The Stories Behind the Most Memorable 'Room 104' Episodes
Series creators Mark Duplass and Sydney Fleischmann recall the standouts from the cult favorite HBO anthology, from “Ralphie” to the series finale.
In 2016, HBO ordered a Mark and Jay Duplass anthology set in a motel room. Each episode would have a different guest whose visit would reveal “a unique set of circumstances and quirks.” Nobody, including the creators, knew what the hell this meant.
“When we began, if I'm being totally honest, [Room 104] was a place to break through whatever the existing brand of the Duplass Brothers was becoming,” co-creator Mark Duplass, who penned roughly half the series, tells Thrillist. After coming off of six years of fantasy football sitcom The League, he and his collaborators simply wanted to exercise different parts of their brains, to make fun, cheap, “wildly different, more late-night stuff.”
But the intentions for the show and what it could be changed over its 48-episode run. HBO had given the Duplasses full creative control, which encouraged the brothers to experiment with new voices in front of and behind the camera—enabling them to tell fresher “stories we felt we weren't authorized to tell,” Duplass says—and increasingly bigger genre swings. Chief in helping navigate this course was Duplass’s former assistant-turned-executive producer, Sydney Fleischmann. If you ask Fleischmann about Room 104, she’ll tell you that as varied as the genres and collaborators became, creative conversations always came back to the idea of a character discovering their identity. It’s a broad conceit, to be sure, and that’s why Fleischmann says it helped to anchor that sentiment in the same physical space, episode after episode. “We act slightly differently in motel rooms and hotel rooms than we do at home,” she says. Room 104 “became this really interesting place to explore those things of who we are and what we do, in the context of a new setting.”
The idea for the motel room as the show’s one constant was there from the get-go—born around the time HBO canceled the Duplasses’ other project, Togetherness. Inspiration came after stays in motel rooms that had the brothers wondering who stayed in the rooms before them and what crises they might have weathered. “I have a pretty big fascination with trauma,” Duplass says. Because motel rooms break your life’s normal cycles, they become “the perfect place for some of your past to sneak up on you.”
While Room 104 may not have been given scads of Emmys, it leaves behind a remarkably compelling case study for future anthologies, and no dearth of stand-out stories. Ahead of October's series finale, we called Duplass and Fleischmann to discuss how the most memorable ones came together and how Room 104 evolved over time.
Mark Duplass: We didn't always know what the first episode was going to be. We thought we’d make a bunch and see which one represented the show best. This episode [the 10th made] ended up being a good one. The idea of paradox, of the multiple sides that exist within yourself that we often try to push down or streamline so we can be in relationships—that that could be let out inside of the room was really well metaphorically encapsulated by the two Ralphies. Sarah Adina Smith directed this. She was a wonderful independent film director. But she could never break through. Then from here, she went on to direct Hanna for Amazon. It was through that where we realized, "Shit, man. We have an opportunity to get someone's best on Room 104, because they're so excited to get their first job with us and then springboard.” So “Ralphie” was the first place we noticed that as well.
Sydney Fleischmann: We definitely wanted that thriller feeling with so many of these [first] episodes. I view Season 1 as a jumping-off point: "Okay, we know this genre works. Let's see how far we can push the boundary." The grounded nature in the beginning of Season 1 let us go completely wild moving forward.
Duplass: I always looked at each season as a record. There's 12 episodes, and there's usually 12 tracks on a record. You always want to get that pacing right, so sometimes something extremely fast-paced and insane happens. Then they bring you down to something that's just an acoustic guitar. We always tried to pace things inside itself with that sine-cosine wave of emotions and energy.
Duplass: We had an actor drop out a day before this was supposed to shoot. This episode is one actor and 25 pages of dialogue. Karan [Soni] is a comedic assassin who shows up for 10 minutes in every big movie, but doesn't get leads. He's a friend of ours [from Safety Not Guaranteed], and I asked him to come and do it. He learned as much of the lines as he could, but I knew he would improvise some, as he always does. And then we brought in Poorna [Jagannathan], who plays his mom. She was someone that I loved from The Night Of. She brought all these amazing ideas—like, all the vegetable cutting you hear? That was her idea. It all came in so chaotically, and we only had a day and a half to shoot. It turned into one of my favorites, and it's a testament to what I believe in: Preparation is awesome. But sometimes just moving with chaos and love and your gut can give you something equally as interesting.
Duplass: We had an inkling of doing a silent, dance-based episode. And then we had this feeling of, "What would happen if the housekeeper comes into the room?" There was a sense of regret and history, moving through her past as she moves through the room. That was the hacky producer idea. Everybody thought me and Syd were crazy.
Fleischmann: I thought we were crazy. Our writers' room was: The producers went to the attic of the Duplass Brothers' office, where we ate donuts and drank coffee and threw ideas around. And each episode really had its own life. Some came straight from there, and Mark or Mel Eslyn or Julian Wass would write it—and it came from that brain trust. Other times [like with this episode], we'd bring in somebody like Dayna Hanson, a choreographer and director, and say, “What can we all do together in this room?” Here, Dayna wrote this story and choreographed this piece—from the beginning to the end, it’s all choreography and movement that came straight from her.
Duplass: I remember Tyler [Romary], one of our producers, was like, "Maybe we should shoot a 13th episode, in case this one doesn't come out?" But I've learned something: If you surround yourself with good people and approach art humbly, with a big swing that says, "I'm going to try something," audiences sense that in the work. And sometimes, even if you turn in a B-minus, they're happy to see you do that. Luckily, it turned out a lot better than that, but I'm always willing to take that chance—and I'll eat it in the end if I have to.
Duplass: Collaboration on Room 104 was also need-based. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden wrote and directed this. They’re two of the best filmmakers I know; they taught me more about filmmaking than I can even talk about. So when I asked them to make an episode, that was more me just turning the room over to them and letting them do their thing.
Fleischmann: We all fell in love with this one, because Ryan and Anna capture the tension so well. I think so much of that comes from the look on Keir Gilchrist's face. Everything is so stressful because you feel it coming from him. They were so focused on the performance and on capturing every tiny gesture and eye movement. [The tent itself] was a very practical way for the characters to cover their tracks. But it’s also a really weird sight in a room like that. And then to have this air-conditioner repairman come in—does he know [what Keir’s doing]? Does he not know? The tension is in all these nuanced, really particular beats.
I'm sure this has a much different and maybe more intense meaning now than it did at the time. We shot this a week or two before the 2016 [presidential] election. I think the original version of [the script] was more inflammatory. We had to tone it down. Not overly sanitize it, but make it a little more vague, if you catch my drift? The intentionality behind that was, "Let's not get sued." But it made the episode a lot better, that [the politician] is referred to as "The Candidate.” That keeps it from getting totally dated. When you take out [the name], it allows you to focus more on the story and characters.
Duplass: “Mr. Mulvahill” was an idea I once thought might be a short, juggernaut feature. A lot of my ideas, I dig into them and realize, "There's not enough here for a feature”—that’s the perfect graveyard for Room 104 ideas. I wrote “Mr. Mulvahill” in 45 minutes. It was an idea I'd had for a long time. And when it finally came, it came in a vomit. I sent it to Rainn [Wilson, the episode’s star], and he emailed me back an hour and a half later. He goes, "Oh my God, it's The Twilight Zone meets Harold Pinter. I'm in." In that moment, I was like, "Yes, he understands the show!”
We introduced the true power of Ross Partridge as a director here. What I wrote for him, a 23-minute, one-act play, with very little visual direction—the script was just a big chunk of dialogue—he crafted into something that wasn’t boring. That said, I don't look at it exactly as, "This was the moment we introduced the supernatural." There are people who have watched this episode who have told me, "I love what you did there." And I’ll say, "OK, what did I do?" They’ll say, "It's an episode about trauma, and clearly Mr. Mulvahill has been dead a long time. Rainn Wilson is just in there, and that motel room is the metaphor for his trauma that he cycles through in his head in order to survive." To me, it can always come down to one [interpretation] or the other.
Duplass: “Arnold” really comes from my relationship with Julian Wass, who does our music. He and I are very close, and we've been threatening for years to do something musical-oriented. When we started talking to Syd about it, the three of us got into a discussion of, "Can you make a musical in under 30 minutes? Is the form going to bump people?" The script was odd; it was 10 pages with a bunch of gaps for songs. I don't really remember the process from there.
Fleischmann: I feel like there was a world where there wasn't “Arnold,” and then there was a world where there was “Arnold.” And I don't remember anything in between.
Duplass: What I do remember is it was one of the most joyous times I’ve ever had, writing the songs for "Arnold.” I’m a failed musician, and Julian played in bands as well. We don't do that anymore; we're dads who stay home. But we got up into that attic Syd was talking about, and we promised ourselves we wouldn't be precious. Because we were like, "How long is it gonna take us to write these songs? We don't know what we're doing." Julian brought up this old Casio keyboard, and I had this acoustic guitar. He started playing chords, and I started running and dancing around the attic, being Arnold, improvising lyrics. It was 100 degrees, and we got really stoned, and it was the most fun I think I’ll ever have. The spirit of that. And once we realized it was going to be Brian Tyree Henry, and his sense of humanity and goofiness, that was definitely one where within, I think, a couple hours, we had all the basics of what the songs would be.
Fleischmann: This was directed by Lila Neugebauer. The story had elements that needed to be handled delicately. We needed somebody who had a strong sense of blocking and someone who had a theater background. [Lila] was definitely the right person for the job—someone who was so smart and in tune with the emotion of the story and the actors. And that was such a cool process to watch, how she crafted that story with such precision. There are so many different ways we tell stories on the show. I think [Season 3’s "Jimmy & Gianni,” detailed below] is a good example of an episode where we have a broad idea of what it's going to be, and then we go in and figure out “What is this story?” in [post-production] — knowing there is something there, we just have to seek it out. "Josie & Me" is at the opposite end of that spectrum, where there was such precision going in of how to maneuver the delicate subject matter. For me, that was such an interesting experience, to be aware of the spectrum of storytelling on the show.
Duplass: That's such a good point because the level of precision evident in this episode would make you feel like this was a veteran writer and director. Yet it was our director's first time directing TV, and it was Lauren Budd’s first script. That they were able to do that was unique.
Fleischmann: When we first started talking about the show, we were talking in literal terms — as far as where this room was. “Is it in the Midwest? Is it right off a highway? Where, physically, is it?” The further along we got, the more we got attached to asking that question and not answering it. "The Plot" was a fun episode of figuring out the origin story without tying us to anything specific. It keeps the room in this metaphysical world. Initially, we also talked about connecting the episodes [of the anthology], about laying Easter eggs and having them all connect. "We could put this prop from this episode into... this episode?" But it never felt organic. So we gave each episode breathing room, space, and I think they've benefited from that.
Duplass: As the seasons went on, we drifted toward certain ideas, just for our own internal edification of the mythology of the room to help inspire us and hone in on what we thought was working. But we always promised each other we would hold onto those ideas, because from day one, we noticed with this show that [viewers] love to argue with each other—and they are convinced their take is right. So we thought this was the best way to treat it.
Duplass: I thought it would be cool to do a documentary episode, in the same way we were like, "Let's do a dance episode, let's do a musical." But I wouldn't have wanted to do it if I didn't have an organic approach. I met Gianni [in 2017] because I'd purchased a couple pieces of his art at a show he was having at The Last Bookstore [in LA]. I just fell in love with him. I went to his apartment and bought a bunch more pieces from him. And then I hired him to do all the art for our office space. He made us a huge slew of stuff, and he brought his dad, Jimmy, with him to help install it. I was just with those guys for a day—and Syd was around the office, too—and we were just feeling their energy and relationship. It happened to coincide with our desire to do a documentary episode, so we just felt like this was an organic fit.
The only really strong idea we had is we felt like these two guys should walk in the motel room, and most people would be like, "Is this a narrative?" And then at some point, you would see a camera. Then you’d wonder, "Is that a mistake? Did they accidentally show a camera?" Beyond that, I just sat down and interviewed the guys over the course of a really long day. And then we left them in the room.
Fleischmann: They're such an interesting duo for so many reasons. At the heart of it, their relationship is so sweet and loving. But they’re also two people who just didn't feel uncomfortable in front of the camera. You could feel who they were—even though the cameras were there, which is rare: to feel like someone's being him or herself in front of a camera.
Fleischmann: [Puerto Rican director] Miguel Arteta is this incredibly kind, warm, thoughtful person, the best possible collaborator. And he made this dark magic episode. It was an example of a wonderful human being telling a bizarre story. Like we said, a lot of the time we’d have these pieces of ideas, where it was like, “Oh, we should do [an episode] that’s dance-based.” And then the right story would come up for that, however it manifested itself, whether it was someone pitching us an idea or us coming up with an idea as a group of producers.
We had talked a lot about the diversity on the show—all the different stories and perspectives—so we really wanted to do an episode in another language. And we had also talked about wanting to bring Miguel into Room 104 for a while. He had been wanting to write a story that was sort of off-brand for himself, really dark and not what people really associate with him. So that all fit together really nicely. "No Hospital" is a story about a family, and lots of weird things happen between them. But there’s heart to it. You have to have heart to go to the really weird, strange places.
Duplass: Again, this is the power of Ross Partridge. I wrote a lot of words for this, but I didn't have a lot of visual ideas. He brought in a lot of that interest.
Fleischmann: I think it was pretty early on in the process that we came up with the idea to go back and forth between the room and the model of the room.
Duplass: It came from the idea of, "Can we do an episode all with dolls?" But it expanded beyond that, because we knew if we didn't have a pure, raw, open human being, this thing was going to die. But listen, we can justify anything in Room 104. Kumail Nanjiani is a friend of mine, and he had just worked with Dave. So he was like, "Mark, this is one of your people. Trust me." And Dave Bautista is endless. If anybody reads anything, and doesn't forget it from here, it should be that. Put him in everything.
Fleischmann: This is a funny episode, because it started with us talking about, "What if Room 104 was a spaceship?" Throwing out that idea conjured sci-fi. But we took that and made it this intimate story about a person at the end of his life, reflecting on his regrets and relationships. Like Mark was saying about how we arrange each season—and say, "OK, this is the order for our record”—this one felt like the appropriate [series] ending, because it has such a nice button.
Duplass: Before we started Room 104, Syd had just come on from being my assistant. And she had such a creative force on this show that did not often have the credits to back it up, because she didn't really write or direct episodes. I loved the fact that the final thing we did was truly guided and crafted by Syd, who I think, honestly, is the person most responsible for whatever successes the show has, who was there every single day in video village, with every single writer and director, every step of the way. I'd write a bunch of episodes and get excited, sure, but I was down the road at Sony shooting The Morning Show for a lot of this shit. She was shepherding this thing, every step of the way. So it was fun symmetry to have her close it out.
Fleischmann: To me, it creates this encapsulation of all the different things we had on the show, in a way that feels like a hug.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.