IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Producer and Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns Talks 'Side Effects'

Wednesday, 06 February 2013 23:02 Written by  Jami Philbrick
Rate this item
(3 votes)
IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Producer and Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns Talks 'Side Effects'

Scott Z. Burns has worn many different hats in Hollywood. 

The filmmaker first gained attention for directing the 2006 film Pu-239, and would eventually go on to produce former Vice President Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, as well as write the box office hit The Bourne Ultimatum. But it is his frequent collaborations with Oscar-winning director Steven Sonderbergh, including The Informant!, and Contagion, that has made everyone take notice. 

Since then the scribe has penned a draft of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as well as being attached to write The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which is based on the popular ‘60s spy series starring Robert Vaughn. But first, he has reunited with Soderbergh again on, what may be the director’s final theatrical film, a psychological thriller entitled Side Effects, which Burns wrote and produced, and will opens in theaters on February 8th.

Side Effects centers on Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum), a successful New York couple whose world unravels when a new drug prescribed by Emily’s Psychiatrist (Jude Law), which is intended to treat anxiety, has unexpected side effects. In addition to Law, Mara, and Tatum, the excellent cast of actors also includes Vinessa Shaw (Puncture), Mamie Gummer (The Ward), and Academy Award-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago). 

I recently had a chance to speak with producer and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns about his work on Side Effects. The accomplished filmmaker discussed the new film, its unique concept, his research, plotting its twists and turns, why he writes every role for Matt Damon, the film’s impressive cast, collaborating with Steven Soderbergh, and if he truly thinks Side Effects will be the acclaimed director’s final theatrical film. 

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk about the origins of the script and coming up with the unique concept for the film? 

Scott Z. Burns: Years ago I was fortunate enough to work on a television show that Peter Berg created called Wonderland and it was on ABC for a little bit. Our research process for that show involved going to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital for months at a time and learning about forensic psychiatry, which is the intersection of psychiatry and the law. I met this really fascinating psychiatrist named Dr. Sasha Bardey, who was our consultant on the movie. At the time I tailed Sasha and would go and watch him interview really scary people who were murderers and child molesters and other terrifying things, but they were also people who had definite psychiatric problems. Sasha and I remained friends after the show was canceled and I remained fascinated by the kind of collisions that happened at that intersection, to torture that metaphor a little further. So that was sort of the beginning of this and I kind of decided I wanted to create a cat and mouse game that involved a psychiatrist and a patient.   

Did you have to do any additional research for the film, or was the research that you had done originally for Wonderland, and then with Sasha being a consultant on the film, all you needed to write the script?

Burns: Well, my whole process is that when I get stuck I just do more research. I always feel like that's where the answer is so whenever I'm writing something and I don't know what to do next I usually go back and read more, or interview somebody again, or interview somebody else who's involved in the field. So yeah, there was additional stuff that I did along the way. I had to learn about psychopharmacology so there was reading up on that and finding people who had undergone clinical depression who were willing to talk to me about it was part of it as well.

I imagine those pharmaceutical books can be very dense and difficult to sit through and read. Does that process ever get daunting for you as a writer?

Burns: Yeah, I think that you sit there alone in your room writing and then you go and talk to people who are really experiencing these problems and it gets very real. You have to be very respectful to people's experiences and pretty circumspect about the questions you're asking. You certainly don't want to talk to people who are in the acute stage of depression about it. So they were mainly people who had come out on the other side.

You mentioned the “cat and mouse” aspect of the film; can you talk about taking you research you did and crafting the screenplay into a thriller?  

Burns: Well, I've always been a fan of movies that pull the rug out from under you in new and unusual ways. So I really wanted to try and make one. I don't know that I'll ever write anything like The Usual Suspects or Body Heat, but I admire those movies greatly. What I sort of felt like was if I'm going to build a roller coaster ride, I want to build it through familiar landscapes. So I wanted to populate the movie with people that I think the audience will feel like they know because depression is so prevalent. I think I started there and thought alright, this should look like the world that we all live in where, I can't remember what the number is now, but it's something like one in five people in America suffer from depression at some point. It's slightly higher for women, but that maybe because women are more willing to talk about their problems. I wanted to create this familiar world and then within that world, once you get people nodding their heads and going, oh, I know somebody like that, or I know someone who's taken that medication, then you can begin to fuck with their expectations.

When you are writing and creating your characters, do you have certain actors in mind that you are envisioning for the parts? Did you talk to director Steven Soderbergh about who he might cast in the film while you were writing the screenplay?

Burns: Anytime I sit down to write I hope that I'm writing for Matt Damon. So yeah, whether it's a man or a woman or even an animal that speaks, I just hope it's going to be Matt Damon

Well, I'm from Boston, so I have to say that you can't go wrong with Mattie Damon!

Burns: So when I wrote The Bourne Ultimatum I knew it was obviously going to be Matt. Steven spoke to Matt early on about The Informant! so I knew it was going to be Matt. I wrote the Mitch Emhoff character in Contagion knowing it was going to be Matt, but those are the exceptions. Every other character was usually more based on research and they were sort of a composite of people I had met along the way, or people I knew elsewhere in my life. Jonathan Banks wasn't really about Jude Law, it was about this guy Dr. Sasha Bardey who I had met doing research. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) was just a composite of a lot of people who I had met along the way.

But you must have been delighted when the cast started to form and you realized that actors like Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones had agreed to be in the film, correct?

Burns: Yeah, I mean Rooney is such a fascinating actress and just as a performer she is really inscrutable and enigmatic, and that's exactly what we needed. From the first time Steven and Rooney were at my house I said, God, there's just something about her that makes you want to lean forward. You know you want to get a closer look because it's hard to tell exactly what's going on with her. She's always a little bit fragile, a little bit mysterious, a little bit winking, and that was just perfect for Emily. Steven and I had worked with Jude on Contagion and he was amazing, just amazing to work with. He was so prepared, so willing to do the research, so willing to be vulnerable, and up for anything. It was just after the Contagion experience with him and I was really gratified. Initially the character wasn't British, but when we started talking about Jude, Steven and I decided it'd be really cool if he was British because it makes him a little bit more vulnerable and a little bit more of an outsider, which in a way is cool for a therapist. I have a therapist friend who once said; ideally therapists would come from other planets so that they could study us with a greater degree of objectivity. For Jude to at least be coming from another country, you feel like he starts the movie from this very detached place of “I just want to help you, and I'm not going to judge you.” There's a sort of naiveté that a therapist has when they need a patient that serves this kind of story really well.

You have collaborated with director Steven Soderbergh several times in the past, what is your working relationship like with him now at this point in your career?

Burns: He's great. I think I have had an experience with him that when I talk to my other screenwriter friends, they sort of shake their heads in disbelief because with Steven I'm on set every day. I mean on this movie I was also the producer so it's a little bit different. But from day one of The Informant through wrapping of this movie I was on set every day. I was given incredible access to the actors. Generally I stand right next to Steven and the camera while we're shooting. We talk about how the scene's going and if there are adjustments to be made what they should be. He's very inclusive of me in post-production and solicits my opinion. I think what’s grown over time is that he's come to hopefully trust me a little bit more. Or maybe I've just become more aggressive, but it's been an amazing experience from a collaborative standpoint. On about the third day of shooting The Informant!, I found myself talking to Matt about a scene and then I realized that maybe I overstepped my bounds. So I walked up to Steven and said, well, I told Matt to do something in the scene and I hope that that wasn't inappropriate. He said, “No you wrote the movie, that's why you're here, you're here to help make it. You don't stop working on it when you hand the pages in.” Most people in Hollywood don't give writers that much respect and that's probably why most movies in Hollywood aren't that good. 

Finally, Soderbergh has stated publically that Side Effects will mark his final theatrical directing effort and that he will soon retire from filmmaking. Do you think that is really true?

Burns: I think he will for a while. There's a play that I wrote that Steven's going to direct at the Public Theater so we're going to do other kinds of things together and I'm stoked about that. I think that he and I are both drawn to some of the opportunities that TV seems to be affording people in terms of what kinds of characters you get to explore, so I think that's something he would be open to. Steven's really intellectually curious about the world and I think that that curiosity will likely lead him back to a movie, but I think when he comes back to it, it's going to be because he has something cinematically that he's excited about doing. I think he's fine not knowing what that is right now. So that's what I look at when people talk about his retirement. I just think he's going on a little exploration and if he doesn't come back, it's probably going to be because he has become an amazingly prolific painter, or writer, or something else because it's not like he's retiring from being curious about the world.    

Side Effects opens in theaters on February 8th. 

More in this category

Follow ROGUE

Latest Trailers

view more »