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.
Are you a fan of the franchise itself?
On some level, I liked what Rupert [Wyatt] did with the first one and Rupert and I had a great time working on our script. And then Fox and Rupert parted ways, and as happens in Hollywood when the director goes, the writer is usually thrown out of the building shortly thereafter. So I don’t know if they are going to use what Rupert and I did, but I hope they did because I think we were going in a good direction.
You kind of came out of nowhere with “The Bourne Ultimatum” to then you became Soderbergh’s go-to man. How did you land on his radar?
I got really lucky. I worked in advertising for a long time and then Peter Berg challenged me to come and work on his TV show. I learned what Final Draft was and how to write a script and I was driving around LA, listening to “This American Life” like I always did, and I heard the story of “The Informant.” I tracked down who had the rights to it and asked them if I could go and pitch it. Steven had just started Section 8 with George [Clooney] and a woman named Jennifer Fox was there. I pitched it to Jen and she initially passed, and then I begged for further considerations. And it came down to Steven or Sydney Pollock to direct the movie.
Not bad company.
And Sydney Pollock told me “Look, if you want to go with Steven, I wouldn’t blame you.” They were friends, and he said “Steven is as gifted a director and as classy a guy as you’re going to meet.” He trusted me and I had this idea to explore the inside of Mark Whitacre’s mind in a way that I hadn’t seen before. And I think he and I both like taking genres and subverting them and identifying what the constituent elements are that draw the audience in, then mess with their expectations. That shared desire is what made it so fruitful.
After that, it took eight years to get “The Informant” shot, and in the interceding time I directed a movie called “Pu-239” and Steven was the executive producer on that. Then he asked me for some help on “Oceans Twelve” and we finally got to make “The Informant.” When that was done he asked me “Well, what else do you have?” and I said, “I’ve always had this idea for a pandemic movie but I wanted it based on science.” He looked at me and said “I’m in.”
Then I had this play that I wrote, and it was the same thing. So I asked him, “This retirement thing, does it apply to theatre?” He said “No,” and I said, “Would you ever consider directing my play?” Then it took him about two and a half minutes, because he knew the play pretty well and he had come to meetings of it. So he said “I’m in.” Which is great for me because it would be heartbreaking if I thought that we weren’t going to work anymore. He makes me a better writer — I would definitely be suffering a loss if he wasn’t a part of my life anymore.
Have you ever tried to dissuade him from his imminent retirement on the film side?
What I have always liked about Steven’s films is that he has always tried to do different things. Even when we were doing what we described as “popcorn movies,” he was trying to do them better, smarter and with more interesting things. There’s always something that he’s experimenting with and I think it’s great that maybe these experiments will now be paintings, books or plays. I believe that he is so drawn to film that he will come back, and when he does it will be because he has something really exciting and new to say. Or he will have found something so exciting about one of those other mediums that he won’t come back, and he’ll be doing something amazing in those and that’ll be fine. So I think we are all going to be fine either way, but I’ll miss him too.
In some ways his transition mimics your own from advertising to screenwriting.
Yeah, maybe he’ll go do advertising.
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.
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.
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.
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.