Mel Elsyn has been one of the driving forces behind HBO’s Room 104. In season four of the show, she is directing two of the most unique episodes in the history of the series. Recently, the writer, director, and president of Duplass Brothers Productions spoke with AIPT about Room 104 and what the future holds.
AIPT: You’ve been a writer and director in every season of Room 104. This season brings some particularly experimental episodes with “Oh Harry!” and “Fur”. What was your inspiration for these stories?
Mel Eslyn: “Oh Harry!” definitely came from a love of the sitcom format and multi-cams. I grew up watching Wings and Cheers and Night Court and had just fallen in love with that pattern and the comedic pacing of a sitcom.
And then I had worked with Mark Duplass and I made a film with Ray Romano and I think it was just being around Ray and his energy. And it was like right after that, that we were starting to talk about season four that it was just this easy, oh cool, I want to do a multi-cam in the room and live out my fantasy of running a sitcom.
And then “Fur” was two ideas where I’d always wanted to do a werewolf story, which was a take on puberty, I guess. And then I wanted to do an animated episode and so I just kind of married them. And it was really me kind of writing a love letter to the little girls in my life. I wanted to give them a fun, empowering story and kind of also giving that to myself, I guess, and the story that my younger self would have wanted and craved. And so that’s really where that started from.
AIPT: You mentioned working with Ray Romano and your love of sitcoms. Was there a particular sitcom you were drawing from for “Oh Harry!”?
Eslyn: Definitely. It’s so funny, I had never really watched Everybody Loves Raymond. And then after working with Ray, I started watching it and that was a big inspiration. I would say Everybody Loves Raymond and honestly, Home Improvement. I watched a lot of Home Improvement back in the day. So I think that Ray was a big inspiration for Harry and I think the family of Home Improvement was a big inspiration for that family dynamic.
And then Wings more than anything I just feel was one of the best sitcoms and use of a space. And Cheers too obviously, but I think Wings was the thing that I watched every episode before making this. I went through it all again.
So all of those, and then I think there’s a title sequence in there and the instructions I had given for the title sequence was, I think in the script that read it’s going to be a title sequence that sets up the backstory, think Perfect Strangers backstory title sequence, and the style of Home Improvement.
AIPT: That’s cool. It was just growing up, watching sitcoms, I thought it was really interesting. All the sitcom tropes that were thrown in there and the opening sequence, it was all really neat.
Eslyn: Yeah. It was really fun to make.
AIPT: The tone in this episode does veer from comedy to drama with a touch of terror. And Kevin Nealon is so good in his depiction of Harry. I was wondering what made you decide on Nealon for the role?
Eslyn: I’ve always thought of him as comedy gold. There was this question of, with this episode, do we cast somebody like Ray or somebody like Tim Allen who is so, like that quintessential, they have already a sitcom dad character that they are known for.
And that was my first thought. And then I’m like, no, I actually want to go with somebody who I know can do the sitcom format, but maybe hasn’t had that role yet. Or is somebody where you’re like, of course, why didn’t we think of him for that role? He’s perfect. And I think, when I was first going through the list and I thought of Kevin, I was like, Oh my God, of course. Absolutely. And had loved him in Hans and Franz and SNL, as a kid. And so I send it to him and he literally, I think that day said yes, which was bonkers to me that I got him.
AIPT: “Fur” is not only animated, but it’s also set in the eighties and I wanted to ask you why the eighties?
Eslyn: I think part of that comes from, I was born in the early eighties and so my viewing of life and what adulthood would be like, is always through the view of the eighties because as I was growing up, I’m like this is what adulthood looks like, because I’m seeing eighties. So it was definitely just me having a love of nostalgia for my own childhood. But I think more than anything, probably subconsciously there was a bit of a statement I was trying to make too, that was tied into the story.
Part of that was, there was this hybrid even with the form of animation that was kind of old school versus new school animation. And then setting it in the eighties was a statement to basically say that things really haven’t changed. There’s still the creeps of the world out there that we’re all having to deal with, but there’s also this amazing power inside all of us. And there’s this peer pressure we all have to deal with.
And that was in the eighties. That was in the nineties. That’s still now. So I think that is, for all those reasons, I’ve set it in the eighties. And also because the eighties are just cool and I wanted to do callbacks to things like the three different color of socks lined up and Walkmans and all of that.
AIPT: “Fur” does take on a fantastic dynamic, but I found the characters to be extremely relatable probably from being a child in the eighties myself. Did you draw from your own adolescent experiences?
Eslyn: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, definitely. It was myself and also seeing all the kids in my life, and just seeing them navigating this big, scary world and remembering what that felt like myself to be like, I feel really powerful inside, but everything on the outside is super scary. And how do I navigate that? And what’s okay? And that was definitely all pulled from my own experiences. And just would do stupid things, be like let’s have a night out and we’re going to pretend to be adults and trying to grow up way too quick. And phone books, remember those, looking up the boy or girl you liked in the phone book and calling them. I mean, all of that was just pulled from either what I experienced or what I had wanted to experience at that time.
AIPT: Yeah, it was very, almost cringe inducing because, oh my gosh, that’s way too reminiscent of real life for me.
Eslyn: Yeah. Oh my God. The yucky Brett Kavanaugh like character.
AIPT: What was it like working with animation and have you worked with animation in other projects?
Eslyn: Only minimally as a producer through Duplass brothers, but this was my first time really being in there, every step of the way directing animation. This episode was hard. We do everything as a team, but animation was a little bit like, my core team being like “Sorry.” My DP was like “I can’t be there with you,” so as we get it going on with a whole new team of animators, which was amazing. And we had people from, we had somebody in Mexico City, somebody in Montreal and it was all over the world and this team coming together, which was amazing and fascinating. But I also naively thought that animation would be the easiest of my episodes. And it was absolutely the hardest and most time intensive. And it went on forever, but I loved it. Who knew animation was a lot of work.
AIPT: And what do you hope is the audience’s biggest takeaway from “Oh Harry!” and “Fur”?
Eslyn: I hadn’t really thought about a takeaway for “Oh Harry!” other than just being playful with yourself and form, and also not forgetting to comment on, I don’t know. Sitcoms were amazing and funny. And then also, when you watch them now, you’re like, this is so out of time and dated. And I think having a bit of reflection on the things that we remember so lovingly and are so nostalgic about, sometimes we go back and we revisit them and they’re a little bit scary and they’re actually not as lovely as we may have remembered. And so I think just kind of like taking those memories and shifting them a little bit to the side, seeing them from another view, with “Oh Harry!” that was kind of the aim there.
And then “Fur” was definitely way more of me trying to, again, give this love letter to young girls and any young people, giving them the sense of empowerment and fun, because knowing at day’s end it’s all about finding this true fierceness inside of you and how lovely and rad and bad-ass that can be, and just kind of embracing that and not being afraid of the scary monster that you think is inside of you, is actually a really cool thing.
AIPT: I really do like the sisterhood of the story too. I thought it was a really neat metaphor for growing up. And that’s great. I wanted to ask you though, all of Room 104’s episodes, they’re all so strange ranging from lighthearted and hopeful to intense and terrifying. For you as a writer and director, which aspects of Room 104 draw you in the most?
Eslyn: I think it definitely is the writing part of the whole process. Whether it’s me writing or helping to facilitate another writer or being part of the writer’s room. I think the fun and the exciting part is exploring the different ways we can kind of mess with the room, mess with the form, try different things, stretch the rules. That’s really where it comes from. I think that excitement and that love and what has kept us going is that opportunity that the room presents itself. And then it is really interesting and kind of lovely to be able to just go to the same place, the same room every day and the same team and be like, cool, we’re doing something different, but it’s all very familiar.
AIPT: Are you working on any upcoming projects?
Eslyn: Yeah. I mean, me running Duplass means I’m working on like 70 million. There’s so much that we have going on, which is really great and exciting. I think one thing that I haven’t done is direct my own feature film. So that’s definitely coming down the pipeline for me. Taking time to do that. And then we’ve got this really great documentary coming out that we executive produced with Bradley Whitford. That’s about the activist Ady Barkan, who has ALS and has been fighting for universal healthcare and giving his voice to people and really encouraging everybody to speak their mind politically in this really different way for somebody who has actually lost his physical voice, he’s being very vocal. So that’s called Not Going Quietly and that’s going to be coming out soon. So I’m really excited about that. Lots of things coming from Duplass brothers and myself, so very excited to share more soon.