Choose who you want to be and how you want to see Mosaic.
Ed Solomon is changing the way he tells stories.
The writer of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Men in Black, and It's Garry Shandling's Show, partnered with director Steven Soderbergh and producer Casey Silver to create Mosaic — the story of a celebrity children's book author (Sharon Stone) who is mysteriously murdered in an idyllic mountain town.
But Mosaic is no mere who-done-it. Mosaic is watched — or experienced — through an interactive app, which allows the viewer to follow the story from the point of view of the character of their choice, or to skip around among different characters to experience the story from different perspectives. A companion linear six-part limited series debuts on HBO on January 20.
"We weren't just inventing a story," says Solomon, "we were inventing a form to tell the story in — using technology to enable the audience to go deeper into the mindscape of the characters."
While the app offers the audience different perspectives, Mosaic is one contained story, with one set of facts.
"It's not a choose-your-own-adventure, where if you go to the left you live, or if you go to the right you die," says Solomon, "You are picking a character through whose point of view you feel like viewing the same events."
This elicits from the audience different sympathies and perspectives, which in turn causes the same story to be told in strikingly different ways. Solomon likens this experience to the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
"Everyone thinks that what they are seeing is telling them the whole story, but it's not," says Solomon, "You're viewing it as the character views it, and that's going to be very different from another character's take away."
As a result, app users will have the option of different perspectives depending on their choices, and traditional viewers of the limited-series on HBO will have even a different perspective from the app users.
"There are two versions of the story: there's this branching version and there's the narrative version. The events are the same but they are very different ways of telling the story, which is fascinating as a storyteller," says Solomon, "They are like fraternal twins. They grow up and become very different from each other. But at the same time, it's from the same genetic material."
While the app version and the linear limited-series version share roughly 85% of the same footage, the linear limited-series version is not merely a rehashing of content from the app.
"What we found was that the linear version for the story did not want to be just a compendium of sequences that we put together in the app version," says Solomon, "The linear version needed to be rebuilt shot by shot because it had different storytelling needs."
Solomon and Soderbergh essentially invented the process as they went, learning on the job through trial and error. It was challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
"In a way it is more work, but I found it much more of a joy than anything I've worked on in decades," says Solomon, "It was hard, but so what? Hard is not bad — hard is just hard. It was complex, but fortunately I had Steven [Soderbergh] as a partner to bounce ideas back and forth."
Despite the yards of whiteboards and index cards tacked to the walls of their workspace, in some ways it was simpler.
"No matter what the genre or format, every story has a unique way of wanting to be written," says Solomon, "When you're telling a story, you are always trying to decide whose point of view is this moment, this shot, this movie — and for how long is it this point of view? You ask yourself these questions and you get rid of everything that doesn't need to be there.
"With something like this, you have a lot of room to explore all sorts of avenues that you wouldn't explore in a traditional narrative, and that's very freeing, and actually easier."
That's not to say this form of storytelling doesn't have its headaches.
"I think it's exciting," says Solomon, "But it's definitely not for everybody, and if you're easily overwhelmed it's not for you."
Solomon stresses that a branching narrative form is no substitute for telling a good story well.
"Let's not think we have a gimmick here," says Solomon, "Let's focus on the story and the characters, tell the best story we can, and then let's also try to tell the story in this new form."
Solomon says his experience writing Mosaic will impact how he writes going forward.
"We had to make sure that every character we wrote was worthy of being the center of their own movie," says Solomon, "When a character walks on screen, they're not just there to serve the protagonist of the story, because they could be the A character on a different line. That was a great experience because it made every character so much richer."
While the process was full of pitfalls and learn-as-you-go mistakes, Solomon credits Sodenbergh and HBO for their vision and support, which made the unfamiliar process, while a lot of work, ultimately a pleasure.
"We built this thing together," says Solomon of working with Soderbergh and Silver. "Steven is the most in-control yet least controlling director I've ever worked with. He doesn't see his role, as some directors do, as that of someone who is putting himself into something.
"He sees his role as removing himself from it and trying to bring out whatever the essential of it is, and how can we all get this to be the best version of whatever it is supposed to be. They've been such great partners."
The audience participation aspect of the branching narrative raises questions about the writers' role in telling stories.
"We were very careful not to ask the audience to do our job for us," says Solomon, "The audience still has a carefully curated story told to them by filmmakers who are aware of what all the ramifications are of one choice versus another choice, as opposed to a story where the viewer is actually making the story up as they go along — to me that's no fun."
Mosaic also questions the point where an audiences wishes to, or should, remain passive.
"There is something pretty simple about just sitting back and having a story told to you," says Solomon, "So we're trying to find that sweet spot, where an audience having agency helps to highlight the story."
No matter what choice Mosaic viewers may make, it was important to Solomon that the viewer be safely held, and that he as the writer never allowed his enamoration for the technology to override his duty to tell a good story.
"You have to respect and be very mindful of the relationship between the writer and the viewer, and you must always take control of the story you are telling," says Solomon. "A gimmick alone without a story has never worked, and will never work."
It is too soon to know if this will revolutionize television storytelling, or simply be an interesting novelty.
"Only time will tell," says Solomon, "I hope we get to keep going, because I think there are some wonderful stories to be told in this form, and we are just beginning to scratch the surface of what the potential is.
"I think other filmmakers will come in and step on our shoulders and do something amazing, and then we can step on theirs and hopefully it will just keep growing and growing. And if that doesn't happen I'll still think of it as one of the most incredible creative adventures of my life."
They still don't know what to call this branching narrative form of storytelling, but Solomon and Soderbergh are already in the process of developing their next, which will be more complex, built upon everything they learned developing Mosaic.
"Every part of this was exciting to me," says Solomon, "The challenge of the new form, going in a direction I had never gone before — that no one had ever gone before — writing this volume in the amount of time I had to write it in, which was not a lot of time, working with Steven who is a person I have admired professionally, and working for HBO."
Solomon plans to continue writing in this new branching form he helped develop.
"This was an opportunity to take three decades of experience, of highs and lows and everything in-between," says Solomon, "and take what I learned and be forced to come out the other end a better writer. I'm completely in."