The art of telling stories has existed for thousands and thousands of years. The art of telling stories as moving pictures has been around for over a hundred years. In that time, the artform has evolved and changed, with new artists pushing the boundaries of what was possible to reach new heights and break new ground. Given the sheer volume of films, short films, TV shows, limited series, and even video games, one might understandably think it’s nigh impossible to find a genuinely new way to tell a story. But leave it to Steven Soderbergh to do just that.
Mosaic is the secretive HBO project that was first touted as Soderbergh’s “coming out of retirement” movie, but the Ocean’s Eleven filmmaker was quick to correct that Mosaic was not a movie. It wasn’t a TV show either. In fact, it’s a “branching narrative,” utilizing new technology that allows viewers to choose how they experience one story.
Soderbergh developed the tech for Mosaic with producer Casey Silver, but when it came to actually coming up with and writing the story, they turned to Ed Solomon, the screenwriter behind films like Men in Black, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the Now You See Me movies. Solomon jumped at the chance to partner up with Soderbergh and attempt something that had never been attempted before, and the result is a thrilling, twisty, and artful murder mystery set in a quiet ski town starring Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund.
Solomon spent six months outlining the story for Mosaic and another six months actually writing the screenplay, and when more money was needed to make the app available on Android and desktop in addition to iOS, Solomon and Soderbergh were tasked with crafting a linear six-episode limited series cut of Mosaic to air on HBO. That limited series starts airing Monday, January 22nd at 8pm ET on HBO with the other episodes debuting on subsequent nights, culminating with the final two episodes back-to-back on Friday, January 26th at 8pm.
I’ve seen the limited series cut and the app and can personally attest that both are quite different from one another, but are equally a joy to experience. Soderbergh directs the entire thing with the intimacy we’ve come to expect from his work, the performances are phenomenal, and Solomon’s script is rich in character, intrigue, and humor.
With the limited series cut of Mosaic airing on HBO, I recently got the chance to speak with Solomon for an exclusive, extended interview about the project. During the wide-ranging conversation he revealed in great detail the origins of Mosaic, how he and Soderbergh went about plotting out this new kind of storytelling, what they learned along the way, and how the limited series cut differs from the app version of the story. Solomon also teased two additional branching narratives that are in the works.
The full interview is a wildly insightful and candid discussion, and Solomon spares few details in recounting his experience with a project about which he clearly feels passionately. And for good reason, because while it sounds like Mosaic was a bear to actually put together, the final result is well worth the effort.
Check out the full interview below, and check back on Friday night after the finale for Solomon’s spoilery thoughts on how the story’s conclusion was crafted.
How and when did all of this start? When did this idea first come to fruition?
ED SOLOMON: Four years ago the producer Casey Silver and one of his partners at the company that was underlying all of this, Mindsight Media, they called me and said, ‘Do you wanna meet for breakfast?’. I said, ‘Sure,’ and they said, ‘Okay, but you’ve gotta sign an NDA at the breakfast,’ and I was like, ‘What?! These must be really special omelets!’ (laughs). It was because they had been working with Steven on developing this technology that would allow viewers to have a choice, to follow a certain path or another path. They wanted to talk to me about it but they wanted to make sure that I would keep it a secret. So we went to breakfast and they said, ‘We have this technology and we wanna try to develop a short prototype with Steven Soderbergh. Are you interested?’, and I said, ‘Of course I’m interested.’ I love Steven, I’ve loved his work. I like him as a person but we’d never worked together in any depth. And then also the idea to do something fresh and brand new, I couldn’t resist.
So about four years ago, November of 2013 I think, Steven and I started talking and throwing ideas around for this 10-minute film that he was toying with. It was a whole different story than Mosaic, but took place in the lobby of a hotel and you could follow a couple checking in or the people that work in the hotel, and everyone had slightly different stories. It was not an attempt to tell a story it was more an attempt to see if this notion of delivering a story in this fashion would work. So then Steven shot it, and he liked what he had and decided he wanted to do something longer with it. He was in a meeting with Richard Plepler at HBO and showed him the 10-minute prototype, and to Richard’s credit he said, ‘I’m not gonna let you leave the room until you agree to do this with us.’ So HBO took a giant leap. There was no story yet, no idea even, just simply faith in Steven to deliver something at HBO’s quality.
So in the late summer/early fall of 2014, Steven said, ‘Hey I’m thinking about doing a longer version of this, what kind of notions would you think about?’ There are a variety of stories that I’ve always been really interested in telling, and we started working on throwing some ideas around a little bit about this notion that I’d always been playing with in my head, which was what if somebody had to investigate a death and gradually it began to dawn on this person that he or she was potentially culpable in the death? Initially it was a woman character that I was thinking about.
Then we talked and threw some ideas around, and I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months because we were both working on other things, then he called me and said he’d be in town in November, and we met up and he said, ‘Okay HBO wants to do this. Are you interested in writing it?’ and I said, ‘Yeah for sure, 100%. Do you want to go with the story I was talking to you about?’ and he said, ‘Kinda yeah. What I’m interested in is a murder in a small, resort-type town, somewhere where a larger-than-life character, a woman, is murdered and then maybe some time has passed and now we come back to reinvestigate the murder.’ That was kind of his initial notion and I started to sort of riff on it a little bit, then I went away to think about it and the very first text I sent about it was, ‘What if it’s a woman who’s an illustrator who awoke from a dream with an idea for a children’s book, wrote it down in 45 seconds, and then in two weeks illustrated it and it became like Where the Wild Things Are? It was huge, it made her rich, and it made her famous, but she could never get back to that again. And because she came up with it in a dream it was both her idea but also a thing she didn’t have any agency over, it just kind of happened to her, so she never could quite recapture it.’
The reason I was thinking that was he wanted to set this in a ski town, and a lot of these ski towns were old mining towns up in Colorado or Utah, so I thought that was a really interesting theme of stuff bubbling under the surface, and then the thawing ground, and what would happen if she was buried somewhere down in the mountain and in the thaw—in fact my original working title for this was The Thaw—what if in the thaw her hand appears and that reopened this murder? He said, ‘That sounds great, let’s keep going with that.’ So it was built out of the Sharon Stone character, who’s now called Olivia Lake.
In fact the Olivia Lake character was originally called Sharon because we thought the perfect actress to play the part would have been Sharon Stone, and of course it ended up being Sharon. She gives such a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching performance in this. She’s wonderful.