“Every So Often a Train Would Come Rumbling By and the Set Would Shake”: DP Doug Emmett on Shooting HBO’s Room 104
An octogenarian couple returns to the hotel room where they spent their first night together — it’s a logline that would typically preface an elegiac rumination on love and mortality. But by the time that set-up arrives in the season finale of HBO’s new anthology series Rooms 104, it seems just as likely to give way to horror or violence…or interpretive dance. That’s the joy of the newest Duplass Brothers creation — each episode begins as a blank slate capable of unexpectedly evolving into any genre or tone.
The 12-episode series — which debuted last Friday night — unfolds entirely within the confines of a single hotel room. Each week new guests check in. It could be Mormon missionaries or an aging Croatian tennis pro, a pizza delivery boy or a terrorized babysitter. For Room 104 cinematographer Doug Emmett, it’s a film school exercise writ large — take a location and, through nothing but craft, repeatedly transform the space. A previous Duplass collaborator on The One I Love and Togetherness, Emmett spoke to Filmmaker about his affection for Arri SkyPanels and his new Alexa LUT, cranking out episodes in three days and stepping into the director’s chair for an episode.
Filmmaker: I’m sure, given your job, you have spent an exorbitant amount of time in hotels like the one in Room 104. Was the room based on any place in particular?
Emmett: When I first heard about the project I started pulling all of these references and so did the production designer. But when we went to [executive producer and co-writer] Mark [Duplass] and showed him all of these ideas, he was like “No, I want the room to be as bland as possible.” Mark had been thinking about this idea for many years. He had been collecting stories for this exact show, knowing that someday he would love to do it. So he had a really specific idea about what the room should look like and he wanted it to be very nondescript — a hotel that could be next to any airport in any city in the middle of the country. I think the point Mark was trying to make was that the story isn’t the hotel room — it’s the people that occupy it and how the room means something different to each of them. And then, each day, it resets.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the hotel room set.
Emmett: The dimensions of the room were slightly larger than a standard hotel room, but that was the biggest liberty we took. We had some flyaway walls, but they stayed in for most of the episodes. We pulled them only occasionally. We shot on this super small stage in Atwater, California. We were right next to train tracks and every so often a train would come rumbling by and the set would shake a little bit. I don’t think you actually hear it in the final sound mix, but it was very prevalent while shooting.
The space was so tiny. If you were standing in the hotel room set and looked out the front window you’d see a white cyc that was probably 15 feet away and that’s where we had to keep our camera carts. (laughs) We hid them in fake trees. If the ACs were back there working off the carts, they would be in the shot. It was so tight. We were swimming over each other in there.
Filmmaker: Did the set have a removable ceiling?
Emmett: We had removable ceiling pieces and we had a big soft box that we designed that we could raise and lower overtop the set. It was this cool contraption that we put a bunch of SkyPanel lights into. That was a big workhorse for us. I could use it as a really soft toplight and then bounce that light into people’s faces with a silver showcard. The SkyPanels are amazing because you can do all these lighting cues from a dimmer board. In a matter of minutes you can go from a dreary, late afternoon rainy day to a sunny early morning sunrise to an eerie nighttime. And we needed that speed because we had three days to shoot each episode.
Filmmaker: What’s unique about those Arri SkyPanels compared to other LED lights is that they allow you to dial in not only the color temperature but also specific gels. So you can set the light to, say, 3200°K and then put a Lee Urban Sodium gel effect on top of that.
Emmett: And you don’t lose a whole lot of output either when you do that. The SkyPanels are really a game-changer. I actually went to NYU with the guy who invented them. He and I were competing DPs as underclassmen and would go out for the same projects. We were always friends, but we were competitive. He ended up working for Rosco and then went over to Arriflex and designed the SkyPanel for them. He came by set while we were shooting the show and saw that we had like 16 SkyPanels up in the ceiling, so he was happy.
Filmmaker: Which episode was the hardest to cram into three days?
Emmett: “The Voyeurs” episode [which features two characters essentially performing a ballet in the hotel room], but we actually did that one in four days just because it was so intricate. The lighting cues were really involved and that took a lot of time to design and build.
Filmmaker: What about the episode where the MMA fighters slug it out in the room?
Emmett: That was the other episode that took four days. They cast fighters that were non-actors and they were great to work with. That episode was complicated in the sense that we didn’t want to shoot [each round] of the fight the same way, so we came up with different camera styles for each. For example, one was done in slow motion and another was done in a long unbroken take. In that episode I wanted to light the room like a boxing ring, so that toplight came in handy.
Filmmaker: Which episode was, from a logistical standpoint, easiest to pull off?
Emmett: We did “The Internet,” the episode that I directed, in two days. If you really look at it, it’s just a guy (Karan Soni) talking on the phone with his mom (Poorna Jagannathan). It was generous of Mark to give me a shot at directing and I was pretty excited about it. That was a stressful experience because at first we had cast different actors and one of them had to drop out a few days before we started shooting. We had maybe five days’ notice. Mark had worked with Karan on Safety Not Guaranteed, so we called to see if he was available. He was in town for a few days before he had to leave for another job and he did us a total solid. Mark re-wrote the script and I suggested Poorna to play his mother — she was the mother on The Night Of. She’s not even seen on camera [the entire episode consists of a phone call, with Karan’s character in the hotel room], but she came down and read off-camera lines for Karan. Because our space was so small we actually had her in the catering room. I gave her an earpiece and some props — a cutting board and some celery. There’s a moment where Karan asks her to look for his laptop in her apartment, so I hid the laptop in the catering room so she’d have to get up and look around for it. But I did too good a job hiding it so there was a six minute take of her looking for it (off-camera) while Karan waited. It was like, “OK, just give her the laptop.” (laughs)
Filmmaker: I want to talk specifically about a few of the episodes, but first let’s get into the tools you used on the show. What did you shoot with?
Emmett: We used Alexa Minis with a LUT that my colorist at Technicolor designed. They’d been working for a while on building a LUT that was more filmic and extended the latitude and range of the Alexa. With that LUT there’s very little work that you have to do in post if you’re hitting your exposure. When you compare it to Rec709, it makes the standard Rec709 look like garbage.
For lenses we had the Cooke 5/i’s, which are T1.4 lenses that are huge for spherical lenses. We needed lenses that fast because we were working in a tight, confined space and I wanted to be able to throw things out of focus. Those lenses do really great close focus. To be able to use a 25mm lens as a close-up lens and have the focus fall off was such a fun way to photograph faces. They’re really beautiful lenses.
Filmmaker: What resolution did you shoot at?
Emmett: We actually shot pretty low resolution because production wanted to save money on data. I know it sounds crazy, but we shot 2K. When you’re shooting two cameras and you’re talking about that workflow over an entire season of a television show, the [financial] difference between 2K vs 4K adds up pretty quickly. The biggest fight, actually, wasn’t about resolution. It was for me to shoot the episode I directed [which is set in 1997] in a 4:3 [aspect ratio] instead of 16:9. I guess I was the first person who wanted to shoot 4:3 in like a decade at HBO. There were maybe 10 meetings and phone calls about it and what it came down to was that HBO had a bunch of existing contracts with cable providers that specified everything must be shot 16:9. We kept pushing for it and the producers really went to bat for me and eventually we were able to shoot that episode 4:3. Then I said, “I want to shoot on a really crappy video camera. Maybe I’ll use the DVX 100.” And HBO was like “No! Absolutely not. We’ll give you 4:3, but that’s it.” (laughs) We used uncoated Super Speeds for that episode so everything feels much more flarey and bloomy. Then in the color grade we pushed the look to be warmer with lower contrast and less saturation than the rest of the show. Color grading was fun on this because every episode was like a whole new movie.
Filmmaker: I was able to see screeners for six of the episodes, so let’s talk about a few of them. My personal favorite is the first episode, “Ralphie,” which is pretty much a straight horror story about a babysitter tasked with watching a peculiar kid. It comes out of left field if you only know the Duplass Brothers for their Togetherness/Puffy Chair/Jeff, Who Lives at Home strain of work.
Emmett: We shot that episode later in the season and I was starting to run out of ideas – which was perfect timing because our director for that episode was Sarah Adina Smith and she brought a fresh perspective. We changed out all the practical light bulbs to fluorescent bulbs for that episode and then we made the light that came into the room from the window more greenish yellow so it looked pee-stained and gross. We wanted the room to feel a little dirty. The intent was to create this eerie, unsettled vibe. I’d also never shot a scene where an adult has to choke out a kid before. (laughs) So that was pretty intense.
Filmmaker: Episode three, “The Knockadoo,” finds a cultish religious ceremony taking place in the room. It’s not a horror story, but it has these lush colors out of an Argento or Bava movie.
Emmett: Sarah directed that episode as well and she is the type of director who’s definitely going to come loaded with a ton of references. Suspiria was a big reference for this one — bold, bright colors and a lot of contrast. The lenses were a little bit more on the wide end. We’re not totally grounded in reality in that one.
Filmmaker: During the ceremony the “priest,” played by Orlando Jones, pops in these DVDs featuring Tony Todd (aka Candyman) jamming on a Casio keyboard. Those looked like they would be fun to shoot.
Emmett: Tony Todd was in that same craft service/lunch area I mentioned before, shooting those on the world’s tiniest green screen. My buddy came in to second unit DP that stuff while we were shooting on the hotel room set. Tony was just in there jamming away on that Casio. That was insane. I didn’t even know what was going on over there. I would walk by to grab a snack and there’d be like 50 dildos on a table. (laughs)
Filmmaker: The premise of the show almost sounds like a cinematography assignment you’d get in film school — create multiple looks in a single location just by changing the lighting and camera style.
Emmett: I actually think I did an assignment like that 10 years ago while I was at NYU, but it looked like total crap. Now I’m doing it again on Room 104 and it looks pretty good. After 10 years of practicing my craft I actually know what I’m doing. (laughs)
The biggest challenge of the show was to not replicate shots and to try to be creative and inventive with the camera angles. There’s one episode – “The Missionaries” — where I wanted the camera to never pan or tilt and to just let the actors move in and out of the frame. I tried to limit my tools each episode to force myself to be more creative. Some episodes have a lot of handheld and then others are locked down or have a lot of dolly moves or extreme angles. For “My Love,” the one with the older folks (coming back to the hotel where they spent their first night together), I tried to shoot it as plainly and simply as possible with as little coverage as I could and with the most unobtrusive lighting. I was hoping that every episode would feel like its own distinct little movie.