An early adopter of all and any filmmaking techniques, when director Steven Soderbergh isn’t innovating on his own (he’s a forerunner of digital filmmaking), mentoring talent, or writing three screenplays in the middle of a pandemic, he’s often acting as a godfather, advisor, and no-fee broker on a project simply because he believes in the artists involved and has always had an eye for talent. He famously helped give the Russo brothers their start after being impressed with their Slamdance debut “Pieces” in 1997 (and he went to bat for them when vying for the directing job of “Captain America: Winter Soldier” at Marvel) and urged Warner Bros. to take a chance on Christopher Nolan for their remake of “Insomnia” starring Al Pacino. Soderbergh advises and guides many young directors—championing Barry Jenkins as a true talent several years before “Moonlight” came out— including those on Showtime’s “The Girlfriend Experience” series based on his own indie film.
A fortuitous situation came together on the Quibi series, “Wireless,” an engrossing, innovative, and immersive new thriller that fluidly and fundamentally integrates the portrait and landscape of your phone into the narrative of the story. It’s a gamechanger known as Turnstyle technology. Soderbergh had already been given an early demonstration and look-see at Quibi by CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who shrewdly did the rounds with tech-savvy, forward-thinking filmmakers (such as Soderbergh) more than a year before the mobile streaming service product launched.
Soon after, the script of “Wireless” by filmmaker Zach Wechter and his own innovative phone-centric film “Pocket” crossed Soderbergh’s desk. Intrigued, Soderbergh played doyen matchmaker and eventually became the executive producer on Wechter’s “Wireless” which is now available on Quibi.
“[My managers and I] brought this package to Quibi,” he explained. “We pitched it to them and, and we said, ‘look, there’s going to be, this is how this is the approach, but how do we best execute that? There’s going to have to be some research and development and some experimentation to make this work elegantly.”
“Wireless” is unlike any Quibi show and definitely needed new innovations on the platform. Turnstyle tech didn’t exist at the time. It’s a trapped, single-location thriller and centers on Andy (Tye Sheridan), a heartsick, recently dumped college student who aims to win his girlfriend’s affections back by driving through a snowstorm to a party where she will be in attendance.
The narrative takes you into Andy’s smartphone and even prompts you with sounds to change to the vertical orientation to read along while he types his texts, receives messages, and or swipes through any of the many apps on his phone, Instagram, Google Maps, etc. But you’re never married to one view, and essentially have the choice to watch the series subjectively through the character’s phone, or objectively, in a landscape portrait watching him try and get through his peril while interacting to save his life on his phone.
Our review of “Wireless,” which says the series finally “cracks the Quibi code,” into a breakthrough explains, “An iMessage bing on Andy’s phone, prompts you to switch to vertical, to read his texts and his responses, and this dynamic back and forth interplay is truly exhilarating and absorbingly interactive in a way we rarely see with narrative.”
Luckily, Quibi was up for the challenge of making the show, even though they didn’t have the technology to pull off the show as envisioned at the time. “They didn’t have the ability at that point to do the complete [vertical/horizontal perspective] flip the way you’re able to do with ‘Wireless,’” Soderbergh explained. “[But] they said, ‘Great. We think this is a really exciting format with great potential.” They really embraced what was going to be required technically to pull this off.”
Ever the modest guidance counselor, the filmmaker downplayed his contributions and sang the praises of director Zach Wechter. “It was really Zack and Jack Seidman, his writing partner, who had to figure this out, both from a practical standpoint and then a pure tech standpoint. It was really all on them,” he said. “I was just responding to what they were showing me, but it’s quite an accomplishment. My contributions were entirely conceptual and reading the script and weighing in, on ideas about casting.”
“You should really see ‘Pocket,’” Soderbergh urged, explaining how their short was a proof of concept of how they wanted to elevate things technologically. “That was their big thing: ‘We really want to push this. We think there’s another gear to take this, essentially.’ What I think is smart about ‘Wireless’ is, watching it in this way is not a compromise, it’s the whole point. Watching it any other way then on your phone, that’s the compromise.“
While on the surface it reads like a mix between “Cellular” and “Buried,” especially in is claustrophobic, mostly-single-setting conceit, “Wireless” isn’t just a novelty thriller. What Soderbergh also loved about it was the implicit commentary it made about how reliant we are on our phones, and just how helpless we are without them in some case. “From a story standpoint, they found a really interesting way to portray the degree to which our phones are ruling our lives. It’s a nice little thriller wrapped up in all that texture—what I found to be a comment on the fact that we can’t seem to live without these devices, both literally and figuratively.”
“Wireless” also gets you to engage with the idea of being on someone else’s phone and Soderbergh said what was one of the thrilling elements of the series was re-watching it and getting a different perspective of the events taking place in the subjective phone view and the more traditional objective perspective of watching the lead character. “I was thrilled to find out that Zach is as skilled [traditional filmmaking] that as he is with creating a phone experience,” he said. “I found myself, after each segment, was going back, re-watching and doing a different edit, where I would completely alter the ratio of what I was watching through his phone and what I was watching objectively as a film. It’s super fun and it’s a variation of a fan edit, except the design of it is built-in by the filmmakers. So, it’s not as though the filmmaker is allowing you to make choices that the filmmaker would never make the film.”
Without spoiling too much, there’s a crucial car crash in the film—an inevitability given how much the protagonist is on his phone while driving and another cautionary level of commentary on the inherent dangers—and while watching this, at that exact moment, I dropped my phone, the orientation flipping chaotically between vertical and portrait, even heightening the entire disorientation of the chaotic crash. Soderbergh laughed hard. “Wow, that’s funny and perfect.”
“Wireless” is available to stream on Quibi now. Watch the trailer and a Turnstyle tech explainer below. Lastly, it won’t embed, but watch the full short of “Pocket,” here, which you should definitely watch on your phone.