The first thing you should know about Steven Soderbergh’s atmospheric five-night HBO miniseries Mosaic is that there’s an app for that (Rather partake on your desktop? Click here). And if you haven’t already done so, downloading the fun freebie to experience the Emmy- and Oscar-winning director’s wholly fresh take on storytelling, with scriptwriter Ed Solomon (Men in Black), is a splendidly addictive time suck before you get the definitive version of their tale via the mini, which debuts Jan. 22.
The core plot of both app and series is the same: The mysterious murder of cougarish writer Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone, deliciously in her element) unveils a small Utah town’s ugly secrets. But the app allows users to choose their path to the tale’s resolution via characters — played by Mudbound‘s Garrett Hedlund, Frederick Weller (In Plain Sight), Beau Bridges, Jennifer Ferrin (The Knick) and a scene-stealing Devin Ratray — who fascinate them most, digging deeper into plot details via quick breakouts called “discoveries” and retracing paths not taken however they please. You don’t need the app to enjoy the moody mini, but the knowledge accrued in taking the plunge does enrich the tale.
And only one reveals with certainty who actually dunnit.
The heart of the sophisticated character study, Soderbergh explains, is “what happens when your narrative that you’ve built for yourself is destroyed by someone else in a fairly brutal way. Where does all that energy go? How does it get dispersed? How do you reconstruct a narrative of yourself that allows you to go forward?” As each character’s actions ripple outward, Soderbergh says he hopes app users and viewers will “become inoculated by this idea of considering your effect on the people around you — and what those people might be doing when they’re not around you. I view it as a subtle kind of empathy tool.”
One that took years to complete.
Thinking app first, Soderbergh and Solomon crafted a basic premise and timeline, winnowed core characters, then papered giant dry-erase boards with Post-its to craft fully formed narratives for each, figuring out where stories naturally intersected to craft a whole-cloth tale.
“We would follow entire characters through the whole story writing out just every scene that we thought would be interesting in their line,” Soderbergh explains. “Then we would go back to the beginning and start again with another character. Then after we’d done that, then we’d lay it all out and determine where people intersected. It was a little bit of a grind, but not without its fun because it was a new thing for us. The biggest changes really came during the editorial process of the app, because we started out with — when we were writing and shooting — somewhere around 45 chapters.
“The fun part of this was it was the inverse of working on a movie where you’re constantly in the middle of distilling something. In this case, it was literally the opposite. It was me and Ed sitting down and just making lists of everything we could think of to put in it. It was very liberating in a way to be given license to do the exploded view version of a narrative.”
The linear series is minus the app’s intriguing myriad viewpoints but develops a few characters and plot threads to a more satisfying degree. “I had to make a decision when we came to the linear series, ‘Whose scene is this? Who does this scene belong to?’” Soderbergh explains of major moments in the mystery. “That was fun to think about in the situations where I had that opportunity — ‘All right, whose POV am I in here really?’
Soderbergh calls Stone’s Olivia “the sun that everybody’s got to orbit around” and knew he needed a particular sort of woman to fill her mountain-chic shoes. “I’d never met Sharon, so it was arranged that we would meet,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Look, Olivia’s someone who is very polarizing, says what she thinks and doesn’t look back. She’s very aware of the power that she has when she walks into a room and doesn’t hesitate to use it.’ She just started laughing and said, ‘What a shock that you would think of me!’ … If you have a character who is known to be a real force of nature in a certain environment, you need to cast somebody that you believe that. Sharon is one of the few people that has that kind of magnetic quality that still compels people.”
And if Olivia’s bond with her bestie JC, played by Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens, seems effortless, there’s good reason for that, too. “They adored each other,” Soderbergh chuckles of his two actors. “That relationship became real immediately. All they wanted to do was hang out together — and watching them hang out together was hilarious. They’ve become really good friends.”
As for the rest of his cast, Soderbergh gave no one a full version of the twisty script, leaving all but a few guessing whether they were good guy or bad to the bitter end. “I explained to everybody that this was a study in subjectivity and that they should embrace that — that they were all, in essence, the leads in their own movie of this story and they should view it that way and not really worry about what’s going on with anybody else,” Soderbergh says. “They seemed happy … but I’d be curious to know what they were talking about amongst themselves!”
Mosaic > HBO > Jan. 22-26