We talk to writer / producer Scott Z. Burns about SIDE EFFECTS

This week sees the release of Side Effects; Steven Soderbergh’s last cinematic film as a director. Movies.ie sat down with writer/producer Scott Z. Burns to talk Side Effects, truth and what Soderbergh may do next…

Where did the story come from?
Scott Z. Burns: A long time ago now I was doing research on a TV show called Wonderland, which Peter Berg created and I spent a number of months at Bellevue Hospital in New York City following a forensic psychiatrist around. We became friends and over the next couple of years I stayed in touch with him and I was fascinated by this intersection of psychiatry and the law and psychopharmacology. I remained focused on that and a story began to emerge.

Did you write with specific actors in mind?
SZB: No, I generally don’t do that. I start with characters who are probably composites of people, a world and figure if I do that then I will probably makes better characters.

As producer, did you have a say in the casting?
SZB: Yeah quite a bit. Steven [Soderbergh] and I had both worked with Jude [Law] on Contagion and we had a great time with him. I was really impressed with how passionate and committed and curious he is as an actor so he was a wonderful choice. Steven and David Fincher are very good friends and I had been working with David on another project and I had been made aware of Rooney [Mara] through David. When Channing [Tatum] said he would sign on and do a Janet Leigh kind of turn, that really sealed the deal.

You mentioned that the story came to you while you were working on something else, but when you turned your full attention to Side Effects, how did you research the film?
SZB: Sasha Bardey who is one of the co-producers on the movie is a forensic psychiatrist in New York City and it would turn into a dialogue where I would say ‘Is it possible for this to happen?’ and he would say yes or he would say no. If he said no I would poke at his ‘No’… I talked to other people who had suffered major depression about what their experience of the world was. My process is to start with research and whenever you get stuck, go back to the research and I figure if you keep looking for a new angle, the world will usually give it to you.

The film feels like an examination of the role of pharmaceutical drugs in our society, was that something you wanted to comment on?
SZB: For me, I was trying to write a thriller and what I felt would make for the best thriller was to build a rollercoaster ride through a very familiar landscape. In this case it was building it right through someone’s medicine chest. I’ve always been intrigued by the inscrutability of my fellow man or woman, so I started at the place of you can’t really ever know someone’s internal state, even if you are a psychiatrist and your job is to deduce someone’s internal state. Now that we live in a world that has added on to that this layer of psychopharmacology, I think it has become even more difficult to sort out what’s really going on with other people. That was my initial observation, obviously psychopharmacology and the medication of people is a really complicated issue. If it spurs on a debate about that, then that’s great.

Two themes that seem to emerge in both your short films and your feature length projects are the things we take from each other – which, coincidentally is the title of one of your shorts – and finding truth. These seem especially clear in Side Effects, Contagion and An Inconvenient Truth. Are these things that you strive for in your work?
SZB: I think strive for, more than look for – and I am thrilled to hear you say that. All I am aware of is that there will be a story that I come across and I am moved by it and I feel like it’s a story that I know how to tell. I think I start there and then in retrospect I kinda go ‘Oh sh*t! These are ideas that seem to really inspire me, provoke me’ and usually they are about exactly what you just said. I am drawn to what sort of healing and remedial properties that the truth holds for people.

Steven Soderbergh’s last feature film is one that you wrote and produced, how does that feel for you?
SZB: I hope that I haven’t driven him out of the business! [laughs] Steven and I have worked together on five different movies over the last 8 or ten years and on one hand I’m incredibly grateful; it was a collaboration that I wouldn’t have dreamed of in my wildest imaginings – that I would get to work with him that much. We’re doing a play together in New York this year so I feel like our collaboration isn’t over, but having been that close to him and watching him over these years, I am really aware of the fact that he wants to revitalise himself and he wants to find new inspiration. I think that if Steven does find different things to be said with film or different ways of saying them, he’ll certainly come back and if he doesn’t, he’ll find other creative ways of expressing himself. I guess I feel safe, as a fan, that his creative output will continue in one way or another. I hope that he and I will make other things together. We have certainly talked about doing TV, because I think it may provide some character opportunities and some narrative opportunities that film really isn’t doing right now.

It does seem strange to think that after all the creative work he has done over the years, that Soderbergh would retire and disappear…
SZB: You’re right, Steven doesn’t play golf [laughs]. I think that he is going to do really exciting things. I don’t think he has ruled out the possibility that those things will lead him back to film; I think he has earned the right to go and explore other ways of expressing himself.

You have directed in the past, do you think you will direct a film in the future?
SZB: I had hoped to direct Side Effects, but at some point it became such a difficult project to get going and Steven obviously had the leverage within the industry to do what I couldn’t do. I do plan on directing. My feeling when I write is that I try to be the writer when I am writing, then when I am done, think about who would be the right person to direct it. I think as I have written more and more and become a little bit more aware of what will and won’t work as a movie, I feel better about suggesting myself for that role. Not in all situations, but there are some stories that when you are writing them, you can really see them and you want that experience of being able to really, fully express yourself. That doesn’t mean that I am the best person all the time, it just means that I have a version that I feel like I wanna communicate.

What’s next?
SZB: Well Steven and I are working on a play in New York about Columbine, called The Library so hopefully that’s gonna happen in a few months. Then there’s a script that I wrote; an adaptation of a documentary, that I am working on with Studio Canal and the BBC and I am hoping that I will direct that.

Words: Brogen Hayes