In last week’s episode of “Room 104,” the inventive TV experiment from the Duplass brothers, two baby-faced Mormon missionaries ask “Heavenly Father” for a sign when their faith begins to flag. Feeling discouraged by their failure to persuade a single convert, Noah (Adam Foster) has recently tried coffee, and Joseph (Nat Wolff) zealously guides him back to the light. When they ask for a sign and the TV magically turns on so-called “pornography,” Joseph flip-flops and proposes breaking all the rules as a way to strengthen their faith. When Joseph returns with a six-pack of beer, they throw the tamest all nighter any hotel has ever seen, which to them is incredibly wild and thrilling. Through passing glances and hidden hard-ons, it soon becomes clear they’d like to switch teams in more ways than one.
What unfolds is a funny and sensitive exploration of repressed sexuality, their earnest questioning adding juicy layers to the premise’s natural Duplassian humor. Though physically mature enough to explore their sexuality, their faith has kept them sweetly innocent. Thoughtful, emotional, and instantly relatable, “The Missionaries” is one of the best gay stories of the year. That it was written by Mark Duplass, a self-described “straight, white, Catholic male,” makes it all the more impressive, and offers a model for those like him eager to tell queer stories.
“I am not of the Mormon faith, I am not gay. I am a straight, white, Catholic male, so I’m like twice removed from being an authority on these subjects,” Duplass said to IndieWire. “There’s always a little bit of trepidation of being — ‘Well, why should I tell this story? What makes me qualified to tell this story?’ And the answer was collaborating with people who knew this stuff well.”
For “The Missionaries,” he consulted producer Xan Aranda, an ex-Mormon who raised in the faith, as well as a childhood friend of hers who is still part of the Mormon church. “Just because I’m not an authority on the subject, I can collaborate with people who are, and we can make something that’s relevant,” he said.
Tammy Perez Photographer/ATX Festival
That collaboration process has been eye-opening for the writer/director, who built a reputation on telling stories from his own — albeit unique — perspective. Through working with different sorts of people, he said, “We could invite their energy into my energy and hopefully, quite frankly, keep things relevant and keep things interesting and help me to grow as a storyteller… It really freed me up as a white, straight male filmmaker to do things that I don’t normally do. And that’s what’s firing me up as an artist right now.”
A lot of that freedom is due to the format of the series. Each episode takes place in the same hotel room (the titular “Room 104”), with a new set of characters, and by keeping the budget tiny, Duplass freed himself up to explore new themes. “A lot of my favorite artists, they seem to go on these runs where they’re making really exciting stuff, and then it just stops. And they just start making garbage,” he said.
“Room 104” is part of an effort to stave off that dreaded artistic slump, which Duplass did by inviting other perspectives into the room. Though Duplass wrote many of the episodes, he left the directing to others, and he and his producers pledged to hire at least fifty percent women. “If you just blindly grab at talented people around you in the film industry, you’re gonna grab a white male. That’s what’s gonna happen. Those are the ones who are working, and who have the credit lists, and who the agents put forward,” he said. “But if you literally look for two more seconds and just do one deeper dig, you will find someone who is absolutely as talented, if not more talented, who is an underrepresented voice.”
A natural fit for Duplass, he looked to the indie film community, giving accomplished filmmakers some of their first TV credits. Sundance alums Sarah Adina Smith (“Buster’s Mal Heart”), Megan Griffiths (“Eden”), and So Yong Kim (“Lovesong”) each directed episodes, as well as choreographer Dayna Hanson. Even with decades of filmmaking experience, it can be impossible to get hired in TV without credits, one of the greatest barriers to entry for underrepresented voices of any kind.
For Duplass, the choice between “hiring a truly inspired, 33 year-old, young Sundance director, with no TV credits,” as opposed to “that white dude who’s been directing TV for 35 years, and has like a thousand TV credits, and might be like a little grumpy because he doesn’t have a lot of money on my show and only has three days to shoot an episode? I get the excitement, and the — honestly — gratitude and inspiration of someone like Sarah [Adina Smith]? That’s no choice for me. There’s only one way to go on that front.”
Duplass harbors no illusions about the symbiotic benefit to hiring people with different perspectives. “I’m not looking at this as like, ‘Oh, look at all the good I’m doing by supporting the underrepresented voices,'” he said. “I need that new energy, I need those new perspectives, to keep me from making the same kind of shit I’ve been making for the last 10 to 15 years and then ultimately becoming what I fear, which is that artist who got uninspired and just started blandly franchising himself. This is as selfish as it is altruistic.”
New episodes of “Room 104” air Fridays on HBO.