Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns Talk Side Effects and Collaboration

"I've been lucky in that I've always worked with writers whose voices are so specific that there really isn't any way to recalibrate things without them being intimately involved," says Steven Soderbergh as he swivels in a chair in the happily cluttered Flatiron District loft space that doubles as his office and painting studio. On this particular morning, one of those writers, Scott Z. Burns, is seated to Soderbergh's left, ready to join in the discussion of Side Effects, the devilish psychological thriller that marks Burns' third collaboration with the director, following the corporate whistle-blower farce The Informant! (2009) and the all-star virus drama Contagion (2011), where prominent billing was no guarantee of any cast member's survival. It is also the film Soderbergh has announced will be his last for the big screen, as he embarks on his "retirement," which is really just a shifting of creative gears (into painting, theater, and possibly long-form television).

In Side Effects, a tattoo-free Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a young bride whose joy over the imminent parole of her insider-trading husband (Channing Tatum) is offset by the return of her crippling clinical depression. Enter a shrink (Jude Law) who takes Emily as a patient, setting into motion one of the more deliciously knotty series of twists this side of Body Heat. Inspired by research Burns did at Bellevue while working as a writer on the short-lived ABC series Wonderland, as well as by his love of classic film noirs like Double Indemnity, the script was originally intended to be Burns' own feature directing debut (following the HBO film Pu-239). It passed into Soderbergh's hands after another planned Burns/Soderbergh project — the long-gestating film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — got nixed by the studio at the 11th hour. And like their previous films together, this one was a true creative partnership, in which Burns remained a key part of the filmmaking process long after he had finished the script.

Village Voice: So, you're on set every day?

Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

Scott Z. Burns: Yes.

Steven Soderbergh: And he sees every cut, every iteration, any idea that I have. And he's always got his own ideas. The problem becomes when you have somebody on set who's basically functioning as a security force to protect every little thing they wrote. That's a problem, because when stuff's in front of you, you need to respond and sort of tweak things. But I've never had that. Paul Attanasio and I had a great experience working on the script of The Good German, but then he made it clear, "I'm never coming to the set. It bores the shit out of me. I have no interest in hearing people say what I wrote." And he never came, but that was his call.

SZB: Early on during The Informant!, I remember Matt [Damon] and I were having a conversation about some scene — it was the second or third day of shooting — when all of a sudden I thought, "Oh, this is probably not cool that I'm doing this." I got to set and I said to [producer Gregory Jacobs], "I hope I didn't overstep my bounds, but Matt had a question . . ." I think I blamed it on Matt. And either Greg or Steven said to me, "Well, that's why you're here. You're here because you know the story better than any of us, and you're here to help keep track of it." The other options are not having the writer there at all, or having the writer there but muted, and I don't know why that would be helpful.

VV: Steven, you've said that for Contagion you established certain ground rules (e.g., no helicopter shots) to avoid falling into certain traps of the disaster-movie genre. Were there any similar rules for Side Effects vis-à-vis the thriller genre?

SS: I don't feel like there were as many, because I guess I looked at Contagion as a horror film more than a disaster film. So I wanted to avoid the tropes of disaster movies that I always felt made them generic. We wanted it to be really intimate. We wanted you to be inside the experience, to never leave this handful of characters. So in post we did a lot of rethinking to maintain that kind of focus.

SZB: I feel like you had some rules about how you treated New York in Side Effects.

SS: It's true, mostly because what are you going to do that hasn't been done by Sidney Lumet or Alan Pakula or Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee? What I decided was: I'm not going to do a New York montage. The only time I'm going to show an establishing shot is when, if I didn't show it, you wouldn't know where you are and would be confused. And, if I had to do an establishing shot, I'd make it really simple and brief. We also wanted the movie to be as lean as possible. My attitude was: If you took one shot out, the movie would be diminished; if you added one shot, it would be fat. During post, Scott would send me e-mails saying, "I don't think we need those two lines at the beginning of that scene." We really tried to be ruthless about it.

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