The first clue comes in the opening shot of Side Effects — a slow, measured zoom into a window of a large apartment building that recalls such horror classics as Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho.
“I was kind of riffing on a couple of different movies there,” says Steven Soderbergh, who directed Side Effects. “But what drove it was the idea of something happening inside one of those apartments. When you look out over a landscape, you get overwhelmed by how many elements and buildings are competing for your attention, and little do you know that behind one of those little windows, something terrible could be happening. And I also wanted to bookend it with the last shot in the film. They match up nicely.”
Terrible things do happen in Side Effects, which opens Friday. But those awful bits of business shouldn’t be discussed before seeing the film. This is the kind of movie packed with so many plot twists and surprises that knowing too much in advance will ruin the fun. The basic premise is simple: A young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara) falls into a deep depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving time for insider trading. For help, she turns to a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who takes the advice of Emily’s previous doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and puts Emily on an anti-anxiety medication that has just hit the market.
But the medicine has unforeseen side effects. Soderbergh says what happens next was inspired by the slick, A-list thrillers Hollywood cranked out in the 1980s.
“They used to make these movies pretty regularly and pretty well,” he says. “ Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct — there were a lot of good ones. And then they just stopped making them. I don’t know what happened to that genre. It just kind of disappeared.”
Soderbergh uses a light directorial touch in Side Effects — this is, first and foremost, an entertainment — but its subject matter is rooted in reality and research. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on The Informant! and Contagion, spent a year at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital shadowing forensic psychiatric Dr. Sasha Bardey, who also served as a consultant on the film.
“I learned how different mental illnesses present themselves and psychopharmacology and the intersection of psychiatry and the law,” Burns says. “One thing I learned is that we go to doctors hoping it’s all going to be about making us feel better. But when you start researching this stuff, you realize it’s also about socioeconomics and insurance and pharmaceutical companies and a whole lot of other things.”
A lot of Side Effects is grounded in fact: The cases mentioned in the film in which people were exonerated of a crime because medications gave them an alibi are true. But the filmmakers used their research as a foundation for a thriller — not an exposé — that gets crazier and more unpredictable with every turn.
“What we wanted to create was a roller-coaster ride, but one that took place in a realistic landscape,” Burns says. “Dr. Bardey told us that when a patient appears in your office, you want to believe them and help them. And I started thinking about the interesting legal dilemma of people who start taking drugs like Xanax. Is their behavior really their own anymore? Or is the part of their brain that polices the morality of their behavior not sufficiently engaged to meet legal standards?”
Soderbergh says that because of the wild nature of the script — you really won’t see where this one is going — he needed to use a cool, naturalistic style that makes everything seem plausible.
“I had to keep in mind that all the choices I was making — how I was shooting, how I was pitching the performances, even the score — were reverse-engineering from where the movie was going to land. I wanted to make sure the viewer would be in the right emotional space at the end of the movie, because this film morphs in a couple of different ways. It starts off as Movie A, then it turns into Movie B, then it turns into Movie C. While that’s all going on, Rooney is the lead character and then halfway through Jude becomes the lead character. All those things have to work in a way that don’t feel too visible, so that meant I had to back off a little bit directorially, so people aren’t thinking about what I’m doing. If you’re somewhat cine-literate, you can see what I’m doing. But the general audience is just watching the characters and following the plot, and I don’t get in the way of that.”
With a thriller as daring as Side Effects, Soderbergh said, he just had to trust the material and push ahead, not really knowing if the movie was working until it was finished and he could screen it for friends.
“The hardest part in the entire process of making this movie was the first 35 minutes — getting the balance and pace of it right, making sure that the right information was released in the right time in the right way. Once you’re past the 35-minute mark, the movie settles on a track and heads off in a certain direction at a certain speed. So I had to be very particular about that first half-hour. I had as many different versions of those first 35 minutes as any movie I’ve ever made. We went through a lot of trial and error, a lot of screenings, to make sure we were doing it right and playing fair with the story. It was really tricky.”
Miraculously, the trailers and TV ads for Side Effects don’t spoil any of the film’s surprises. Even early reviews have been careful to dance around plot descriptions and not give anything away.
“People who have seen it are recognizing it is not cool to spoil the movie for their friends,” he says. “Why would you betray them and ruin the experience for them? It’s so hard, because how do you convince people to go see a movie without knowing anything about it? I’ve gotten to the point where I’m even telling people ‘Don’t watch the TV spots!’ If you go in completely cold, you’re going to have a very good time.”