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Steven Soderbergh and Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns Talk Side Effects, Collaboration and Big Pharma's Dominance 

Thursday, Feb 7 2013
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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, and 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 that 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.

click to enlarge Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns
  • Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns

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So, what becomes of this great collaboration now that Steven is retiring from movies?

SODERBERGH: Theater. We're going to do a play.

And maybe something for TV?

SODERBERGH: There's always that possibility.

BURNS: I'd love to do that.

Do you see any signs of hope in the fact that the studios seem to be re-embracing the midbudget drama not based on a comic book or YA novel, as evidenced by movies like Argo, Lincoln and Flight?

SODERBERGH: Contagion was that. Contagion was, in theory, in that dead zone where you don't want to be in terms of its cost and its lack of awareness. I think Warner Bros. is pretty good about dedicating a slot or two to things like that, and then they're very good at selling them.

BURNS: There's a project I'm working on right now at Fox, and the executives who I met were saying they were all really excited that there was an actual story, as if there was a new genre called "the story," and how they want to make more movies that are stories as opposed to comic books or sequels.

SODERBERGH: Part of this is probably driven by the state of flux that the movie-star world is in. In the last few years, there have been some indications that certain people or combinations of people aren't the box-office slam dunks that they used to be. And what people are beginning to realize, which used to be the case in the golden age of the American New Wave of the 1970s, is that stories and subjects can be as compelling as casts. So it would be great if there was a little bit of a shift to people going back to that thing of, like, "The story is the star of this." There is a way to sell that.

The reason I've been thinking more about TV is that the narrow-and-deep approach that seems to be paying off in long-form TV is something that really interests me. Scott and I are both people who like digressions, and TV is built for that. You can do whole episodes about some little thing that's tangential to the larger story but absolutely is relevant if you're doing eight or 10 hours. But if you're doing a two-hour movie, that doesn't make the cut. I mean, Contagion ... boy, that would have been a great eight hours.

BURNS: And if you look at Breaking Bad or Homeland or Mad Men, you see that TV audiences actually want characters who are conflicted and contradictory and complicated, which doesn't always work with studio movies.

SODERBERGH: I think there are a lot of factors — it could be a post-9/11 thing — but I think what people go to the movies for has shifted in the last 10 years. I have a real sense, having gone through the preview process and gotten very direct feedback, that when it comes to movies, people are looking for an experience that is generally more positive and more sewn-up than they used to.

I think there are probably a couple of different factors, but if my theory is correct that, as a country, we are still experiencing a form of PTSD over 9/11, that it has still not been entirely processed because of the activities that have gone on since, which haven't really provided us with any sense of closure or any real answers, then getting up and leaving the house and going somewhere and putting your money down has resulted in a feeling of, "I get enough of this shit at home. I want to see something that's not going to make me feel bad when I leave the theater."

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