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‘Side Effects’ is a provocative thriller about Emily and Martin, a successful New York couple whose world unravels when a new drug prescribed by Emily’s psychiatrist – intended to treat anxiety – has unexpected side effects.
Emily (Academy Award nominee Rooney Mara) and Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) are a young, beautiful, wealthy couple living the good life, with a mansion, a sailboat and every luxury money can buy – until Martin is sent to prison for insider trading. For four years, Emily waits for him in a tiny apartment in upper Manhattan, but his release is just as devastating as his incarceration and Emily sinks into a deep depression.
After a failed suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Academy Award nominee Jude Law) is called in to consult on Emily’s case. Desperate not to be hospitalized, Emily agrees to a regimen of therapy and antidepressants, a decision that will change the lives of everyone involved. When Emily’s symptoms don’t improve, Banks prescribes a new medication that quiets her demons. But the side effects of the drug have chilling consequences: marriages are ruined, Banks’ practice is decimated and someone is dead—but who is responsible? Devastated by this professional setback, Banks becomes obsessed with finding an answer. But the truth he uncovers threatens to destroy whatever is left of his career and his private life.
Stories of psychopharmacology
Over a decade ago screenwriter Scott Z. Burns spent several weeks doing research at New York’s famed Bellevue Hospital psychiatric facility. Burns, who was then writing for the acclaimed television medical drama “Wonderland,” spoke with the psychiatrists on staff and watched them at work with mentally ill patients, including many who had a criminal past.
“It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life,” says Burns. “There were people there who were truly terrifying criminals. There were also people who were so ill they were unable to understand the rules of society and couldn’t possibly be expected to play by them.”
The experience planted a seed in Burns’ imagination. “I wanted to write a noir-style thriller that took the audience in and spun it around, like ‘Double Indemnity’ or ‘Body Heat’, set in the world of psychopharmacology,” says Burns. “I was inspired by films that involve crafty, clever scams, set against the society the audience is really living in. People seem to have stopped making those, but I have always loved the genre.”
Burns began to develop the script that would eventually become ‘Side Effects’ with the help of Dr. Sasha Bardey, who was at the time Deputy Director of Forensic Psychiatry for Bellevue Hospital. “Sasha and I met working on ‘Wonderland,’” says Burns. “His input was essential because this movie needed to be firmly rooted in reality.”
Bardey too had always been intrigued by the idea of a thriller involving psychiatry. “Once we came up with the backbone of this story, Scott did the writing, and I provided the context.”
The combination of Burns’ prodigious storytelling skills and Bardey’s expertise resulted in an eye-opening thriller. “It looks at the idea of where reality ends and mental illness begins,” says Bardey. “You don’t know if things are what they appear to be. In that sense, it’s got a Hitchcockian feel to it. And the ending is fantastic, a great lesson and a lot of fun.”
As he constructed his narrative, Burns also conducted extensive research on the growing use of anti-depressants in this country with the help of Dr. Bardey, who ultimately served as on-set adviser and co-producer.
Burns found evidence in the news stories of the day that the same medications used to treat depression, anxiety and other psychological ailments were also creating inexplicable behavior in a small but significant number of patients. Commonly prescribed drugs were being blamed for crimes ranging from vehicular homicide to physical assault. A man in California was acquitted of charges in a non-injury vehicular accident while under the influence of a popular sleep remedy.
One widely prescribed antidepressant was even implicated in a shocking kidnapping and rape.
Just as fascinating to Burns were stories he uncovered about the misbehavior of respected doctors. “There was a story in the news about a psychiatrist who tried to hire one of his patients, a convicted criminal, to kill his mistress,” says Burns. “When the patient went to the police, they didn’t believe him because he’s obviously a crazy person. Our story is completely different than that one, but it’s full of plot twists and turns that have you constantly questioning what actually happened and who is telling the truth.”