The first time the director Steven Soderbergh and the screenwriter Ed Solomon worked together was on the murder mystery “Mosaic” (2017), which could be watched as a choose-your-own-adventure-style story using a smartphone app or as a six-episode HBO mini-series.
“Mosaic” drew mixed reviews, but the two men learned a lot doing it. For their next collaboration — what eventually became the six-part series “Full Circle,” debuting Thursday on Max — they envisioned another show that would have two distinct, separately shot versions: one told in classic, linear fashion and another that would present the same events told from different perspectives and whose meaning changes depending on which path the viewer chooses.
The idea was greenlighted in 2021, and Solomon started writing two versions that would tell the same story differently. Then last spring, reality hit.
“When I got the schedule and I saw the number of days and the page count of just the linear, I was like, ‘This is physically impossible,’” Soderbergh said in a recent joint interview with Solomon. He added: “I had visions of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ — that this was going to become a legendary folly.”
Soderbergh decided to jettison the branching version. But then he had to tell Solomon, who had already written 175 pages of it in addition to the six linear episodes.
“That was not a lunch that I was looking forward to,” Soderbergh said. It turned out, though, that Solomon already agreed with him. “It was just too much,” he said.
There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than talking about film and television with these two men, who love making and watching stories. Soderberg’s résumé careens among blockbusters (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Magic Mike”), daring oddities (“The Girlfriend Experience”) and the odd Liberace biopic (“Behind the Candelabra”). Solomon’s often has comic undertones, with films including “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Men in Black.”
Together, their efforts have had a decidedly noirish bent — sandwiched between their two series is the 1950s crime feature “No Sudden Move” (2021), for HBO Max. The premise of “Full Circle” follows suit, inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s suspenseful 1963 film “High and Low”: What if there were a kidnapping but the wrong child was taken?
Even without branching, the story delivers plenty of twists and layers, toggling between two families in an unlikely entanglement: One is the Manhattan family of a celebrity chef played by Dennis Quaid (with Claire Danes as his shot-calling daughter and Timothy Olyphant as his son-in-law with a mysterious past); the other, led by a criminal matriarch (CCH Pounder), is rooted in a Guyanese community in Queens. In the middle stands a rogue Postal Service inspector played by Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta”).
Soderbergh and Solomon’s methods and history of close collaboration helped them turn on a dime and adapt the show as they went along.
“Scenes were being rewritten, lines were being thrown in while we were doing it,” Phaldut Sharma, a Britain-based actor who plays Pounder’s right-hand man, said in a recent video call. “It was my first my first experience of doing a job in America and I thought this must be the norm, but members of the crew told me this is not really the way it normally goes.”
Soderbergh, 60, and Solomon, 62, sat down for a lengthy chat at Soderbergh’s office, in the TriBeCa neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Steven works famously fast, editing himself at the end of every day on a shoot. How does the writer factor in?
ED SOLOMON Most weekends we would meet, usually on a Sunday. I would get a text: “Are you around?” Which meant “I’m going to be in the office for the afternoon.” [Laughs.] And we would just talk through: “Where’s this going? And what does that mean for what we’ve got?” We were constantly reassessing — the writing continues as the shooting starts, and it continues as the editing is happening. I really appreciate how fluid you are with that.
STEVEN SODERBERGH It has to swing both ways. I can’t say to Ed, “Rethink this,” or, “Rejigger that,” without looking at my own work and going, “I’m throwing out stuff that I worked hard on trying to figure out and shooting.”
SOLOMON Sometimes the show outgrows your original idea, which is part of what’s exciting.
“Full Circle” relies more on detail than on back stories — Quaid’s character, Chef Jeff, has a ponytail that speaks volumes about his personality. Was there a deliberate effort to be lean?
SODERBERGH There can be a tendency to spoon-feed the viewer about the back story of the characters before you’ve even really gotten into the story. That’s something that I resist as a viewer, and it’s something that I’ve tried to resist as a filmmaker. Most things that I see, both movies and television, are too long. My motto is, if it can be pulled out and it still works, it should be pulled out. I want this thing to be all marrow as much as possible.
The loose, sometimes shaggy atmosphere recalls the noir movies of the 1970s. Were they part of your influences?
SODERBERGH I’m after a sort of discovered precision. I want the construction of something that’s been considered, but I want it to feel like it’s happening right in front of me for the first time. I was looking at “The French Connection,” the Sidney Lumet cop films from the ’70s, because I did want that kind of feeling.
What draws you to noir?
SODERBERGH It’s just a very cinematic form of storytelling. The conflicts are clear, they’re interesting. They inevitably lead to some burst of violence, either physical or emotional, because the pressure builds up in the clash between people’s dreams and desires, and reality, and shifting loyalties, mistrust, all of these things. It’s a very sexy genre to work in as a director.
SOLOMON When people are hiding their truth from others, and then the circumstances pressurize them and they’re trying harder and harder to keep that from coming out — to me that’s an exciting place to write from.
SODERBERGH Genre is just a great and efficient delivery system for ideas. It’s built to have a sort of superficial narrative layer and then this subterranean thematic space that you can put anything you’re interested in, and that’s what makes it fun.
Zack Ryan’s score is interestingly jarring. Why did you set a gritty thriller to such lush music?
SOLOMON We talked about Douglas Sirk at the very beginning.
SODERBERGH I like the juxtaposition of that visual aesthetic and the sonic aesthetic of a ’50s melodrama. I didn’t want a hip, trendy score — I wanted something very classical and emotional. Which is not typical for me, to be this in your face or in your ears with the music, trying to enhance the emotional state of the character you’re watching.
SOLOMON I never told you this: I had a theory that the score was doing the work that the original branching narrative was going to do, which was all about inner life and people’s emotional experience, while this other crime story was going on.
It’s always a risk when form and content don’t gel.
SODERBERGH I’ve seen extremely skilled filmmakers whose style is so developed and so detailed, you can feel the intelligence and the work. It exposes the fact that the script they’ve shot isn’t as good at its job as they are at their job. Your talent has to match your ambition — you need both, but if they’re out of whack, it’s not going to happen for you. I’ve seen talented people who are not ambitious enough. We see many more people who are more ambitious than they are talented. The universe eventually tends to catch up with them.
Do you feel the writers’ strike is making people think harder about how movies and TV are made? Are you reflecting on the way you create?
SODERBERGH It’s something I think about a lot. My entire career has been a test of my ability to improve and optimize my work process, which is about getting to the best version of something as quickly as possible with the least amount of drama and ego. I don’t feel that the work we’re doing is necessarily important with a capital I, but it’s also not meaningless. I want to be in that space of taking it as seriously as it needs to be taken to be good. Because if you take it too seriously, it tips over into indulgence, and that’s not what I want.
SOLOMON I think art made by human beings has a feel that cannot be replicated. The problem is, the people making decisions on the highest level that are all about bottom line and “How can I get rid of as many human beings as possible?” don’t have the ability to judge what is good art and not good art. My fear is, if we don’t draw a line in the sand now, we’re going to continue to a place where a lot of people are out of work.
What keeps you on your toes?
SODERBERGH I need a pocket of fear to keep me alert.
Where was that pocket on “Full Circle”?
SODERBERGH The complexity of the story, of the schedule. You need that sense that this could go sideways if I don’t execute at the best of my ability. You’ve got to find this balance of being self-critical without being paralyzed. You have to make decisions but you’ve also got to be willing to say to yourself: “That can be better. It has to be better.”
SOLOMON I want to be a better writer on the other end of it. I want to know that I will have learned a lot about myself, about this project. I will push myself to a degree that when I come out the other end of it, I’m moving forward, I’ve learned stuff.