The passenger plane wanted to land at LAX, but its nosewheel was stuck 90 degrees to the left. This meant landing with a crooked wheel, endangering the lives of the 140 passengers and six crew members on board. This happened at the same time that my driver and I entered Bend, Oregon, for the BendFilm Festival. Born the year before, in 2004, the festival focused on independent films and was organized by a community with lots of people who worked in Hollywood. To my surprise, Bend was not just a town in the middle of Oregon, but a virtual suburb of Los Angeles.
As we entered Bend, the plane landed with a burst of flames. No one died. We met our host, a doctor. We were shown to his place. He and his wife were happy to have a filmmaker in their home. He gave me some drugs. The next day, a movie I made with Rob Devor, Police Beat, was screened in a packed theater. And the day after that, there was a ceremony for the festival's awards. I won something, but there was no money attached to it. Another film, however, The Puffy Chair, did win an award that came with a cash prize—$10,000. One of its makers, Jay Duplass, was there to pick up the check. He gave a speech. It was not long. People clapped. That was the moment the Duplass brothers entered my life.
Four years later, I saw Jay's brother, Mark Duplass, on-screen. He was one of the main characters in Lynn Shelton's breakout movie, Humpday. The following year, Mark Duplass produced Linas Phillips's Bass Ackwards. Phillips lived in Seattle at the time, and his film was shot by Sean Porter, a cinematographer who got his start in this town. In 2011, Mark Duplass appeared alongside British actress Emily Blunt in local director Lynn Shelton's fourth feature, Your Sister's Sister. The film takes place on an island accessed by a Washington State ferry. In 2012, Mark Duplass starred in Safety Not Guaranteed, a film set and shot in the Pacific Northwest, and photographed by Ben Kasulke, one of the four cinematographers who established the look of Seattle's new cinema.
In 2015, Mel Eslyn, a Seattle producer, started working for Duplass Brothers Productions. Are you getting my drift? Those guys have a long and deep relationship with Seattle's film community. And so it is no surprise that their latest project, Room 104—which emerged from a deal with HBO—has two directors from Seattle, Dayna Hanson (who has a background in modern dance) and Megan Griffiths (who has directed five feature films). But before explaining how these prominent figures of the film community got roped into Room 104, I must explain what the show is about.
There has been much secrecy around the project because of its premise: Each episode is shot in the same room, which is in a hotel in an unnamed town, but each has a completely different story. Eslyn kept her cards close to the vest when discussing it, and would give me only the most general kinds of descriptions. One director made a horror film, another did a comedy, another a drama, and so on.
What did Dayna Hanson make? According to a recent correspondence: "In spring 2016, I was invited by Xan Aranda to pitch concepts for a dance-driven episode of Room 104. The experience was quick and intense, and happened in phases: After the producers chose the concept that interested them, I wrote a script that gave primacy to narrative, rather than dance. I felt the story had to be watertight. The writing process was iterative, with lots of notes from Mark Duplass and Xan." The episode is titled "Voyeurs."
I asked Megan Griffiths about her involvement in Room 104, and she wrote: "Mark Duplass e-mailed me directly to ask if I'd be interested in directing an episode he had written. I thought the writing was very human and hilarious, and I had been hoping to expand into episodic work for a while, so I leapt at the opportunity. While I was shooting the first episode, he asked if I'd direct another, which was extremely different tonally. I thrive working in different genres and was very grateful for Mark's confidence in me to be able to handle such diverse material."
And what was it like working with the Duplass brothers? "The fantastic team Mark and Jay assembled made me feel very creatively valued throughout," she said. Griffiths directed the episodes "The Missionaries" and "The Fight."
The first episode of Room 104 is "Ralphie," which was directed by a person who has nothing to do with Seattle's film scene (Sarah Adina Smith). But it is not a stretch to consider the Duplass brothers as part of Seattle's film scene.
Room 104 debuts on HBO this Fri., July 28.