Sometime around season two of Mad Men, critics started regurgitating the phrase “television is the new novel.” Soon after, it would find its place among overused idioms like “water cooler series.” The locution was meant as a compliment, a nod to the equally retched new “golden age of television.” The comparison is ignorant in its under-appreciation of contemporary television as an art form. It is not a stretch to argue that the best in literature has already been written. The best in TV is being made now, and to levels of artistry that reach beyond the scope of the page. Television is not the new novel. The novel is the old TV.
TV was born anew with The Sopranos, and in the nearly two decades since the seminal HBO series debuted we have seen the form become the preeminent venue for intelligent and, yes, literary storytelling. Streaming services have expanded the breadth and definition of the form.
Sarah Adina Smith is an intriguing voice in that movement. The writer/director of celebrated independent films The Midnight Swim and Buster’s Mal Heart is one of those tasked with helming episodes of Mark and Jay Duplass’s new HBO anthology series Room 104, a seemingly anachronistic form that has found its place in the new TV landscape. Room 104, along with American Horror Story and Black Mirror, attempts to awaken the ghosts of The Twilight Zone in reimagining contemporary storytelling. A conversation with Smith reveals an artist who is wonderfully suited to the new reality of her medium, and one who lacks the pretension and elitism of the literati.
[This interview contains mild spoilers.]
The directors involved in Room 104, as Mark Duplass put it, were “hungrier” than he was. With a young, ambitious group and twelve episodes to make, what was the process like pairing the scripts with the directors?
They sent me “Ralphie” first and I completely fell in love. [Mark and Jay] have this really specific, dark sense of humor that I like a lot, and people don’t necessarily see [it]. They have this other side to them that reminds me of Creep, Patrick Brice’s movie [co-written by and starring Mark Duplass], and “Ralphie” reminds me immediately of that side of their humor. I was really flattered when they asked me. The episodes I directed were manna from heaven in terms of scripts that fit my sensibility. “The Knockadoo” is so weird and twisted and hilarious and specific and strange.
Your two episodes set a darker tone and they align well with The Sirens and Buster’s Mal Heart. Some of the other episodes have a lighter feel. Do you think it was deliberate that you were assigned these particular scripts?
I like to think of the episodes almost like one-act plays. The room is a stage where anything can happen and I think that [the Duplasses] wanted to take a really cool risk and do stories that completely surprise you in terms of tone. I think that was why they wanted to find directors with unique voices. This was a dream for a first TV job for an indie film director. It’s not usually how it happens—that a showrunner is like, “I want you to leave your mark on this and try to be totally unique.” It became a director’s playground, and gave us the chance to have a true creative voice in the process.
Did you know “Ralphie” would end up being the first episode?
No, that was such a delightful surprise. I don’t think they had a real idea of what it was until they finished [shooting all twelve]. It’ll be interesting to see how it rolls out and what expectations will be [for viewers] having seen “Ralphie” first. People should know going into this series that each episode is totally its own thing—it can’t stand on its own, and you almost need a palette cleanser to reset your expectations [after] each episode and allow yourself to be surprised.
I watched “Ralphie” after checking into a really crappy motel in northwestern Massachusetts, so I’m going to have nightmares of the Kent twins [who play Ralphie] for the rest of my life.
Oh my god! I am so happy that that’s the scenario where you got to see these episodes. It couldn’t be more perfect.
It was wonderful but, yeah, it did not make for a good sleep. It made me think that motels and hotels are a kind of staple character in TV and film, and I wonder if in the age of Airbnb, lodging as a trope is in danger of disappearing?
“I like catching moments in cinema where characters mess up.”
Oh, that’s so interesting. Buster’s Mal Heart also takes place in a hotel—an important character. I was drawn to setting it in the ’90s for the reason that you’re describing, which is just that we live in a time where face-to-face interaction has become rare. But I think that’s OK. I’m not the kind of person who is necessarily angry at that kind of change and progress. I think that new stories will come out of this weird new world. We probably need a few more years to process it and reflect on it and figure out what those juicy stories might be. Isolation is definitely the new motif in modern stories.
“Ralphie” and Buster’s Mal Heart both feature characters who confront issues of sanity that lead to the murder of a child. Was it interesting for you to consider such a heinous act from different perspectives?
I never thought of it that way. In Buster, the tragedy is so complex, and whether or not you believe what he really did is subjective…it’s certainly about a mental unraveling. I tend to be drawn to stories about protagonists who can’t really trust their own minds and who are dealing with some sort of mental breakdown. That’s just a really terrifying state, to not know whether you can trust your own judgment of reality. I try to tell stories from a compassionate, empathic point of view rather than judging the character.
When Buster’s drawing on the window and then half-falls off the couch, or when Orlando Jones’s character in “The Knockadoo” steps behind a chair and trips—were these moments in the scripts?
For some reason those are things that I just love about both projects; I like catching moments in cinema where characters mess up and words come out wrong or they trip because for me that’s what life really feels like and there’s a beautiful absurdity to the human condition.
So they weren’t in the scripts?
No, those are beautiful accidents.
Or when Buster’s on the phone with the sex worker and he drops it into a Rubbermaid container and he has to awkwardly continue the call.
That was also just like the most amazing accident. I just feel really lucky those are just given to me by the film gods. It’s my job as the director to create the conditions where accidents like that can happen. I can’t take credit for it, but when I see it on the monitor I feel like that’s the magic right there.
You’ve said you made Buster’s Mal Heart in order to “talk to God in the only way I know how” and later you described it as “an atheist’s prayer.” Could you expand on those ideas of faith in your work?
I feel like cinema can be lots of different things to different people, but for me cinema is a secular equivalent of temple—a shaman by a fire telling a story, people staring into the light and getting lost in that magic together. Filmmakers have this amazing opportunity to try and spark deep, meaningful conversation with other people’s souls. The reason I make art is probably because I don’t have religion. I’ve always struggled to reconcile a cognitive belief in something with yearning for meaning and a feeling of awe. It’s hard for me to say, affirmatively, that I believe in such-and-such deity or this-and-this dogma but I certainly do feel humbled all the time by the grand miracle that is existence. I try my best to just sort of have a conversation with all this beauty that we are privileged to be alive and witness, but also that incredible loneliness in the universe—that incredible void at the end of it all. FL