Blurring the edges on medication

STARRING Jude Law, Rooney Mara, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Steven Soderbergh’s new movie Side Effects is a gripping medical thriller.

It casts a wary eye on the pharmaceutical industry, but is more playful than moralising.

The film’s writer, Scott Z Burns, is a much-in-demand figure in Hollywood. He has built up a fruitful relationship with Soderbergh: the pair have worked together on Contagion and The Informant. Penning a game and knowing thriller, says Burns, presents a specific challenge.

“With a thriller you have to figure out a way to be far enough ahead of the audience to make the twists rewarding, but not so far that they’re completely confusing,” he says. “Stephen and I spent a lot of time talking about how long you can have an audience scratching their heads before you completely lose them. And that’s the trick with these things. So in terms of the storytelling you try to get to a place where characters are forced to make a choice and, of all the possible options available to them, the choice they make is unexpected but still plausible.”

The plot of Side Effects centres on a psychiatrist (Jude Law) who prescribes an experimental new drug to a young woman suffering from depression (Rooney Mara). The consequences are initially disquieting, with the film briefly pulling in the direction of an earnest medical drama before morphing into a splendidly subversive thriller. Beneath all the playfulness, however, a spiky critique of the pharmaceutical industry remains.

“The goal first and foremost was to make a really entertaining and exciting ride for people,” says Burns. “But if in the process we can foster a debate about larger issues then that’s great. That’s what I want to do with all of the films that I write.”

The writer has his own views on the prominence of medication in our lives.

“It’s a very complicated, nuanced area,” he says. “We have drugs that seem to be effective against depression, and depression is a really serious problem. I’ve suffered from depression in my life and though I’ve never taken anti-depressants I know first-hand how devastating it can be. But there’s a difference between depression and sadness. I guess I view sadness as part of the normal human spectrum of emotions and I think that its lessons are useful to people in confirming their humanity and their sensitivity. Sadness can bring great insight.

“So declaring war on sadness is a mistake. Sadness isn’t really a medical condition, whereas depression really is. And that distinction is lost on a lot of people and it’s blurred a lot in advertisements. So what you wind up with is an uninformed public who are experiencing sadness — sometimes for some very justifiable reasons — and they go in search of these medications. And that, to me, is a problem.”

The theme of our vulnerability to the everyday elements of our environment is one that recurs in Burns’s work, whether it’s the role of pharmaceuticals in Side Effects, the viral outbreak in Contagion, or the toll of climate-change examined in Al Gore’s eco-documentary An Inconvenient Truth (Burns was producer).

“That’s definitely something I’m drawn to,” says Burns. “I’m very interested in how human beings can be victimised by the world around them, how we can suffer the results of our own impact on our environment, of our avarice and the compromises that it sometimes causes to our safety.”

Among his current projects is a fresh adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. The Minnesotan writer has penned the script and David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) is gearing up for production.

“I’m a huge David Fincher fan,” he says. “And David and I have had really wonderful conversations about what to do with Captain Nemo and how we can still set the story in the past but have it reverberate with modern times.”

Interestingly, having scripted Hollywood The Bourne Ultimatum as well as his various collaborations with Soderbergh, Burns is in a good position to assess the perception that Hollywood films in general lack imagination. It’s a notion that is somewhat belied by the number of fine artisan directors like Soderbergh and Fincher who have managed to work within that system. Burns doesn’t think that their presence forgives all the pap.

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” he says. “The preponderant majority of films made in Hollywood are fucking horrible and it’s really dispiriting at times to be in this community and to see the kinds of things that people here believe the public wants. That’s really frustrating for everybody. What’s more encouraging and gratifying is when you see that there are people like Steven and David, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and a handful of others, who have figured out a way to make really amazing movies within the system, or at least on the boundaries of the system. And that’s certainly how I want to make my own livelihood.”

For now Burns and Soderbergh are making their livelihoods away from cinema, collaborating on The Library, a new play based around the Columbine high school shootings. Burns has written the script. Soderbergh is directing.

“It’s really lovely to have the conversations that you have in the theatre as opposed to some of the ones surrounding a film,” says Burns. “On a movie, conversations about theme are almost ones that you are forced to have covertly. But in theatre you’re constantly coming back to the idea and why you’re doing it.”

Sounds like a good stalking ground for a man of ideas then.

* Side Effects is in cinemas now.


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