Steven Soderbergh is by far one of Hollywood’s most unpredictable directors.
Over the course of his 30-year career, Soderbergh has bounced from popcorn flicks (Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike) to Oscar bait (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) to indie darlings (Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Bubble) and to prestige TV (The Knick, Behind the Candelabra).
But it’s not just budget or genre that have defined Soderbergh’s career–it’s his fearless manipulation of standard narratives that has made him such an innovative storyteller. To wit, his latest project Mosaic, a branching narrative app launched this past November with a linear mini-series version that premiered on HBO in January.
“Here’s one thing I know from the history of this planet: You adapt or you die,” Soderbergh says. “I’m somebody who’s never been a snob about where I’m telling a story–a story is a story to me.”
Mosaic follows Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone), a famous children’s book author–and noted cougar–whose mysterious murder rocks a small Utah town. In the app, users watch a chapter and then choose which character’s POV to follow next. There’s also ancillary content like news articles and flashbacks embedded throughout the chapters for added context.
“I wanted the meta-narrative that exists on top of the app to always be present, which is for you to wonder whose supporting character I am?” Soderbergh says. “I bump into somebody, we have a five-minute conversation, obviously from my perspective it was about me and I go on with my afternoon. If you’ve gotten out the other end of this app and really experienced it in a complete way, you become more aware of the subjectivity of all of our experiences, and that we should be mindful of the quality of those interactions.”
In order to get a little more funding for the technical development of the app, Soderbergh struck a deal with HBO to make a six-episode cut of Mosaic, which put him in the unique position of stitching together such a sprawling narrative.
“At first it seemed like one of those things where you forgot that you agreed to go to somebody’s house for dinner and you’re like, ‘Oh, God–is that tonight?'” Soderbergh says. “But then I sat down and realized this is going to be fun because it’s a very different experience to watch something in hour-long pieces. There’s a different kind of engagement that happens.”
The uniqueness of an experience like Mosaic is certainly noteworthy, but is the story any good?
A review in the New York Times called Mosaic “frustrating,” “cold,” and “flat,” which is actually understandable. The visuals are monochromatic and the dialogue is downright plain–but that was entirely Soderbergh’s intention.
“It’s not hip. It’s not trying to be of the moment. It’s very classical, clean storytelling compared to a lot of shows that are buzzy,” Soderbergh says. “It was a very conscious desire on my part for the piece to reflect the rhythms of that place and the people that live in that place. It’s a procedural in which the story plays out in a naturalistic way. I’m curious to see if people lock into that or if they just want something a lot more superficially active with bells and whistles and shit.”
With experimentation, there’s bound to be failures, which Soderbergh readily concedes to with his box office bomb The Good German and his daring, if not dense, meta drama Full Frontal.
“I don’t mind making mistakes and having something fail, I just don’t keep making the same mistake,” Soderbergh says. “It’s trying to be smart about where the intersection is between what you’re interested in and what other people are interested in.”
That said, Soderbergh’s metric for Mosaic‘s success lies mainly in the fact that he was able to pull it off.
“I looked at it like Che,” Soderbergh says of his 2008 biopic of revolutionary guerrilla leader Che Guevara. “Making Che for me, the point was to make it. Because everybody told me I’d never get it made. And everybody told me I definitely wouldn’t get it made in Spanish. And so to me, the fact that it got made was a win. And I felt that way about [Mosaic].”
Soderbergh says he’s working on more projects like Mosaic, and that, ultimately, he’d love to see this type of format catch on with other directors and in other genres.
“I’m really anxious to see what another filmmaker does with this format. I want somebody else to take this ball and run way downfield,” Soderbergh says. “Somebody asked me recently if you were going to do another one what would you do? And I said a comedy. This format is built for comedy because comedy is all about perspectives and intentions being misinterpreted.”
Although Soderbergh is adamant about never allowing format to supersede story (“I’m not a believer in ‘this piece of technology exists, therefore, we should make something with it’–the tool should always be in service of the storyteller”), he’s certainly been emboldened in marrying his style to an app like Mosaic or an experience like shooting his upcoming movie Unsane entirely with an iPhone. Soderbergh is going where his creativity takes him, even if that creativity marginalizes him from where mainstream Hollywood is headed.
“The changes that we’ve witnessed [in the movie industry] have not kept me from working and finding a way to do the things that I want to do, the way that I want to do them,” he says “It’s closed off certain avenues. But it’s also opened up other avenues.”