Opening this weekend is director Steven Soderbergh’s psychological thriller Side Effects. Written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Informant!), the film is about “a successful New York couple (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) whose world unravels when a new drug prescribed by Emily’s psychiatrist (Jude Law)—intended to treat anxiety—has unexpected side effects.” The film also stars Catherine Zeta-Jones.
At the recent Los Angeles press junket, I landed an exclusive interview with Burns. We talked about his feelings regarding Soderbergh’s retirement, how he originally wanted to direct Side Effects himself, changes to the script during development, his writing process, and much more. In addition, I got updates on rumors he might be writing the new Blade Runner, what happened to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and what it was about, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, David Fincher’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and more. Hit the jump to either read or watch the interview.
Here’s the video interview. The full transcript is below.
Collider: Talk a little bit about, when Steven said “I’m going to go to Hawaii and retire” after having a few films in a row be made and it’s so hard to do in this town, were you like, “Really? You’re going to do this right now?”
Scott Z. Burns: It was particularly bad because they were mine, a lot of them. No, I mean we’ve known each other for a while and I think it’s good that Steven wants to take a break. I think I’ll be bummed if he doesn’t come back. But if he doesn’t come back it will be because he found a really great way to express himself in some other way, so it won’t be a bad thing. He’ll be painting, or writing books, or doing plays, or doing TV and so I don’t see him retiring from wanting to make stuff and share his insights on the world. So it’s not that big a bummer, because I know that he’ll do interesting things, and I hope that he and I will do some of those together. But when he said that I was trying very hard to get this movie cast and direct it myself, because it was a thing that I had written for myself, and it had been at Miramax, it had been at MRC, and it had been at other places around town and he had been keenly aware of my struggles. I had a cast at one point, and then the person who was championing the movie left that particular studio and then I started to get another cast, but sometimes one person’s profile goes up then it goes down and their perceived value changes. So you’re sort of caught in this herding of cats, of getting the money, and the actors, and the time and the schedule. It’s really hard. It’s hard to get a movie made and when you have someone like Steven who can have a movie coalesce around him rather quickly, it gets a lot easier. He and I were going to do The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at Warner Brothers and it fell apart and he came to me and he said, “I’ve read some scripts, but I think my favorite one is that movie Side Effects that you wrote. How would you feel about me doing it?” And we had a really open, candid conversation about my aspirations and our work relationship. It was a conversation between two friends and at the end of the day, what I said to the people that I work with was, “We have a choice, we can keep pushing on this thing and maybe it will get made and maybe not, or I get to do it with someone who I admire so much, who has been so generous with me and who’s work I admire so much. It will get made, and it will be made by a brilliant director.” The decision was really easy for me. And that’s why he said what he said at the end of the press conference about, you know, saying thank you.
I did see that downstairs, I came in at the end actually, the last ten minutes.
Burns: That’s what that’s about.
With him, is it like he literally picks up the phone and two days later you’re all set for the most part? Because unlike The Man from U.N.C.L.E, which is big-budget, this is not a huge summer tent pole movie, is it easier to get the financing when it’s not 100 million dollars?
Burns: Both have their challenges, for us we felt that we had at least two really great roles and hopefully a really fun bad-guy role, and then we always knew there was a great opportunity for some stunt casting. Those conversations were really fun and once you kind of get one person screwed into one socket then the other ones start kind of recommending themselves. But, yeah, it doesn’t take someone at that level very long to assemble a cast.
Obviously you said this was a project you’d been trying to get made for a little while, in terms of when you first wrote it to what I saw on the screen, how did the project change along the way, if at all?
Burns: The bones of it didn’t change substantially, the things that kind of shifted around a little bit were how long the first act of the movie could really sustain and how much the audience really wants to be immersed in someone’s depression, how much you need to make that really familiar. The cat and mouse game that ensues later pretty much always stayed what it was.
Talk a little bit about the writing process for you. I ask this of all screenwriters, some screenwriters I speak to have a golden hour, they wake up and they writer for three or four hours and that’s it, and some people I’ve spoken to, they write nine to five every day and they’re regimented. What’s your thing?
Burns: I’m more of a write from about 7:00, 7:30 in the morning until about 10:00 or 11:00 at night. I try and go do other things; talk to other humans, eat some food, get some exercise, be in the world. On occasion lately if I’m feeling really good about what I’m doing I try and sneak up on my computer again in the afternoon and see if there’s anything good to be said and I kind of think that maybe I can write more, I’m being a little bit lazy.
Burns: Initially I think I was so happy to be done, to have gotten to the end, and it’s so painful for me to reread that I was like, “Ok it’s done and I’ll just wait for their notes and take another pass at it.” I now feel like that’s really undisciplined and its better for me to spend a little more time and go over it once or twice more and try and make it better before I hand it in.
What has the last few years been like for you in terms of having these movies made and being hits? I would imagine it opens doors for you in terms of taking meetings around town.
Burns: Yeah, I mean, I think it helps a little bit. I guess it also depends on what you want to be doing. I think I always feel, because I’m not trained as a screenwriter that there are stories that when I hear them, or come across them, or contemplate them, I know how to do them, and then there are things that I don’t really know how to do that other people who I think are more accomplished at craft do know how to do. To me it’s like there’s stuff I just can’t do that I wish I could because people get paid a lot to do those things, but most of the movies that I’ve been a part of have been things that I’ve initiated. So they’re things that I’m selling rather than things I’m getting hired to do.
There were rumors, and I’m sure you’re about to deny it, but there were definitely rumors out there that you might have been helping out on the new Blade Runner, so can you confirm or deny those?
Burns: I can do both. I talked to Ridley about it at one point as a part of a larger conversation about us trying to find something to do together because I have such admiration for him. I’m as huge a fan of that movie as anybody else who would be reading this or watching it, so what I said to him was, “Let’s not do that unless we have something amazing to do or to say, because I don’t want to touch that idea unless I really feel like I have something amazing to contribute and right now I don’t know what that is.”
Burns: Yeah I think he and I will probably talk again about that, but again it’s less about that specifically and more about he and I wanting to make a science fiction movie together. So I hope that that happens, to me I’m not particularly attached to it being Blade Runner. I suspect by the time we would come up with something it would be its own things and not attaching to that franchise necessarily, because it is a franchise, it’s a great piece of work.
And I’m happy he’s back in the sci-fi game with Prometheus and hopefully he’s going to do the sequel or another sci-fi thing, he’s a great filmmaker.
Burns: Yeah, and it’s been- I don’t even remember how we met. I actually think I met him through his wife because she’s involved in environmental stuff as I’ve been and he’s great. He saw the movie that I did Pu-239 and loved it and that’s why Oscar Isaac ended up playing King John in Robin Hood. So that was great, the big thrill is even if you have a movie that maybe doesn’t get as much attention as you wish, like Pu-239, when people like that call you and say “Wow that’s great and I’m going to go steal your actor.” It’s fantastic and it’s good for Oscar who’s brilliant.
Yeah, and he’s doing ok right now.
Burns: Yeah, he’s going to be the lead in the new Coen Brothers movie.
Burns: He’s amazing; he’s a really gifted actor.
You mentioned earlier The Man from U.N.C.L.E. since that might not ever get made can you tease people about what your take on that is?
Burns: Yeah, Steven and I both loved it because it was a way of doing a spy movie and setting up a really interesting character that was fascinating to us, because U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t affiliated with the US or with Russia, it was this great cold war thing. And now spies have all these great toys but we would have to take some of them away, because it was the 60’s and there would be different plots because you didn’t always have a cell and you couldn’t solve problems with some of the things now. So we had this idea based on something happening in the real world where there was this- I’ll tell you what, here I’ll reveal a whole bunch. I don’t know if Warner Brothers is going to use this but there was a thing that happened with a B-52 bomber in like 1966 or 1967 over Spain where it was refueling and there was an accident and it lost its payload and three bombs fell on Spain and the Atlantic, and they hadn’t been armed, but the contained warheads. So we scattered plutonium all over a farm field in Spain, the second bomb was recovered, but the there was a period of time when the third bomb was laying on the floor of the Mediterranean and no one could find it and so it was the race to find it that was what our episode was about, which I thought was going to be really, really cool and I’m bummed we didn’t get to do it.
Was this one of these things where it was right on the cusp of going or was it like it never really got that close to going?
Burns: It was pretty close to going. I think we were all shocked that it didn’t happen and it was because it didn’t happen that this did. It was going to be this movie that Steven and I were going to do together, it was going to be our sort of swan song and I think we both felt pretty shitty that we were losing that opportunity because we really like the script and we were excited about getting it cast.
Burns: Yeah, I think in the end we talked about a lot of people, Matt was busy; I think we considered a lot of different folk. It just didn’t come together and Steven had a real desire to do a movie last year around this time and that’s when he then came to me and said, “I’ve read some scripts but Side Effects is my favorite thing that’s out there. How would you feel about giving that to me?”
If I’m not mistaken you’ve either written or taken a pass at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, are they using your script?
Burns: I have no idea, Rupert Wyatt and I worked on a draft last summer that I think we were both really excited about and he went into Fox and they seemed to like it, they wanted a lot of changes and they sort of parted ways over those changes. Then management shifted at fox, they brought in a new director, I think the new director wanted a new writer and I don’t know how much of what we did and I wrote is ongoing. It’s kind of heartbreaking because I really loved what we were trying to say with that movie so I hope some of it survives or that they came up with something a lot better,
I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I’m assuming you also when you saw it were like, “Wait a minute, what?”
Burns: I felt the way about it that I think a lot of the people involved did, which was that I loved the apes, but I felt that the human characters needed to be more interesting and that was sort of my task when we started talking about the second one. I was loving it, it was a really fun world to play in. It’s really heartbreaking when these things sort of leave you and you’re not even sure why.
Burns: Yeah, which is why after seven or eight years of pounding on doors with a rolled up copy of Side Effects and then someone as talented as Steven says, “Can I direct this?” and then all the sudden the doors fly open, you try and put away your anger and frustration and just enjoy the fact that you’re fortunate enough to get a movie made.
There were rumors that you were doing a pass on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Burns: I wrote 20,000 Leagues.
Then that’s my next question, what’s the status of that?
Burns: I don’t know, I saw Sean Bailey at Sundance and I know that I had a great time working with David. Again, it’s a script that I really loved, I loved that book and I think that David and I had a really great take. I know I ran out of steps at some point and David asked Andrew Kevin walker to do a pass, I’ve not read his draft, but shit the guy wrote Se7en he’s an amazing writer. Sean said that they’re really happy with that script. I think David is figuring out at what budget he can do the movie. Just as a movie fan, even if I wasn’t involved, I would love to go see David Fincher do that movie, it would be amazing.
He’s one of my all time favorite directors.
I’ve got to wrap with you, but two quick last things. How does your take on it compare to previous incarnations, is it a whole new reinvention?
Burns: It’s a pretty big reinvention; it’s a whole different look at Nemo.
Ok, I’ll leave it on that, my last question for you, are you the type of person who has five scripts in the desk waiting to go? What are you working on now?
Burns: Well I don’t have five, probably more like three, actually three. I’m working on a play about Columbine that’s at the Public Theater in New York that Steven wants to direct, so I’m hoping to do that later this year. Then there’s an adaptation of a documentary called Deep Water that I just finished that Studio Canal seems inclined to make this year and I’m hoping that maybe they’ll let me direct that. And a couple new projects that I’m trying to get set up around town.