Interview: Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh bends the rules of TV and movies with ‘Mosaic’ app for HBO

Steven Soderbergh, center, speaks during an event at HBO’s Seattle office this week, with writer Ed Solomon at left, interviewed by GeekWire’s Todd Bishop. At left is the “Story Map” that viewers use to navigate the story in their new app, “Mosaic.” (Photo by FilmMagic for HBO)

Steven Soderbergh, the Academy Award-winning director and groundbreaking filmmaker known for Sex, Lies & Videotape, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich and other iconic films, has been working for three years on his latest project, Mosaic — and he still isn’t quite sure how to describe it.

“We haven’t come up with a word,” he said this week, previewing the app during an appearance at HBO’s Seattle engineering office. “It’s not a film, and it’s not a TV show. It’s kind of its own thing.”

Mosaic is a murder mystery. It stars Sharon Stone as a renowned children’s author, with a cast that includes Paul Reubens, Jennifer Ferrin, Devin Ratray, Frederick Weller, Garrett Hedlund and Beau Bridges. The story unfolds over seven hours and 15 “chapters” in the Mosaic app, available today as a free app for iPhone, iPad and Apple TV, and later for Android.

Presented by media tech company PodOp, Mosaic was developed for HBO by Soderbergh and producer Casey Silver, with writer Ed Solomon.

But here’s the surprise twist: Mosaic allows viewers to choose their own path through the story, presenting them with a choice of two different directions at the end of each episode, or chapter. Viewers will see some of the same scenes multiple times from the perspective of different characters, with each chapter providing new revelations and context for key moments in the story.

Along the way, the app unlocks “Discoveries” — extra pieces of content such as bonus scenes, email exchanges, voicemails, classified government documents and even a fictional newspaper, the Summit Courier-News, where viewers can read articles about key moments in the story. The approach allows for nuanced character development, such as the correction at the end of one article, updating the job title of Ratray’s character from “detective” to “chief detective.”

I watched all seven hours of Mosaic prior to interviewing Soderbergh and Solomon for the HBO event in Seattle this week, and I was quickly hooked on the story and the experience, exploring the Discoveries much as I might seek out information on my own while watching a documentary.

The concept of “branching narratives” is not new in storytelling, but it’s unprecedented for a filmmaker with Soderbergh’s credentials to devote three years to the concept. He hopes others will now attempt similar projects to further advance this emerging medium.

Writer Ed Solomon (L) and Director and Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh speak during an exclusive first look at interactive storytelling app Mosaic from HBO and PodOp on November 6, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by FilmMagic for HBO)

Soderbergh and Solomon are already working on new projects in this vein, but Soderbergh said he hopes to learn from others, as well. “I view this as an open-source format that is there to be taken by the filmmaker and rebuilt and made to work in a new way,” Soderbergh said.

Mosiac is not a “Choose Your Own Adventure,” at least not in the classic form of that genre, where the choices made by readers determine the outcome of the story. Instead, the choices made by viewers of Mosaic determine how they experience the story. The paths differ for each viewer, but the destination is the same.

The plot of Mosaic includes a metaphor for the experience, a “Story Walk” on the Summit, Utah, estate of Stone’s character, Olivia Lake, where the children’s author lets visitors choose their own path to experience her story, “Whose Woods These Are,” which features the dual perspectives of a hunter and a bear.

“It’s a circle — they both end up at the same place,” explains Hedlund’s character, Joel, talking with Ferrin’s character, Petra, as they stand on the property.

Writer Ed Solomon with the ‘Mosaic’ storyboard. (HBO Photo / Claudette Barius.)

The Mosaic team worked closely with software developers on the project from the start, but the focus on storytelling remained central to the project, said Solomon, the writer, producer and director known for films including Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Charlie’s Angels and Men in Black, in addition to writing for TV series such as It’s Gary Shandling’s Show and Laverne & Shirley.

Solomon explained, “One of the very first conversations we had about this was, ‘Let’s not get in love with the tech. Let’s build it from story and character first, and let’s work in sync with the tech people so that we’re making this as organic as we can make it and not fall in love with the physics of it or the mechanics of it first.’ ”

A scene from Mosaic with Garrett Hedlund on iPad, including the option to access “Discoveries” via the lightning icon at lower right, or to access the “Story Map” via upper left. (HBO Image)

Film aficionados will notice many of the hallmarks of Soderbergh’s filmmaking, including the use of jump cuts and montages to advance the story. Soderbergh is also known for multifaceted stories, such as Traffic, where he used a different style of filmmaking for each story line to help viewers distinguish among them and track the plot. In the case of Mosaic, the interactive Story Map serves that purpose.

It might seem risky to let viewers choose their own path through the story, but Soderbergh and Solomon call the format liberating. When making a movie for a studio, Soderbergh said, the script will come in long and the natural response will be, “Cut all that stuff. It’s not interesting. It’s a digression. Nobody cares.”

Mosaic flips that on its head.

“This is the opportunity to dive as deep as you want on to every character and every story point, and it’s not fat. It’s all muscle in this format,” Soderbergh said. “So that’s what was exciting to me. I’m interested in the subjectivity of an experience, and this, for me, is the ultimate format to explore that.”

But for a filmmaker accustomed to shooting for giant movie screens, doesn’t it bother Soderbergh that some people will be experiencing his latest project on a 5.5-inch display, or even smaller? Not at all, he said, explaining that he doesn’t agree with people who view these new formats as the death of cinema.

“Cinema is not about format and it’s not about venue. Cinema is an approach. Cinema is a state of mind on the part of the filmmaker,” he said. “I’ve seen commercials that have cinema in them, and I’ve seen Oscar-winning movies that don’t. I’m fine with this. This is where we are now, and the fact that this technology is now available to me to lay a story out this way, for me it’s really exciting.”

(L-R) Director and Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, HBO Films President Len Amato, Senior Vice President Development and Production HBO Films Tara Grace, Writer Ed Solomon and Executive Producer Casey Silver at HBO’s Seattle office on November 6, 2017. (Photo by FilmMagic for HBO)

Mosaic is available starting today as a free app for Apple’s iOS and tvOS, with an Android app to follow. It’s also scheduled to appear as a more traditional six-part HBO series in January.