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Scott Z. Burns Talks About the Research Behind Pharmaceutical Thriller Side Effects

A thriller with an important underlying message about society and meds. (Photo courtesy Open Road Films)

Looking for a good flick to watch this weekend? If you haven't seen the previews already, Side Effects will be sure to leave you on the edge of your seat. Aside from being a total thriller, with a star-studded (and hunky!) cast with the likes of Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film hits on a very sensitive topic–the effects of prescription drugs and misuse of them in our society today. We got the chance to chat with Scott Z. Burns, the writer of the film to get his inspiration behind this concept, and the research he did to get a glimpse into the pharmacology world. And we promise, we won't give any spoilers away!

How did you come up with the idea to write a script based around this concept?

A long time ago I worked on a TV show called Wonderland, and we did a lot of our research at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. I spent months following around a forensic psychologist and I got really interested in their world and the intersection between mental illness, pharma-psychology and the pharmaceutical industry.

What was the research like for this film? Anything you found in particular that really surprised you?

Once I started researching at the hospital I realized what a philosophical tangle we get into when we start discussing things like evil and whether someone is really conscious about their behavior if they are medicated. When I was at Bellevue I followed the case of the Subway Pusher, a man named Andrew Goldstein who pushed a woman on to the subway tracks in 1999, and his lawyers argued that he was suffering a psychotic episode from not taking his medication. I was allowed to follow his case, and seeing him medicated and not medicated was truly profound. It made me think: If you medicate someone so they are no longer a danger to society, are they still guilty?

What did you want the film to say about the way society uses medications to treat mental illnesses?

First, I wanted to movie to be a thriller, and give the viewer a rollercoaster ride above all. But my conclusion after eight years of research is that it is not as simple as saying pharmaceutical companies and medication is bad, because they do help a huge number of people every year. Yet as a society we are constantly overprescribed and prescribed incorrectly. But it's not as simple as saying that we are overprescribed because of pharmeucital companies, there are so many factors. Drug companies run ads that people constantly see and psychiatrists are under pressure by patients to fix them and then the patients have a responsibility in all this as well. They see these ads and hear of their friends taking a certain medication and just assume they should be on it too, so they tell their doctor to give it to them. I think a lot of the time the symptom is getting treated instead of the underlying issue.

You filmed some scenes in the Manhattan Psychiatric Center. What was that like?

It was really disturbing. There are people in there who are trapped already in their own psychological torment that on top of that are locked away. I don't think it's as bad as prison, but I think they both are there own versions of hell.

You had an on-set adviser for the film, Dr. Sasha Bardey. What was his job on set?

I met Dr. Bardey 10 years ago when I went to Bellevue and I will never forget this. I was sitting in his office when an intern came in and said, "There is a vampire here, do you want to see him?" And he just replied, "Oh sure, let's go meet him." It turned out to be a guy who the police brought in because he was in Central Park scaring people by telling them he was a vampire. He also treated Andrew Goldstein, so he has a vast experience of all sorts. I stayed in touch with him and he advised me in terms of all the pharma-psychology, forensics, what not guilty be reason of insanity plea means and the very sophisticated notion we have in this country of mens rea, which basically means an act is only considered guilty if the mind is also guilty, and that you can only be guilty if you are conscious of your actions. His livelihood involves him going to court and talking about people who commit crimes, so he really helped in the accuracy department. He also worked with Jude Law on how a psychiatrist would have a therapeutic relationship with someone who is depressed like Rooney Mara's character and also with Rooney on how a depressed person works and acts.

Side Effects is in theaters now. For a list of locations near you, visit