With “Side Effects,” director Steven Soderbergh is about to see the release of his final theatrical film (read our review here). The picture, dealing with the rabbit hole that one doctor (Jude Law) falls into when treating a depressed patient (Rooney Mara) has elements of an "issue film," but at a Lincoln Center screening earlier this week, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns claim that’s just a bit of misdirection.
Burns, the son of two psychologists, had worked on the script for ten years with an intention to direct, and says he was in-tune with the social ramifications of these issues. When originally discussing the project with Soderbergh, he says that: “…we’ve declared war on sadness in this society. And there’s a difference between sadness, which is a very reasonable response to something going on in your life. And a persistent, debilitating sadness, which is called depression. And when the two get conflated, are we conflating them because it’s an opportunity to sell drugs?”
But Soderbergh and Burns agreed that the project wouldn’t be the “issue picture” many were expecting. “I wouldn’t want to see a serious movie about Big Pharma,” Soderbergh said dismissively, citing “Rosemary’s Baby” as an influence on the film. “Because I feel like I can read about that, it’s all over the news, it’s everywhere. That’s just my personal views, and that may be because I’m in the ‘twilight’ of my career.” His inspirations turned out to come from a much more commercial place this time around. “This is the kind of movie that used to be made a lot. I don’t know if it got crossed out of existence. But in the eighties, which I’ve talked about as the worst decade in American film, with the exception of some great independent filmmakers who were starting to emerge… there were these sort of fun thrillers like ‘Fatal Attraction’ or ‘Jagged Edge’ that were great matinee movies."
“I like the idea that [Burns has] taken a social issue, a very zeitgeisty issue, and used it as a Trojan horse to hide a thriller inside of it,” Soderbergh says of the film’s twisty narrative. “I had been talking to [Burns] about it for awhile, and we worked for almost a year on ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ and unexpectedly it blew up. So I called him immediately, and said, 'I thought we were gonna be working together in April, can we sorta switch?' ” Soderbergh didn’t want to hide from the issue of drug companies pushing their wares, stating, “There’s a point where you have to ask yourself, are these companies the arsonist or the firefighter? [Emotionally] we’re all looking for a shortcut to get where we wanna get. And they play on that.”
Within his own body of work, he was able to see the somewhat insidious evolution of this issue, going as far back as his first film. “I started making a movie about a person who was seeing a psychiatrist,” he says in discussing “Side Effects.” “And in 1989, the idea that Andie MacDowell in ‘sex, lies [and videotape]’ would be medicated didn’t even occur to me. And here we are, twenty plus years later, and the idea that she wouldn’t be medicated wouldn’t occur to anyone. In twenty years, that’s a big movement.”
The thriller structure of “Side Effects” gave Soderbergh an opportunity to craft a narrative while withholding key elements of information, which allowed him to separate acts one, two and three in drastic ways. “Out of all of the movies I’ve worked on — except for ‘The Limey,’ which was terrifying in post — the amount of effort that went into the first 35 minutes of this film were disproportionate to the rest of the film, and maybe anything else I’ve ever made,” Soderbergh claims. “There’s movie A, and then there’s movie B and then there’s movie C. But the first thirty five minutes were so hard. We screened the movie a lot, not just for audiences, but for friends, and there were so many iterations."
In the end, it was important for Soderbergh to be spartan in his directing and editing decisions, reflecting a pragmaticism that cements his desire to move away from the artform. When discussing the act of watching films, Soderbergh launched into a passionate defense of his skill set. “You should have a reason for every shot, you should have a reason for every cut,” he spoke strongly. “If you don’t, I don’t know if you’ve broken a contract with the audience, but you’ve broken a contract with me. Because I feel like that’s your job. The point is everything matters. Everything matters. When you start throwing out shots and cuts, I’m thinking, I don’t understand what you’re doing. This is just noise, where’s the signal? It just makes me nuts.
“What I love about this material [in ‘Side Effects’] is that it’s an incredible opportunity to take it down to the marrow and have scenes where I could sit there as a director and go, how few shots do I need, ultimately, to make this scene work? More often than not, it was two. I’m not afraid to have two people sit in a room and have a conversation and have it be two shots if it’s a good scene. I don’t feel insecure about that," the director continued. "That doesn’t mean it has to be boring, that doesn’t mean it can’t be stylish. It just means that, as a director, you’re supposed to sit there and have the 40,000 ft. view of the whole movie to be able to calibrate how the shots are going to affect the audience.”
Soderbergh sat back, after having addressed this issue as a way to deflect retirement talk. “I’ve got there because I’ve watched a lot of good movies that other people have made,” he remarked. “I’m standing on the shoulders of anybody who’s ever made a good movie. And I’m stealing from them. And that’s the job.”
“Side Effects” opens next Friday. [Photos from the Film Society Of Lincoln Center/Cory Everett]