew and how the show grew and how the cast and director family tree grew out of the show. It’s really cool. And, speaking of growth, Mark this is the first season in which you acted in an episode. What went into that choice?

Duplass: It was awesome. It came with some anxiety at first. The reason I haven’t acted in an episode was a pragmatic one, honestly. We’ve always kept my acting presence as sort of a pinch-hitting. Like, if an actor fell out the day before we shot, I could always be there to jump in. But once we realized this was the last season, we were like, we can give up my designated hitter status and do a role. But where the nerves came in was like, not only was I going to be acting in something that’d written and that I’d also be directing but I’d also be playing music in it and, at least for me, those songs are complex to play well. So, I would have so much of my energy and attention scattered in different directions that I was worried that I was going to basically put in a C+ on all fronts, you know what I mean? So, I really just—I literally went to Julia and I went to Mel and I went to Syd and I went to our cinematographer, all of whom are close friends of mine, all of whom I’ve collaborated with for years and who are like family to me. And I was like, “Alright, I’m going to be directing this, but I’m not going to have any objectivity, I’m not going to know what’s good. So, will you all just be there for me? Sean, will you help me design the cinema because I’m going to lose myself. And Julian, will you help me with this character and this music. And Syd and Mel, will you help me with the overall arc of what belongs in this room?” And we all just did it together and it felt so good. Because, for better or for worse, I do put myself a little bit in a mentor role with Room 104, where I’m bringing people up. And to be the person asking for help and getting it with all my people in the last season was very heartwarming.

Yeah, that’s very poetic the way you put it. That’s really cool.

Duplass: It’s what I hope for in the world. It’s what I believe in. It’s so cheesy but I’m so obsessed with the Ram Dass quote right now, “We’re all just walking each other home.” I look at my life everywhere and I’m like, “That’s what I want.” And it really was what this Room 104 show was. Like with a guy like Karan Soni. He shows up, he does his first lead acting role with us. He’s so good in it, he loves the process. Then he comes back and he directs his first episode of TV with us because he groomed himself inside of the room with us. That’s the family vibe—it’s just everything I’m looking for. 

Speaking to that, the actors, including yourself, have to be so good because for all your directing subtitles, the room can be very minimal. So, the show is often very dialogue driven and dependent on the actors. In season 4, Dave Bautista and Kevin Nealon are particularly excellent. Can you talk about working with them in particular?

Duplass: Dave Bautista was such a revelation to us and he’s such a beautiful, sweet dude. He really wants to be able to do more dramatic work and he’s very—he’s not bitter about it. He’s like, “Hey, look, I understand. I was a wrestler and then I was in a Marvel movie. So all they want to do is, like, put me in action comedies and stuff.” So, he really came to us looking for an opportunity to do something and he gifted us with that performance. We shot that episode in two days. And same thing with Kevin, honestly. Just, like, what does he have to gain for coming and working for scale in an anthology show, you know? But the guy was just game. He had a good spirit.

Wass: I can definitely speak to—thinking about some of these actors who have come in and just, like, the episode would just not have happened without them. I can definitely point to my experience with Brian Tyree Henry, the musical episode Mark and I wrote for season 2. He just came in and, like, we shot that episode in, like, three-and-a-half days, which was really tight. The fact that he learned all the songs and sang them live on set. It just was incredible and that’s the kind of thing that makes it happen. I also want to point out that Mark also sang all his songs on set, because most people would pre-record. He sang them on set and it’s really cool. It’s more work and it’s awesome and it’s really beautiful. 

The episode this season that I was moved by personally was “The Hikers” episode. I thought it was so good, slicing, and deep. The dialogue was so great. Can you talk about building that episode? 

Duplass: Yeah, it’s a beautiful story. It’s written and directed by Lauren Budd, who wrote her first episode for Room 104 for season 2 when she was 19 years old and she was interning with us and just proved herself to be what she could be. She was 21 or 22, tops, when she wrote and directed that episode. That’s such a testament to the Room 104 pillow of support that can take someone in with that level of youth but also that level of talent and provide for whatever gaps she didn’t have. She was nervous to direct but we said, “Look, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got the greatest visual DP who knows this room. He will help you visually design this. And then you’ve got Mel to be there with you. You’ve got Syd and Julian to be around you and help you with all the narrative drive stuff that you might need help with.” And she soared when she could and when she couldn’t, she was there to help her. I’m so glad that was one of your favorite episodes because for us, the truth of the matter is no other network, no other place is going to hire an unproven 21-year-old director on a big episode of TV. And that’s one of the real strengths of what we’re allowed to do with this show. 

Lastly, we had a friend in common in Lynn Shelton, who recently passed away. She was a force. Can you briefly talk about what she meant to you as a friend and as an artist?

Duplass: We loved her, as many people did. She was a force and I think that the one thing we’re really trying to do right now is to be active in the way that we love her. And the best way we can do that is to support other filmmakers the other way she supported them and to support filmmakers like her, who, if she hadn’t gotten that support, maybe wouldn’t have had the chance to become what she became, you know? So, that’s really where a lot of us are at right now, moving through the grieving and more into the active part. If we can’t hang out with her actively, let’s spend some of that energy trying to help the kinds of people she normally would have been helping. Let’s carry that shit on!

www.hbo.com/room-104

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