The inspiration for episode five of HBO’s new anthology series, Room 104 — “The Internet,” airing Friday night — has its origins all the way back in the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was just a series of tubes and GeoCities pages. A young Mark Duplass was traveling with his band, and he made a tour-flier template on his parents’ iMac that he was going to take with him on a Zip drive. Mark forgot the drive when he left, but having the files sent to him via email shouldn’t have been a big deal, even in the days of dial-up. But instead of sorting the issue out with his tech-savvy dad, Mark ended up in a marathon IT session with his Luddite mom. “We spent the next five hours on the phone with me trying to teach her how to use a computer, and we almost killed each other,” Duplass explains. “It was such a very small and specific story, but every time I talked about it, everyone had something similar that had happened to them.”
Stories that everyone can relate to, but take a swift left turn into the strange, is a pretty good summary for Room 104, the latest Duplass brothers collaboration at HBO (one that is distinctly not like Togetherness). The show takes place in room 104 of a low-budget hotel, with different guests passing through it in each episode. It is dark and weird, veering frequently into horror territory, but each episode is preoccupied with the sort of interpersonal minutiae that has come to define the indie entertainment duo’s long body of work. Vulture got on the phone with Duplass to talk about the need to keep evolving when you want to just stay in your lane, and how working in the entertainment industry helped him find his inner darkness.
The star of “The Internet,” Karan Soni, plays an Indian man in this episode. Was that specifically written into the character from the start, or did you change it to suit him as a specific performer?
This is a perfect example of how Room 104 works. We had cast someone else in the role, and that person fell out I think about 48 hours before we were gonna shoot the episode. And he was not [Indian]. It was written for someone completely different. So I called Karan, who I knew really well. We met on Safety Not Guaranteed and became friends, and I said, “Hey. You’ve gotta memorize like 25 pages of dialogue in the next 24 hours, but also don’t start, because I have to rewrite it for you first.” And he was a series regular on a Starz show, so we had to call his boss and get permission for him to come do it. It was a total scramble and it all came together at the last minute, and he was just incredible. He improvised some of the bad writing that I put in there because I had written it too quickly. He made it great, and it’s a perfect example of Room 104 at its best. Just get together with your friends and the people you love, and even though you’re moving quickly and you don’t have the money you want, you’re probably going to come up with something interesting.
In various ways, this show feels like a road map of yours and Jay’s work up to this point. There is so much present-era Duplass mixing with origin-era Duplass, like the very simple construction of your “This Is John” short film, where it’s a personal crisis unfolding between a man and his answering machine. Here, it’s playing out on a prestige network like HBO with a lead character who doesn’t look like the heroes of Togetherness or Jeff, Who Lives at Home. How are you and your brother determining whose stories you’re allowed to tell? Are you finding a difference between what you are comfortable executing, versus what should be opened up to more diverse storytellers and performers?
I think that Room 104 offered us an organic opportunity to tell all kinds of stories with all kinds of protagonists. One of the things that’s really exciting to us from a theoretical perspective is that the lead characters were always meant to be the ones that normally appear as side characters in everybody else’s movies. And anybody can be the lead character in a 25-minute story, is our deep opinion. So that is an organic way to open up representation, because everybody is staying in the mid-priced motel. Sometimes someone who’s really rich has to stay there, because it’s convenient. Someone who’s really poor has to stay there because there is nothing that is cheaper, and it means everybody passes through this hotel. So we really liked that. As to behind-the-camera stuff, there was also an organic component to that, which is Jay and I have been collaborating so intensely with each other for a long time, and that is wonderful, and continues to be wonderful. But as we get older, we talk a lot about how some of our favorite artists get on this great run for like ten years, and then they just start making garbage. Why and how does that happen? And we’re terrified that’s going to happen to us, and the one thing we feel strongly about is the more we open up that circle of collaboration beyond more than just our brotherhood, and into these great young filmmakers we meet at Sundance, this incredible marriage happens, which is they don’t have any TV-directing credits and they’re not making any money. We’re getting older and a little more clueless, and we need to collaborate with young, interesting people — we both come together and it’s a major win.
So I wouldn’t say that we put in some sort of strict rule about what needs to be represented, but we did say, “You know, it would be really nice if at least half of our directors could be women.” And if we just take a minute to not grab the first person who was available, which is going to be a white male, because that’s what our industry is, if you just look for a second longer, you’ll find it. So all those things just organically happened, and now that we’ve seen the show and we’re seeing part of the reason it’s clicking with people is due to the representation, it feels really good to see that, “Oh, this kind of actually pays off in all kinds of ways.”
The thing this show actually reminds me of the most is the movie Four Rooms, which is the same sort of surreal, confrontational comedy that is so uncomfortable at times it veers into being horrifying. With your work on things like Black Rock and Lazarus Effect and Creep, and I would even say The One I Love, between the two of you, are you the instigator of the darker material, or is that a shared responsibility?
It’s definitely a shared responsibility, and a desire to take off our skin. That sort of brand we have become known for, which is a little more like the comedy of discomfort and the dramatic comedy, and try something different. In particular what I loved about Creep and The One I Love was the combination of naturalism, horror, and comedy that felt kind of new and fun. Not that we’re the only people who have ever done it, but there was something in it that felt a little fresh. And so I think, not consciously but subconsciously, when you’re an artist who has struggled for a long time to make anything good, which was us in our 20s, and you make something good and the world likes you for it, you’re scared to do anything else because you don’t want to fuck up again. And we got there a little bit in our 30s. Like, “We have a lane! People like us! Don’t step out of it!” But now we are done with that, and we are ready to try new things.
Was there a specific point when you realized your face, which is generally welcoming and warm, was really well-suited for turning sinister? When did you figure out you could subvert your natural charm and make it something so menacing?
The first thing that made me realize that I had this, like, slightly frightening thing inside of me through my little casual smile is when I learned how to do business in this industry. I figured out like, “Oh, this is happening all around me, because people that are smiling at me, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff involved, and they’re just really, really good at it.” And it’s borderline sociopathic at times, and it’s not just this industry. It’s a trait of extremely successful people, is how they can shape-shift and maneuver and win in any given room. You learn how to do that when you’re pitching movies and TV shows. You aim to please and you run off an edge so that it works better for this person or that person. And once I realized, “Oh, I think I can shape-shift a little bit,” it freaked me out a little bit, but I learned to own it and it was that sort of microcosm that led us to Creep.
In the current moment, it seems like genre movies and horror films and strange entities like Room 104 are being judged as more legitimate artworks instead of graded on this curve of low expectations. Have you found a greater reception to adventurous ideas now than there was when you started?
I don’t know, because the truth is I’m not that educated on what gets green-lit and what doesn’t get green-lit from a studio position at this point, because I function so much in this independent bubble. We’re kind of like our own studio at this point. We just do our own thing, but what I do know is that from an audience perspective, I have found that if you are humble and you are a small movie like Creep or a Sundance movie like The One I Love or you are a late-night, Friday-night, 11:30 p.m., added-value HBO show that is all shot cheaply in a 400-square-foot box, and you’re not swinging too bombastically and saying “I’m the next Dunkirk!” people are much more willing to receive you and receive you with the shaggy, strange edges that you have. And I really, really like that about where we’re at right now in the industry. If you’re willing to take risks and you’re willing to do them cheaply, the industry and audiences are generally open-armed for it, and that is where I’m headed.
I was talking to a director recently who said he thinks the bottoming out of the mid-budget movie is actually a good thing for the industry, because it limits a lot of movies to existing for under $5 million. That makes them lower risk financially, but allows them to be higher risk with content. There’s maybe more of a freedom to fail.
Yeah, I look at it like lottery tickets. “These are kind of cheap. Nine out of ten of them might not hit, but one will, and so let’s try them out.” So as long as you make something with integrity along the way, whether it hits or not is really out of your control. But if you make it cheaply and it always makes its money back, you’ll always live to fight another day. That’s kind of the plane we’re on. Sometimes I look at it and I’m like, “Maybe this is a little defeatist. Maybe you should try some bigger swings.” Then I’m like, “Nah. Nah.” I’m gonna hit a bunch of singles, and at the end of the day, know that I can look my children in the eye and be proud of everything that I’ve made, rather than take a huge swing and then shit the bed.
You’re going to small ball your way to eternity.
You’re goddamn right. I’m gonna bunt my way to heaven.