While perhaps not as well known and respected as names like Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Diablo Cody or Charlie Kaufman, if his recent momentum continues, writer Scott Z. Burns will soon find himself among Hollywood's upper echelon of top-shelf and well-paid screenwriters (if he isn't there already). In theaters this weekend is Steven Soderbergh's pandemic thriller "Contagion," starring Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon and more, one of many collaborations between Burns and the Academy Award-winning director. Known for a screenplay to a little film called "The Bourne Ultimatum," Burns also did work on "Ocean's 12," wrote "The Informant," and is an Oscar winner for producing the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
On the horizon are some more high-profile collaborations. He's penned "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," for director David Fincher and has another collabo coming up for Soderbergh's adaptation of the 1960s cold war spy TV show "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
But Burns also directed the underrated nuclear fallout drama, "Pu-239," and currently has his eyes set on his next filmmaking effort. In a interview with The Playlist this week, the writer/director told us he's ramping up for a new psychological thriller set in the world of pharmaceuticals, called "The Side Effects."
"It deals with people and their moods. It’s about how we as a society can’t tolerate sadness and what that makes us vulnerable to," Burns said. The idea came to him, like many of his ideas evidently do, while at New York's Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital doing research for "Wonderland," a Peter Berg-created, since-canceled 2008 TV show that Burns used to write for. "Peter and I and the other writers went every day for months and talked to psychiatrists, and I think I learned there that the only way these things really ring true is if you go and roll up your sleeves and get into them very deeply."
But unlike "Contagion," "The Side Effects" is not a horror/procedural about containing a virus. "It’s definitely got a twist," Burns said of the genrey psychological thriller aspect of his new project. "It’s a story where it’s like if someone were listening to the conversation you and I were having and thought 'Hmmm, if that’s the way that society is working how can I manipulate that, how can I use that?' And that’s what the movie’s about."
And it sounds like the picture will be moving forward soon. "I’m going to try and start casting after this weekend," he said. "It’s written and Lorenzo di Bonaventura ['Salt,' 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'] is one of the producers on it, so I’m going to get into it. It should be really great to get back to being behind the camera and hopefully using some of the things I’ve learned."
As for 'U.N.C.L.E.,' Burns confirms information we've heard lately (and so has E! Online) that intended star George Clooney was forced to drop out of the project because of his bad back (the actor is undergoing more surgeries in the new year; related injuries that stem from his on-set accident during "Syriana" in 2005).
"Yeah, you know George is a really fun guy and a really cool actor. I ran into George last week [at the Venice Film Festival]," Burns explained. "And he made a point of running to me and saying 'I really, really loved your script and I just wanted to be really clear with you that I need to have back surgery and I can’t do this.' And you know, I do know that Steven’s plan, which he was really up front with me about, was to shoot the action really practically, and it’s going to be a really, really physically intense movie. I think he really enjoyed some of what he did with 'Haywire' by keeping things practical and I think wants to apply that again. And from having written that character, I know that’s not a thing that you would want to do if you had a bad back."
"Contagion" opens in wide release this weekend. More to come from this interview later in the week.