Joking that HBO must have felt really bad for canceling Togetherness to give them four seasons of the show, Duplass talks about working with up-and-coming filmmakers throughout the four years and how he hopes to use this approach going forward with other projects.
The Morning Show star discusses the difficulties of breaking into the business, and how he encouraged actors including Dave Bautista, Jillian Bell, Kevin Nealon and Erinn Hayes to appear in the fourth season.
He opens up about The Murderer, the first episode which he stars in, writes, directs and performs the music, as well as the show’s first animated episode.
The 12-part, half-hour series is exec produced by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass, Sydney Fleischmann, Mel Eslyn and Tyler Romary with Julian Wass as co-executive producer.
DEADLINE: How are you feeling about this being the final season of Room 104?
MARK DUPLASS: A little bittersweet. This has been kind of this fun little side project that we started a few years ago, and oddly became just emotionally a centerpiece of what I like doing. I’m excited we got a chance to make 48 episodes. It’s kind of rare that in today’s turn and burn rate with TV shows that you get that many. So, I want to be appreciative and I want to be thankful, but I’m also feeling like a spoiled little shit who wants to do more. So, that’s where I’m at.
DEADLINE: The Murderer is the first time you star, write, direct and perform original music in an episode. That episode’s got a Searching For Sugar Man vibe to it.
DUPLASS: That’s a great way to put it. I love it. You just nailed it. It’s a salty version of Searching for Sugar Man basically. I obviously grew up playing music [Duplass was in a band called Volcano, I’m Still Excited!] and that was a big part of my life that’s put behind, and so I thought it would be really fun to be able to write some music and find a story that fit for it. I was always fascinated by kind of those stories of somebody recording this homemade thing and it going viral in that Daniel Johnston kind of way, and the way that the fanboys in particular are like vampires for these people. I mean, they want this story for them, and it has nothing to do with whatever pain that person might be experiencing, the very pain that brought them their joy. It’s just something for them to chew on to give them fodder, and I find like weirdly sycophantic and sociopathic, but also kind of funny, which is right on brand with the show.
So, I thought this’ll be great. One of the great things about this show that I’ve always loved and that we kind of figured out in the first season, and I wish I could say it was by design, but we lucked into it, is that because the show is genre agnostic no one knows what they’re going to get. No one knows the level of humor or scariness or is this going to be macabre and strange? Is this going to be surreal? And playing with that tone is just one of my favorite things.
We’ve certainly been saving the episode that I’m going to act in. We’ve been thinking about that for a long time, and I haven’t acted in anything because just pragmatically, we’ve always saved me as sort of like a pinch hitter. If ever an actor dropped out, I could be there to hop in, and then we kind of realized this would be the last season. So, I was like all right, fuck it. I’m just going to do this one.
DEADLINE: The room is essentially just the playground and all of the episodes are tied to it in a way. Did you know from the start that it was going to be the backdrop to very different stories?
DUPLASS: I did know that we wanted to tell different kinds of stories, and the reason I knew that is because I tried to sell this show 10 years ago. People were like who the hell are you and who do you think that you are that you can make a genre-less anthology show?
I totally tried to sell it to HBO, and then luckily HBO felt bad enough after canceling Togetherness that they allowed me to do this one. So, that was really what it came down to, but there was so much discovery in this show. I’d really like to say that I had all of this by design in my head, but I really thought that this would be a fun way for me to tell the kinds of stories that either a) aren’t long enough or good enough to make feature films out of, or b) could explore a new side of my storytelling thing that’s off brand for me. That’s just winging it out there and feeling like a little kid.
It was an oddly, almost a selfish endeavor when I started it, and then what I realized through the making of this show is that in order for the show to sustain itself and have different kinds of stories, I needed to bring in different collaborators, and this so happened at a time when, not only I was waking up, but the world was waking up to the fact that we just got too many stories by white dudes with white dudes in them on screen, and I was admittedly late to that wake up, and I happened to be in a wonderful place with Room 104 where HBO trusted me.
They gave me full creative and hiring control out of everyone that I wanted to have write episodes, have direct episodes, to give them their first lead role because they’re normally just the funny side character in a movie. That got really exciting to me because I became less of the sole creative vision of the show and more of the uncle who has some skills to make half hour shows work and a platform. Then I would either come up with the germ of an idea and I would say to myself ‘You’re not the right person to tell this story either because it’s either cultural appropriation or you’re just not good at telling that story’.
So, partner with this person and let them get their first directing credit on a major network and go from there and start their career and blossom, and so it turned into this wonderful thing that was a mutual benefit to society where I’m partnering with all these younger, more interesting filmmakers, and when I say younger I guess I just mean up-and-coming people who don’t have those credits yet, and they’re getting all these first steps in the industry, but I’m getting inspired by them and not repeating myself. Because I think Jay and I were on the verge on doing that in our weirdly co-dependent creative partnership. Go look at our IMDb list before like 2010, and you’re just going to see a bunch of stuff about brothers or men.
It’s just friends and brothers working out their intimacy issues, and it took us a long time to get through that and then we did, and now it’s like okay, let’s not make this all about us now. Let’s go partner with other people and let them tell their stories.
DEADLINE: You almost sort of became the studio in a way and allowed others to come and play.
DUPLASS: That is kind of where I’m at. I haven’t directed a movie in almost 10 years, and I’m enjoying that phase of my life, and it’s not just because I want to take a more backseat role. It allows us to make so many more things when we partner with people. It allows me to be home with my kids a little bit more.
DEADLINE: The process of discovering and working with up-and-coming filmmakers must be really satisfying. How did you go about finding these people to work with?
DUPLASS: Oh, my God. It is the greatest thing. I mean, now you’re getting into the nitty gritty of it, and we’re in the middle of it right now. I don’t want to take up all our time in the weeds on this, but the long and short of it is our industry for so long has been built, and I’m talking top to bottom, I’m not just talking studios, I’m talking film schools, film festivals, grants, it has been, unfortunately, built to support white male filmmakers. So, if you are not careful what is most likely going to happen is the people that have been supported enough so that they’re in your sight range to pluck them and give them a chance, the chances is the person is going to be a white male because historically those first 2 or 3 tiers have brought them that level of opportunity.
What you have to do is wade through and dig deeper, and I didn’t do a very good job of that in my first years of producing. I didn’t understand that, but it’s not far. That’s the good news is you don’t have to dig far. You just have to dig a little further than that first wave of inherent opportunity that the industry has sort of, unfortunately, historically supported. So, for me, Karan Soni is the best example. He got his first acting job with us on Safety Not Guaranteed. We’ve been friends ever since. I’ve watched him become an assassin in 15-minute roles in studio comedies, but never have a leading role.
So, I gave him a leading role in our show. He killed it. He studied the show. He came to me and he said he really wanted to start directing, expand what he can do. I know how smart he is. I know it’s just a question of opportunity. So, I wrote a script that was tailor-made for his tone and style as his first directing thing. We offered him some support, mentorship if he needed it. Truth is, he didn’t need it. He was like already there, you know, and so he wins because gets his step up and we win because we get an extremely talented person we trust in our orbit to help make our show better, you know, and that’s the goal, ideally.
DEADLINE: Can you take that idea, what you’ve done with Room 104, past this particular iteration so that that continues?
DUPLASS: That’s it. I mean, you’re literally in the inside of our company right now. Me and Mel and Jay and all the ladies of Duplass Brothers Productions talking about how do we look at Room 104 as a microcosm? What did we do right? What did we not get right, and how can we expand that moving forward so that it can become a bit of a, I don’t want say mandate because that almost feels like a kneejerk reaction. We’re talking about something that’s an organic systemic change, and I don’t have the answers yet, but I do agree that Room 104 DNA has some really good solutions.
DEADLINE: You’ve got an animated episode this season. You’ve got some experience with that through Animals, but tell me about making that.
DUPLASS: That was a really fun one because, you know, we always loved breaking different ways of seeing things in the room. So, a lot of the early conversations are what have we not done yet formalistically? And we’ve been talking about an animated episode for a long time. We just hadn’t had the right idea or something that really felt exciting about it, and then Mel Eslyn, who wrote and directed this thing, she runs our company. She really, honestly, is the heart and soul of Duplass Brothers at this point. As my hair grays and I grow closer to my children, you’re going to see more and more of Mel. She had that first strike where she’s said ‘Do you remember the really poorly dubbed ‘80s cartoon and how on message and how obvious they were with what they were trying to do?’ There was a sweetness and an earnestness how they never tried to be subtle about it. She’s like let’s take that and let’s do the Room 104 feminist version of it, and I was like that will be so fun, and I remember her saying, I’m misquoting her, but she’s like I want something that someone can take in earnestly in their right frame of mind, but also at 2:30 in morning be really stoned and enjoy like just the absolute strangeness of it at the same time.
I don’t know if I’m going to get to do that again, which as a viewer you are spinning a roulette wheel. You do not know what you’re going to get, and what that means is you become so active as a viewer. You’re leaning in. You’re watching closer. You’re truly surprised by it, and look, not everybody’s into that. Like, sometimes you want to show up and watch Friends because that makes you feel a certain way and you’re going for that feeling. Room 104 is different, and I don’t know another place that would allow me to do this, you know, and let me do it for four seasons. So, they must have felt really, really f*cking bad about Togetherness.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about some of those other filmmakers. Tell me about Jenée LaMarque.
DUPLASS: Jenée LaMarque. She has two episodes that she directed, including “Bangs.” Jenée I’ve known for a long time. She is an incredible director who had a short at Sundance and a feature at Tribeca, and her career was right there. She just literally could not get the person to say yes to give her that job. That is very common in this industry, and so she got her first directing credit with us way back in season two, then she went off and started directing TV everywhere once everybody saw what she could do, but she came back to us for this season to do two more, which was like very cool because we don’t pay her nearly as well as other people pay her now, but she like came home to us, and the “Bangs” episodes was great.
You know, she did it with her writing partner, and a lot of episodes start with me either reaching out to people and saying I have this idea. Would you like to run with it? Or I reach out to people and say hey, I just love what you do. Do you have anything that could fit in the room? This one was totally different because she just came to me and she’s just like I know something very clear about myself and about my friends who are women. When there needs to be a big change, we can’t acknowledge it, and we always just go to a haircut first. This is what we do.
I immediately got excited and I thought that’s awesome. How do you want to operationalize that? And she’s like let me just do a Christmas carol with “Bangs” and we’ll get to revisit, you know, past, present, and future. That was one of those ones where she knew the show. I knew she and her writing partner were good. I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to say go off and go make the thing, and they wrote it. They billed it. They cast it. I had so little to do with that and was so happy to have little to do with it.
DEADLINE: That’s the best-case scenario for you.
DUPLASS: That is the best version of it, and of course I do always love having those ones that need a little oversight so I can either feel useful or just like be engaged, but we kind of by design when we’re talking about what the 12 episodes are, make sure that there are some, I guess you’d call them blue chip episodes, with like filmmakers we know who can like really kill it and we won’t have to worry about as we take bigger swings on other ones where we’re like Jesus, is this thing going to work at all.
DEADLINE: Natalie Morales must have been similar; she’s obviously well known on screen but you’re offering her something different.
DUPLASS: I think it is and I think that there’s a safety in what Room 104 is. Like, whether you are making a fully successful episode or not, and I just mean that from a creative standpoint, you’re not carrying the whole show. Your only job is to take a wild swing and let us help you get there. So, creatively it’s very freeing to do that for your first like big streaming service union TV directing gig, right, and it takes a lot of that pressure off of them and it gives them a comfortable place to do it.
It’s almost like what Roger Corman used to do for his young directors. He’s like it’s just an octopus movie. Put your name on it. It’s really my name that’s on it too. If you knock it out of the park, you’re going to get a ton of credit, but if it’s just a lame octopus movie, that’s all anybody ever expected, and so we just replaced the octopus with something else and I really like that where you take shots on people. I think Jason Blum does that to a certain degree, and I think it’s really cool, and in the case of Natalie, I mean Natalie is very smart.
She knows exactly how to maneuver in this industry. She was already a good director when she came to us. She directed a lot of sketch, and so Natalie was less coming to us to learn how to direct and maneuver. She was kind of like ‘I’ll kill it for you’. You just got to give me the shot. I’ll also come star in another one of your episodes for you too. Basically we can’t get actors like Natalie normally. So, that’s another wonderful part of things is like hey, lend me your star power and I’ll lend you the director’s chair and everybody wins.
DEADLINE: Replace The Octopus sounds like it could be one of your production sublabels.
DUPLASS: I think you’re right. Listen, you’re part of Deadline and you’re writing about season four of this show. I’m hopeful that you are a part of HBO turning around and saying we got to give them another season, and I promise you right now there will be an episode called “Replace the Octopus” if we get a season five.
DEADLINE: Tell me about Lauren Budd.
DUPLASS: Lauren is really one of our great success stories, in my opinion. Lauren started interning with us when she was 19 and still in college, and she very clearly wanted to learn how to write for TV, and she studied with us in Room 104 and sat in the chair and watched all episodes and read the scripts, and so I said ‘Hey, I got a new season coming up. If you want to write something on spec for me go ahead’. I can’t pay you because like I don’t know what’s going, you know, but like try it. She wrote her first episode, Josie & Me, which aired in season two, which ended up, I think, being one of our strongest episodes of the whole season. We ended up closing out the whole season with it. It was just so incredible.
So, then we did what we like to do, which is come back, write another episode, and we will mentor you in directing this, and she’s like I don’t know how to direct. I don’t know what I’m doing yet, and we said listen, we got great DPs and we have great production designers, and these people are here to help and support you. This is where you come to learn and do your thing. I mean, it really sounds like I’m painting it to be like a utopia, but it really does work, and whatever gaps she has, she’s got a skilled group of people around her who know the machine really well, and we all help out in post, and then, you know, turned out another great episode for us.
DEADLINE: How do you attract actors Dave Bautista, Jillian Bell, Kevin Nealon, Erinn Hayes? You’re obviously not paying them as much as they can earn elsewhere.
DUPLASS: It’s nice because we shoot an episode every 2 or 3 days. So, it’s not a lot of time. I try to offer somebody the opportunity to do something that they haven’t done before. So, at the very least, they have an opportunity to stretch themselves or show a different side of themselves. So, in that way, they can walk away and be like ‘Hey, I got a chance to do this’. In some cases, like I think it was in season two, I wrote an episode specifically for Mahershala Ali. He said ‘I love Room 104’, and I was like what do you want to do? He’s like what do you mean? I said I’ll write you something. Tell me what you want to play and he’s like I want to play like a pool hustler in the ‘80s, and I was like done. I sent him a script three days later. So, a lot of times it’s just showing that appreciation, showing you’re willing to design for people and you really want them there, and like you can’t overestimate the feeling of empowerment you get as an actor when someone just loves you and is willing to move things around to have you there. It’s just not something you get. I mean, it’s like a bummer. Even movie stars, to a certain degree, are still treated like second class citizens a lot of times.
DEADLINE: That pace of shoot, did that come out of necessity when you were making independent features?
DUPLASS: Yeah, but at the same time when I make movies, like Blue Jay or Paddleton, I still shoot those movies between 7 and 10 days because I actually believe that the process of making art quickly and chaotically and getting out of your head and into your instincts, into that engine leads to really fun and inspiring things, and I kind of believe that that energy can be subconsciously felt by the viewers. I might be wrong, but you’re offering them to be a part of a world that they feel your fun and they feel your spirit, and the most important thing I believe in is when you’re making art, it’s very important to make it in what I call the dating phase of your relationship with that art. When you’ve like beaten up a script and waited for seven years to get your money and then you go shoot, you don’t like the piece of art anymore. You’re done with it. When we like write a script and then cast it and then we’re shooting it three weeks later, there’s this feeling of like you’re still on your fourth date. You love each other so much. You’re leaning into it, and you get, I think, flawed but really inspired art, and that’s all I’m going for.
DEADLINE: You’ve got a deal at HBO so, joking aside about a fifth season of Room 104, you’ll still be working with them. Presumably, you’re developing projects right now.
DUPLASS: 100 percent, and I got to be honest with you, this is just me speaking totally candidly, based upon the way the world works, what our ratings were, we technically probably should have gotten canceled after two seasons, but they believe in us. They believe in me having this little wonderful proving ground for up-and-coming talents, and they let me do what I wanted to do. So, I don’t have any [issues] they canceled us. I can’t believe I got to do this many. So, we’ve got a bunch of stuff with them. We have some documentary series we’re going to be doing there as well, and some narrative things as well that are coming up. They’re a really, really good home for us because we’re doing a specific thing. Never say never, but I don’t think I’m going to go out and make Game of Thrones. I just don’t think that way. I like making little things that have the chance to break out. I call them little lottery tickets, you know, and Room 104 is like pretty much the perfect example of that.
DEADLINE: Finally, you’re doing a live Tweet-a-thon ahead of the final season. Are you actually going to stay up and watch Room 104 for 16 hours?
DUPLASS: I am going to do it. I am going to do it that way. In fact, people have been talking to me. They’re like look dude, you can time your tweets, you know, and go to sleep. But like I kind of want to, I don’t know, I want to like engage with people. I want to see if they’re watching, and I guess at certain point if I figure out no one cares, I might start phoning them in, but it’s just like the show. It’s a grand experiment. We’ll see what happens.
I haven’t watched them since we made them, and I’m actually going to already be on vacation with my family, and so I’m just going to tuck myself away and plan on doing some drinking and then maybe some little gummies involved with things in there. Who knows what’s going to happen?
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