Will Steven Soderbergh Be the One Who Finally Gets Interactive Storytelling Right?
Art and Experience: With ‘Mosaic,’ the prolific director has now taken on apps.
Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to experimentation and breaking convention, from when he ushered in a new era of low budget filmmaking with sex, lies, and videotape in 1992, to when he shot a secret feature on an iPhone, to when he tried to break the studio system by transparently sharing revenue on Logan Lucky.
Still, these experiments have had more to do with production and distribution than the form itself. His latest project, Mosaic, an interactive miniseries created for HBO, takes the form of an app (now available for iOS; Android coming soon). In it, audiences can experience the same murder mystery from multiple character perspectives, playing out in “chapters” that range from eight to 38 minutes long.
Soderbergh and HBO may be the right combination to further open audience minds in this arena. After all, Soderbergh knows his way around a crowd-pleasing story, and HBO has had much success with interactive extensions and installations related to its traditional episodic series, particularly with Westworld.
The director stressed to an audience at the recent Future of Storytelling Festival that his project is different, noting that the phrase “Choose Your Own Adventure” gives him an “allergic reaction.” In the case of Mosaic, he insisted, “Your choices don’t alter the outcome or don’t change what happens. You merely decide at any given point, what perspective you would like to view the story through.”
Another element that sets Soderbergh’s effort apart is that he didn’t rely wholly on off-the-shelf technology. “There wasn’t an existing piece of technology that I was sort of reverse engineering the story into,” he explained. Rather, “The story was being created in lockstep with the technical team.”
“We had to develop technology just to be able to keep the thing coherent for us.”
During development, series writer Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Now You See Me) would be laying out the story in the same room as the technical team. Soderbergh recalled that he and Solomon would “sort of describe to them what we would like to be able to do, ideally. And so it was a very fluid relationship, which made me feel comfortable because I wanted it to be an intuitive experience, a really simple experience. I didn’t want the moments where you are making a decision to feel like interruption.”
Production itself required simplification and streamlining, too, so in keeping with the nature of the project, the team developed software for that. “We had to develop technology just to be able to keep the thing coherent for us while we were making it,” Soderbergh noted. Script supervisor Tom Johnston was instrumental in this process, as he had the unenviable job of keeping tabs on scenes that were shot several times from different characters’ perspectives. Soderbergh said, “Tom had to develop a software program to just track everything that we were doing, and he and I were in constant conversation because we’d have to make sure that it all got organized editorially.”
How did he pull it off? “You really have to stay present,” he advised. “It was a kind of Jedi mind trick, to just sort of be in what I call ‘what’s the next shot?’ mode.”
“You really have to stay present. It was a kind of Jedi mind trick.”
More than audience choice to determine plot, he was interested in structure and subjectivity. The plot was never going to change. He elaborated, “I’m interested in how subjective all our experiences are, and the fact that we kind of navigate the world, for the most part, in a universe that extends about two feet in every direction.” He saw Mosaic as an opportunity to pull viewers out of their small worlds, and “force them to consider that while we’re having this experience, someone else is having a very different experience.”
The director wistfully recalled that the first time he shot a roll of film and edited it with Super 8 equipment, he “started watching what I had shot and immediately the implications of editing were just flooding through me and I was hooked.” Therefore, “What was fun about Mosaic, most of the time, was working on the structure,” because the team discovered through testing that audience reactions varied greatly in terms of both which character they would choose to follow, and whether or not they would follow one path straight through to the end before starting another.
During editing, Soderbergh admitted, “I think the biggest thing that we discovered was that we needed to simplify it.” Ultimately, the team narrowed down the number of chapters from 45 to 15. In its earlier stage, he learned, “It was too much…You didn’t have enough time to lock into the characters and engage with the narrative before a choice came up.”
Despite the lessons learned and implemented along the way, Mosaic has gotten lukewarm reviews so far (Slate called it a “noble failure”). But Soderbergh told the crowd that he was aware that this experiment was just that, saying, “I referred to it as our cave painting. I was trying to make sure basically that it was, on a nerd level, just kind of functional.”
Perhaps Mosaic is not the answer to our interactive storytelling prayers, but it’s certainly a worthwhile experiment, and Soderbergh feels enthusiastic about the potential for whoever carries the baton from here. He shared, “There’s a lot of people in the branching narrative space and there’s really interesting stuff going on. Somebody is gonna take this thing and really run with it.”