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

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 8, 2013 at 11:20AM

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."
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Side Effects Scott Z. Burns

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. 

Contagion Gwenyth
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."

Steven Soderbergh
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.

Side Effects Catherine Zeta-Jones
**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.

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


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