In the noir-ish trailer for Side Effects — the medical thriller from director Steven Soderbergh starring Channing Tatum, Rooney Mara, and Jude Law — a young woman (Mara) is suspected of a murder that has frightening implications for the makers of her mood-altering prescription medication. Or at least, that’s what it looks like. “There’s a lot more to it than that,” says screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who previously teamed up with Soderbergh on Contagion and The Informant. “If you believe that’s what the trailer says, I’m not going to disabuse you of that. But I think there’s two or three more layers on top of that.” According to Burns, those layers include hints of Roman Polanski, Vladimir Nabokov, and Alfred Hitchcock. In other words, get ready to be more than a little disturbed.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for Side Effects come from?
SCOTT Z. BURNS: Antidepressants are some of the leading-selling drugs in the country. When you start looking around the world at your friends, your family members who struggle with depression, who take these drugs — and the fact that the medical community doesn’t even know how these drugs work, it becomes an area that I think is ripe for some pretty interesting stories.
What was your first step in dramatizing that?
I’m not going to give you a lot of plot… There’s a certain kind of complexity to human behavior, and when you layer in the fact that now we have the camouflage of drugs that can change your mood state, that was where we started. We wanted to make a movie that was sort of in the tradition of a Hitchcock mindf—.
Were any other movies or filmmakers on your mind while you were writing this?
The Roman Polanski movie from the 1960s, Repulsion. The operating principle in that it’s really hard to know what goes on inside another person. So for me, there was a bit of Repulsion, there’s a bit of Lolita going on.
In what way?
This was in some ways a kindred spirit and sequel to what Nabokov may have been doing in Lolita. Obviously Rooney isn’t that young; she’s not a teenager in this movie. But I think that when girls get sexualized as teenagers and then they get older, there’s a whole set of behaviors that they learn that allow them to manipulate the world around them. And they’re given those tools largely by men who want to be manipulated.
Side Effects arrives in theaters Feb. 8.