Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic premieres Jan. 22 on HBO, but the entire story is already out there for public consumption. Mosaic was initially launched in November 2017 as an interactive storytelling app; Users choose a character and follow their journey to piece together the mysterious murder of Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone).
Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon have worked on Mosaic for nearly four years. Soderbergh was invigorated to push current models of storytelling and to explore a show with a “branching narrative” (they detest the phrase “choose your own adventure”) for viewers to explore.
“I’ve never had two versions of the same thing out at the same time, it’s really interesting for me,” Solomon told Mashable. “To me they’re sort of like fraternal twins that were – they have the same genetic material and the same incubation, but they come out of the womb as entirely different humans…so they’re told as stories they’re told in entirely different ways.”
The HBO version is not a recut of footage from the app, but actually a full shot-by-shot rebuild. Solomon suggests watching that first for wary viewers, but to explore Mosaic further in app form.
“If you’re a story geek like I am or really interested in exploring just how malleable events can be when you’re reframing them and telling a story about those events, both could be interesting,” Solomon said. Just don’t jump between the app and the show. “They’re structured so differently that they don’t – they’re not additive in that way. It will actually detract from your experience if you go back and forth.”
Solomon has made a career of complicating traditional storytelling. As a screenwriter, he was behind genre-bending projects like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Men in Black
“Every time I’ve tried to follow rules I think I’ve ended up disappointing myself,” Solomon said. “This required a tremendous amount of pushing and effort because … you had to have all these stories that not only worked as individual stories, but also intertwine so that they made sense from all these different angles. Putting myself through that and coming out the other side of it now has changed the way I write forever, in a positive way.”
Even so, writing something as sprawling as Mosaic, which pushed the creators to contemplate every viewpoint in a given scene or plot line, was a daunting exercise. Solomon likened it to jumping off a cliff – or sinking a game-winning free throw under immense pressure with distractions everywhere. He and Soderbergh only completed their series outline in the summer of 2015, so Solomon found himself writing almost 300 pages in three months. They added another 100 pages after filming started in November, and 150 more during a hiatus between shoots.
“While it was definitely challenging, there was also something very freeing about the way HBO gave Steven and me complete trust, and the way Steven really encouraged me to dig deep and let myself really do my work,” Solomon said. “That was somewhat life-changing for me, especially having been toiling in the screenwriting trenches where what you write gets vetted by a literal committee of people, not all of whom have your same creative interests at heart. And Steven did.”
Solomon is already working on at least two more projects like this and is excited to explore the narrative form further.
“Now that my brain is really thinking in this form, I find it a lot easier to come up with ideas that work for this form from square one,” he said. “I find it fascinating as a story geek, as somebody who’s really interested in how stories are created and told, to have gone through the process of having created five or six or seven different characters points of view, mini individual movies almost for each character, and then having to re-break it again as a story to be told in amore objective sense.”
As a six-episode miniseries, Mosaic works in its linear form and makes a compelling case for exploring its story further on mobile devices.
“To me, the real joys of the app version of it get deeper and more rewarding the further into it you get,” Solomon said. “And in fact, you really need to see several of the lines to fully appreciate the nuance and also the full tapestry – or I guess, for lack of a better word, the full mosaic.”
Though the project has been long and taxing, Solomon said it was easily one of the most fulfilling of his entire three-decade career. He normally hesitates to see his projects become realized and released into the wild, but this one is different.
“No matter what happens with Mosaic, no matter where it lands culturally, if it even lands … I had three of the most amazing creative years of my life and I will always be grateful for that,” he said.