‘Side Effects’ Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns Delves Into Misdirection
Side Effects marks the third collaboration between screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh. They previously tackled the mind of a bipolar pathological liar with The Informant and a horror-esque “what if?” movie with Contagion. For Side Effects, they’re not taking on pharmaceuticals, but a twisty thriller in the vein of Fatal Attraction and Body Heat.
This is the type of movie that drops a new piece of information in almost every scene, causing you to rethink most of what you previously saw. Burns accomplished that with a split narrative starring characters who aren’t exactly the most noble. An ensemble movie with characters one can’t really root for is something of a rare commodity these days, and from the sounds of it, it’s something Burns would like to see (and write) more of.
Here’s what screenwriter Scott Z. Burns had to say about constructing ensemble narratives, how Russian literature inspired Side Effects, and some of his frustrations with the studio storytelling norms:
Most directors say they need a few years after the release to really enjoy their movie. How about yourself?
I hope I can watch Side Effects in a few years [and enjoy it]. You know, there’s a movie I directed a few years ago called PU-239. I had a reason to watch it not too long ago, and it was kind of fun. The Informant…now, I think I really enjoy it. It went from being a job to a movie. It’ll be interesting to look at Side Effects in five years to see how it holds up.
I was just reading an interview with Mr. Soderbergh where he said The Informant is one of the two movies he’s fully satisfied with.
That’s really flattering. We all really went for it, with Matt [Damon] and what Steven was doing. I really wanted to write something I hadn’t seen before that was more in literature than in film. I wanted to do the movie version of an unreliable narrative. That, for all of us, was a great leap into an unknown.
That movie really did a good job of painting Mark Whitacre’s point-of-view. What presents more structural challenges, writing a singular p-o-v like that or an ensemble piece?
God, that’s a tough one. Initially it was easier for me to write an ensemble, because it was easier to get away from a character, progress the story, and have time pass. It was an easy way to cheat: tell one part of a character’s story and then go to another character and then another. In a way, those plots were always appealing to me, because they gave you transitions very organically. Single characters are more challenging because you have to progress the story in other ways. Matt is in almost every scene of that movie, so cutting from Matt to Matt and still generating forward momentum was more of a challenge from a writing standpoint and creating a cutting rhythm. When writing a scene my instinct is to get into a scene as late as possible and get out of a scene as early as possible, and that’s a little bit more challenging when you’re working with one character.
I just finished writing a movie that’s a little more of a single character thing, and I really loved doing that. For me, it’s now less about a character versus an ensemble, more about ordering the narrative, whether starting at the beginning, two-thirds of the way through, or at the end. I think there’s some really interesting advantages in terms of how you order a story.
It’s a little surprising to hear about that difficulty on The Informant. Not to say this makes it easy, but it must have been beneficial having a character who created so many problems.
Oh, yeah, that part was great. It was just the kind of story that tends to go in all sorts of interesting directions and lose its forward momentum. There was so much in Kurt Eichenwald’s book and more about Mark Whitacre that we could’ve talked about. Even Matt is indicative of people who are bipolar because they can be particularly vulnerable to tangentiality. That was the interior monologue and my justification, because that’s how some of those people experience the world.
You said how you want to come into a scene as last as possible and get out as earlier as possible, which is reminiscent of how Mr. Soderbergh says he approaches a scene.
It’s funny, I just feel that way about stories. You want to stay ahead of the audience and be able to mess with their expectations in a way that they might not anticipate. They may not anticipate what’s going to come next, but what appears before them makes sense. That may cause them to go back and reconsider what they saw before. But, yes, Steven and I are drawn to that kind of story.
He’s obviously not afraid to make a new movie in the editing process. Were there any major changes to Side Effects in post-production?
No, it’s really similar to the script. For me, one of the hardest parts about it was…I think it’s one of the first times I’ve ever written a flashback. I really struggled with it. I thought, “Is there a way to not do this in a flashback? Can I do a different kind of flashback?” Steven felt pretty comfortable with the grammar of this movie, and how the flashback would work within it. That was something Steven and I talked about along the way: what kind of grammar of the movie we’re generating. Allowing the movie to have its own syntax is the great part of working with him.
For you, what was the grammar of the story?
To study misdirection. Let me put it like this: you need to have the scenes work two ways all the time. If you have all the information, they work. If you’re experiencing the deception, then it also works that way. The movie always needs to be working in two different ways.
Soderbergh has said Fatal Attraction was an influence. Was it for you as well?
For me, that was less of a point of reference than Body Heat, The Usual Suspects, or Double Indemnity. I’m drawn to movies where all of the sudden you have the rug pulled out from under you in a really delightful way, and it makes you reconsider all of the scenes of the movie when you get to that new epiphany. Those three movies are amazing to me. I really admire the craft of The Usual Suspects immensely. I wanted to make something that messed with people’s expectations along those lines. I saw in the subject matter an opportunity to do something different.
It’s interesting, out of the four characters there is no easy entry point. They are all incredibly flawed. Was it a decision you made earlier on not to have a character to be, not perfect, but more noble?
Like in Russian literature, there are pieces where for a person to prevail they have to take on the characteristics of their nemesis. I’ve always been fascinated by that. I think this story explores that notion: for Jude to arrive at the outcome he desires, he has to sacrifice some aspects of himself. I’m less concerned with if that’s sympathetic than if that’s interesting, real, or something human beings do experience.
Halfway through the movie it becomes his story. Is that a transition you worked on rigorously in the script or was found in editing?
That was something we talked about going in. At one point, I think this a part of a frustration Steven and I share for the industry ‐ and you can get 100 other screenwriters on the phone who will say the same thing ‐ that if you went into a studio, give them a script, and they’ll say, “I’m confused. Whose movie is this? Is it Emily’s or Bank’s character?” The answer is it’s “both,” but it shifts. That kicks a box for them, making them think they shouldn’t make the movie, because of whatever their notion of movie stardom is. That’s frustrating, because I think there are really interesting movies to be made if you start to question these rules. I think I talked about this in the press conference the other day, about how you start this movie with Rooney’s point of view and end with Jude’s, and that was always a part of the script. I was lucky to work with a director who is capable of tracking that on film and actors who understood that as well.
Have you gone through the experience often, trying to get more ensemble films made?
Yeah. Even on my own movie, PU-239, there was always the question of, “Whose movie is this?” I like movies where characters crash into each other, which are sometimes called “two-halfers”. I’ve always liked Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and movies where the problems of one person are illustrated and explored with another person.
That reminds me of another frustration I’ve heard you and Soderbergh talk about. When Contagion was being test-screened —
Right, with the Jude Law character, who Steven and I were immensely proud of and Jude did a great job with. People would ask us, “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” Steven and I would look at each other and say, “He’s both, and so are you and so am I.” [Laughs] That’s what makes that character interesting to me. I think when you see a movie like The Social Network, it shows most of the interesting characters are charismatic, but deeply flawed. I mean, R.P. McMurphy, by no stretch of the imagination, is a good guy, and yet I loved watching Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
When a movie like The Social Network does huge business, do you start to see less hesitance making movies about those type of characters?
I think we’re going to start seeing that more and more. Heroes who are flawed are more compelling, which television has started capturing and I think film is going to catch up with TV. When you look at Breaking Bad or Homeland, the characters people get really engaged in are not universally sympathetic. They’re interesting, complicated and wildly fascinating.
Side Effects in now in theaters.