Drama, comedy, horror all in new HBO series Room 104

Melonie Diaz and Ethan Kent (both above) and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Orlando Jones (both below) star in HBO series Room 104.
Melonie Diaz and Ethan Kent (both above) and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Orlando Jones star in HBO series Room 104.PHOTO: HBO ASIA
Melonie Diaz and Ethan Kent (both above) and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Orlando Jones (both below) star in HBO series Room 104.
Melonie Diaz and Ethan Kent and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Orlando Jones (both above) star in HBO series Room 104.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

The Duplass brothers explore unrelated stories that take place in the same hotel room in their anthology TV series Room 104

If you were a film-maker and given a small budget, a couple of actors, three days and a single room to tell a story in, what would you come up with?

That was the idea behind the Duplass brothers' latest project, the anthology television series Room 104, which airs on Cinemax on Saturdays (StarHub TV Channel 611, 11.30am and 10pm).

The actor-film-maker siblings are going a little off-brand with the show, which they wrote and produced. They are mostly known for making low-budget, naturalistically acted indie comedies such as Baghead (2008) and Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011), often labelled "mumblecore" cinema because of their improvised, deliberately ordinary style.

Room 104, on the other hand, is a series of unrelated stories that just happen to take place in the same modest hotel room and run the gamut from drama to comedy to horror.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles recently, the Duplasses say this was an idea they had been germinating for a decade and are now using to showcase lesser-known actors and directors.

Mark Duplass, 40, says: "Jay and I were feeling it might be fun to sort of take off our skin a little bit. For better or for worse, we've become known as these purveyors of naturalistic, comedic dramas about feelings. We love that and there's some of that in Room 104, but we like other things too."

With the series, they wanted to break away from conventional storytelling.

He adds: "We were, like, 'What if there's a show where every night you tune in, not only is it a different story, but you don't even know what kind of story you're going to get?'

"We've done a lot of traditional narrative, but we've had this idea kicking around in our heads for the last 10 years - we were just not popular enough to make an anthology show 10 years ago. Everybody was just, like, 'Sounds interesting, but no.'"

Part of the reason it is happening now "is that we have a really good relationship with HBO, who's willing to take risks on us as long as we make things kind of cheaply", he says.

HBO aired Togetherness (2015 to 2016), the brothers' pensive comedy-drama about marriage and friendship, which Mark also starred in.

"Togetherness was two seasons. We did everything - wrote, directed, produced - and it almost killed us," says the film-maker, who is married to actress Katie Aselton, 38, and has a daughter, aged nine, and a son, four.

"So (we thought) what if we expanded our circle of collaboration, do a little less and see what happens if we invite younger, different and more interesting film-makers into the process?"

Another goal was "to work creatively within limits, which we've known how to do for years as independent film-makers".

He says: "Our first movie, The Puffy Chair (2006), was made for US$10,000 and we had to reverse-engineer a narrative that worked inside that framework, and that's really what Room 104 is.

"You get a room, you get three days to shoot an episode, you get a couple of actors, tops, and you can't leave the room. Then you see how creative you can be with that."

They made it a point to hire women to direct at least half the 12 episodes as well as cast lesser- known faces.

"Karan Soni is the perfect example of a character actor we love," says Mark.

The 28-year-old Indian-American appears in an episode titled The Internet, where his character must talk his mother (Poorna Jagannathan) through a computer- related task.

"He was in Deadpool (2016) and Ghostbusters (2016) and he's always playing the quirky Pakistani guy. But what if you give him a fully rounded-out story? Because we know him personally and he has a beautiful spirit and emotional range, we wrote a whole episode for him to do his thing."

Making the show relatable is the fact that "everyone stays in hotels", adds Jay Duplass, 44. He is married to social worker Jennifer TracyDuplass and has a daughter, eight, and a son, four.

"Everything happens in hotels. Mark and I are observers, we're obsessed with human behaviour and as we travel around, hotels and airports are places where you can really observe everyone doing their thing," he adds.

"That was what sparked this idea. You walk in a hotel room and you can kind of feel all the crazy things that have happened in there."

Jay, who also stars in the acclaimed drama series Transparent (2014 to now), says: "And people tend to let go of themselves a little bit in hotel rooms. It's almost like a small chance to reinvent yourself."

• Room 104 is also on HBO on StarHub Go and HBO On Demand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'Room for creativity'. Print Edition | Subscribe