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'Side Effects' Writer Scott Z. Burns On Being Steven Soderbergh's Go-To Guy and His Work on Upcoming 'Planet of the Apes' Sequel

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire February 7, 2013 at 10:37AM

Coming out of seemingly nowhere to win over Hollywood by co-penning the taut and 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, having collaborated 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.
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Al Gore in a scene from Davis Guggenheim's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." Photo courtesy of Paramount Classics.

Can you talk about how those two worlds connect? Yours is not a common career trajectory.

When I got into advertising I thought of it as this great safety net for people with a liberal arts educations and people who really wanted to write TV, or novels, or movies. I always had an uneasy relationship with it because I had those aspirations. And finally because of Peter Berg and because of my own desire to do something that was about itself, that wasn’t about a product, was really appealing to me.

I’d been part of the team that created "Got Milk" when I was at an ad agency in San Francisco and so I became in conversation the "Got Milk" guy. Even when we were doing "An Inconvenient Truth" press tours, Al Gore would introduce me as the "Got Milk" guy. Those were fun times and the people I worked with were some of the brightest people I’ve met in my whole life, but I wanted, selfishly, to write for myself and not clients. Little did I know that studios would become my clients or actors would become my clients. You’re always writing for somebody or you’re not being read.

You would know that.

[laughs] I would.

Do you have any say in the advertising of your films? The “Contagion” and "Side Effects" promos all look like they’re coming from the same place.

In “An Inconvenient Truth,” I was very involved with the marketing.

Great poster.

And we had a lot of conversations about the strategy. The people at Paramount at the time -- I don’t even know if they’re still there -- who were doing the marketing were great. They realized that the way to get this movie to a wider audience was to make it scary and attach it to Katrina.

READ MORE: Steven Soderbergh Calls 'The Canyons' "Fascinating" and Hints at a "Spectacular Sex Scene"

I feel like I have been invited, both on "Contagion" and this movie, to participate in the marketing and the selling of these movies. I don’t know if people like that which is funny to me since I spent so long trying to get out of advertising and now people won’t let me get back in.

"It’s interesting that we’ve lost the ability to explain movies without listing the plot."

With a film like "Side Effects," were you at all wary about how much to reveal in the adverts?

At the beginning we made it very clear to them, and it was striking to me that we would even have to, because I think it says a lot about how far we’ve gotten away from where we should be when talking about movies. You don’t want to give away a thriller because the fun part for the audience, those moments of weightlessness when the rug is pulled out from under you, that’s what’s exhilarating. So that feeling and going on a ride is what you want to sell. It’s that feeling in “Primal Fear” or in “The Usual Suspects,” or in “Body Heat,” when you are finally able to reframe the story. That’s what you want to sell, not the plot.

It’s interesting that we’ve lost the ability to explain movies without listing the plot.

What do you have in the works that you can talk about?

Well, I wrote this play called “The Library” which Steven wants to direct and is at the Public Theatre here in development -- I’m hoping that's going to happen this year. I just finished a script called “Deep Water,” which Studio Canal is doing. It’s an adaptation of a documentary called “Deep Water,” and I think we are going to shoot that this year. So those are the two things on the launching pad, and I just started writing a script for Fox that I can’t talk about. But I’m looking forward to talking about it.

Is there a director attached to “Deep Water?”

No, we’re starting that process right now. I’m provisionally attached to direct it, so it’s the same kind of conversation. But again, if its not me I hope it's someone as good as Steven.

He can’t come in to swoop it up anymore.

Well, I’m about to ask him, but I think I know what the answer is going to be.

This article is related to: Scott Z. Burns, Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh, Interviews, Interviews





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