Few auteurs push the cinematic envelope like Steven Soderbergh.
Having helped initiate the modern Amerindie movement (and put Miramax on the map) with his 1989 debut sex, lies and videotape, the 55-year-old filmmaker has spent the past three decades working in a multitude of modes, from Oscar-winning dramas (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) and big-budget crowd-pleasers (Ocean’s Eleven, Contagion) to stylish crime sagas (Out of Sight, The Limey) and idiosyncratic efforts (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience).
It’s his latest work, however, that may be his most risky and experimental yet: Mosaic, a murder-mystery that can be watched in linear fashion on HBO beginning Jan. 22, or experienced in a far more interactive way via a free iOS and Android app.
Mosaic is yet another sterling expedition to the technological frontier for Soderbergh, a whodunit (starring Sharon Stone, Garrett Hedlund, Beau Bridges, and Paul Reubens) that, on a smartphone, employs a branching narrative to provide multiple perspectives on its twisty-turny action. Developed over years with writer Ed Solomon, the end result is a thrillingly novel approach to recognizable genre material, and further confirmation that Soderbergh continues to operate at multiple mediums’ forefront.
On the eve of the show’s cable-TV debut, we sat down with the pioneering artist for an in-depth chat about a wide variety of topics, including Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood’s sexual-misconduct scandals, the creative and logistical hurdles he faced in bringing Mosaic to both handheld and TV screens, and much more.
sex, lies and videotape was integral to the early success of Miramax, which also released 1991’s Kafka. What do you make of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and the sexual-misconduct stories that have subsequently materialized?
Well, the good news is, I think that shit’s over. That behavior is done. And it’s one of those things you see in society occasionally, where there’s something that needs to change and everybody knows it and yet it never changes until very suddenly it does. This is one of those. It’s a completely new landscape now. That’s the good news.
It’ll be interesting to see where the new equilibrium ends up, and whether or not this will expand beyond gender-driven harassment into a more general discussion about people who are assholes. Because there are plenty around. After this takes a shape that seems like it’s going to settle in, I’d love to see a discussion just about abusive behavior in general that has nothing to do with sexual harassment, but just bad behavior.
Was conduct like Harvey’s (and the rest of those accused) something that was whispered about when you were working with Miramax back in the late ‘80s?
My experience with Miramax in those early days was that they bought two films of mine when they were finished. So obviously I knew Harvey and knew of his professional personality, which was volatile. Anthony Minghella described him to me once by saying, “He’s like a bull. If he’s running alongside you, it can be very exhilarating. When he’s running at you, it can be terrifying.” That was, I thought, a pretty good description.
I didn’t really have any sense of the other stuff. But to be honest, I’ve never participated in the sort of social part of the business [laughs]. I’m very work-oriented, so I’m not going out a lot, I’m not talking to people, I’m not trafficking in the kinds of conversations in which this subject would come up. So when these things started dropping, I was, like a lot of people I’m sure, pretty stunned at the breadth and the depth of what was being described.
On the Ocean’s Trilogy, you worked with Casey Affleck, who’s also been the subject of sexual misconduct allegations. In this new environment, do you feel like you have to be more aware of your collaborators’ pasts—or wind up facing a situation like All the Money in the World?
I’m sure that’s going to happen. My fear is that, men being men, going forward, as opposed to changing their behavior, they’re just going to stop hiring women.
In terms of filmmakers, or studios?
In everything. In every business, in every part of the culture. Like I said, knowing men as I do, I think for a lot of them, that’s going to be their initial reaction, as opposed to a reassessment of how they’ve behaved. It’ll just be: let’s not hire women, because, you know, they talk.
But over time, that’ll be a bad play. Because diversity wins in all of these situations. If you become a company that, for instance, decides—tacitly or explicitly—to hire fewer women because you don’t want any problems, you’re going to get beat by other companies who do continue to hire women, because they’re going to have a better result. Again, it’s very early days. And I think the intensity of it is the result of many, many, many years of pent-up frustration coming out. That’s why it feels so all-encompassing. There’s just been this pressure that’s finally being released. If you step back and look at it from a sort of social-anthropology point of view, I find it fascinating.
It’s amazing how fast it’s happened.
We’re not even six months into this. It feels like a long time, because every day there’s a new iteration that gets tossed out and chewed on and rebuilt. But it wasn’t that long ago. It’s shocking how recently this all began.
Your career has frequently been driven by a desire to try new things—narratively, formally, technologically—and Mosaic feels like an extension of that artistic impulse. How did it come about?
Branching narratives have been around forever. What happened was [producer] Casey Silver came to me in the summer of 2012 and said, “Look, I’m part of a small group of people who own a little bit of IP and a couple of patents on a very basic technology that was being worked on in the early 2000s. We’re interested in trying to expand on what that might turn into. Do you want to be a part of this conversation?” And I said, sure.
We met and I looked at what they had, and immediately started pulling it more in the direction of where we ended up with Mosaic. Some of the things that were in their documents were useful, and then there was a whole aspect of it that I thought had to be created from scratch, in terms of how the viewer would engage with the piece. I wasn’t a gamer ever, really. Some of the interactive things I’d experienced were, I felt, unsatisfying. So slowly, I was forced to start defining what would please me, and as is often the case in any project, you begin by defining what you don’t want it to be, until you’re left with what it has to be.
That’s how we started the discussions. Then gradually, this morphed into, well, if we’re going to go out and have somebody finance this, we have to make a prototype. So we created a little fifteen-minute thing that had four branches in it. It wasn’t as sophisticated technically as Mosaic ended up being, but you could look at it and get it. Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo saw it and immediately said, “You’re not leaving the room until we have a deal to do one of these things.” They instantly saw the implications and potential of it, even in that very simple form.
Were there any core creative issues you had to grapple with at the outset?
There’s a big difference between the experience of a game and the experience of a story, and it has to do with, I think, agency: what sort of role the viewer has in the experience, and what parts of your brain light up when you’re playing a game versus being told a story. I was trying to ride a seam of engagement in which these choices were additive as opposed to distracting or annoying or distancing. I think we finally found a way to present these opportunities for the viewer in a way that’s fun and doesn’t feel like you’re being kicked out of it. That was my big concern, that every time they have a choice, will people just feel booted off the rails?
One of the simple ways to keep them immersed was this idea that the choices existed in a three-dimensional space within the last scene of the chapter—so that you’d pan over or pull back, and they’d be there [on-screen]. That was just a little thing to keep you in the physical universe of the story.
Then we began a discussion about what kind of story would lend itself to this format. I watch a lot of true crime, so I thought, why don’t we head in that direction. It was just a lot of trial-and-error—a mountain of work, obviously, for Ed [Solomon, Mosaic’s writer]. The biggest things we learned, I think—partially in the shooting, but mostly in the editorial process—was that we began from a place that was too complicated. There used to be forty-five chapters, and what we realized was that the choices were coming too fast. That was the biggest thing we learned from testing and from subjecting our friends and families to the early versions of the edit. We weren’t giving them enough time to lock into the characters and the narrative before they were given a choice, so the choices didn’t really have stakes. We ended up literally reducing the number of choices by two-thirds, and having longer runs of narrative. That’s when it started to work better.
Did you discover any unexpected creative possibilities once you began filming?
While we were shooting, Ed and I realized there were some opportunities that were not being taken advantage of on our part. Namely, to widen the subjectivity of a character’s experience within a common scene that would appear in multiple chapters. We decided, for the purposes of this project, that we wouldn’t stray too far from a central reality that was shared by whoever was in that scene. But we made a note to ourselves going forward that you could really push that to an extreme, and in fact make that the entire point of a project.
But it seemed like for the purposes of Mosaic, in which certain facts need to be constant, that we couldn’t have scenes in which people’s perspectives on it were so wildly divergent that it pulled you out of the story—because you’d be like, wait, if that really happened that way, then that doesn’t track with this thing that happens later, and so on. We were trying to be careful.
I was very aware that this was the cave painting of this format. I was trying to keep it simple, and I’m very anxious to see what another filmmaker is going to do with this. I think there’s so much to be done. We have two other projects that we’re developing that are already much more complex than Mosaic in terms of storytelling, and much more ambitious in terms of scale. I’m really anxious for a filmmaker, looking at Mosaic, to say, “Oh, well I can take this ball thirty yards downfield.”
It sounds like the HBO version came after the app. Was that primarily created for funding purposes?
Yeah. I needed more money for the tech. Not for the production. As I kept making requests for it to be able to do certain things or to look a certain way, and as we began to discuss how to address the various platforms this was going to have to live on—this was before we started shooting—I realized that we had to figure out how to get more money. So I went to HBO and said, “Is there any value to you in a six-hour episodic version that you could broadcast.” And they said, “Yeah, that’d be great.”
Before we even started shooting, I knew that [the HBO cut] was coming, and had it in the back of my mind. But I needed to finish the app first, because there was so much tech to take place after I delivered my “app cut.” Then I had to sit down and look at the linear cut and think about how I wanted to approach that. Initially, I’d sort of been in denial about it, in the sense that it took so long to lock the app cut, when that was done, our post-supervisor reminded me, “You know, in three weeks, you have to turn in the other.” I was like, “Oh god.”
Would you like people to experience one before the other?
I don’t think it really matters. It’s so hard for me to imagine that. I can’t not see what I’ve seen. I think some people will take the knee-jerk reaction and go, “Oh, the linear cut is just a diminished version of the app cut.” I don’t think that’s true. I was so happy that HBO agreed to this, because it was my idea: we air on consecutive nights, with a double-episode on the final night. I think if you choose to watch the show that way, I think your experience is going to have its own qualities that would be impossible to get from the app. So I walked away going, they’re legitimately different animals. But again, we’ll see when this all shakes out.
Was part of your motivation that, with people now so connected to their handheld screens, works need to engage with that reality?
Regardless of the age of the people who are shackled to their devices, the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people who are shackled to these devices. I did like the idea of creating something that is designed to be experienced on one of those devices, as opposed to being diminished. A lot of people are like, “Oh my god, somebody’s watching my movie on a phone.” And I was like, “Well, it’d be great to make something where you go, no, I want you to watch it on your phone—that’s the whole point!” I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to capture millennials” [laughs]. This technology is everywhere, and so as a storyteller, why wouldn’t you be intrigued by a format that’s designed to start there? You can’t ignore that this is how people consume a lot of content now, so why not lean into that and say, well, let’s make something for that?
How logistically difficult was it to construct Mosaic, especially with regards to shooting scenes from multiple perspectives?
If I had a scene that appeared multiple times in various chapters, I would just go, okay, I’m going to shoot this scene like it belongs to Nate. We’d finish that, and we’d reset, and then I’d go, okay, now I’m going to shoot the scene as if it belonged to Joel. Then we’d do that. From a directorial standpoint, it was a clinic in what it really means to present a scene from somebody’s perspective, and what you emphasize and deemphasize. What your shot selections are in order to create the feeling of ownership of one character of a scene. The problem was, some of these scenes were not short, and I’m used to working on the fly, figuring out how we’re going to do something. I’m not used to doing that two more times [laughs]. Sometimes, you’d have to take a really deep breath before the third one and go, okay, now what?
Mosaic feels like an attempt at 360-degree storytelling, where you’re really aiming for a more comprehensive view of the drama.
In a weird way, I wondered if this would function as a kind of stealth empathy tool. Because I don’t know how you come out of the experience of the app without really understanding the degree to which our personal perspectives drive our view of the world. I like this idea that there could be this vaccination that takes place after you’ve experienced the app, of wondering every time you engage with somebody—whether it’s a friend or just a casual encounter—what they were doing before they collided with you, and what they’re doing afterwards, and whether your interaction with them had some effect on them going forward, and what that might be.
I always think it’s a good thing for people to imagine other people’s experience, and so I wonder if there’s any way to put someone in an FMRI and find out if the empathy part of the brain gets lit up. That was the takeaway that I had: that suddenly the universe, instead of extending two feet in every direction—which is our normal way of being—would expand a little bit, and have you walk around going, wow, I wonder what all these people’s personal narratives are like, and where do I fit into their narrative.
You mentioned video games earlier, and the one element of Mosaic that felt most game-y were the Discoveries, and how they flesh out the main narrative. Was that where games really factored into the show’s equation?
That came in very late, and was a proposal from the tech team. One of the fun things about this project was the technical and filmmaking teams were not divided in any way; these were not siloed groups. We were all together; we were in the same room. So it was a very fluid conversation in which they would make comments on story or they might propose a piece of tech—this being one of them. I think there was a reticence before they proposed it out loud because they thought, “Oh, Steven’s going to hate this.” This thing that pops up and slides over on-screen, they thought I was going to think it was really distracting. And when they described it to me, I went, “No, I love it.”
I know you’ve recently been attached to a Panama Papers-related film. Having now done Mosaic, do you feel driven to return to more straightforward material?
It certainly makes you appreciate the legitimacy and power of a straightforward narrative. That is never going to go away—there are certain types of stories that will always be best told that way. That being said, I think there are certain kinds of stories that could also really benefit from this exploded-view approach. What’s clear is you obviously have to design these things a certain way from word one. I’m excited about the other two that we’re developing simply because, as I said, there’s a lot of institutional knowledge that I think was gained from having gone through it that you can see in these other two projects. I’m happy that it’s evolving, already. The idea of going back and doing another one—I want to wait and see what the others turn out to be. It would also have to be different. Neither of the two things that we’re developing are comedies, and I think there’s huge comic potential in this format. I really do. So if you forced me right now to do another one, I’d say it’s going to be a comedy.
Because comedy is all about perspective—and especially perspectives that are wrong. I just think there’s gigantic potential here to do something really, really funny.
Is the Panama Papers film going forward?
We’re making noises like this is something that would be shot this fall. So yeah, we’re moving forward. Scott Burns wrote the screenplay, and it’s great. I think it’ll surprise people; it’s not at all what you would expect of a movie that’s based on the Panama Papers. When Scott pitched it to me, verbally, I said, “That’s fantastic.” It’s shockingly entertaining. Let’s put it this way: there are no journalists in it.
Did you feel like you needed an unconventional approach to the story?
The question everyone has when they read about the Panama Papers is: that’s really interesting, but how does that affect me or anybody I know? What the film does in a really ingenious way is to show you exactly how a normal person, who doesn’t even know that these kinds of activities exist, is affected.
A micro view on a macro subject.
I’d say it’s more kaleidoscopic. But I think [Scott] unlocked it. Because my fear was, I didn’t want to make a movie about a bunch of journalists trying to publish a story. It’s been done; it’s not interesting to me. I said to Scott, we need a movie idea—the kind of thing only movies can do. He came back a week later and said, “What about this?” And I said, “That’s perfect.”
I know a lot was made about your retirement, which didn’t really happen…
No. There were a couple of months where it was really legit—I had nothing in development, I had nothing going on. I was taking painting lessons. It wasn’t a joke. It’s just The Knick showed up, and I just couldn’t let that one keep walking down the street. It was about everything I’m interested in, literally.
I think The Knick is as good as anything you’ve ever done.
I do too. I had so much fun doing it. Everything about it excited me, and it was a blast to make. So yeah, when I told my wife that not only am I no longer on sabbatical, but in four months, I’m going to start shooting ten hours of television, she said, “If that makes you happy, you should do it.”
She probably wasn’t too surprised, knowing you.
No. At least it was in New York, so I was home. It was just too exciting to pass up.
Ocean’s 8 comes out this summer, which you didn’t direct. What was your role with it?
It was Gary Ross’ idea. Gary came to me with the basic premise, I said that’s a really good idea, let’s go talk to Jerry Weintraub. So we went and talked to Jerry, and Jerry said that’s a really good idea, let’s go talk to Sandy [Bullock]. So we went and talked to Sandy, and Sandy said that’s a really good idea, let’s go [laughs].
It was Gary’s idea, and he and Olivia Milch wrote the script, and it is a really good idea, and we’re not finished-finished, but I’m happy with it. I think it’s the very-good version of a reboot. Seeing this particular group of women share a frame is exciting. It’s cool. The movie is smart and fun, and I think people are going to be really satisfied with it. I’m happy with it.
I was there just to be consigliere, to talk to whomever, but mostly Gary, who’s a friend of mine, about what ideas—no matter how small or big—belong in the Ocean’s universe. Somebody might propose something and Gary and I might say, “It’s not Ocean’s-y enough.” When you have to go back and really analyze it, there is a certain aesthetic, a certain style of storytelling and of humor and of releasing information, that is consistent within those films. Gary was very anxious to have this live in that universe—to have this be the fourth Ocean’s movie, and yet to stand on its own for somebody who hasn’t seen an Ocean’s movie. I think he did it.
I know past characters will appear in Ocean’s 8. Any chance for future crossovers?
All things are possible if it’s a hit. In the week after its release, there’ll be a lot of ideas flying around from a lot of sources about how we can keep this afloat. Until then, as they say in Louisiana, you don’t want to give it a mouth.