Scott Z. Burns is responsible for some of the best adult-oriented thrillers of the last six years, including "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Contagion" and, now, "Side Effects." Those last two films mark the second and third times Burns wrote a film directed by Steven Soderbergh (their first collaboration was "The Informant!"), and it's a relationship that has served both men well. Burns writes scripts that would have been at home in the 1970s and 1980s, and Soderbergh likes that era too. (Soderbergh even used the Saul Bass 1970s Warner Bros. logo at the beginning of "Magic Mike".)
"This was a kind of movie that used to be made a lot," Soderbergh said of "Side Effects" at a recent screening hosted by The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. "I don't know if it just got priced out of existence or what. […] They just kind of went away. I was really excited about the idea of doing an updated version of that."
Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Side Effects" is a twisty neo-noir in the vein of "Double Indemnity," "Fatal Attraction" and "Jagged Edge." Burns worked on the script on and off for 10 years, and decided on setting the film in the world of psycho-pharmicology after a visit to New York's Bellevue hospital to do research for the television show "Wonderland."
"I really loved the idea that he took a social issue -- a very zeitgeist-y issue -- and used it as a Trojan Horse to hide a thriller inside it," Soderbergh said.
With "Side Effects" out in theaters on Feb. 8, Burns spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about his relationship with Soderbergh and why Burns thinks Soderbergh's decision to retire is ultimately a good one.
"Side Effects" your third film with Steven, and you also wrote "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," which he was going to direct. Why do you both connect so well?
I think there are a few things that we sort of liked about each other at first. Neither one of us went to film school, so we're both kind of self-taught. We both would rather talk about baseball and sports than movies. I think we have a lot of interests that go beyond cinema, which is great because you need to find things in the world that you want to express, and then drag them to a movie set and try to film them. I think we have some common interests. I also think we have some decidedly approaches to things; some complimentary skill sets. I think Steven appreciates the fact that I love to do research and I love to go deep into stuff. That makes him have more confidence in the material.
So far as those movies go, when we were going to make "The Informant!" we were both so struck by what was comic and strange in the story. That movie was made not long after "The Insider," but Steven didn't want to make a Michael Mann movie, so we had to find another way in. What drew us to that story was the absurdity; we wanted to make a comedy. I think whenever Steven and I find ourselves in a specific genre, our first instinct is to subvert some aspect of the genre and to do something unique. That's a real common thing for us. You want to learn the rules of the game that you're playing and then you want to break them.
These latter-stage Soderbergh films have done that exceedingly well -- from "The Informant!" and "Contagion" to "Magic Mike" and, now, "Side Effects," which as you've both said is the type of thriller that isn't necessarily made any more.
I've always loved going to movies where you have that feeling of weightlessness when the rug gets pulled from underneath you. Whether it's "Double Indemnity" or "Primal Fear" or "Body Heat" or "The Usual Suspects," which is maybe the script I admire most in the world. All of those movies have these great moments where you felt like you were floating, because you had been taken in. I wanted to try to do something half that good. That's what I was aiming for. To me, I wanted to build a rollercoaster ride through really familiar landscape.
You were a producer on "Side Effects." Did you have a lot of input into the casting of Rooney Mara?
Very much. Steven and I talked about it at great length. In part, because the movie came together so fast we had to make decisions quickly. Steven's very close friends with David Fincher and David had really great things to say about Rooney after "Dragon Tattoo." I don't know that the word inscrutable has ever found a better definition. She's just someone who you look at and you want to figure out what's going on inside of that person. She doesn't give a lot away and it works so well for this character. That choice was pretty simple and easy; she read the script and called that day and said I really like this and I totally get what this is about. The three of us met the next day and I said to Steven, "I already don't really know what's going on inside of that person. She's perfect."
You mention how fast this came together, and Steven has said it was, in part, because "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." fell apart. That's the second time after "Moneyball" that a Soderbergh movie was dropped in the 11th hour.
It's scary. When the "Moneyball" thing happened, I was completely shocked. It does give you pause. You think, "Oh my God, if they can fire Steven off of 'Moneyball' for no fucking reason I can understand, then we're all vulnerable." You have to keep a lot of irons in the fire and close ranks, at times, to get things made. Obviously, it helps when you can create the critical mass that you need to get the thing going. I tried to get "Side Effects" made for years with myself as a director and it was always an issue of, "You have to find the right financing and then the right cast." Then maybe you try to do it with a lesser well-known cast and a lesser budget. You just constantly try to come up with a formula that works. Once Steven came on the project, we were very quickly able to figure out that formula. Which, to your point earlier, was something that had always been a part of this movie. You can make these sort of psycho-thriller movies for not all that much money. If you make them about something that's in the zeitgeist and you populate them with really interesting characters, then they can be reasonable businesses for studios to get into. It's a shame we've gotten away from them in our addiction to comic books and sequels.
Not just comic books and sequels, but Oscar movies. Everything now is a blockbuster or Oscar bait, and movies like "Side Effects" -- which are just regular, great movies -- don't get made.
What you said is exactly the conversation Steven and I had for years about this movie and even "The Informant." It's part of our frustration. Movies that I really loved -- you take a movie like "Dog Day Afternoon," which has a really complicated hero and is on some level a heist movie, but talk about subverting a genre! I don't know if that movie gets made anymore. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" doesn't get made.
Or if it does, it's promoted as "The performance of a lifetime!"
The thing is, most of those movies had pretty complicated heroes. R.P. McMurphy is not exactly an immensely likable guy on some level. Yet we come to love him. Steven and I have both talked about that with Jude Law -- both in "Contagion," where he's a complicated character, or in this movie, where he starts out very idealistic and has to sacrifice a lot of his ideals through the movie. Those are really fun, interesting characters for people to watch and we tolerate them on TV. Whether it's "Breaking Bad" or "Homeland," we love those characters. For some reason, movie studios just seem to be lagging in recognizing that those are humans. We identify with them. It's striking to me that things like "Homeland" and "Breaking Bad" and "Girls" are so wonderfully written and so fascinating and so consistent, and -- frequently -- really well shot. Why wouldn't you want to go and do that? Why wouldn't you want to have that kind of relationship with an audience? You can take them to places over the course of time that's really hard to do with movies.
You directed the HBO film "Pu-239" and wanted to direct "Side Effects." Do you have plans to direct again?
You know, as a writer I feel like I feel like my first obligation is to help the movie get made in its best iteration. There are some movies, like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," where there is nobody better than David Fincher to direct that movie. Obviously that's not something I would want to direct. Then there are movies where I do feel like I see it while I'm writing it. So it's not an act of hubris that says, "I need to have my name on top of the call sheet." It's really just a desire for accuracy in terms of what's in my head. It doesn't mean that other people couldn't also direct it and make a really cool movie, it would just be different from the one I already shot in my brain. Sometimes the scripts are easy to let go of and sometimes there are ones where I really want to see what's in my head. The great thing about "Side Effects" is that because I worked so closely and collaboratively with Steven, I knew he got what I was trying to get at. I felt like I was in the best of all possible hands.
With Steven now retiring from filmmaking, is it heartbreaking for you to lose such a great collaborator?
Yes. It's a little bit heartbreaking, for all sorts of selfish reasons. But there's a play that I wrote which is in development at the Public Theater and Steven is going to direct that. We're hoping to get that done this year. We're going to continue to collaborate in other ways. We're both really interested in TV. I think that would a really fun place for Steven and I to go because we're both drawn to these characters who are complicated and TV is a really welcoming place for those kinds of roles right now. I think I would be much more bummed out if I didn't think we were going to work together on anything. But, even beyond that, he's someone who I'd like to think is my friend. I think it's really healthy and amazing that he wants to go explore other things. If he comes back to making movies, and I hope that he does, it will be because he went away and got inspired by other shit and now can bring that to bear on the films. If he doesn't come back, it'll be because the other things are so rewarding for him that he doesn't need to come back. And that would be great too. I feel like it will all be OK either way.