I love the creative stories that can be found in anthology shows.
Growing up, I watched shows like The Twilight Zone (original and 1980s revival) and Tales from the Crypt; unique morality tales that birthed my love of horror and sci-fi. I still enjoy Black Mirror and the new Twilight Zone series today. While a lot of anthology shows usually have a unifying theme or genre, Room 104 was special for its daring challenge of only maintaining one common trend, a room. Created by Mark & Jay Duplass, every episode had a different genre, story, or theme, all taking place in motel room 104. Throughout the season, the showrunners pushed boundaries with how they played with the format. Everything from fantasy, horror, drama, musicals, even interpretative dance was featured on the show. Even if the concepts didn’t always land, I always appreciated filmmakers that took risks rather than play it safe. Room 104 was a compelling and inventive anthology series, and season 4 was no exception.
Season 4, Room 104’s final season, ends the series with a bang, with excellent episodes that bring equal parts thrills, laughs, and tears. “The Murderer” and “Avalanche” were two of my personal favorite episodes for how they examine an artist’s relationship with their work, using music and wrestling respectively. “The Avalanche” particularly features a heart wrenching and powerful performance by Dave Bautista, another mark in his eclectic and unique post-wrestling acting career. The season as a whole featured excellent around performances from actors such as Jillian Bell, Melissa Fumero, Shannon Purser, and Mark Duplass himself.
I had the opportunity to discuss the show with Mel Eslyn and Sydney Fleishmann; two executive producers of Room 104, as well as directors of unique, key episodes in the season. Eslyn directed the episodes “Oh Henry!” and “Fur”, both of which creatively play with the filmmaking style to reflect 90’s sitcoms and 80’s kids cartoon respectively. Fleishmann directed the season finale, the sci-fi episode “Generations”, a fitting send off for the series as a whole.
Q&A with Mel Eslyn and Sydney Fleischmann from Room 104
The Knockturnal: “The Murderer”, “Avalanche,” and “No Dice” all dealt with artists’ relationships with their work and fans. I found those episodes compelling, especially “Avalanche” since I’m a wrestling fan. How did you decide to make this a recurring theme in the season?
Eslyn: I wouldn’t say we consciously set out to tackle artistic relationships. I feel like that comes through more organically from our own navigations with art and communicating with an audience through art. As creators of the show, starting in the writers’ room, that naturally ends up being an underlying current in many of the stories we tackle as a collective.
***(TOTAL side note – if you are a wrestling fan, you should watch THE SUPLEX DUPLEX COMPLEX by director Todd Rohal ☺ I think you can find online — incase that’s your speed!)
The Knockturnal: ***I proceeded to watch The Suplex Duplex Complex, it’s hilarious and wonderful. A link can be found here***
Fleischmann: I will be totally honest with you and say that most recurring themes happen subconsciously. Our process for creating this show is amorphous and very open. Mark, Mel, Julian, and I get together in the attic of the Duplass office and just throw ideas at each other. So, without forcing anything, the ideas that rise to the top and become episodes are thematically connected just by the nature of the process. I think these particular episodes and the theme of artist relationships definitely come from the subconscious of Mark and Julian and the relationships they have with their art.
The Knockturnal: What were some of your influences for this new season?
Eslyn: Our own inner hopes, dreams, darkness and fears?! We all have eclectic tastes and are influenced by so many varied art forms and stories – from music, to video games, to game shows, sitcoms and cartoons. Knowing this would be our last season, we all sort of reached into our inner treasure troves and examined what we were still yearning to do with this room. That translated into wanting to make more music, design a video game, play with different forms (like multi-cams), and explore other times and dimensions, including sword duels and outer space. I’d say more than any other season, we all looked inward for inspiration. My personal influences this season in no particular order included: Highlander, Scooby-Doo, Pat Benatar, Wings, the disappearance of musician Jim Sullivan, Vision Quest, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Drak Pack, The Price is Right, Everybody Loves Reymond, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Gravedale High, Zelda, Big, Kurt Cobain, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Harvey, Teen Wolf and Jem and the Holograms.
Fleischmann: This season is brought to you by Nostalgia. “Oh, Harry!” was inspired by 90’s sitcoms that we watched and loved. “The Night Babby Died” was inspired by old video games and lost friendships. “Fur” was inspired by 80’s cartoons. I think we’re just a very nostalgic group of people.
The Knockturnal: The show is known for its unique think tank and fast and loose creative filming style. Can you explain the advantages and challenges of making the series this way?
Eslyn: In Duplass land, we are big believers that if you set up a few rules (in this case, ‘stick to a room’), but then allow creative freedom and spontaneity within those rules (or in this case, walls), artists will push and stretch those boundaries. It’s in that challenge that we get the best stuff. We don’t like to set too many rules once in that space. It’s our way of providing room for that magical possibility of catching lightening in a bottle. The added challenge, to this way of working, is often felt in the edit room – especially when we go off-book and get a little wild, there’s a whole new phase of writing that happens in post-production. By the same token, having those deviations and creative openness, leads to the advantage of more options to play with. More options are both an advantage and a challenge….I’ll also add this, since we had our first animated episode – there’s much less room to be “loose” when you cross over into animation, so that was both a challenge and a fun deviation into a different structure than what I’m used to within the room.
Fleischmann: For me, the biggest advantage of making the series in a fast and loose style is the across the board collaboration and the energy that that collaboration creates on set. The creative problem solving that happens in every department from production design to writers to casting keeps the entire operation nimble and allows us to keep our focus on the story. I think the biggest challenge is budget but I’m sure every producer and every director at every budget level would say the same thing. But at the same time, it’s another limitation–like the four walls of the room–that we’ve learned to channel into fuel for our creativity. At the end of the day it’s really satisfying to say, we made it happen. We figured out how to make our limitations work in our favor.
The Knockturnal: Both of your [Mel Eslyn] episodes: “Oh Harry!” and “Fur,” have a lot to do with nostalgia is that a theme you like to explore, and if so, why?
Eslyn: YES! Apparently, I’m incredibly nostalgic, as I learned this season. I think that comes from wanting and liking to explore the bits and pieces that have formed me as a person. I’ll probably always be striving to tackle and pay tribute to my own nostalgia. It’s like I’m calling back to my younger self and saying, ‘I got you! I’m going to make something you’re really going to like!’
The Knockturnal: Episode 5 “Oh Harry!” Were there any sitcoms or sitcom characters that influenced your development of this story?
Eslyn: I’ve always loved the sitcom format – probably because there was safety in everything being wrapped up within a half hour. I watched Wings and Cheers a lot as a kid, and both really hammered into my brain the pacing and patterns of the sitcom form. For the “OH, HARRY!” episode, Wings was a big influence. I had also just worked with Ray Romano and had started going back and watching his show, Everybody Loves Raymond, which ended up largely influencing the family dynamic of the episode. I’d say “Oh, Harry!” was very much based off of Ray’s character on the show, which I guess is thereby pretty based off of Ray himself. I also wrote a line in the script that there would be a title sequence that explained the backstory, so that you could drop into the show on any episode and be caught up. I think I said, ‘think the Perfect Strangers backstory setup, in the style of Home Improvement.
The Knockturnal: Episode 11 “Fur” – What made you want to tell this story animated, as it is the first animated episode in the series?
Eslyn: The decision to go animated started with my love of Saturday morning cartoons, and the old-school cartoons that I loved to watch as a kid, and still do (70’s, 80’s and early 90’s cartoons). I also wanted to try a whole new challenge within the room. We’d long talked about doing animation on the show, and I thought, now or never. I also wanted to make this specific story a bit more accessible to various ages. I sort of wrote it as a love letter to the little girls in my life. By placing it in an animation style that was a hybrid of old and new, and then setting it in the 80’s – I was also making a statement on how certain things haven’t changed at all. The creeps of the world haven’t gone away.
The Knockturnal: Episode 12 “Generations” – Can you go a bit into the development of this episode?
Fleischmann: I don’t want to give too much away but over these four seasons we’ve had a lot of discussions about what and where Room 104 is. I think pretty early on we realized that the answers to those questions weren’t simple. So, I think “Generations” came from this idea of questioning the room itself; and the emotional core of the story came from an idea we’d had floating around about a person at the end of their life reflecting back. So, many of the stories we tell in this room are about people exploring who they are, and this felt like the perfect union of that concept and the question around what is Room 104.
The Knockturnal: This episode dealt a lot in themes relating to relationships and making the most of one’s life, and family. What were some of your directorial influences for this episode?
Fleischmann: One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, which I’m just now in this moment realizing how much the film influenced me and the stories I’m drawn to. When I see a character, who is filled with regret and remorse, I just want to get in there and help them acknowledge and appreciate all of the beautiful things in their life. I think with both “Generations” and It’s a Wonderful Life, these characters begin to see their worth when they see the positive impact they’ve had on their loved ones. I could probably go on and on about influences, but I think the other big influence for me was my family and our intergenerational relationships. I’m incredibly lucky to have four living generations in my family right now. And it’s been such a profound experience to step back and look at our different generations and then try to bring those emotional complexities into “Generations.”
The Knockturnal: Is there an episode this season that you’re particularly proud of or resonated with you the most, and why?
Fleischmann: I’m really proud of them all but one I would like to spotlight is “Avalanche” because I think Dave Bautista gives such a compelling performance. The episode has so many different elements to it and we didn’t know exactly how they would all fit together but Dave not only holds it all together, he really takes the story to a special place.
Eslyn: “FUR,” for sure! While it covers territory of navigating puberty, and creeps, and peer pressure… at day’s end it’s about finding the true fierceness inside of you, and how lovely, rad and badass that can be. As I mentioned, I wrote it as a love letter to the little girls in my life whose fierceness I see growing and coming out every day as they navigate this big, beautiful, scary world. I wanted to give them a fun and empowering story. And I guess I wanted to give that to myself as well. I love dancing and high kicking… and so to close out the episode, I asked the composer to write me a Pat Benatar meets David the Gnome theme hybrid song that I could high kick to in real life, and have the characters do the same. By the end of the episode I just want everyone to celebrate and dance their hearts out. Every time I hear that song, it brings me so much joy… and I wish my younger self would have had that song and this episode.
Room 104 will have its season 4 premier on July 24th on HBO at 11:00pm EST. It will also be available to stream on HBO MAX.