With Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh knows exactly what he wants out of the audience. One can either accept or reject the turns, but I found the film to be a twisted, taut thriller. The writer behind Side Effects, as well as Contagion, The Informant!, and The Bourne Ultimatum, is Scott Z. Burns. Most of his work is difficult to pin down with just a single description because his storylines often morph as they proceed.
So it was with great pleasure that I was able to get him on the phone a few days ago to talk about the genesis of Side Effects (it was once a directorial vehicle for himself), what he does with his finished screenplays, his fascination with the spread of misinformation, what he shot for Side Effects, his goals on taking a second pass at the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes script, and much more.
The Film Stage: You developed this film for a few years and it was set up to be a directing vehicle, but then you stepped to the side. You’ve mentioned that it’s kind of like letting a master take over and what is ultimately best for the script is probably Steven Soderbergh. Can you talk about this process?
Scott Z. Burns: I wrote the movie and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was one of the producers on the movie with me, has been a part of it pretty much since the inception. You work on these things and sometimes they get made, and sometimes they don’t. One of the hardest parts is figuring out what you’re going to do when you’re seven or eight years into it and you’re still experiencing resistance. [Laughs] I had cast the movie at different points and there were financiers who said they were going to do it when we were at Miramax. It looked like the movie was going to get made and then Miramax got sold. Things changed and things shifted. People leave their jobs. The portfolio of some actors go up in value and others go down.
There’s a lot of different variables that have to line up perfectly to get the movie made. One of the ways of protecting yourself from the volatility of these things is when you have an A-list director who you have a relationship with. So at some point I had to make this evaluation of, “was I going to continue spending a lot of time and energy trying to get the movie made?” Or because Steven had read the script, and had come to me hat in hand and said, “I really love this. And I’d like for us to work together on something. This is probably going to be the last feature film I direct, and I’d like to do it with you.” It was really hard to say “No.” I’ve had an amazing experience collaborating with him. If the worst thing that happens to you as a screenwriter is you don’t get to direct your movie because Steven Soderbergh is going to, that would hardly be regarded as a bad day.
It always strikes me with a film like this because many of the pills in the film are actual products.
They’re actual things. Was it always that way initially or did you get all of the rights once in production to all the various names and brands?
No, it was always that way. I think what we wanted to do was make a movie that was a rollercoaster ride but we wanted to build that rollercoaster in familiar landscapes. I think by using real names when we could allowed that landscape to be real for people. All the side effects and all of the concerns and all those times those drugs are prescribed, were all things we researched and they’re legit.
Misinformation seems to be a running theme for you. Contagion had themes of misinformation and how it could cause panic and chaos. This film, in particular, touches on that a bit as well. I’m just curious about your own personal take on things. We can choose to be ignorantly informed and get our information from a source that isn’t reliable. But when you hear things from other people, in your own life, do you often do research and figure out if what they said is actually true or do you stop the spread of information right there and say, “Well, I’m just not going to tell anybody else that”?
That’s a really great question. I am very interested in that issue. About information and how information influences narratives and how narrative becomes very hard to unwind even if new information appears. This great book that I read a few years ago by Nicholson Baker called “Human Smoke”, which is this history of World War II told in news stories. It’s all true, and it paints an entirely different narrative then the one we have all come to think of as World War II. Those stories are really fascinating to me. How there are things we think we know, and we don’t. Whether it’s within interpersonal relationships or history, politics, or science. Those stories are the things I’m fascinated by and tend to make me want to sit down and write a script. But in my own life? Yeah, I think that when I encounter information that I’m dubious about I try and go and figure out why it’s true. If it’s not true, why it’s come to pass as fact.
The genesis of that is almost as interesting as the fact that it may be a complete and utter lie.
Well, and that part is also fascinating to me, because as a writer of stories and someone who has spent their life hopefully trying to create interesting fiction, I’m keenly aware of when you start bending the truth to make a more interesting story. I’m sure you’ve experienced that in your own work.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
So yeah, that’s a huge theme. I mean, the next thing I’m doing is actually a play about the high school shooting at Columbine and that deals with this very issue of how a narrative appears and how do we direct it once it’s become ensconced in the culture?
I understand when you got out of college you started working in advertising. Reluctantly, but you worked in it for about six or seven years. And I couldn’t help but notice that Rooney Mara’s character seems to work in some kind of advertising office.
You see the office for maybe a minute of screentime. But I’m curious if you had any particular input on the way they interact or was it just the setting?
Well, more than that. I mean, in a sense it was a metaphor for her character. Advertisements become our first experience of a service or a product and they influence how we feel about that. Even though we haven’t used the product yet or experience the service, we’ve experienced the ad. The ad that is in the movie for Ablixa, Steven went, “Why don’t you go and shoot that?” So I actually shot that ad. So yeah, that was something I was very conscious of in choosing.
I know you were tasked with taking a second pass on the new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes film. I don’t want to get into specifics, but I just want to posit an opinion and see what you think of the previous film. Since the human characters were two-dimensional, the apes became the stars. It was interesting to watch that unfold and still enjoy the movie. You get out of the theater and think, “That shouldn’t have worked,” and yet it does.
Well, you now know why I took the job. [Laughs]. Yeah, I have the exact same reaction to the first one. When Rupert Wyatt, the director, approached me, we had a long conversation with the producers. And they said, “We want you to make new and different humans for this next part of the story, and make them more well-rounded characters.” Rupert and I worked on a script and we really loved it, and then I know he had some differences with Fox. He walked off the project and they brought in a new team and the new team had a new writer. So I don’t know if they’re working off the scripts that Rupert and I did, but I really loved it and had a good time working with Rupert. I hope that some of what we were trying to do makes it into the final movie.
Your first film as a director, Pu-239, I hear you mention it had gone through this huge, tumultuous rollercoaster to get made. It almost sounds like you went through the exact same thing with this film.
Struggling to get it made.
It was. It was the exact same thing.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten some clarity and insight over the years of what gets made and what gets instantly greenlit or is it still pretty much a crapshoot?
I hope I have a little more insight. The problem is the insight only gets you so far in that. The things that I’m passionate about, I want to sit down and write. And then you have to join the struggle in getting them made. Every once in a while you get lucky and there’s something that you’re passionate about that is going to go forward quickly, like Contagion or The Bourne Ultimatum. Those are things I really loved and they didn’t meet with nearly the kind of resistance that this did. There’s a whole bunch of factors. There’s movie stars and there’s the stability of a studio and directors like Steven who can get work greenlit more quickly. So, on one hand I hope I have a little more sense about what is likely to get made. On the other hand, I hope that that never trumps my passion for finding a story I really feel I want to tell.
Soderbergh is well known by people that follow film: that he shoots it, he edits it, and he lights it. Are you going to take some of that controlling style to your own directing or do you think you’ll probably just hire a cinematographer?
I’ll always hire a cinematographer. Steven told me something early on after Pu-239, he said, “Don’t always write the movies you direct.” And I said, “No?” He said, “No, don’t do that. You really do benefit from the right collaboration.” I like having people around who contribute to the process. It makes the day a lot more fun. When you write a movie and spend a year all by yourself in a room, it’s great to then go out and have cinematographers who get inspired by what you’ve done and have suggestions. Production designers and actors, not least of all. I do feel like, for me, because it would be taking on another responsibility, it would take me away from the actors. And that’s really, as a director, where I want to be. I want to be between the script and the actors.
You wrote this Wall Street Journal article and you talked about how for each new rewrite or change in a script is done in a different page color. I can imagine that the scripts at the end of shooting look like a rainbow, almost.
They’ve got to be all of these crazy colors. Do you do anything with the scripts that actually get made into films? Do you set them inside some kind of cabinet as a trophy?
You know what? That’s such a cool idea, I’m now going to make my assistant Hannah do that.
It’s funny because when you start off as a screenwriter you have some pride that if your script is always blue, that’s a really good script because no one ever changed anything. Then you become much less precious and love being on set and being in the game. In the mix. “Oh, wow, well that scene felt a little different then how I thought it would. So what if we now change this scene?” You stop treating the thing like it’s the Bible and start treating it like it’s this living, breathing part and it’s your way of playing with the actors. It’s your way of listening to what’s going on.
You mentioned that Soderbergh gave you the advice of not writing everything you direct. You’ve been working with a lot of other writers. You’ve taken a crack at a couple of scripts and things like that. Is there anyone that you’ve interacted with that you’d love to work with?
I worship Charlie Kaufman. I think he’s amazing. If I could ever have the opportunity to work on project with him, that would be extraordinary. He’s so unique in his voice. A lot of the people whose writing I admire are already in a pretty good place in terms of directing. Quentin Tarantino I think is a brilliant writer. The Coen Brothers are amazing. I love the way that Paul Thomas Anderson writes. Obviously those are some of my favorite writers. But there are a lot of other people who I think are very interesting. I’ve gotten to know Mark Boal over the last few years. I think Mark’s really bright and would be an interesting person for me to work with. But there’s a lot of others.
I think Mark Boal would be someone interesting to see you work with because you both have a very investigative style.
Where you dive into it and then come out the other side and here’s a script.
Yeah. He and I’ve talked about that a bit. That would be really fun. But those are my screenwriting heroes. Charlie Kaufman and the Coens.
Side Effects opens wide on Friday, February 8th.
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