Director Steven Soderbergh’s latest project, the HBO whodunit Mosaic, stars Sharon Stone as a J.K. Rowling–type writer who gets murdered. Who did the deed, and why? As in any classically styled murder mystery, there are many possible suspects, each with their own motive.
But instead of a detective guiding you through the maze, you do it yourself on your wireless device, by navigating a narrative map that includes supplemental information, such as drawings, news articles, and documents. Viewers (or should I say users?) have a fair degree of control over how they access the information. It’s possible, for instance, to allow a four-minute scene to play through without interruption, pause it and go back to an earlier event, jump forward to something that happens later in the timeline, or jump sideways and experience another moment that’s happening simultaneously. Mosaic is being offered in two formats: The app version goes live today and can be downloaded here. There will also be a TV version, debuting in January on HBO, that’s been edited into hour-long episodes.
Vulture spoke to Soderbergh in his lower Manhattan production office about Mosaic and the process and technique behind it. This led into a wide-ranging discussion of the evolution of his directing style, his brief “retirement” from filmmaking, and the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which Soderbergh sees as a watershed moment for show business.
Why this storytelling form? What about it appealed to you?
I guess because it fell somewhere between a movie–slash–TV show and a game. I’m not a gamer. I wanted a fixed universe. I didn’t want your choices to alter the characters’ decisions or paths. But I did want you to be able to choose whose perspective you were in at a designed “choice” moment.
So, for me, it rode this seam between these two mediums. I had the amount of control that I require in telling the story, but at the same time, it was a way to dive deep into fragmentation in a way that I wasn’t really able to do before.
Am I correct in assuming that the murder-mystery element is a way to get people to care in a way they might not if it were a straightforward drama?
Yes, certainly. I watch a lot of true crime on TV. When [Mosaic writer] Ed Solomon and I started talking about this, we agreed that something with a murder in the middle of it felt like the obvious, best choice. So we culled from a couple of different real-life events. We made a list of ideas that we felt we could explore.
What’s the total running time of the story, if you laid it end to end?
If you watched absolutely everything that’s available, all the chapters, all the discoveries, I think it’s a little over seven-and-a-half hours of material.
So it’s like one season of a half-hour cable TV show.
Almost. There’s a fair amount of material that didn’t make the app version that will be in the broadcast linear version that will air on HBO in January. We shot a lot of stuff! In the early versions of the edit, there were a lot more duplicated sequences. You’d follow one person’s path and see a scene, and you’d follow another person’s path and see the same scene, but shot somewhat differently.
It sounds like you’re describing the use of voice in literary fiction.
Exactly. There’s still some of that in what we ended up doing, but there used to be a lot more. What I found was that you had to be very careful about when you did that, to prevent a sense of repetition settling in for the viewer.
Interesting. Was it a matter of giving them the same scene from a different perspective or a different style?
That was a topic of discussion that was ongoing, and I think going forward with other projects in this format, will continued to be debated. Ed and I would talk a lot about, “How different can we make this moment? Are we allowed to change what people said in the scene? Are we allowed to change the attitude of the people in the scene?” I think you can take the idea much further than we did, with the subjectivity of a character’s takeaway of a scene. We have two other projects that we’re developing in which that idea is being pushed a lot further.
Why didn’t you push it further this time?
I think it was a combination of reticence and time. Ed and I both felt that by the time we determined that we probably could do a lot more than we had, it was a little late to start going back and rewriting stuff. I’m really happy with the way the app works and the interface and how it looks and that stuff. But in my mind, in terms of taking advantage of what the format can do, this is a very rough-hewn first run at something that is going to get much more sophisticated and complex.
I guess you have to design it so the viewer can learn who the killer is, regardless of the path that they take, right?
Well, that was another big question we had.
Wait, is there a scenario in which you don’t find out who killed her?
Yes, there was a big debate about that. I didn’t think it would be fair to release the app and have it be possible not to [solve the mystery]. I said, “You can’t not let people know.” We tried to do a little bit of sleight of hand to bury that [possibility], but we had to let it go.
Did you feel more comfortable with Mosaic as an app or a show?
We reached a point where it became clear we needed more money for the tech part of this process, so I proposed to HBO a six-episode, linear broadcast version of Mosaic in exchange for enough money to cover these tech issues, and they said, “Yeah, absolutely.”
I stopped thinking about the broadcast version until we’d finished the app version of the edit, because it took so long for us to finally settle on the structure. Then we finished this thing, and somebody reminded me, “You know, in two weeks you have to turn in the linear version, how’s that coming?” It was like, “Oh, my God!” I’d kind of forgotten about it, or I was in denial about it. I was also concerned that it would feel like … I don’t know, just a less compelling version of the app. But then I started working on it and remembered, “Oh, I had a lot of material that didn’t survive the app edit. That’ll be fun to put that stuff back in.”
Ed Solomon’s got a thing he’s writing now that is incredibly complex. He’s running downfield with this whole app format in a really interesting way. As he’s described it, I don’t know how you make a linear version of Ed’s thing the way he’s laid it out. I just don’t.
Would you even want to? Very few of the things you’ve worked on have been totally linear. Even in your first movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, you’ve got some time shifting. By the time you get to The Limey ten years later, you’re jumping around in time constantly. Isn’t Mosaic the logical culmination of trends that have been developing in your career for nearly 30 years?
Certainly. But remember, while branching narrative has been around for a long time, there were two things that needed to happen before you could do something like Mosaic. One was the technological advances that allow you to experience it the way you should experience it. That means streaming technology advancing to the point where you have this uninterrupted, smooth experience.
I have a couple more questions about the technological and aesthetic aspects. First thing, you’ve got what might be a unique spoiler problem: What’s to stop people who get the app from spoiling it for people who’d rather wait for the TV show?
When you see the TV version, you’ll see how I address that problem.
Okay. Second thing, how is Mosaic not a video game?
I would argue in a very basic way that it’s a completely different thing from a video game. One of the reasons why I think virtual reality, as a narrative format, is never going to go beyond the short-form immersion space is because the bedrock of visual storytelling is the reverse angle. If you can’t look into the eyes of the protagonist, you cannot hold people’s attention for more than 15 minutes. You just can’t. And so, the goal of a game is very different than the goal of being told a story visually. That’s why you don’t have the issue of a reverse angle in a video game, because you don’t need to see yourself playing the game.
There are points on the Mosaic app where two characters are having a conversation, and I know part of what they’re talking about, but there’s another part I’ve never heard of before. Suddenly, there’s a dot on the timeline that says, “Would you like to look at this PDF about this thing they’re discussing?” or “Would you like to watch a flashback or flashforward?” Where did that idea come from?
That all came in pretty late — what we called “discoveries.” It was a way to provide more context for a moment, if you felt like you wanted it. You have the choice of watching that scene or reading that PDF now, or doing it later, or not doing it at all. It’s up to you.
There was some discussion internally about whether it was too distracting.
Obviously, you didn’t think it was.
My attitude was, “Look, we’ve gotten used to watching TV now with three scrolling lines of information at the bottom of the screen all the time. People do not view that stuff the same way that they would have viewed it 20 years ago.”
You’re watching Mosaic while texts and push notifications come in.
Yes. To not acknowledge that when you’re watching something on your phone or iPad that there are other things going on around you is to be in denial. My attitude is, “Well, if they’re going to be distracted by something, let it be me!”
You’re not uncomfortable with that prospect, at least not in the way that some other directors of your generation seem to be.
What, you mean the 21st century?
Yes. You jumped over to video early for somebody of your high profile, and pretty soon you were using it exclusively. And from that point on, you’ve been right on the edge of whatever the available technology is.
I’ve always felt the same way about how things are watched and released, from the Bubble and Girlfriend Experience to this. I’m not the person to try and stick my finger in this particular dike of where technology is taking us as viewers. There are other filmmakers that can and should push back against that, and say, “No, I want to protect this other way of doing it.” I’m just not the person to devote myself to a defense of that, because I don’t care. All I care about is the story and telling the story. I don’t care how people ingest it.
I can’t control that. I can only control the thing I’m making. I try to focus on the stuff that I can control and let go of the other stuff.
If your ultimate satisfaction and validation doesn’t lie in how the audience perceives the thing you’ve made, where does it lie?
In the process.
Meaning what? In the shooting and the editing?
Yeah. In solving a problem. That never gets old. Being on set and trying to figure something out and then seeing it when it reveals itself. You see the next 15 shots in an instant, you know exactly what it needs to be, and you’re in a mad rush to get those 15 shots as quickly as you can — that never gets old.
I guess it’s no coincidence that you’ve made multiple movies about heists.
No, no, no! It’s not. I just stupidly realized while I was doing press for Logan Lucky how obvious the parallels are! Somebody asked me about it, and I was like, “Huh. Well, I grew up in a suburban subdivision of Baton Rouge, nothing would theoretically connect me to heist movies …” Except for the fact that they are absolutely mini versions of making a movie!
Have you talked to HBO about the possibility another season of Mosaic?
We’re developing at least one more. This new one goes a lot deeper. It deals with a group of characters who are constantly on their phones and communicating with each other, and so that component is going to be very central to how information is transmitted. It’s going to be a much more active piece, I think, narratively for the viewer.
What have you learned about your own process over the years? Are there any basic lessons that you can transfer to people reading this?
The one thing that you can transfer is seriousness about process. When I go to speak to a film class, I talk a lot about process. I can’t teach the students how to be artists, but I can teach them how to solve problems — or at least, I can give them a list of questions to ask themselves while they’re trying to solve a problem.
What’s also interesting, given the environment we’re in right now, is that I typically spend the last quarter of whatever talk I’m giving discussing personal character, how to behave, and why there should be some accepted standard of behavior when you interact with people and how you treat people. Particularly when you’re in a position like that of a director, which is an incredibly powerful situation to be in, pregnant with all kinds of opportunity to be abusive.
Can we talk about that? It seems particularly relevant right now.
Well, if you’re in a position of power, you can look at somebody sideways and destroy their week, you know? You need to be sensitive to the kind of power that a director has on a set. What I say to students is, “You can view it as just being self-serving, and I don’t even care if it’s sincere, but I am telling you, if you treat people poorly, that will come back to haunt you. There will be a day where you lose a job to somebody else because of it. I’ve seen it happen.” The reverse is also true. Out of Sight is a watershed movie for me. My career changed dramastically, as they say in Logan Lucky. I got that film because [then-Universal exec] Casey Silver liked me personally and knew that I had a good reputation working with people.
It’s fascinating, the moment we are in right now. In karmic terms, there’s been this incredible redirection of a certain kind of energy that was being put out by a certain person over a series of decades, and it has now collected and focused itself back on that person. It’s been stunning to witness.
It’s not just show business. There’s a movement to expose predators in Washington, the tech sector, academia, media, the recording industry, the theater, Wall Street …
My hope is that it’s a real watershed moment, and that it becomes nearly impossible in the future for people to pull this shit, because it’s clear that there is now a willingness for people to speak. All this pent-up, negative energy, this toxicity, is like one of those manhole covers that blows up in Manhattan every once in a while. I don’t think there’s any going back. I really don’t.
No, I don’t either. It feels like the Catholic Church scandal. Huge.
As social anthropology, it’s fascinating. Not just the events themselves, but the reactions to it and the conversation. It’s really, really, deeply interesting to me.
What about it interests you?
Part of what’s fascinating about the conversation that’s going on, particularly around Harvey, is the extremes of the behavior, and then the impact that he’s had on the movie industry in the last 25 to 30 years. As I was saying to a friend the other day, there aren’t many people who significantly alter the landscape of the movie business twice. Harvey is one of them. The second time, it was not for the reasons that he anticipated! It’s been a real clinic in the duality of human beings, and a very stark example of how certain kinds of impulses, in two different directions, can be intertwined.
There’s an entire spectrum of unacceptable behavior out there, and I feel like everyone is collectively deciding to publicly recognize it as such.
Well, that’s what’s going to be fascinating about what [the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] does going forward. Any form of physical or sexual assault is a very serious matter, potentially a legal matter. But I’m also wondering, what about having some kind of “extreme asshole” clause? I know lots of people who have been abused verbally and psychologically. That’s traumatizing, too. What do we do with that?
Do you believe that in order to make memorable art, you have to be disturbed in some way?
Not at all.
That’s what’s often raised as a defense of Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson, and others.
No, I don’t believe that at all. It takes a lot of energy to be an asshole. The people I admire most just aren’t interested in things that take away from their ability to make stuff. The people I really respect, and that I’ve met who fit this definition, have a sense of grace about them, because they know that there is no evolving and there is no wisdom without humility.
You can’t get better if you behave in a way that shuts people off. You can’t! You don’t have all the ideas necessary to solve something. You don’t! I’m sure if you spoke to Harvey in his heyday and said to him what I just said to you, he would believe that he accomplished all that he had because of the way he behaved.
Meaning, like a bully.
Yes, and I would argue instead, “You’re 50 percent of what you could have been, because of the way you behave.” Ultimately, there is a large group of people who are talented, who you want to be in business with, but who won’t be in business with you. I don’t know how you view that as being your best self, or the best version of your business, but I’m really curious to see going forward what changes.
But that doesn’t have anything to do with Mosaic!
All right, let’s go back to that. Why are you sitting here talking to me? Weren’t you going to abandon filmmaking and become a painter?
Yeah, four years ago.
What happened to that?
The Knick happened. I was a few weeks into my new career — or my new vocation, I should say, knowing that it was going to be several years before I would reach a place where I would want anybody to look at anything I was doing. I was aware that the 10,000 hours required to become just good would take years of steady, applied focus. I was basically ready to do that. I was taking painting lessons from Walton Ford and having a great time learning things, talking to him, and watching him work.
And then I was the first person to get a hold of the script for The Knick and I just … I couldn’t let that pass through my fingers. It’s about everything I’m interested in. Everything. I was the first person to see it. And I thought, “I gotta do this.”
It was remarkable to watch your process on the set of The Knick. Around the mid-to-late ’90s, I remember you gave an interview about how you preferred to stay further away from the actors so as not to impinge on their space. But now, you are right up in their face with the camera. You’re moving around on the set. It’s like you’re another actor in the scene. That’s a drastic change.
I think what I realized was, they’re actors — they can deal with it! When it’s me and I’ve got the camera, they don’t mind that because it’s intimate. That is an evolution that has been ongoing, essentially, to go back to the way I started: a more hands-on experience where the camera is a pen, basically.
I was going to ask if it was a paintbrush, but I guess it’s the same thing.
Yeah, exactly. It is the same thing. That’s what I love about this technology — the ability to do things as quickly as you can think of them. For the actor to come on the set, rehearse, block, go right into shooting, and then not stop until the scene is finished is the ideal way of performing.
I won’t even engage in the digital versus film discussion anymore, other than to say — regardless of what you think it looks like, or what the aesthetic differences are, or pluses and minuses — for somebody who works the way I like to work, I don’t know how you can argue against me having all the footage that I shot that day within an hour of wrap, and being able to edit that night, and knowing instantly what I got or what I didn’t get. When I think of how much better my early work would be if I had that capability, it’s terrifying.
That’s the second time you’ve said that to me! The last line of that piece about The Knick was you holding up your iPhone and saying, “If I had this shit at the beginning of my career, the movies would’ve been a lot better.” You must really think your early work isn’t as good as the stuff you’re doing now.
Yeah. If I were to go back and look at some of the early stuff, I’m sure I would go, “Oh, shit!”
I would argue that it’s different. I think your career has had three major phases so far, and they represent alternate methods of problem solving.
Well, I have to tell myself something like that, otherwise I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. The first three films I made, I didn’t even start editing until I wrapped shooting. That’s just unthinkable to me now!
I came out the other end of The Knick a different filmmaker, I felt. We could never have shot 600 pages of Mosaic without having done The Knick.
There was an athletic component to your direction of The Knick. You were crouching, balancing, contorting your body into odd shapes.
That was the directorial version of CrossFit. I just had so much fun, more so the second year because we’d built the universe. Also, to have a canvas that big was just a blast! You can really go into stuff that, when you’re making a movie, people are going, “You have to cut that, that’s too much of a digression.” A canvas like that is all about character. You just keep going deeper and deeper.
You keep mentioning painting and canvases. Do you paint still?
No, I haven’t painted since I quit taking lessons from Walton. I’ve got a collage I’m working on, but painting is — like I said, I took it seriously enough to know it would not be a casual process. For me, it’s all or nothing. If you’re not going to be serious about something, then don’t do it.
You’re not an artist who thinks that if he masters one thing, he can master anything?
No, I’m not. What’s the great quote? I have it written down somewhere. I think it was probably some Brit. He said, “It’s possibly true that everybody does have a novel in them, and that’s probably a very good place for it.”