It's too bad "Side Effects" is Steven Soderbergh's final theatrical movie before retirement. The sexy thriller is 2013's first great film -- a throwback to movies like "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" -- and it proves, once again, that no one makes mainstream adult entertainment like Soderbergh.
"This was a kind of movie that used to be made a lot," Soderbergh told the audience at on Thursday night after a preview screening of "Side Effects," hosted by The Film Society of Lincoln Center. "I don't know if it just got priced out of existence or what. […] They just kind of went away. I was really excited about the idea of doing an updated version of that."
Written by Scott Z. Burns, "Side Effects" focuses on a depressed young woman (Rooney Mara) who finds herself in a world of trouble after taking an array of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law). Burns, who previously wrote the Soderbergh films "The Informant!" and "Contagion," spent 10 years researching "Side Effects," which includes enough twists and turns to surprise even the likes of Adrian Lyne and Paul Verhoeven.
"I knew what Scott was up to," Soderbergh recalled. "I really loved the idea that he took a social issue -- a very zeitgeist-y issue -- and used it as a Trojan Horse to hide a thriller inside it. I had been talking with him for a while; we worked for almost a year on 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' when, suddenly and unexpectedly, it blew up. I called him immediately and said, 'I thought we were going to be working together in April; can we switch? Will you give me 'Side Effects'?"
Burns did, and Soderbergh and his cast -- which also includes Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum -- shot "Side Effects" in New York during April and May of last year. The film's fast turnaround was exacerbated by Soderbergh's commitments to direct the HBO film "Behind the Candelabra" with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, the director's final work before stepping away from filmmaking. For his part, Soderbergh seems ready to take a break, even if he is at the top of his game.
"I feel like you should have a reason for every shot, you should have a reason for every cut," he said about his problem with many of today's films. "If you don't, then, I don't know if you've broken a contract with the audience, but you've broken a contract with me, because I feel like that's your job. The point is, everything matters. Everything matters! So, when you start throwing up shots and cuts, where I'm watching them -- as somebody who makes movies -- and I just go, 'I don't understand what you're doing. This is just noise. Where's the signal?' That just makes me nuts."
Soderbergh then gave a very specific yet simple example of filmmaking technique that he used in "Side Effects," before adding, "When I see something where it has obviously never occurred to anyone [that the shots matter], I just go, 'What have you been looking at?' I've gotten there because I've watched a lot of good movies that other people have made. I'm standing on the shoulders of anybody who has ever made a good movie. I'm stealing from them. So that's the job: stealing."
That self-deprecation only tells half of Soderbergh's story, which, as his career winds down, has seen the director take well-worn genres and repurpose them for modern audiences: "Haywire" was his 1980s action film; "Magic Mike" was his "Saturday Night Fever"; "Side Effects" is his "Fatal Attraction."
"I feel like as a movie -- as a movie -- that you stand in line and pay to see, I didn't want to see a serious movie about Big Pharma," Soderbergh said when asked why "Side Effects" didn't delve deeper into pharmaceutical companies and America's addiction to mood-altering prescription drugs. "I can read about that, it's all over the news, it's everywhere. That's just my personal [thing]. That may be a result of the fact that I'm in the twilight of my career, but I honestly wanted to make something fun."
"Side Effects" is out in theaters on Feb. 8