'Mosaic' Writer Unpacks Open-Ended HBO Finale

The TV version of Steven Soderbergh's murder mystery ended its story open for interpretation. Writer Ed Solomon answers the burning questions.
Courtesy of Claudette Barius/HBO
Garrett Hedlund and Sharon Stone in 'Mosaic'

[This story contains spoilers from the HBO version of Mosaic only.]

Ahead of Mosaic's launch on HBO, writer Ed Solomon had said that one of the two versions of the whodunit story — the show was also created as an app — was more definitive than the other. After watching Friday's two-part finale on HBO, it should be clear to viewers that the TV version of Steven Soderbergh's murder mystery was not the more definitive one.

After introducing Olivia Lake, played by Sharon Stone, as a famous child author who goes missing at the end of the second hour of the six-part miniseries, the last four episodes of Soderbergh's limited series jumped ahead four years to the case being reopened, tracing the local police and citizens of a resort community in Utah as they attempt to uncover who actually killed Olivia — and why. 

After a winding search down several paths, a now-sober Joel Hurley (Garrett Hedlund) ends up confessing, convinced that the pieces of the puzzle he is being fed add up to him being the murderer. But since he has no memory of the time, due to blackouts from alcohol, can his own mind be trusted? 

Meanwhile, after Olivia's fiance Eric Neill (Fred Weller) initially took the fall for the murder, his sister Petra (Jennifer Ferrin) returned to the community to try to clear his name. After concocting a plan to entrap Joel, with the help of policeman Nate Henry (Devin Ratray), she had serious doubts by the end that Joel actually committed the crime. After confronting Olivia's neighbor with her theory that it was actually the family friend who covered it all up, she was prepared to trade her silence for ownership of the Red Room — a room of one-of-a-kind art — until Michael O'Connor (James Ransone) informed her that Joel had already confessed. 

Below, in an informative chat with Solomon, the writer of Mosaic explains to The Hollywood Reporter why the TV version was left more open-ended, while filling in many of the questions left unanswered by the end of the miniseries. He also explains why the app version — which was created first — does fill in many of the holes, and perhaps why viewers still curious about the truth behind Olivia Lake's murder should watch the Mosaic app next.

The HBO show opens by planting the seed for viewers that Joel (Hedlund) is the killer. When you and Steven Soderbergh rebuilt the linear HBO version after first creating the story as an app, why did you decide to open with a scene from the present? Was that to take the addictive “Who did it?” question out of the equation — even if that isn’t the truth?

It wasn’t to take it out of the equation. That was done more for legitimate storytelling reasons. It was because it was a six-hour version of the story told not through an individual person’s point of view, but more from an objective storyteller’s point of view. The linear version had different storytelling requirements. After some definite trial and error, it really felt like Steven landed on the best way to tell this version of it, which is to start us off by bringing this guy in as for sure the lead suspect. But then the story goes to an interesting place. At that point, Joel absolutely believes he did it. That’s why it was an interesting choice to begin that way. 

In the end, it's clear that Joel thinks he did it, but we know that someone else is guilty — whether that person actually did it with their own two hands, we're not sure; but Petra (Ferrin) clearly caught them. The app clears that up further and it also explains the mysterious symbols Petra noticed in town. Why did you leave the HBO version more open-ended?

It seemed like one being a little more open-ended was better for that iteration. I know that people might have beef with this, but I would say that you can't point to the one that is more definitive and use that as evidence that the other has an answer. They are different storytelling experiences, based on what seemed to us to be a more optimized way to tell it. We initially designed Mosaic to be the app and the linear version for HBO was a decision in the middle of production, as we talked about. The two versions are very different and discrete storytelling experiences that have different inner requirements. The app is this subjective experience where you choose an experience and follow that through a more subjective telling of the story, structured entirely differently. It's not just scenes put in different order, but there are also different shot choices and different points of view. The linear version is more of a traditional telling of it — Steven's "traditional," which is not traditional. (Laughs.) But it's something more people are used to.

So this HBO version is meant to stay open-ended, no matter what people might learn when they watch the app?

Yes. That's the nature of the linear story. I definitely wanted the characters to be rich enough and the story be open-ended enough, not because I was thinking that we should do more, but just because I thought it had more resonance that way. I like that it's a little ambiguous and I like that you have to really think it through to come to your own conclusion, so I'm happy with that ambiguity. The symbols that you mention are meant to tip off the viewer to the idea that there is a larger world in the piece; that the characters inhabit a world that exists beyond the borders of just the story that we're watching.

What does Joel's future look like from here. Will he go down for the crime or do you envision that Petra, or perhaps Nate (Ratray), would continue to dig for more of the truth?

For a lot of the characters there were very unresolved chords. Petra left this town knowing that she made a play for the brass ring — and didn't get it — and she left some bodies in her wake. I'd be very interested in seeing after some time what bubbles up inside of her and what she feels she really needs to do about it. I would also be interested in seeing what happens to Michael O'Connor, and I'm curious where Joel goes in jail. There's a lot of characters that have some distance to travel still, emotionally and psychologically. It would be interesting to open that up and see where that takes us.

How do you picture Nate realizing that he perhaps, again, put an innocent man behind bars for the same crime?

That's a great question. Nate is another character where there's a lot of tiny little fingers tapping on his brain going, "Hey, hey, hey. Is this right?" These are all interesting questions: What happens to these people now? It's the difference between truth and facts. The facts led to a conclusion but there is this deep sense that the conclusion may not be truthful. Or that what people are perceiving as factual is actually not truthful. I would be interested to see where that takes a lot of these characters.

What does it say about Petra (Ferrin) that she was prepared to sell out her brother for the Red Room? And then, that she appears to be OK with another potentially innocent person going down for the murder, as long as her brother is cleared?

The Red Room question was something that a lot of people asked us about and Steven was never concerned about why she would do that. It was an interesting dynamic between [partner and producer] Casey Silver, because he wanted to know why in a more definitive way and Steven was very confident that people would know in their gut why. I personally have so much sympathy for Petra throughout the whole piece, in both the HBO and the app version. It starts to get interesting when a little bit of time passes and these thoughts start to eat away and their sense of themselves starts to corrode a little bit, because their conscience starts to kick in and they have to decide, what kind of human being are they really going to be? And that means reopening things again. But I have to be honest, I've only thought about this in terms of trying to leave room and to leave a more complex and ambiguous ending for Mosaic, and not really in terms of structure to return to it. It's making me think about it now that you are asking these questions, but I wouldn't want to commit to anything so fast about what would happen to these characters, because I would want to let myself mull on it for a while.

What were you trying to accomplish with the very last scene, where some time has passed and Petra returns to the Mosaic gallery and stares at artwork of Olivia Lake (Stone)?

That last shot, to me, is about Petra finally understanding what it is about Olivia Lake that people saw. Petra has hid behind a mask and that mask protected her from really allowing herself to feel connected to people. The mask she hid behind was one of intellect; she was always fascinated with art but she always thought she could think of art as one thinks of science. Meaning, a series of facts that could be organized into a logical pattern. It's been her way of protecting herself from falling into a place that scares her, which is not knowing the answer. She never respected Olivia Lake's art, and never could understand why it connected with people. For me, that last moment is about her finally seeing Olivia Lake in the eyes of a painting drawn of her by a little kid.

Why did Joel throw out the tool from his truck when we know Olivia was killed with a hammer?

He thought — even though he wasn't sure that he did it — that it was evidence leading them to him. He was thinking he needed to just clear it out. If there was an inner monologue, which there wasn't at that moment, it would have been, "If I did do this, I will turn myself in. But I want to be the one to find this out." 

If Joel is innocent, there's another wrong man in prison for the crime. Do you feel that the ending leaves you open to exploring another season of Mosaic, is that something you have talked about?

It's funny. We have not had any official conversations about a second season. We're working on new ones now that are entirely different — not just with stories and characters, but with uses of this storytelling format. However, in my mind, there was plenty of room to go further with quite a few of the characters and the storylines. There's a lot that we haven't covered. So, if people wanted a second season and if HBO wanted to make one, I think there's a lot of room for one. We were just trying so hard to get this thing to work on its own merits. But now, people are asking and it's the first time that it's forced us to actually look at each other and go, "Would we do more?" No one has answered that internally. No one has said, "Let's" or "I don't want to," we've just realized that we never thought about doing more and are now wondering: Would we? Should we? It never even crossed our minds that this would be more than just a one-off. But it does leave it open, and I loved working with everyone — all the actors and the crew.

What can you say about the other interactive storytelling projects you are developing with Soderbergh?

They are all with PodOp. The idea is to develop them all so that they all feel organic; there isn’t a formula or a rule. Mosaic was an invigorating and exciting experience. That’s why I spent all last year working on a new one, and next year plan to work on more new ones with Steven and Casey. I think this is an amazing and interesting way to tell a story. We only began to understand what its capabilities were in doing it in Mosaic. That experience where we’re looking at a specific format and saying, “You know what would have been great is if we had done this. Let’s try and do that in Mosaic now, or if we can’t, do it for the next one.” That happened a lot during filming, where we got a ton of ideas and having now been through the whole process in editing and post now that the thing is done, the new one that we’re working on is by orders of magnitude more complex and utilizes the form in a much more confident way. Steven often refers to Mosaic as the first version of this form and we’re really excited about not just what we’ve learned and what we can do next with it, but what other filmmakers, writers and directors will do with it. It’s kind of exciting. Steven and Casey are also developing one at HBO with a really talented writer named Karrie Crouse. She's great — really smart — and has come up with a very cool story that takes the form a lot further.

You actually filmed the show backwards. First, the present tense storyline, and then you took a three-month break and came back to film the past tense storyline. Since Olivia dies, Sharon Stone wasn't there for the first part of filming. What was it like when she joined the set?

She arrived in the past-tense stuff, and it changed the whole dynamic. The chemistry was different, because here is this person who everyone has been talking about and wondering about and literally unearthing, and then here she is. To hand something over to someone is a big moment and she just crushed it. The two of us were aware on set how we had each other’s back. I think we both felt like we were nurturing something together that was very tender, raw and powerful; and, for both of us, meaningful.

The HBO show is linear, while the app is told through a branching narrative where users can follow certain character's perspectives. How are the entry points to these characters different on the app?

The app version is much more of individual’s points of view within the story. Each person will take you down paths. They’re not all complete paths. We’re playing with perspective, but the facts are the same. In the app, you can be seeing the story of a guy, Joel, who left a small town in Utah because of a shadowy past there that he’s vowed to never return to, who moves across the country and then gets called back because he might have the only clues to lead to the exoneration of someone, Eric, who might have been wrongfully convicted. Joel decides to be a good guy and do the right thing and return to this town. So in one version, you’re watching the story of a guy returning to a town he never vowed to never go to, only to discover that he might have been more involved in this thing than he initially ever thought. Because he has memory issues, because he used to be a blackout drunk, one of the reasons he’s vowed to never go back to that town is because he changed his life. That’s one story you are following if you are following Garrett Hedlund’s character’s story in the app. In another version, you are watching a sister, Petra, played by Jennifer Ferrin, who was never really there for her brother, Eric, who had been convicted of this murder. He was a small-town grifter who was convicted of this murder, and she, as it turns out, might have been somewhat complicit in turning him over to the police. She now starts to wonder if she was wrong and this is a chance for her to maybe right that wrong. You are watching this woman who is actually entrapping this guy Joel and bringing him back to try to prove her brother innocent, who starts to discover a whole different story than she even thought it was. 

For viewers who are interested in the more definitive ending, why should they now go and watch the app?

The linear version just had different internal requirements and we felt like one element in the ending of the app that isn't in the HBO series was very specific. It really is meant for people who want to take a deeper dive and wasn't something that we wanted to foist onto people. We wanted to give people the option to go there because it is a very eclectic, idiosyncratic kind of little cul-de-sac to go down. We did not feel that it was appropriate to force someone into that. In the app, it's more that if you feel like taking this little trip, it's open to you. The app version is not as much of an omniscient and objective point of view; it’s much more following individualized points of view for the story. If you want to watch the app version, does that mean you need to watch the HBO version, too? Not necessarily. But if you watch the linear version, you might be interested in going to the app simply because it’s a different experience.

The Mosaic app is available for download on iOS and Android, as well as for desktop at watchmosaic.com. What did you think of the HBO series and do you plan to watch the app version? Sound off in the comments, below. 

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