Coming out of nowhere to win over Hollywood by co-penning the terrific screenplay for the third (and many would argue best) entry in the "Bourne" franchise, "The Bourne Ultimatum," Scott Z. Burns has since gone on to become Steven Soderbergh's right-hand man, collaborating with the Oscar-winner on "The Informant!," "Contagion," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (which unfortunately never came to fruition) and now "Side Effects," which opens this Friday.
Rooney Mara leads the film, in her first role since bagging an Oscar nomination for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," as Emily Hawkins, a troubled woman reunited with her husband (Channing Tatum) following his stint behind bars. Rather than leave her in great spirits, his return ups her anxiety. Enter Jude Law as a doctor who prescribes her some mysterious new meds that have some unfortunate side effects.
Indiewire sat down with Burns in New York to discuss his supposed last film with Soderbergh (per the director, "Side Effects" marks his last theatrical release), his transition from advertising to screenwriting, his beef with the pharmaceutical industry, and his work on the upcoming "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" sequel that might never make it to the screen.
Everyone seems to be harping on the fact that it took you 10 years or so to research "Side Effects." Exactly why did it take so long?
Well, it didn’t take that long to write it. I think that Hollywood lost this genre among all of the other things. We were busy as a community making sequels and comic books and programming. That took a giant leap away from noir and psychological thrillers -- I think that had a lot to do with it. I had directed a movie before called “Pu-239,” and this was going to be my second movie. Initially, Miramax bought it and we were headed for production, then they were sold to Disney and we had to get the movie out of there, and that took some time and some legal wrangling.
Then it was at another place called MRC and we were very close to making the movie and then the executive there who had been a champion of the movie left and so we had to start over. And then there were the other movies that Steven and I made at the time. So a lot of that kept pushing it back, then when “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” fell apart, Steven said to me: "I’ve read some other scripts but I think that 'Side Effects' script that you wrote is the thing I’m most interested in, would you be willing to let me direct it?” And it really didn't take that long to say yes.
If the choice is continuing to be frustrated trying to get the movie made with me as the director, or letting the person who has been the best collaborator I’ve had in this industry, who is arguably the most talented director who's been working in this industry for the last 25 years... If the bad news is that you’re not directing your movie and the good news is that Steven Soderbergh is, then you did good.
How did "Side Effects" evolve since your first draft to what we see now today -- without giving away any of the major plot points?
The bones of it didn't change all that much. When you’re building a thriller, the pieces of it only fit together one way. There was a period of time when Catherine Zeta Jones’ character was a man and we toyed with that and that change happened. But that as the prevalence of prescription drugs has increased in our society, they’ve also increased in their presence in the script. The mirroring arcs of Emily Taylor and Jonathan Banks have remained pretty consistent. Sometimes Banks had a kid, sometimes he didn't. Sometimes he was married. We toyed with other relationships with the movie but their relationships with each other stayed the same.
Both "Side Effects" and "Contagion" are thrillers that shed a harsh light on the inner workings of medical corporations. Where does you interest in that world stem from?
This movie happened because I was fortunate enough to work on a TV show that Peter Berg created called “Wonderland” in 2000. When Peter asked me to go to the Bellevue Hospital with him and do research, it opened the doors for me to this amazingly complicated world about the intersection between psychopharmacology and the law and psychiatry and what we really know about people’s motivations. That intersection was what was important to me, more than psychopharmacology and Big Pharma.
I think Sam Shepard said if you look for a contradiction, that's usually where you find the most life -- I think you also usually find the best stories there. Pharmaceutical companies and doctors have this built-in conflict where they’re in a for-profit business and yet they’re supposed to be looking for our best interests. So you have these commercials on TV basically selling you an escape from sadness, and that's complicated because sadness is a part of life.
If you’re saying that we have a pill that cures sadness, which on some level we are, that’s very appealing not only to depressed people but to sad people and people who are struggling with their lives. That conflict is really interesting to me. You know people will say, “Well as a society are we are over-prescribed?” and it's not that simple, because there are people in the world, on the street in New York, who are not getting any medications. So it’s not so much that we are over-prescribed, I think it's that the distributions of the medicine that we do have is hardly fair.
Your involvement with the upcoming "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" sequel seems like a natural evolution from what you explored in those two films -- just on a much larger, and more commercial, scale?
I really like science fiction so I keep trying to find a fun science fiction movie because I think that science fiction, even more than this kind of thriller, allows for social commentary and explorations on how society evolved. That was where my interest in "Planet of the Apes" came from. It was this opportunity to make a genre movie but still imbed within it something intelligent about the world that we are living in and what kind of animals we are.