Awkward Phase

Room 104 director Mel Eslyn talks Björk buns, Teen Wolf, and cutting class

"I was too much of a punk-ass to listen to any teachers."

Mel Eslyn is an '80s kid through and through.

The producer, writer, and director's easy familiarity with side ponytails and caboodles shines through in the latest season of HBO's genre-mashup anthology, Room 104. Eslyn directed two episodes for Season 4, which airs Fridays at 11 p.m. The fifth episode, "Oh, Harry!" is inspired by the classic family sitcoms of the late '80s and early '90s. Episode 11, "Fur," takes a cue from the tween angst of Judy Blume, following two girls celebrating their last summer before high school.

Her next project, a documentary about activist Ady Barkan's advocacy for universal healthcare titled Not Going Quietly, again sees her team up with longtime collaborators Jay and Mark Duplass. "It's a real rallying cry about how to have a voice in politics," Eslyn says of the project. "So many of us don't know where to begin."

Eslyn spoke with Inverse about being a high-school punk-ass, her love-hate relationship with technology, and her unusual start in the entertainment industry.

What kind of kid were you?

Crazy and imaginative. I lived in my own world and was the star of my own punk rock band in my head. I loved cartoons, like Drak Pack and Gravedale High. In the 80s they played a lot of reruns of those older 70s cartoons. And, of course, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Teen Wolf, Vision Quest. Those were big influences on me. I listened to a lot of Pat Benetar.

What was your favorite band when you were 15?

I would say Nirvana, No Doubt, Garbage. At that age, I was on the cusp of discovering a lot of punk bands. I definitely gravitated towards a lot of lady singers and old '80s hair bands. I guess that’s also been a throughline.

What piece of clothing did you wear way too often in high school?

Oh my god, what were those skate shoes? Airheads? I just remember there was always something that everybody else had. Then I would get it on the day it became uncool.

I was constantly trying to change up styles and find myself. The only consistent thing is that I tightly wound my hair up in those Björk buns, and that I had a camera in my hand, all throughout high school. Everything was filmed. I recently started watching some of that footage. As I was watching, I felt like, I don't remember this kid, but I'm going to love her, and I'm not going to be embarrassed for her. It was a big turning point for me to be able to say “stop being embarrassed of who you were.”

What's your first memory of the internet?

I knew it was around, but I don't really remember it being a part of my life until almost the end of high school. I do remember visiting chat rooms for a second and being like, “this is weird, I’m outta here.” At a very young age, I was sort of repulsed by digital technology and communication. It took me a long time to embrace it, even emails. It was only when the film industry switched over to email call sheets, I realized “I gotta I get into this.”

I still have a love-hate relationship with it. Like, I'm so thankful that I can find information quickly, rather than going to the library and searching through encyclopedias. But I also really miss that. I miss tangible books and talking to people. I mean, thank God for technology now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. But I’m also very nostalgic for that era before the internet kind of taking over, when things could still be cool and unique.

Kevin Nealon, Ron Funches, Erinn Hayes, Jason David, and Sadie Stanley in "Oh, Harry!"Tyler Golden / HBO

What's a truth about love you believed when you were 15?

The thing that shifted my viewpoint of love when I was really young, was when I asked my mom what gay was. She said, “That's just when you like a person who's the same sex as you.” So I realized, “Okay, so that's an option.” And she said, “Yeah, you're gonna just fall in love with somebody one day and it's gonna be male, female, whatever. It's just gonna be love.” So I've definitely navigated love and relationships with that in mind.

What high school teacher did you like the most and why?

Actually, I think my most influential teacher was in fourth grade. For whatever reason, they told me, “You are a writer and I'm going to support you.” Just constantly pushing me to write. That one that always sticks with me. In high school, I was too much of a punk-ass to listen to any teachers.

What do you consider your first professional big break, and why?

I started working on film sets when I was about 15 years old — basically by lying, saying I was 18 and skipping a lot of school. I grew up outside of Milwaukee, and there was actually a lot of stuff happening. It was right during the time of American Movie. So I started putting myself out there.

Meeting Mark Duplass was a big game-changer. Something clicked in us. We made this movie called Your Sister's Sister. That was the turning point for me.

Eslyn, left, behind the scenes with Erinn Hayes during filming "Oh, Harry!" of 'Room 104.'Tyler Golden / HBO

What’s your first professional failure?

There was a film by this amazing director — who we brought in for the first season of Room 104 — Dana Hanson. She had this feature film sitting on the cutting room floor. I wanted to help her finish it, and I believed in it so much. We got into South by [Southwest]. And then nothing happened.

It was such a valuable lesson for me, that you can put your heart and soul into something the world might never see. You’ve got to just be okay with the process at some point. I'm so glad we made that movie, and I'm so glad 104 came along eventually and we were able to have Dana make something else the world will definitely see, because it's on HBO.

What’s your can’t miss prediction for 2030, and why?

I would like to think there would be more kindness, accessibility to diverse voices, and a more representative slate of art that speaks for all the people in it. Maybe 2030 isn't enough time, but I really hope it is. We need to hear new voices and support them.

I'm hoping for a lot of joy and comedy. I'm hoping for 2030 to be as far from the last four years as you could imagine. I don't even know how to discuss 2020 yet.

What would your 15-year-old self say about your latest project?

She would definitely say “fuck yeah.” My whole career is basically me running to keep up with the dreams of my younger self. The art I make is constantly trying to pay tribute to my own nostalgia and calling over my shoulder to my younger self being like, "Don't worry, I got you. I'm gonna make something you're gonna really love.”

Awkward Phase is an Inverse series with interesting people talking about the most relatable period in their life. The interview above has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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