The Partners!

Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns talk 'Side Effects'—and collaboration

That reminds me of something I heard Walter Hill say recently: "I believe in brevity of statement." He was referring to the great studio directors such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh, who felt that each shot in a movie should somehow advance the story, But most movies today are full of fat and much too long. Who's to blame for that?

Soderbergh: The bottom line is that, on most movies, nobody in the chain is thinking in those terms. They're thinking only in terms of immediate effect. I wonder sometimes: Is this fallout from electronic editing, which allows you to try everything, and can result, I think, in movies being very fine-tuned on a micro level, but very shoddy on a macro level? One of the things I do when we're editing is, three or four times a week, I watch the whole film from beginning to end. Nothing will cure you faster of being in love with your own stuff than having to watch it three or four times a week. You can't just sit there polishing individual scenes for weeks on end.

Burns: I think it also happens in production. Since digital technology allows you to do more setups, people are more willing to say, "Oh, let's put the camera here" or, "I saw a movie where they whip-panned like this." I think once those possibilities exist, then the question becomes: Does the person making the movie have the discipline not to use them? As the camera gets easier to wave around and put in different places, people don't have to make as many decisions.

Soderbergh on the set
Soderbergh on the set

Soderbergh: I'm a big believer that every time you use a close-up, for example, you potentially diminish the power of the next one you're going to use. So I try to be very careful about when we start moving in. And then when you go in, there are choices to be made about how you go in. You'll notice in terms of Rooney and how her face is, I like to be above her a lot because she's got a very interesting angularity. Also, psychologically, it works, because there are issues in terms of how she's putting information out there, so to continually have the camera right at eye level wouldn't be serving her character very well.

I don't know; we may just be clowns who are stuck in some idea of classicism that doesn't have a place in movies anymore. I think you see more of what we're talking about in certain TV shows now than in movies. The kind of stuff we're talking about is exactly whet they're doing on Mad Men and Breaking Bad. They don't cut a lot. They don't do a lot of coverage. In the opening season of Breaking Bad, one episode started with this shot across the street of two guys on a bench—it went on for, like, six minutes, and it was the first shot of the episode! And there was a reason—something happened at the end of that. I remember watching that and thinking, "I haven't seen a movie with a shot that long in 10 years that wasn't made by Béla Tarr."

Side Effects engages with Big Pharma's highly effective grip on the American popular imagination.

Soderbergh: I think there's always been a variation in every culture, but particularly in America, of what in the world of physics would be called the unified field theory. Here's this thing—it used to be valium—that can get us all on the same page. What we're seeing, obviously, as these companies become bigger and have more resources, is that there are more opportunities for somebody to come up with the magic pill. The question on the table is: To what extent are they creating a sense for all of us that there is this huge problem to begin with? Are they the arsonists and the firemen? I mean, if you've got a company that's based on the premise of getting a lot of people to take a pill, I would think you'd spend a lot of time trying to convince people that there's a problem that will be solved by this pill.

Burns: Depression is a thing that really exists, and so is sadness. But those are two different things, and sadness can be a very well-reasoned response to a set of circumstances around you. Depression is a debilitating syndrome that is persistent. But if you're sad, you certainly don't want to stay there, and you don't want to get depressed, so why not take the pill that seems to solve the even bigger problem? When the people watching those commercials aren't all that educated about those things, and you see someone who looks like you staring out a window or sitting on a park bench being sad while everyone else is running around with a balloon, you want to be with the balloons.

How much access were you able to get to people in that world when you were doing your research?

Burns: I had a really great drug rep who talked to me. I've always been fascinated when I go to the doctor that there are these samples, and there are these women dressed to the nines trailing roller bags filled with more samples. [Former Bellevue staffer] Dr. Sasha Bardey would talk about how they come and ask you out to lunch or golf weekends in Hilton Head. They've passed laws against it, but the drug reps who I spoke to said it's still going on in different ways, like payola in radio. The New York Times ran a piece a couple of years ago about how drug companies recruit drug reps from college cheerleading squads. I think that sort of says it all.

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