Room 104 Season 3 dives into the deep end of experimentation and creativity: Q&A with Mark Duplass and Sydney Fleischman

Photo: Room 104 Episode 27 (season 3, episode 3), debut 9/27/19: Arturo Castro. Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO
Photo: Room 104 Episode 27 (season 3, episode 3), debut 9/27/19: Arturo Castro. Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO /

Room 104 Season 3 returns to HBO to delight, horrify, and inspire us all. Creator Mark Duplass and EP Sydney Fleischman preview the new batch of episodes.

Room 104 is a quirky and necessary oddity in today’s TV landscape. Since it debuted in 2017, the series has been bringing unique, singular, and creative stories to viewer’s eyeballs that can’t be found anywhere else in the entertainment landscape.

In an era where much of Peak TV is addressing divisive political and social issues, Room 104 has mostly stayed away from those issues, instead choosing to focus on more universal themes like good and evil, gender dynamics, and the spooky and unknown. Season 3 of the series debuts on HBO on Friday the 13th, which also happens to be a full moon. Since the show delights in the weird and unexpected, often veering into horror territory, this date is auspicious and fitting.

The new season boasts an episode that is practically guaranteed to give you nightmares (‘Itchy’), one that will fill you with awe and wonder (‘The Specimen Collector’) and a documentary episode that just might break your heart (‘Jimmy and Gianni). Given the grab bag feel of the show – each venture into the nondescript room is a surprise – Room 104 continues to engage viewer’s minds and hearts, teasing us with the excitement of the unknown while connecting to deeply human stories.

Ahead of the Room 104 Season 3 debut, co-creator Mark Duplass and executive producer Sydney Fleischman offered up some insight into the new batch of episodes. Below they preview a few unique episodes, discuss the thrill of developing ideas and stories, and reveal how they really feel about hotel rooms after working on Room 104.

Hidden Remote: From what I understand, these episodes were filmed back-to-back with last season. How did you select which stories went into Season 2 and which into Season 3?

Mark Duplass: “It was a tough curatorial process. We were pretty sure we had the seasons separated when we shot them, but then we did a little bit of swapping in the middle of shooting once we dialed in the tone of some of them. I would say that Season 3 is a bit different than Season 2 overall in that it leans a little more into the experimental and sort of stretches what the room can be and what it can look like. I guess if viewers are gonna watch twenty-four episodes in one f*cking room, we’ve gotta continue to be able to surprise them and give them new things, so we’re pushing the boundaries a little bit.”

Photo: Room 104 Episode 27 (season 3, episode 3), debut 9/27/19: Arturo Castro. Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO
Photo: Room 104 Episode 27 (season 3, episode 3), debut 9/27/19: Arturo Castro. Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO /

HR: Things are definitely a little out there this season. By the way, thanks for giving me nightmares with ‘Itchy’!  (Note: Airing Friday, September 27th.) Arturo Castro was great in that episode, but I’ve definitely been having nightmares about it.

MD: “That’s really my brand. Like really nice guys being super f*cking weird while filming themselves. I can’t beat that.”

Sydney Fleischman: “We’ll take the nightmare thing as a compliment!”

HR: Oh for sure! It made a definite impact. Like you were saying, the show is leaning more toward the experimental side, and the show itself has always been like a storytelling playground where you get the chance to play with all sorts of goodies like format, makeup, cool practical effects, so what were some of your biggest challenges and/or things that you’re excited to show the audience in Season 3?

SF: “So many things!”

MD: “A lot. We had more effects this season than we had before, so we tried some new things on that front, and it was fun because when you’re doing effects on a low budget, you kind of have to go with the older ways of shooting things. So those blood splatters and things like that are not done the way they’re normally done in 2019, so that was kind of fun.

“And I think from a pure storytelling standpoint, we had more episodes where we really felt like, I can’t believe we’re trying to do this, we may not have an episode when we’re done. [laughs] In particular, trying to make a documentary episode, and also trying to make an entire story based upon a woman making up songs in the room with projections on the wall and improvising dialogue to put together a story. I mean, the script for the ‘New Song’ episode (Writer’s Note: Airing Friday, October 18th) was less than a page. It just kind of came together in the moment, which is very exciting and fun, but it was a little scary.”

SF: “I think we take these leaps and we just trust that we have the right people around us to figure it all out to make it all work and make it all make sense.”

HR: It’s interesting that you mentioned those two episodes, because chunks of this season – specifically the documentary and the ‘A New Song’ episodes – focus very intensely on the creative process. Given that the show itself seems meant to celebrate creativity and freedom of expression, what messages are you hoping viewers might take away from these stories?

MD: “It’s funny how themes can emerge. The truth of the documentary episode – this was an episode that’s about a father and a son, and we put them in a room – in many ways it became an episode about mental illness and accepting aberrations and trying to be your full self without going off the rails. That’s not something we totally planned. It’s something that emerged in the process.

“Likewise, with the ‘A New Song’ episode, with musician Julianna Barwick, who is one of my favorite musicians and a friend of mine, the story that emerges there is really a story about someone who feels like they’re living in someone else’s shadow, and how are they supposed to get out from under that. That theme didn’t really emerge until we were there shooting. It came from a conversation we had with the actresses and it emerged from things that I felt in my own life in my own collaborations.

“That’s one thing that’s really fun about Room 104 is that we make these so quickly and so cheaply that they often have what I describe as a ‘demo-like quality’ to them, like when a musician is making a demo. It’s often very rough hewn, but the raw energy of that and the feeling of being captured while it’s happening is a sub-conscious feeling.

Room 104 Season 3
Photo: Room 104 Episode 26 (season 3, episode 2), debut 9/20/19: Robert Longstreet, Dale Dickey. Photo: Tyler Golden/HBO /

“We think about why we need to make Room 104. Audiences have already got 400 TV shows they want to watch, and that might be one of the special things we have to offer. You never really know what’s going to happen in the room. Not only from what f*cking genre it’s going to be, but also you never know where the show is going to go because a lot of times we don’t really know until it happens.”

HR: Speaking of creativity, let’s circle back to the documentary episode ‘Jimmy and Gianni’ (airing Friday, October 25th) How did that episode come about?

MD: “The way that came about is that Gianni, one of the gentlemen in the episode, is a painter. I saw his work at a place in L.A. called The Last Bookstore, and I bought one of his paintings, and then I hired him to make all the paintings for our office, and when he came over to the office to hang the paintings, he brought his dad with him. I watched these two guys work together, and they were just so hilarious, and sweet and loving with each other.

“It was right at the time we were cracking Seasons 2 and 3 for Room 104, and I went into the office and I said to Sydney, ‘I think we’re going to make a documentary episode!’ I saw the 50% fear and 50% excitement light up in her eyes, and I thought, ‘yes! I think this is gonna be right!’”

SF: “I didn’t know them at the time, so going into it, I had no idea who we were going to be seeing. But after watching them for five minutes, I knew there was going to be something real there. It was really truthful and special just seeing the way they interact with each other. So even though it was this kind of scary endeavor not knowing what the end product would be, we knew it would be okay because they would guide us. And that’s what it ended up being. We talk about not wanting to choose favorites and that we love all our children equally, but I think that one is one we’re especially proud of, to see all of that come together.”

HR: It was such a fantastic surprise to see something like that. There’s an interesting range of talent on the show this season, and it’s always so interesting to see familiar faces take on unexpected roles on this show. How do you go about finding actors and even directors and writers to sign on to episodes? 

SF: “It’s on an episode-by-episode basis. Arturo Castro is one who I had met with and just instantly loved him. He’s just so charming and smart and funny, and I knew we needed to find some place for him because I was dying to work with him. And then other people, our casting director will do a big search and find the right person for the role. Other times, like with Cobie Smulders, the director and writer of that episode (‘The Specimen Collector’, airing Friday, November 29th), Mel Eslyn, had worked with her before, so she thought it was great. It’s this sort of matchmaking that we do.”

Room 104
Photo: Room 104 Episode 25 (season 3, episode 1), debut 9/13/19: Luke Wilson. Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO /

MD: “And if they’re known actors, we have them do roles that they haven’t done before or put them in a different environment. In terms of directors that we find, I write about half of the episodes, and then we try to match a lot of the episodes that I write with first-time directors, and we bring that energy in. It’s really important for us to give opportunities to first-time directors and writers, or even a lot of the department heads. That creates an environment of excitement, and gratitude, and love, and it keeps the show really fun to make. It’s a great place to show up to work!”

HR: I specifically love how the show champions stories written, directed by, and featuring women. I had the opportunity to talk to both Dayna Hanson and Josephine Decker about their respective episodes in Seasons 1 and 2, and in Season 3 you have more women directing. How important is it to champion a gender balance both in front of and behind the camera?

SF: “It’s very important. It’s definitely a big part of the development for us. Just making sure that the season really feels well rounded in terms of men and women, and diversity, and just different voices and perspectives. I think that’s one of the things that makes the show what it is. We’re not just going to the same type of person for every episode; we’re going to all sorts of different people.”

MD: “That’s part and parcel for a show set in a hotel room. Every kind of story you can imagine is told there not only from a representation standpoint, but from a genre standpoint too. We really love the mixed bag of it.”

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HR: I know that Room 104 has definitely made me more cognizant of my surroundings when I stay in a hotel. Would you say that either of you look at hotel rooms differently now? 

SF: “I am definitely more mindful of the comforter, like the thing that’s on the end of the bed. That bed scarf at the end of the bed, I definitely take those off immediately.”

HR: [laughs] “That reminds me of those Dateline specials back in the 90’s where they used to sweep a black light over hotel rooms. That was terrifying!

MD: “You can’t think about that! For me though, the thing that I’ve always loved about this show is that when you watch it as a viewer you think, these people are crazy! But if you’re really honest with yourself next time you’re in a hotel room, think about some of the things you do differently. Your behavior alters. You become someone slightly different than who you normally are. I’ve been enjoying watching myself and my own behaviors and the aberrations when I’m in a hotel room. And really that’s the essence of the show. We just hyperbolize it.”

Room 104 Season 3 premieres September, Friday 13th at 11pm on HBO.