Dayna Hanson breaks down her ethereal and cerebral episode of Room 104


Sarah Hay as Girl.

Jordin Althaus / HBO. Acquired via HBO PR rep.

Written and directed by Dayna Hanson, Room 104 episode “Voyeurs” is a bravura piece of filmmaking that illustrates why the series is so necessary in today’s TV landscape.

Moments into Room 104 episode “Voyeurs”, you know something is very different. A story focusing on a housekeeper (Dendrie Taylor) taking a trippy journey into her past, the half hour is a wordless, ethereal affair that communicates through expressive movement in lieu of traditional dialogue-based exposition. Quickly, it becomes crystal clear that this story is like nothing else on television. And, in an era of Peak TV, that’s saying quite a lot.

Room 104 has only been airing for a little over a month, but each week it delivers the equivalent of a short film in episodic TV form. The only constant is the titular room, providing a stage for literally limitless narrative possibilities. The loose and non-chronological format allows for a rotating cast of creatives and performers to tell their stories in whatever way they see fit. It’s a singular form of storytelling that currently, and surprisingly, can’t be found anywhere else on television.

Dayna Hanson is the creative mind behind”Voyeurs”, and we caught up with her to chat about her enchanting episode. We chatted about female filmmakers, the nuance of movement, and the poetic, undefinable difference between innocence and experience.

How did you get involved in the project?

Dayna Hanson: “I was invited in May of last year by Xan Aranda, who was executive producing, to pitch a few different dance driven episodes. This was a dream invitation for me because storytelling and dance are both important to me. I have passion for both. I have strong feelings about how dance can function on the screen and how dance can propel narrative and character and other kinds of storytelling. So I had a lot of fun creating a few different potential approaches to the episode and was really thrilled when [producer] Mark [Duplass], Xan, and the team behind Room 104 asked me to develop “Voyeurs”, because that was my favorite of the several I came up with.

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“So then we had a whole process of developing that script and really trying to ensure that the episode would function as an emotional and powerful story and that the dance piece of it could magically be secondary and intrinsic at the same time. So the writing definitely proceeded the choreography, and until there was a consensus that the story and the narrative was bulletproof that I dove into the choreography part of it.”

It’s so rare to have an episode of TV with minimal or no dialogue. For you, what is it about movement that is so captivating?

Dayna Hanson: “I’ve always felt strongly that there’s a lot of emotional truths that come through in physicality. Whether you’re talking about actual life or literature or cinema or performance, I’m nuts about words and love dialogue, but I really feel that we sort of overlook the power of body language and gesture and even facial expressions. That’s how I think about dance. I think about it on a really expanded scale. A big, stunning, balletic move is wonderful, but to me it doesn’t necessarily have more value than a little flick of the finger. To me it is speaking from the interior of a human being in relation to another human being usually. There’s an untapped power, narratively, in movement.

“People tend to reveal a lot in the details of their physical behavior. It’s a little harder to edit, so I think a little more authenticity comes through. And I think we as humans are pretty drawn to that.”

Dendrie Taylor as Housekeeper and Sarah Hay as Girl with Dayna Hanson on set.

Jordin Althaus / HBO. Acquired via HBO PR rep.

“Voyeurs” is conceived and created predominantly by women. You wrote and directed the episode, and on screen there are two strong female performers, Dendrie Taylor and Sarah Hay, so it’s all females telling a story about a very feminine narrative.

Dayna Hanson: “We had a moment once I met Dendrie and Sarah where we met via Skype and we could sense this power in the room. We felt that convergence of power, and it was a real nice concentration. It was a function of all of those different pieces coming together. I think it’s a great moment for female storytellers and creators.”

For me I think it’s great to see stories about women’s issues handled by women. In the episode, we get some allusions to a pregnancy and potential loss of a child, and it makes me so happy that women are increasingly getting a chance to tell these very personal stories on the screen through a lens of authenticity. So given that power you mentioned between the three of you, what was it like shooting the actual episode?

Dayna Hanson: “It was really challenging. We had as much rehearsal as we could fit in. There’s a lot of really intricate movement and dance of various scales and styles to learn. It was important to me that when we started shooting that the movement was in their bodies. Sarah has a professional ballet career under her belt, and that was very very helpful, and Dendrie was so courageously pushing herself to the edges of her comfort level. So both efforts made that shooting process pretty incredible.

“We had to kind of set up shop differently. Our rehearsals before shooting each take were different than a dialogue based story. There was geometry and physics to deal with. Not to mention making sure that the emotion was still in place so that the dance really did come across as the expressive language we were speaking in the story and not a dance piece that we were just performing for the camera.”

It’s so interesting because the space is the only thing that remains consistent throughout the episodes of Room 104, and the characters in “Voyeurs” utilize and interact with almost every element of that space. How did you approach the room itself?

Dayna Hanson: “I created a partial room 104 in my basement studio. I found a free clean bed on Craigs List and a desk and did a lot of choreography in my little facsimile of the set. It’s important to me how people interact with their surroundings. The tools that we could use to tell the story were all fair game. We wanted to choreograph and tell the story with these generic seeming objects and really integrate them tightly.”

You mentioned before that you brainstormed a bunch of different story ideas and came to the team at Room 104 with a few options, but where would you say this specific idea came from?

Dayna Hanson: “That’s a tough question. It’s infinite when you think of all the possibilities. Part of it was imagining a mood. And I’ve definitely thought when I’ve stayed at a hotel about the fact that someone is going to be cleaning up after me. [laughs] It’s very intimate. I’ve found things as I’ve checked in to hotel rooms that shouldn’t be there, and your imagination can really run wild. So I’ve contemplated some of those sensations. A hotel room feels like it’s private, like it’s all yours, but it’s as shared as it can possibly be. So the idea came out of meditations of people overlapping, but not in time.”

Dendrie Taylor as Housekeeper and Sarah Hay as Girl.

Jordin Althaus / HBO. Acquired via HBO PR rep.

Sarah’s red outfit directly contrasts with the bland, traditional housekeeper uniform. So what was the process behind the creation of that garment?

Dayna Hanson: “It was a really fun and fulfilling part of the process to collaborate with Lindsay Monahan, the costume designer. We had a great time geeking out over vintage nighties and the subtle differences between shades of magenta, red, and fuchsia. Of course there is also the nostalgia element, and I think certain colors do seem to spring out of certain eras. So I think the 1980’s nostalgia, with the example of the music, plays out, and we were looking for a contrast between the dull beige and the fiery, passionate under layer. I think it’s easy to say that red equals passion or sex or love, and what we were trying to create was a sense of a palate.”

The episode doesn’t rely on much dialogue at all, but we do get this fun 80’s synth pop song with the lyrics “innocence, experience, what is the difference” that plays during a pivotal moment in the episode as well as over the credits. Where did that song come from?

Dayna Hanson: “Julian Wass was the composer. He did a beautiful job scoring the whole episode. I definitely have this 1980’s obsession going on, and I wrote just a few snippets of the song into the script, and that was one of the “dialogue” bits. Then Julian took the snippet of lyric and wrote the song, and then I ended up writing more lyrics for it. So it came right out of the creative process.”

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In your opinion, what is the difference between innocence and experience?

Dayna Hanson: “That’s confounded writers and poets and humans for a long long time, hasn’t it? It’s unanswerable, I think. I wrote the episode closer from the POV of the housekeeper than the guest. I’ve been around the block a few times, and sometimes I’m not sure how much I’ve learned in the decades that I’ve been alive. I find something provocative about that question. There’s a lot of contradiction. You go through experiences in life, and you do change, and there’s still a five year-old child inside of you that has more wonder about the world than it probably should. So I think it’s part of what makes us complex as people. I just hope that there’s a sense in this story of valuing both, or holding both states of innocence and experience simultaneously. We have a tremendous capacity for paradox.”

‘Room 104’ airs Friday nights on HBO at 11:30/10:30c.