Director Steven Soderbergh’s psychological thriller, “Side Effects,” hits theaters this Friday, based on a screenplay written by Scott Z. Burns who also penned “Contagion” and “The Informant!” The film centers on a successful New York couple, Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum), whose world unravels when Emily’s psychiatrist (Jude Law), prescribes a new drug designed to treat anxiety which has unexpected side effects and chilling consequences. The film also stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vanessa Shaw.
At the film’s Los Angeles press conference, Soderbergh, Burns, Mara, Tatum, Law, Zeta-Jones, Shaw, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and technical advisor Dr. Sasha Bardey discussed what inspired the noir-style thriller involving psychiatry, what drew the actors to the project, how they approached their characters, the challenges of trying to keep the film realistic, constructing a shifting, multi-layered narrative and making sure stylistically that the directorial choices were consistent. They also talked about their upcoming projects including “Transformers 4,” “Red,” “Foxcatcher,” “Jupiter Ascending,” “Electric Slide,” “Henry V,” A&E’s TV series “The Killer Speaks,” and a play inspired by Columbine.
Question: Was there any pressure or influence from big pharma about making this film due to the subject matter?
Sasha Bardey: No. I know that everything we did pick is spot on. I think it’s very realistic.
The issues that are raised are issues that should be raised, but we don’t take a side. The movie is very careful about raising issues for discussion without in any way presenting an opinion or leaning in any direction. When medications and side effects are mentioned, those are legitimate side effects to those medications. When they’re described as being used, they’re described as properly used. I think we were very careful to keep this very realistic and very true to the science.
Q: Channing, “Side Effects” seems to be yet another film in what’s been a charmed run for you this past year or two. Can you tell us how that came to be and maybe something you’ve done wrong just so we know you’re human?
Channing Tatum: We’ll be here all day with the wrong stuff. Look, I’ve been lucky. I’ve said before that we work so hard on every single one and you don’t know which ones are going to work and which ones aren’t. You don’t try any less hard on the ones that don’t. I’ve gotten lucky to work with some amazingly talented people that have helped the ones that have worked work. I think you just have to keep doing the stories you love and the characters that you love and are drawn to.
Q: For Jude and Catherine, what did you discover about the field of psychiatry in order to play your characters?
Catherine Zeta-Jones: This is probably the hardest movie to discuss because at any given moment we could reveal the wonderful plot and the twists and turns which occur throughout the movie. For me, playing a doctor, I tried to be professional from the outset as one would think good doctors are. But my character lies much deeper and the relationships between Jude and myself and Rooney and myself run much deeper than your first impression of me as a doctor would be. I’m actually thrilled that Steven cast me as a doctor because I never went to college. I always wanted an M.D. after my name so I’m really quite flattered that you fulfilled my mother’s dream.
Jude Law: I finished this job with a great respect for the profession and I was very interested by the belief in medicine. I mean, obviously a lot of the discussion around this film is perhaps the abuse of medicine and relying on medicine for all the wrong reasons. Of course, medicine is also used for a lot of good reasons, too. I left this job feeling very respectful of psychiatry as a profession.
Q: Rooney, how did you feel about psychiatry as a profession after this movie?
Rooney Mara: I’ve always had a respect for psychiatry as a profession. Certainly this movie furthered that because of all the doctors that I spoke to including Dr. Bardey. I don’t know if the characters in the film left me with more faith in psychiatry, but I’m glad that Jude feels that way.
Q: Scott, this is so much more than a pharmacology film. You’ve got medical ethics, potential malpractice issues, and legal ethics all intertwined and all of it seems to stem from ‘money is the root of all evil’. How did you come up with the structure for your story involving all of these different aspects of life?
Scott Burns: A long time ago, I met Dr. Bardey. I was working on another project and I met him at Bellevue in New York. I had the privilege of following him around and seeing the intersection of the law and mental illness and psychopharmacology, and it was an amazing confluence of things to be at the nexus of. I started imagining stories because of the things that you talk about. There are people who want to get better. There are companies that want to sell products. There are advertising agencies that need to help them sell those products. There are doctors who want to help their patients. You certainly run a more profitable practice if you see four patients an hour and give them prescriptions than you might if you sat with them and did psychotherapy. Some people don’t want to do psychotherapy. They see an ad on TV and they want to feel better and they don’t want to get involved in a therapeutic program that might take years. And so, it was all of those things that I think create a world in which a story could exist, and what Steven and I really wanted to do was make a thrill ride. I think the best thrill rides are thrill rides through landscape that you thought you knew.
Q: For the actors, how much did you know about the story before you read the script?
Law: Reading the script, for us, was our opportunity. It only struck me when I saw the finished film. Of course, I was missing out on the opportunity of the impact of the twists and the turns because I knew they were coming, but that for me was when I read it. It was a great read.
Zeta-Jones: Yes, it was a real page turner.
Tatum: Actually, reading it, I thought I knew where it was going and then it took a hard right turn. I had no idea where it was going to go after that. I thought it was going to be the “Contagion” of pharmaceutical movies which would have been amazing. Steven, you should have done that one. But it kind of gives you that and another meal as well, so it was pleasantly surprising.
Mara: I didn’t know anything about it when I read it. I couldn’t have seen it coming. It was definitely a page turner.
Vanessa Shaw: I definitely didn’t know what was to come at all. What I really appreciate about what Scott wrote with each character is I felt that each character was fleshed out so that you didn’t know who was truly good or truly evil, who had a leg up in everything or who was really underhanded in whatever they were committed to doing. Everyone has an agenda in this movie and everyone is fiercely protecting themselves trying to save face in any way possible, even if it’s for what some may deem as plausible and honorable and for others who may think that is the most evil of acts. In the end, everyone has their reasons and that’s why, for me, it was such a page turner, because who do I trust and who do I really believe in, in each and every moment of the script.
Q: Jude, can you talk about how you played your character and his situation — his professional life compared to his personal life and being a man who could probably help everyone else in the world but was struggling with his own personal life?
Law: I suppose it was important for me to make it very clear that this guy was good at what he did and was aware of something I learned quite quickly with the help of Scott’s script and with some of the work I discussed with Sasha, which was this sense of boundaries and when and how a situation may arise for a psychiatrist where it will impact his or her private life. Also, we were telling a story, so at some point as an actor you have to work out where the drama is best played out, because as the story dictates, his life starts to implode. It was important to me to have a sense of this guy kind of crumbling if you like, and then, at the same time, there was a beautiful subtlety to the story in itself where you’re not sure whether he’s got the upper hand, or indeed, I’ve been asked quite a lot, whether there’s a time where you think he’s actually going mad. All of that, if I’m really honest, is in the writing. Sometimes you’re very lucky as an actor where you just join the dots.
Q: Do you think this is a uniquely American story or could this type of plot happen with a healthcare system like Britain’s National Health Service?
Zeta-Jones: For many years, although it’s getting better now, but just from the experiences that I’ve seen and been part of, there was this British stiff upper lip where psychotherapy and depression and basically your emotions were quashed. It became that British stiff upper lip. Don’t put your dirty laundry out. Who cares about how you feel? You’re saddled. Buck up. You’ll be fine tomorrow. But now it’s starting to come much more in the open. People have started to talk much more on television about issues. I think in America that it is much more public? Wouldn’t you agree, Jude? People feel maybe easier speaking about it which I think is all good. I think speaking about all these issues is a very good thing.
Law: I think also though, if you look at the thing of a general sort of reliance on prescription pills, that’s quite universal actually, whether it’s something that’s discussed or not discussed. There is a definite common theme to the story which in the modern age most people would recognize.
Zeta-Jones: Culturally, we’re all victims to a quick fix whether it’s texting or you need something quick. You want a movie, you stick it on and press a button and it’s on. We’ve become people that want everything instantaneously. And so, I think with prescription medicine, it’s the same thing. If there’s one thing you can take that’s going to make all this go away, I’ll try it. And then, if that doesn’t work, you’ll see a commercial on TV and you go, “Oh, I’ll try that. That seems a good one.” And so, it’s just become cumulative. It comes from a culture of quick fixes.
Shaw: I think that Americans are the ones that lead the way in that respect. As Americans, we always want better, faster, more, and so we are falling victim and are more susceptible to that in the modern day, more than any other country in the world, because of our absolute need to have what’s better and faster and more. I think that makes us feel insecure as Americans and makes us feel we have to reach for something outside of ourselves to be happier, because what is happiness in the media or surrounding us is about what monetarily makes us happy, not really about who we are as human beings. I think this brings that to light, too, in a kind of roundabout way.
Q: Rooney, did you feel like the new kid on the block working with Steven for the first time amidst all the rest of these actors? And also, for the rest of the cast, what keeps bringing you back to do a Steven Soderbergh movie?
Mara: Yeah, I did feel like that. My first day I was definitely nervous, but they’re all nice so it made it pretty easy.
Tatum: I just keep coming back because Steven’s so pretty and he gives great massages on set. That’s really it. I don’t really love anything else about him. I wish he would just keep making movies so I can keep getting those massages.
Zeta-Jones: Yes, he rubbed my feet when I was pregnant in “Traffic.” That’s the only reason why I keep coming back. He looked after a pregnant woman so well that I just always knew I’d be in good hands.
Law: I never got any massages.
Zeta-Jones: You were never pregnant. That’s why.
Tatum: I *was* pregnant.
Law: I didn’t think Channing was either.
Tatum: I’m that good, Jude.
Q: Steven, what is it that you do besides massages then?
Steven Soderbergh: I’m a big screamer because you get things done when you yell at people. No, it’s funny, when you were just talking, Scott had a great phrase. He thought the movie was about the fact that we have declared war on sadness and I thought that was a great way of looking at the movie. That’s the way I was thinking about it because I think we sort of do that here. Somehow the idea that you have peaks and valleys has become an issue and that there’s got to be an equilibrium that’s common to everyone which seems strange.
Q: For the actors, why did you want to be in this movie, why did you want to tell this particular story and how did it impact you or change you?
Shaw: For me, it was a no brainer with this cast and Steven and Scott’s script. I feel like I was very fortunate. I was maybe the last person cast – I’m not sure – because I flew in and had to work right away. What really changed me was being able to remember, because I didn’t work with Steven when I was very young, but remember how much he trusts actors, and I like to go a step deeper into that in terms of my acting and just realize he trusts me. I’ve got to trust myself. I don’t need to have my hand held and be told what to do every five seconds. So that really changed me, I think. But with regards to the story, Scott’s writing was really… like I mentioned before, the way that every single character is so multi-dimensional and you can easily rationalize and relate to every person’s desperation. I feel like that really brought to mind how no one’s really good or no one’s really evil, like we all have both parts to us. Each of us in a desperate moment can act in accordance to any way to be able to save your marriage, save your family, or save your face. That was illuminating to me doing this project.
Zeta-Jones: I would second what Vanessa said. Career-wise I love my job but it takes a lot for me to leave my kids, leave my husband and leave my dogs. This had all the elements that got me straight on a plane the moment that Steven asked me to do this. With Scott’s script, all the elements just fell into place. It was a fantastic script. It’s a roller coaster ride and to work with Steven for the third time was an absolute treat. And then, to work with the caliber of actors that he cast so beautifully, it was a slam dunk for me really.
Law: It’s unfortunately a rarity to be involved in something intelligent nowadays. This was smart and it felt very timely, although I just found out it’s taken ten years to make. It’s incredibly relevant now. I like what you said about the trust. It’s very nice when you’re on board something and you just feel like you’re there because you’re the right person for the job and trust in them gives you confidence. I like working in New York. New York is a great town and I got to go home at 3:00 o’clock most days. It was fantastic.
Mara: I really wanted to work with Steven for a while. I can’t remember why I wanted to work with him now that I have. And then, I read the script and I just loved it. I thought it was really smart and interesting, and like Jude said, that really doesn’t happen very often. And then, there was the cast that he had attached to it. Like they said, it was a no brainer. I think every job you do changes and affects you in some way. I went into it thinking that I knew a lot about depression, and then when I started researching it, I realized I really didn’t, so certainly that part of it changed me. I feel like I have a lot more compassion now for depression and I just feel like I really didn’t understand it before. And the time that we spent at Wards Island and all of that, there were a lot of things that we were able to do that were really eye opening.
Tatum: Do you have more compassion for husbands that are trying to just make their wives happy? Apparently not, because I don’t remember that. I don’t remember you learning that lesson. Obviously, Steven and I worked a couple of times together before this. He could call me for anything and I’d play Waiter #1 or #2 even. I’m not going to play #3, but I’ll play #1 or #2. And then, I read it and it was really refreshingly intelligent. I knew I would love to see it in his hands and be a part of it. I have a huge amount of admiration for everyone that’s sitting up here and I wanted to be a part of it. I’ve definitely had a connection with people that I think really needed help, whether it be from a pill or just from having a conversation with them and trying to help them with depression or whatever. The abuse of prescription pills is a real thing. I understand that there are people that really need them and I understand that there are people that abuse them, and it’s just a gray line that unfortunately has to exist, but I thought the movie really handled it well.
Q: For Channing, you had a really busy year. With a new baby on the way, do you see any signs of slowing down and how excited are you about your next role as a dad?
Tatum: That would be the biggest role of my life. I hope I don’t screw that one up. But yeah, I’m really, really excited, and yeah, I hope to slow down a little bit once the little person comes into the world.
Q: For Rooney and the other panel members, I wonder if you might like to share any side effects that you may have experienced from drugs and if they were scary or annoying or what were they like?
Mara: I’ve never taken drugs.
Tatum: Good answer.
Mara: I don’t take drugs *anymore* so I really can’t even remember what it was like.
Tatum: I’m on drugs right now and the side effects are amazing. All of you look just like little lollipops.
Bardey: I medicated everybody before the conference so everyone is copasetic.
Burns: Probably at some point in the last eight or nine years, we were working on a different movie, but I was in New York and I had to go to a meeting at Steven’s house. I think we were probably working on “The Informant!” at the time. If I went to his house, I would get really sick because I’m allergic to cats, and then I realized that I just get really nervous, or I did at that point, so I would sometimes take a beta blocker which is one of the stars of the film, and they’re little and they’re blue and they kind of look like those great big Ambiens. I got up in the morning and I shoveled some blue round thing into my mouth and I went to go meet a friend of mine for breakfast whose husband was fortunately a doctor. We were in Brooklyn and I was in a complete fog. She said, “I don’t think you’re going to remember very much of today.” I don’t remember getting into the car. I don’t remember meeting with Steven, although I did ask later, “Did I seem okay?”
Burns: And then, I don’t remember getting to JFK or flying. I don’t remember any of that entire day, but I did sleep well on the flight.
Q: How was your cat allergy?
Burns: Ambien does not seem to help cat allergies.
Q: Steven, do you have any particular slogan that you go by when things get really rough and why did you allow Jude to have an accent?
Law: I don’t have an accent.
Q: To us, you seem to have an accent.
Soderbergh: What’s my slogan? My slogan is, “If you’re on time, you’re late.”
Q: What were some of the fun and challenging aspects of directing this film?
Soderbergh: What was fun for me about this was there were several different layers on top of it that needed to be coordinated because it starts as movie A and then it sort of becomes movie B and then it becomes movie C. I had to make sure stylistically when these shifts happened that you felt the story was taking a turn but the directorial choices were consistent. Also, it does another unusual thing in that it starts off being from Rooney’s point of view, and then about half way through you shift to Jude’s point of view, and again, making sure that was happening in a way that wasn’t too obvious was something we talked about a lot. For me, there were lots of things to think about, both on a micro-level and a macro-level so it was fun.
Q: Why are you so intent on no rehearsals?
Soderbergh: We rehearse sort of. I just like to save it for when we’re rolling.
Tatum: You block when you rehearse just to figure out where the camera goes.
Soderbergh: Yeah. But it all happens pretty quickly.
Q: Lorenzo, are you on the set the whole time?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: With Steven, there’s no reason to be on the set. He’s in charge.
Soderbergh: (joking) Why were you there all the time?
Di Bonaventura: (laughs) Seriously, it’s a different job on every movie. When we set out to make this script, the idea was to come up with this entertainment vehicle that was going to be a wild ride but would also make you think. When Steven signed on, he had such a clear sense of what it was that there wasn’t really a lot to do, I have to say. And I think the other thing about Steven is I’ve worked with him before and we worked together at Warner Bros., too. I’ve known him for a long time and there are things you can do, but they’re not really set oriented. He’s running the set.
Soderbergh: In fairness, I first pitched this movie to Lorenzo a long time ago. Like nine or ten years ago. So what he did do was stick with it and with me through a whole bunch of bullshit and there were a few thousand days that weren’t on set where he was very much there.
Q: Dr. Bardey, there’s a scene where Rooney’s character runs into the wall which leads to her first encounter with Dr. Banks (Jude Law’s character). With respect to that, can you talk about the 3-day psychiatric hold and how patients present?
Bardey: It’s a very tough line that you need to ride when you make that assessment. On the one hand, you’re about to deprive someone of their freedom. On the other hand, you might be letting someone back into the community that might be a danger to themselves or others. The skill and the art of the psychiatrist is to figure out where that line is, to assess the various factors, to apply that to their knowledge and experience, and then to make a decision that’s going to be best for the individual and for the community at large.
Q: Rooney, we always see you in such heavy fare. Is there a rom com in your future or why do you gravitate towards these types of roles?
Mara: Everyone keeps asking me that. I don’t see a rom com in my future but maybe. Never say never. I‘m just…
Tatum: She’s not funny.
Mara: I know, I’m just not funny. I think you’d be really mad and disappointed
Tatum: She’s in “21 Jump Street 2.”
Soderbergh: You do dram coms.
Mara: Dram coms?
Q: Catherine, how did you feel about Matt Damon kissing Michael in “Liberace”?
Zeta-Jones: If my husband’s going to kiss anybody else in the world, I’m so glad it’s Matt Damon. Supposedly, when Matt was kissing Michael, I found, which is very flattering for me, he closed his eyes and pretended he was kissing me.
Soderbergh: Wait, Matt was?
Zeta-Jones: Yeah, he said that to Michael. Matt was closing his eyes and kissing Michael and pretending he was kissing me. I just felt that was one of the biggest complements I’ve ever had.
Soderbergh: I’m so confused.
Zeta-Jones: It’s all screwed up. And this is why Steven employs us because we can be screwed up as much as we want. We’re just happy to be there on that day.
Q: Since we don’t want to give anything away, how do we talk about this movie? What can we say other than “the pill that can change your life”?
Soderbergh: Well yeah. There’s an issue unfortunately that’s pretty fascinating and complex. We can talk about that. I think you can talk about the genre. We talked about “Fatal Attraction” and “Jagged Edge” and “Basic Instinct.” There was a kind of thriller that used to get made that was really fun to watch and then they stopped being made. I don’t know why. I was watching “Double Indemnity” last night and I thought, “Oh, it’s like that. It’s one of those movies that just keep turning.” And they’re really fun.
Burns: I loved “Body Heat” and “Usual Suspects.” As a writer, I always wanted to try writing something that put people on that ride because I think sometimes people like going to movies for that. They want the roller coaster. They want to not know it’s coming and that was what our goal was in doing that. I feel like we stopped making those but society kept going, and if we had continued making those movies, this movie wouldn’t seem maybe quite as unusual because this would have been a natural progression. “Double Indemnity” was set against the world of insurance and so this movie was sort of inevitable in that way.
Q: If this, and “Behind the Candelabra” are your last films, how do you feel the Steven Soderbergh box set from “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” to now will reflect your work?
Soderbergh: I felt very fortunate that “Candelabra” ended up falling where it did, not only because of the fact that I’ve worked with Michael and Matt before, but it seemed to me to exist in a continuum with the first film. At the end of the day, it was a relationship movie and the core of it was two people in a room. The difference in this case was that they were in a hot tub. And so, I look at that as quite a progression.
Q: Channing, how’s the restaurant going?
Tatum: I just opened a restaurant and bar on Bourbon Street. Go and get drunk everyone. Thanks for asking. Saints and Sinners is alive and well so far. Oh yeah, and Steven and I want to open a hotel in New Orleans but he just won’t. He’s got time on his hands. He’s not doing anything anymore so apparently he needs to jump on it. Let’s go!
Q: What do each of you have coming up next?
Soderbergh: I’ll go first. Nothing.
Tatum: I just finished a movie called “Foxcatcher” with Bennett Miller. I’m going to do a movie called “Jupiter Ascending” with the Wachowskis and that’s it so far.
di Bonaventura: I just finished the sequel to “Red” with Catherine.
Zeta-Jones: That’s going to be my answer, too. Like I said earlier, I find it really hard to leave my children. I think that I’ll never get these beautiful, formative, delicious years back. It takes me great thought about what is it that I would want to leave my husband and my kids for. This movie was obviously a must for me and to work with Steven for the third time. I’d pretty much do the phone book with him if he asked me. Just read it in two or three different languages – French, Welsh and English. And then, to work on a movie with Lorenzo who’s been a dear old friend. I saw “Red” and thought it was a blast again surrounded with an ensemble cast of John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker. So that made sense to me. That sounded like fun on a completely different level to what this movie is. It’s completely different. So I just look for those movies that surround me with great people and I love turning up to work every day.
di Bonaventura: And I’m starting up “Transformers 4.”
Shaw: I just finished a movie called “Electric Slide” with Jim Sturgess and I’m unemployed, too.
Law: I’m doing a play at the end of the year. I’m doing “Henry V” in London. But I’m here and available for work.
Soderbergh: Another sequel.
Law: (laughs) Another sequel. This time he’s *really* angry.
Soderbergh: Sasha, what are you working on?
Bardey: I’ve been working on a TV show for A&E called “The Killer Speaks” where we profile each week a different murderer and get to the bottom as to why he did what he did. So look for it in March. They’re real killers.
Burns: There are a couple of things that I’m working on. There’s a play that I wrote about Columbine that is in development at the Public Theater in New York and Steven is going to direct that. That’s kind of scary, and then, there are a couple of other movies.
Q: Catherine, the Academy announced that they’re going to do something special to honor the musicals over the past ten years including “Chicago.” Will you appear at the Academy Awards this year in some capacity related to that?
Zeta-Jones: That would be great. I’ll be there, but I don’t know in quite what capacity that will be. Put it that way. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing but that will be fun.
Q: Steven, any last words on “Side Effects”? This may be your last film, so what do you want to say about “Side Effects”?
Soderbergh: I want to say thank you to Scott for letting me do it.
Burns: You’re welcome.