Interview: Side Effects Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns

That may be a somewhat surprising statement from a professional screenwriter like Scott Z. Burns, but it was made late into’s interview when we recently met up with him at Tribeca’s Greenwich Hotel, much like we did in July of 2011. Back then we were there to talk about the viral outbreak thriller Contagion, his second movie with director Steven Soderbergh which proved to be a huge hit. This time, we were there to talk about their follow-up Side Effects, a psychological thriller starring Rooney Mara as a woman suffering depression who is prescribed a drug by Jude Law’s psychiatrist which instead starts a landslide of problems for both of them.

Burns’ statement is even more interesting when you realize that his latest collaboration with Soderbergh was something Burns had been developing to direct himself for nearly 12 years.

By now, he probably had gotten used to telling the story of how Soderbergh convinced him to allow him to take over the directing reins–we heard Soderbergh’s version ourselves last year–but for those who haven’t heard it, “I think when Warner Bros. decided they weren’t going to do (“Man From U.N.C.L.E.”), he had said he wanted to do another movie with me and that meant a lot to me and the prospect of that not happening I think made us both feel like we’d be leaving this with unfinished business. The weekend after ‘Man From UNCLE’ died, Steven said, ‘I read some scripts this weekend but I still think the thing I’m most interested in is that ‘Side Effects’ script that you wrote and would you be willing to step off of it and let me step on?’ It took about two or three minutes to make that decision. If your choice as a writer is to continue and try to cast and finance for a movie or you can have someone who has been such a respectful and generous collaborator who is that talented and who will attract an amazing cast. It wasn’t a hard decision and only that but I knew that if I didn’t pull the trigger quickly, he’d find something else.”

“Because of his record, he does a really good job of generating that critical mass,” Burns said about how quickly the project came together once Soderbergh decided to direct it. “Jude we worked with on ‘Contagion’ and found him to be amazing to deal with. Steven knew Rooney through Fincher and she seemed kind of perfect. I suggested Catherine one day on the phone and because of his relationship with Michael and Catherine, having worked with them before, that was an easy phone call too and all of a sudden we had a movie.”

The side effects of pharmaceuticals is certainly an interesting basis for a thriller although Burns told us that even the fairly obvious title can be taken in a number of different ways. “Not very many people have gotten this about the title, but my reason for calling it that was what’s different between a side effect and an effect? It’s a marketing tool to call it a side effect, but it’s not as though the medication doesn’t know it’s doing that. The medication isn’t a conscious being that goes ‘I’m really here to cure your depression but I’m also going to do X, Y and Z.’ This is what that medication does. We identify it as a side effect because it’s not what we want or what we expect or what the intended consequence is. Even in there is the subversion of an expectation, that we think those are the accidental properties of the chemistry and it’s just the chemistry.”

“Are they telling you this because it’s really going to happen or are they telling you this because they want to protect themselves in case something bad does happen?” Burns asked, as we spoke about those ever-present television commercials where the listing of side effects immediately takes away from the purpose of the commercial. “I think you see as much about the state of litigation in this country by watching those commercials than you do about where we are scientifically.”

“Steven and I have been asked what we’re trying to say about pharmaceuticals,” Burns said when we mentioned how the film never feels like a message movie despite the central subject matter. “That wasn’t the point in making this movie. We just wanted to make a really cool thrill ride. That landscape served as a good place to set it and there is a lot to be said about those things and I think that’s a great conversation for people to get into afterwards. But to me, the most interesting part of that conversation is ‘Do you ever know someone’s internal state? Do you really know how someone feels at any point in time?’ Human beings mask their true feelings, so when you take that basic human survival thing and then you layer medication in there, it gets very complicated.”

It’s interesting how Side Effects works as a psychological thriller while not necessarily being a genre movie—the same can be said for their previous collaboration Contagion which wasn’t the typical viral outbreak movie where people’s skins were falling off. Burns explained the decision to downplay the film as a genre flick. “Steven and I are both drawn to a process where if you take a genre and you try and subvert it a little bit then that’s your task, to identify what the pillars are of the thing that make it work and then avoid the cliché and try and make it your own. Frequently that means building a realistic world around the story so that’s where research comes in and trying to find a way of building a roller coaster through a familiar, credible world.”

“There’s a lot of Jude Law’s character that’s kind borrowed from my experience with ‘Rear Window≠,'” he went on when asked about the dual running narratives. “From a writing standpoint, I always need to find a really basic thing to get in and for this movie, is that I wanted the arcs of these two characters to mirror each other. What Rooney was doing at the beginning of the movie, she would have to be doing the opposite at the end of the movie and for Jude to prevail, he would have to sacrifice something integral to him.”

As with any thriller, Hitchcock is definitely one way into Side Effects, but older moviegoers may also be reminded of Adrian Lyne erotic thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, which Burns’ movie acts as a throwback to in some sense. “I wanted to subvert one of those movies as much as make it,” he admitted, “They were movies that I loved that created this feeling of weightlessness where all of a sudden the rug gets pulled out from under you and you’re having to put new points on your compass in the theater and recalibrate. I love that feeling in a movie and we’ve kind of gotten away from that.”

Burns also talked to us about his ongoing working relationship with Soderbergh, one of the more writer-friendly directors out there. “Collaboration for a writer frequently means being able to change stuff. Because he allows me to stand next to him while we’re shooting and participate at the level that I’m given access, inevitably we’ll see stuff that could work better or isn’t working at all and I’ll go, ‘Let me try and rewrite that. Maybe I can fix it and make it better.’ I wanna be there and not because I want to protect my words and keep them from changing. I want to be there because it’s fun to see them change and see how they’re going to find their way from the page.”

The last time we spoke to Burns, he was working on adaptations of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for David Fincher and the aforementioned The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but since then he was brought on to help write the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, an obvious choice since the sequel would have to spread the virus introduced in the original movie.

“I did a draft with Rupert last summer that I was really excited about and so was Rupert, but then Rupert and the studio parted company and I don’t know if they’re going to use what we wrote, but it was really fun to work on and I hope they use what I did because I think we were going in a cool direction.”

And that’s what brought us back to the opening statement, because Burns doesn’t feel like he’s writing “one for them and one for himself” when he’s called upon to write a studio franchise. “It’s hard to know when there are these giant studio tentpoles exactly what your role is going to be going forward,” he said. “All of those things are stories that I’m really fond of and I hope they get told, especially ‘20,000 Leagues’ because I have such admiration for David Fincher. I want to see that movie.”

Coming up for Burns is a play based on the true story of a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, which will be directed by Soderbergh for New York’s Public Theater, hopefully something they can get together for the fall. Even though he studied theater, it will be Burns’ first foray into being a playwright and he’s thrilled to have his friend and collaborator along for the ride. “I think for Steven and I it will be really fun to take the way to interact with each other to a different place, so I’m really excited about that, because it’s a new world that we get to explore, which I think is really what he is saying when he’s talking about retiring, is that he’s just looking to do other things.”

At the same time, Burns is developing an adaptation of the documentary Deep Water with StudioCanal, which he hopes will be the next movie he directs, something they’ll figure out in a couple of weeks, as well as a secret Fox project that he thinks will be announced shortly.

Side Effects opens on Friday, February 8, and if you end up going to see it, check back next when we’ll have a few quotes from Burns about some of the movie’s big twists and why they happened the way they did. You can also read what Burns said about a possible sequel to Contagion coming to television here.

(Photo Credit: PNP/