Side Effects: Scott Z. Burns Talks Better Living Through Chemistry

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Scott Z. Burns knows a thing or two about writing a thriller. The screenwriter of Side Effects has taken audiences on wild rides from The Bourne Ultimatum through Contagion, with the latter directed by Side Effects helmer Steven Soderbergh. If there is an element to a "secret to Soderbergh" success, Burns believes he saw it while they were making The Informant with Matt Damon.

Side Effects Jude Law

"When I sit around with other screenwriters and talk about my experience [with Soderbergh], they shake their head in disbelief. Steven has always had me on set. There isn’t any of the kind of conventional view of, 'We just need the script to tell us where to park the truck,’” Burns said and laughed.

"Steven believes that the writer needs to be involved in the process all the way through. For the director to do that, they have to be confident in their control over the medium and secure in their skills as a filmmaker. I stand next to the camera with him on the set! He’s always given me remarkable access to the actors. On The Informant, Matt (Damon) and I spent a great deal of time together before we started shooting. And the same was true with Jude and Rooney on this movie. He and I have developed a trust."

His latest film is a barn-burning thriller that takes the audience on one wild ride, as teased in our Side Effects exclusive trailer. Burns' idea for Side Effects arose out of work he did years ago for the Peter Berg television show Wonderland.

"I was always a fan of psychological thrillers and I’ve never tried writing one. I admire greatly that they take audiences for unexpected rides. I wanted to write one of those, because it’s a forgotten drama," Burns admitted.

"Then, I was doing research for a Peter Berg show that was set in New York. As a writer on the show, I did a lot of research at Bellevue Hospital, and I was fascinated by this intersection of forensic psychiatry, the law, prescription drugs and human behavior. It seemed like a fruitful area to try and build a movie around."

Scott Z. Burns Photo

Seeing Side Effects come to life is a long-standing dream, one that is realized when it premieres February 8. "This took almost eight years to get from the first time I walked into Bellevue to when we started shooting," Burns said.

The title, Side Effects, has people thinking prescription drugs and those ever-present pharmaceutical commercials on television. Yet, Burns admits the film's moniker works many ways.

"The name of the movie is a twist in and of itself, because I find it hysterical that we call these things side effects. It’s the effect of the drug! The fact that it’s not what you’re taking the drug for makes it a side effect? The drug doesn’t know that it’s an unintended fact. That distinction shows how selective we are in viewing these things. But, we in society are very fond of taking a pill to solve a problem," Burns said.

Guess that's why that phrase "better living through chemistry" has always resonated. "Jude's character says that in the movie!"

The screenwriter, who is also a producer on the film, noticed that our television screens are inundated with commercials promising to relieve the public of sadness. That is something he feels is actually kind of dangerous.

"We don’t always make a distinction between sadness, which is a natural and reasonable response to the things that happen to us, and depression, which can be debilitating. When people get sad and they see these commercials on TV, they think, 'Oh, this is a way to get rid of my sadness.' And it may, in fact, change the chemistry of your brain so it does stop sadness. But, sadness is instructive, necessary and human emotion. I saw some opportunities with the movie to interject that and work in some twists."

Lastly, Movie Fanatic wondered what psychological thrillers from the past motivated him to put pen to paper and craft one of his own -- so thrillingly teased in this Side Effects trailer.

Rooney Mara Side Effects

"I love everything from Double Indemnity to Rear Window to things more recent like Body Heat. Primal Fear is obviously a movie that had an influence on me with this movie. I loved the twist in that movie," Burns admitted. Oh, and there's that mind-bender that gave us such stellar The Usual Suspects quotes.

"From a writing standpoint, The Usual Suspects has always been one of my favorite scripts. You don’t see that twist coming, and that’s psychologically thrilling to me. I love the experience of seeing a movie with a landscape that is familiar to me and having it pivot and shift around and get turned on its head. I love that ride."

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Side Effects Review

If Steven Soderbergh is truly retiring after the release of Side Effects, then he will go out on top. The film is a nail-biting thriller...

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