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Sex, lies, and iPhone footage: Inside Josephine Decker’s episode of Room 104

Josephine Decker takes life and makes it into resonant art with her fertility-focused episode of Room 104.

Room 104 refreshingly continues to tell stories from a female point of view and, this week, filmmaker Josephine Decker takes the reins of an episode that’s sure to provoke a strong response for viewers.

Decker is a woman who’s not afraid to go to the most intimate and personal places in her art. The director of critically praised indie films Butter on the Latch, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and Madeline’s Madeline, she’s known for telling stories with uncompromising emotional heft and layers of imbued meaning. Decker seems to be genuinely seeking connection with her audience, often utilizing unconventional and abstract methods in her work, leaving leeway for open and loose interpretations based on individual perception.

Often, Decker’s art is a conduit for her to explore and process events and questions in her own life, and her episode of Room 104 is no different. Initially, the story introduces universal elements of relationships in the pressure cooker of a random hotel room. Yup, hotel sex can be awesome. And, yeah, couples often have some of the most devastating fights of their relationships in hotels, too. There’s just something about the stark anonymity of a hotel room that turns the intensity of everything up to eleven.

But “The Man and the Baby and the Man” strikes to the core of an issue that deeply affects many couples. When the episode begins, Rosie (played by Decker) and Erol (filmmaker Onur Tukel) are creating a video diary, ostensibly of the conception of their child. What unfolds is an powerful two-hander that strips the couple down both physically and emotionally in pursuit of understanding. There’s sex. There’s nudity. And there’s a whole lot of feels.

Prior to the episode airing, we spoke with Decker about her episode. She provided insight on why she chose to tell this particular story, how filming on an iPhone was scary but gratifying, and why we need to divorce nudity from sex in American media.

HR: Room 104 is a rotating showcase for directors and writers. How did you get involved with the production? 

Josephine Decker: “Well, [showrunner] Mark [Duplass] and I had done the festival circuit together ages ago. So we kind of crossed paths, and we were circling around the same universe. And his studio head, Mel Eslyn, she and Lacey Levitt produced a bunch of amazing films in the Pacific Northwest over the course of the 2000’s and early 2010’s, and I basically hounded her to collaborate with me for three years, and finally she read a script of mine that she loved.

“We were all kind of growing up together in a way, so Mel and I became friends, and she shared a project I had collaborated on with my ex-boyfriend on, called Flames, with Mark, and Mark really enjoyed it. He invited me in, and invited me to write, direct and act in an episode of Room 104. Acting had been something that I had done early on, but I hadn’t done much recently, and I had so much fun working on this. It was a total joy.”

HR: And it’s great that you had so much control over the way the story was told since you were involved in every aspect of the filmmaking. 

Josephine Decker: “It’s pretty intimate! [laughs]”

HR: So you mentioned Flames, before, a project that you made with your ex-boyfriend that sort of mirrors this episode. Did Flames inspire the concept for this episode? Or was it something else?

Josephine Decker: “Well, Mark’s original ask was like ‘would you want to do a project with whoever your boyfriend is?’ There’s something that really gets at that raw, emotional honesty, and my current boyfriend, whose name is Malik Vitthal – he’s a filmmaker also – he was a little shyer.”

HR: Understandable!

Josephine Decker: “Definitely! And it’s also definitely based on some of the questions that were arising with us. Like I’ve been ready to have kids for ten years. I mean, that doesn’t mean that I’ve been incredibly emotionally good at intimacy with my partner, but I’ve been ready for intimacy with my children for a long time. So I think to some degree, I was grappling with the fact that every partner I’ve had since I moved out of Texas is always happy to just wait on having kids.

“Like a lot of my art, I was basing it on something that was very personal and pressing for me. And it’s scary to want to have kids and wonder if it’s going to happen. And to feel like every month you wait it’s a month gone.”

HR: The topic of the episode is definitely very sensitive, and obviously there are heightened emotions for both Rosie and Erol throughout. It definitely hits that raw emotional chord. Did you imagine that this episode would resonate with individuals watching who might be trying to conceive? 

Josephine Decker: “It was definitely the goal. I think it’s so isolating and lonely and terrifying to be a woman who wants children who’s not sure if she’s going to have them. And I think there’s a little bit more media out about that now because more female directors are getting to tell stories in their own voices, and that’s very special. To some degree, the ending of this episode is very positive. The truth of it is scary though because even if you get the guy to say yes, it’s hard to get pregnant! So many of my friends and I myself have lost children, and it’s something that we don’t talk about. I’d like to make work about that next.”

HR: I definitely think that conversation is needed. Michelle Obama just recently came out and talked about how she had to do IVF to get pregnant, and that reveal was groundbreaking and cathartic for a lot of women.

Josephine Decker: “And then you realize that everybody f***cking needs help! It’s really hard when we don’t tell these stories, and then men think that the instant they put their sperm in you, you’re gonna be pregnant. It’s a different impression that doesn’t help the case for women and their bodies.”

HR: Speaking of bodies, it seems like you’re comfortable with nudity, and you’re comfortable using your body to express yourself in your art. What’s it like to direct yourself in a scene involving nudity and sex?

Josephine Decker: “I’ve done sex scenes before and scenes where I’ve been naked, and I think that’s almost always been with a male director. I think I look more comfortable than I really am in all those projects. But this episode was fascinating to do because I had total control. This whole episode is basically my concept, and it felt very personal to me. When we got in the room and started filming, between a couple of takes I went in the bathroom with the assistant director and just had to cry because it was so vulnerable.

“If I was able to divorce my personal experience from my ideology, I think that we as Americans have a very distorted concept around the nude form, and that’s probably because we don’t have images of naked women outside of either pornography or really fancy sex scenes. Thank god Lena Dunham made Girls and introduced us to the female body in a different way. I think that did so much. I feel that, to some degree, nudity is a huge part of our lives, and a huge part of our relationships with our partners, and when we perceive it in a certain way, which is like a very sexual way, it inhibits our ability to embrace ourselves in all forms. I think it’s important that we share nude bodies, and that we not be ashamed. Most of the time in this episode when I’m naked, I’m yelling. [laughs]”

Josephine Decker

Onur Tukel, Josephine Decker.
photo: Tyler Golden. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site.

HR: And you definitely showed that a naked woman yelling is so powerful! [laughs] So I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to camera equipment, but this episode definitely has that handheld feel. What type of camera did you use?

Josephine Decker: “It was actually interesting because it was Mark’s idea to shoot the episode on iPhone. The concept was that Rosie and Erol are filming each other. They’re making a ‘say hello to their unborn child’ video, and I was really hesitant at first because all my work is in the camera. That’s one of the ways that I think as a director. Who is the eye? Who is seeing? How do you see through their eyes? And the camera is such an important part of the breath of the things that I want to make. So I was like oh my god, I don’t know if I can do this on iPhone.

“But what was amazing, which I hadn’t anticipated, is that for such an intimate episode it allowed us freedom. First, you have one less crewmember in the room, which is great in terms of capturing something that’s really happening, that feels like it’s real. And also we had to motivate why they were still filming. Like, why did they put the camera here? That was the goal, to make it feel like you happened to be in this couple’s very personal moment. The whole experience is not created by a crew. It’s created by these two people. And really, it was. The camera operators were me and Onur Tukel who did the project with me.”

HR: Also, I know you’ve had past experience with improvisation; so how much of this episode would you say was improvised? 

Josephine Decker: “We wrote a script, but I always had the strong intention that we would improvise in the room. There were beats of the script that we hit, but for the most part it was improvised. We improvised around an outline that we created from the script, but it’s almost completely improvised. Writing a script helped us know where we wanted to take different moments of the show, but yeah, we improvised it all.”

HR: Can you tell me a bit about that last shot? It’s mostly just muffled sound, and then just a peek of a smile from Rosie at the very end.

Josephine Decker: “It was interesting workshopping the ending with Onur, and just trying to get to an emotionally effective place where his character would see himself a little more clearly and give a little space for Rosie. I think that the ideal is that at the end that the couple is making a choice to maybe try to have kids, and that the obstacles that they’ve been putting between each other are crumbling a little bit.”

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