Scott Z. Burns is a diligent researcher. He consulted with experts on climate science before producing the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and picked the brains of epidemiologists while writing the pandemic thriller “Contagion.” His immersion in the new psychological chiller “Side Effects,” however, deserves a call to the Guinness Records folks.
Burns nurtured the project through a decade-long collaboration with Dr. Sasha Bardey, a psychiatrist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. But the film can be seen as a consequence of Burns’ upbringing in Golden Valley as the child of psychologists. His mother worked in rehab at the Sister Kenny Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, and his father was a research psychologist at Honeywell, working on the space program.
“It must have influenced me in making this kind of a story,” Burns said. “I was aware that a person’s relationship with their therapist is a completely unique one.”
“Side Effects” stars Rooney Mara (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) as troubled Manhattanite Emily Taylor. Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), a onetime Wall Street star, has just been released from prison for insider trading. As they attempt to piece together their fractured relationship, Emily approaches a psychiatrist (Jude Law) for anxiety medication. Side effects include paranoia, amnesia and bloody kitchen knives.
“Because both my parents were psychologists, I always had an interest in that world,” Burns said by phone from the Sundance Film Festival last week. While working on the short-lived TV medical drama “Wonderland,” he met Bardey and became fascinated with “the intersection of psychopharmacology and the law. I wanted to come up with a fascinating caper that would involve those things.”
Burns’ story is a far cry from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” with its lurid, Salvador Dali-designed delusion sequences. As Freudianism fades and drug-based biomedical approaches to psychological problems gain ground, stories of madness and murder require a new, clinical style.
“When you build a thrill ride and it’s through familiar landscape, it really helps you,” he said. “You get people nodding their heads because it starts to look like the world they inhabit. They know someone who’s taken psychoactive drugs, or they’ve been that person. That familiarity draws them in and makes them engaged in this kind of a story.”
There also is a real understanding of audience psychology in Burns’ movies. His scripts for “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the “Ocean’s Eleven” series and the corporate espionage farce “The Informant!” reveal a cat-and-mouse game by which he lets viewers anticipate what comes next and then pulls the rug out from under them.
“I always loved movies that did that,” he said. “ ‘Body Heat’ had a huge impact on me growing up. That whole notion of being tricked was such a fun thing to happen to you. I love that feeling of being in a theater and being artfully played.
“I admire ‘The Usual Suspects’ a great deal for its ability to completely draw you in. We don’t make those movies as much as we used to, psychological thrillers like ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘Jagged Edge.’ ”
Still, Burns said, he hopes viewers will feel that this movie has a connection to those films. “It has the same DNA,” he said.
As Mara’s character seemingly goes off the deep end, Law’s psychiatrist turns his analytical skills to uncovering the reasons, with rapid-fire twists, reversals and flashbacks.
“It’s unique that we start off seeing things through Rooney’s eyes, then we move to Jude’s perspective,” Burns said.
Burns initally had expected to make his directing debut with “Side Effects.” However, director Steven Soderbergh, Burns’ longtime collaborator, decided to make the film his last before retirement.
“It’s hard to let go of projects when you’ve been working on them for a really long time,” Burns said. “But as a screenwriter, if the worst thing that’s going to happen to you is having a brilliant filmmaker and friend take your project and herd it into a movie, that’s not so very bad.”
Burns’ next films will delve into fantastic territory, with a “Planet of the Apes” sequel and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But his days of working with Soderbergh aren’t over.
“We’ve talked about doing TV together, and I wrote a play that he’s going to direct at the Public Theater in New York,” Burns said. “I’m really excited to continue our working together and to move into theater. Growing up in Minnesota with the Guthrie, that’s a huge thing for me.”