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Burns couches psychiatry in thriller


This article was published February 8, 2013 at 2:57 a.m.

— Screenwriter-producer Scott Z. Burns worked on a series of radically different films that examine what can go wrong in the human mind and body. He’s written or co-written the commercially successful thrillers The Bourne Ultimatum (about an amnesiac superspy) and Contagion (about a sweeping pandemic) and the comedy The Informant!, which features Bourne star Matt Damon as real-life bipolar agribusiness executive Mark Whitacre.

His new character-driven chiller Side Effects, which opens today, stars Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as a troubled woman who takes anti-anxiety medicine that leads to disturbing consequences. Steven Soderbergh, who directed The Informant! and Contagion, has teamed up with Burns again, and the film also stars Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum.

When asked why he’s drawn to stories that involve mental and physical illnesses, Burns says the tendency may have more to do with opportunity than a conscious direction on his part. “The way sometimes things appear in the world aren’t necessarily the way you wrote them. I wrote the script [for Side Effects] a long time before Contagion ever came out. I actually think I wrote it before The Informant!,” Burns recalls.

“I don’t really know that I’ve ever had a plan as a screenwriter. I just try and find stories that I think I know how to tell that I hope other people are interested in hearing. I did grow up with two parents who were psychologists, so I think that I may have some kind of predilection toward stories that involve the psychology of characters.”


In addition to exploring the mental issues of the characters, Burns and Soderbergh also toy with viewers’ heads by only gradually revealing a full picture of his major characters.

“That was the whole mission of this piece was an exploration of what you ever really can ever know about a person. Especially now that we live in a world where so many people are taking drugs that further obfuscate their internal state,” Burns says.

As someone who has taken some of the drugs referenced in the film, I can vouch for how accurately Burns portrays the experience of taking anti-depressant drugs like Wellbutrin and Zoloft. While these meds didn’t make me want to do violent things, Burns explains how drugs that can heal some people can harm others.

“They do help. They help a lot of people. That’s why they exist. It’s not as easy as saying, ‘The pharmaceutical companies are all bad.’ With Steven and I, that wasn’t what the movie was really about. It’s a shared responsibility we have. There are people who are sad but not clinically depressed.They’re sad, and they don’t want to be sad, so they seek out these medications because they see the ads. The impetus for me was that I wanted to write a thriller. When you’re building a roller coaster, I think it’s most interesting to build it on a familiar landscape, and that’s where research comes in.

“I’ve always thought it was interesting that we have a term in the world called ‘side effects’ because who decides what is the intended effect of a medication and what is a side effect? The medication itself doesn’t; those are just things the medication causes.It’s a marketing decision that something is a side effect. I think initially Minoxidil was not a hair growth drug. It may have been a blood pressure drug. We ascribe the term ‘side effect’ to something we don’t want. Human behavior in this movie kind of falls under the same guise.”

Many of the jolts in Side Effects come from the occasionally ambiguous nature of psychology. Therapists often have to deal with conflicting information and clients who may not be interested in getting better.

“Psychiatry is definitely part art and part science. As Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character says in the movie, it’s not like a cardiologist where you can run a test and get a result. Therapists want to earn the clients’ trust and make them feel safe. When I spoke to psychiatrists and therapists about that relationship, you want a person, even a delusional person, to feel understood and safe in your office. You don’t think you’re going to be played. You go into it with a great deal of confidence.”


While Burns has had mainstream success, his heroes and his situations face challenging circumstances and often act less than heroic as a result. “I like complicated characters, and I think audiences are liking them more and more. When you look at TV shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, those are characters who are very, very complicated. I think we relate to those people in a more authentic way than we do if people are just black and-white,” Burns says.

While Jason Bourne may kick butt like a Jackie Chan character, his situation is trickier to describe. If Burns ever writes a Western, the bad guys aren’t likely to wear black hats or behave in a consistently bad manner.

“I hadn’t really thought about Jason Bourne and his memories being a psychological problem. Bourne is obviously kind of the victim of and a participant in a clandestine program. So his issues are the result of his training as much as his own organic psychology,” Burns adds.

Similarly, Mark Whitacre saved consumers billions by snooping for the FBI on a price fixing scheme, even though he had been embezzling millions from his company.

“The stresses of being undercover made his [bipolar]condition much worse, even though he was doing some of those behaviors before he went undercover. Here was a guy who did some really great things for the government. On one hand, Mark Whitacre is a whistle-blower and a good guy. On the other hand, he’s someone, who, because of an illness, was really dangerous and not tremendously honest.

“When Steven and I were doing press for Contagion, many people and even some reviewers were really troubled by Jude Law’s character. They would say, ‘Is he a good guy or a bad guy?’ Steven and I would sort of laugh. He’s both,” Burns says.


Before he was manipulating viewers’ expectations in film, Burns had a career in advertising. He worked on the “Got Milk?” campaign but is happy to be making movies instead. Because his career took place well after the 1960s, he advises that Mad Men bears little resemblance to his career path.

“I’m not that old! That was a different industry,” he laughs. “I had a very uneasy relationship with advertising when I was in it. I loved the people I worked with. They were some of the brightest people I’ve ever known. But I always wanted to be doing something that wasn’t always about a product.

It was a fun place to work, but it wasn’t really a great place to be if what you wanted was to express yourself artistically.”

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/08/2013

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