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Scott Z. Burns Talks Writing ‘Side Effects,’ Confirms Soderbergh Is Directing His Columbine Play ‘The Library’

Scott Z. Burns Talks Writing 'Side Effects,' Confirms Soderbergh Is Directing His Columbine Play 'The Library'

It was supposed to be so easy: Steven Soderbergh, for his last theatrical feature, was going to reteam with two of his favorite collaborators (handsome movie star George Clooney and his “Contagion” screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) for a big budget Hollywood spectacle, an adaptation of the television spy series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” But, things slowly fell apart, first when an injury sidelined Clooney and then when Warner Bros, nervous about Soderbergh going with a potentially unproven star (and shaky about the budget and period setting), shuttered the project indefinitely. But, just as Soderbergh moved from “Moneyball” to “Haywire,” so too did Burns and Soderbergh soldier on, this time turning to a project Burns had wanted to direct himself – a psychosexual thriller set in the pharmaceutical industry called “Side Effects.”

The results will be unleashed in theaters this weekend (read our review here) and we got a chance to chat with Burns about the inspiration for the project, what it was like handing things off to Soderbergh, how the helmer differs in his work ethic from David Fincher, and what their next collaboration – a new play – will be all about. And in case you missed it, Burns also shared his vision of “Dawn Of The Planet Of Apes” and his work on “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” earlier. 

I was wondering if you could talk me through the creative development of “Side Effects.”
A number of years ago I worked on a show for Peter Berg called “Wonderland.” And Peter wanted us all to go to Bellevue Hospital and learn about forensic psychiatry. So I went and thought it was this amazing place. And so through going there I became exposed to all of these amazing stories and kind of cobbled something together that turned into “Side Effects.” But it came, really, from spending a lot of time at the forensic ward in Bellevue.

It seems very much a companion piece to “Contagion” but it sounds like it was written way before “Contagion.”
Yeah, I really came up with the main body of it six or seven years before “Contagion.”

What was the process like for you developing it as a director and then handing it over to Soderbergh?
Well when I was directing it, it was super frustrating because it wasn’t getting made. It’s really hard to get movies made. There were times when we seemed like we had a really good cast and the financiers backed out. And there were times when we had a financier but we couldn’t get the right cast. You spend a lot of time trying to get all of these things to line up and it’s really frustrating and disheartening. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura really stuck with me and when “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” fell apart at Warner Bros, not only were Steven and I really bummed out that we weren’t going to get to make that movie, because we really liked it, but we were also bummed that we weren’t going to make another movie, since he had decided he was going to do one more.

He called me up and said, “I’ve read some scripts that are available but I don’t think I like any of them as much as that ‘Side Effects’ thing that you wrote,” because I had given him a copy years before for notes. And he said, “Would you consider letting me direct it? And it took about two and a half minutes for me to say yes.” You realize, as a writer, getting your movie made. And if you can get your movie made with someone who is an amazingly generous and talented collaborator and is your friend and you respect their work, the only reason I would have said no would have been truly out of ego and that’s a really fucking stupid way to make a decision.

What surprised you most about Steven’s decisions, especially in terms of what you were going to do?
You know, it’s almost impossible to answer that, because directing is a series of about a million decisions put end to end. I mean, I was a part of a lot of those decisions in this movie because Steven has me on set and I stand next to him and talk to him about every scene. So I feel like I had a certain amount of input into what was done; I don’t think I would have said yes if he didn’t want to make the same movie that I did.

**SPOILERS** Something that came up at the Lincoln Center screening the other night was that someone had suggested to change the Catherine Zeta-Jones character from a male character into a female character. How did that come about?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura made that suggestion and in a way, when I started to think about it, it sort of made sense in a way, to me, with the macro design of the whole movie, which is: I wanted to subvert as many things as possible to fuck with people’s expectations. And the thinking, for me, ultimately, was: if you cast a guy in that role you’re going to automatically assume a relationship between that guy and Rooney. And since we carry such a heterosexual bias with us, I wanted to take advantage of that, in the same way that we tried to subvert expectations. **END SPOILERS**

Can you talk about that? What other ways were you trying to subvert expectations?
Animals throughout nature use camouflage. And I think humans are no different. There are times when we’re young and we pretend that we’re sick to stay home from school because there’s a test we haven’t prepared for, or we’re heartbroken but we tell people that we’re fine because we want to create the impression that we’re not vulnerable. We do that throughout our lives – to protect ourselves using misdirection. When you have that going on, that’s kind of complicated. When you now have an industry that generates medications that make it even harder to know someone’s true internal state, then that’s really complicated. That’s what I wanted to explore with these characters. How do you really ever know what’s going on with somebody? And then it was populating the movie with a few red herrings and a few real clues and leave it up to the audience to try and sort those out.

What’s interesting about the movie is that it certainly has an edge but isn’t explicitly an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry – was that a tough balancing act?
Yeah, because, even that, is part of the misdirection. Steven and I wanted people to walk in and go, “Oh it’s this kind of movie” and then realize, “Oh it’s not that kind of a movie, it’s this kind of a movie.” And so what I really wanted to do in the writing of this movie was try and provide the kind of rollercoaster ride that I’ve always loved in movies when you get that great moment of weightlessness when the rug is pulled out from under you. If you look at the end of “The Usual Suspects” or the twist in “Primal Fear” or the end of “The Sixth Sense,” we love going to the movies and being fooled in new and interesting ways. That’s what I really wanted – to try and create that feeling of weightlessness. That was the main thing in making the movie and to do that you need to do a certain amount of misdirection.

For me, the question of pharmaceuticals and all those drugs is really complicated because a lot of people are really helped by those drugs. You can’t condemn medicine and science, so you make things that really help people. But then you have to sell them and profit motivation is involved and a whole new set of ethical questions pop up.

Yeah it’s interesting how the Jude Law character sort of gets into that line of thinking very easily, about how to sell this stuff. Did you find many examples of that stuff?
Yeah I talked to drug reps… There was an article I read as part of my research in the New York Times about how drug companies recruit cheerleaders to be drug reps. And when you go to your doctor’s office, inevitably there’s some very attractive woman trailing a rolling bag filled with samples and that raises a whole bunch of questions.

I know Soderbergh said he was very inspired by “Fatal Attraction.” What were the kind of touchstones that you drew on?
Yeah, I mean, “Double Indemnity” is one of my favorite movies and that was in the back of my mind. I think the paranoia that “Rear Window” explores is something that I was drawn to. “Body Heat” was a movie that was a movie that was a really brilliant math equation that was parsed out in such a great way. And even a movie like “Primal Fear” offered a twist that I never saw coming and my mind was blown.

It’s weird, too, that this subgenre has been so unexplored recently.
I don’t know either and that was something that Lorenzo and I talked about for a long time – where did these movies go? I think, in our big rush to make comic books and sequels we abandoned what was a really popular and economically feasible model. And so that, to me, was really an observation about the business that pointed me in this direction. I was like, “Why did we stop making these? They were really entertaining and fun rides to go on and provocative.” And if we had kept making them this movie would hardly be an outlier because just like “Double Indemnity” used the insurance industry as a framing device, I think this movie would have happened anyway, if we kept going.

I know that Fincher, who you’re working on “20,000 Leagues” with and Soderbergh are BFFs but what is it like working with those two?
It’s funny because David and Steven are the best of friends but they couldn’t be more different in some ways. Steven is very willing to take on all sorts of different sizes of projects and tends to work very quickly and David is much more methodical. In some ways, they’re really different because they’re really different personalities. But in some ways they’re very similar because they’re interested on a very conceptual, human level, on a lot of the same issues, which is probably why they’re such good friends. For me, as a writer, it wasn’t entirely different. There are a lot of the themes and ideas that I’m drawn to. It’s just with Steven he may feel like he wants to go out with as few toys and as little gear as possible and have the project be as streamlined as he possibly can and find his originality through that, David is interested in doing such grand visual things that it requires a whole different support system.

Can you talk at all about the play that Soderbergh will be directing in the fall?
The play is called “The Library” and it’s about a survivor of the Columbine shooting. It’s a play that I wrote over the last couple of years and it’s in development right now at the Public Theater in New York. Sometimes the Public sends the work to Broadway, sometimes they keep it in their complex. That much I don’t know. But it all kind of happened at Steven’s retirement lunch with me. We had finished “Side Effects” and we were just going to lunch. And I said to him, “Does your retirement apply to theater?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Well, I have to go to New York this week and figure out who would be the right director for my play and I would love it to be you.” I think he thought about it as long as I thought about him directing “Side Effects.” So I’m thrilled because I get to keep working with Steven and it’s one of these things where, since we’ve spent so much time together, he knows a great deal about what I want that play to be about. So I’m really excited to see it go on.

“Side Effects” is now playing.

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