When it came to finding a director for an upcoming episode on the fourth and final season of his HBO anthology series “Room 104,” series creator Mark Duplass didn’t have to look too far. In fact, he only had to look at the existing call sheet to the show’s composer, Julian Wass, and ask if he was up for the task. It only made sense, as the duo had already been at work on the entirely musical installment of the claustrophobic series, which returned July 24. Here’s how Wass—who also previously wrote and directed episodes in the show’s second and third seasons, respectively—learned these new aspects of production on the fly, and how his work as the show’s composer helped him do so.
You’re a composer; how did you come to write and direct on “Room 104”?
It’s a different path than a lot of people take. Mark was really adamant from the get-go that he wanted to do a full-on musical in the room. We had a meeting, me as the composer, I came in to talk about what that could potentially look like. I got called back for another meeting, and when I showed up, it was just me and Mark and we started talking about it and we were taking some notes and Mark wrote this outline. And when he sent it back to me, the episode was “Arnold,” and it said it was written by Mark Duplass and Julian Wass and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I guess I’m writing this with Mark.” It became a function of just wanting the music to be baked in and not so much to tell a story and then add songs. Mark and I wrote all the songs…. I had no assumption I would direct it, but Mark called and he told me he thought I should direct. My initial response was, “That seems like a really bad idea.” Because I hadn’t done that before. But this is kind of part of the “Room 104” ethos, which is giving people a shot to do something they haven’t done before.
I would say the main reason that it works is that the crew and the production, everybody involved, is just so awesome and so welcoming to a new person coming in. Mark basically said, “Because you know this story, you wrote the story with me, you wrote the music, you know what this is supposed to be. If there are things you don’t know, you’ll have collaborators.” I’ve got to tell you, I can be pretty insecure, like many creative people. I had a lot of doubts about this. But when I got to set and we were plotting out the first few shots, I basically was in this position where I was like, “I have to demonstrate how this song goes and how the dance goes.” And then, all of a sudden, I was like, “If someone else was directing this, this would take so much more time. Wow, how do people who don’t write the musical direct the musical?” That seems super hard if you didn’t write the music to actually be directing. It all sort of made sense. And I was like, “I don’t know if anyone else could direct this episode in the time frame we have.”
How does your work as a composer inform your work as a writer and a director?
Right around the same time that Mark and I were starting to write “Arnold” together, my wife, who is a writer-director, her name’s Jenée LaMarque, she wanted to write a “Room 104” with me. And I was sort of like, “Yeah, I’m not a writer yet.” But I think one thing that was really helpful when we went into it was, having scored and been really familiar with the show, I really started to understand how these episodes come together. As a composer, you have an inside track, like, “What about this episode is working really well? What about this episode needs a little help with music?” I started to internalize what I think Mark and [executive producers] Syd [Fleischmann] and Mel [Eslyn] were really wanting to do with the show; not just what kind of stories work well in “104,” but what kinds of plot twists, what kind of emotional beats. From there, when Jenée and I were starting to pitch and write our episode, I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of what an episode not necessarily should feel like, but of these forms that were set in the first season: Is this a thriller-mystery episode? Is it a comedic episode with a lot of twists and turns? I definitely feel that the scoring work I did helped internalize what these episodes feel like. Whether that will help me in my career at large is up for debate, but it’s certainly made me suited to write “Room 104.”
What are the ways you as the composer help tell the story or land a moment? As a composer, I’m always in service of the narrative and the directors and producers of the project. A lot of it comes down to how they want to land it. Sometimes, because of the writing or performance or editing, it lands really subtly and it almost needs no music or something really gentle. And sometimes it requires or is asking for more of an “oomph,” like more of a punctuation. I’m happy to do both. I did this movie “Blue Jay” with Mark that he wrote and acted in with Sarah Paulson, and that’s a score that’s very close to my heart because I didn’t do a lot of punctuation moments. I did a lot of mood-setting, music that really speaks to what the mood feels like. That always feels very fun, to be able to do stuff like that, to be able to create music that’s about the movie, not so much about a scene.
How does your composing work specifically complement or enhance an actor’s performance?
Their performances are always very inspiring, because I end up watching them over and over again. As a composer, I’ve worked with a number of actors on the show because throughout the course of “Room 104” we’ve had a lot of original songs, and a lot of songs that are performed by actors onscreen. One of my favorites was in Season 2, when Michael Shannon played a KGB agent. The director, Liza Johnson, had said she wanted him to rap, but she gave me the names of a bunch of Russian cities and things that she wanted in the song. So I wrote the beat, I wrote the rap, I performed the rap as a recording for him to listen to, which was a super weird experience, to get an email like, “Michael’s listening to your version of this rap song on repeat.” But in a sense, everything that comes to me as the composer—the photography, the editing, and definitely the acting—is very much influential. It’s not necessarily in a concrete way, but I try to do a musical dance with their cadence of speaking and weave in and out and genuinely punctuate. Especially on “Room 104,” which has a lot of gentle movements, it’s not a lot of stabs but it’s a lot of flow and trying to flow in and out of their rhythm as an actor.
“Room 104” is known for its many varied genres; how do you make sure every episode feels like part of the same show but is still distinct?
I’ve noticed that most TV shows I’ve worked on want to create a library, almost. Not a library in that they just reuse the same music; they want to set the tone and go back to, “This is the piece of music we use for this character when they’re doing XYZ”; “This is our emotional set.” I was always thinking that we’d get there on “Room 104,” just because whatever the genre of the episode, there are these touchstone moments. But I found that as we got deeper into Season 2 and 3 and certainly Season 4, I had never found my footing to be straight-up reusing music. In the 48 episodes of “Room 104,” there’s been barely any reuse of music. Almost every episode is scored from scratch. That said, the general sound of it is, I call it “low-fi late-night electronic ambient music,” which is kind of the vibe. Everything gets informed by that.
Now that you’ve done it for “Room 104,” is writing and directing on other projects something you want to do more of?
Absolutely. Even just for Season 4 of “Room 104,” I co-wrote three episodes and we have another musical episode that Mark wrote on his own that I directed. It’s definitely something I’m pursuing right now. I love composing, but I really do love writing, I love that other aspect of creativity, and I love what I’ve been able to do with that.
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