With his latest film, Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh shines a spotlight on the far-reaching implications of trendy antidepressants—something that's been all but verboten in the film industry.
This completes a sort of trifecta of hot topics for the filmmaker: First, he explored what can happen when germs go viral and kill people (like Kate Winslet) in Contagion, and then he gave us a shirtless (and often pantsless) Channing Tatum writhing on the floor in Magic Mike alongside Matthew McConaughey in the role he was born to play—an aging male stripper. Now, he conquers another touchy subject. "It's a nice little trilogy," the soon-to-be retired Oscar winner muses. Starring Jude Law and Rooney Mara, Side Effects is a psychological thriller centered on a new antidepressant called Ablixa and what can go horribly wrong—or perhaps, for some people, right. Here, the director mulls over retirement, prescription drugs, and Matt Damon bedecked in sequins.
DETAILS: You've been promoting this film for a couple of days now on the junket circuit. We're sure a myriad of people have asked if you take antidepressants.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Oh sure.
DETAILS: We're not asking you that question. Not really.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Look, if I were and I had, I would talk about it. Everybody knows somebody who's on something. I have a lot of friends who are on a cocktail of things. It's interesting that there's a mind-body relationship that's complex and specific to everyone that doesn't get taken into account. First of all, everyone is physiologically different and reacts to things differently—like after surgery, I've taken painkillers that are supposed to completely work but haven't stopped the pain at all and thought, "Why do I have to be the guy who metabolizes painkillers so they don't work?" You just never know.If you've done any research on antidepressants on the market, you know that none of them outperform placebos, which lets you know that a large part of the problem can be psychological. So the fact that some people think that they're taking something that's helping them is what's helping them. The real scary thing as we've seen, though, is people dying that shouldn't have died. When you start to combine things, then you're really in uncharted territory. Heath Ledger—none of those things he was on should kill him, but [taken] together, his heart stopped.
DETAILS: Many people nowadays are seeing a number of different doctors and not telling each one of those doctors what they're on.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Yeah, or you're taking something that wasn't prescribed—you just asked a friend for something. So for all you kids out there, my rule is never do three drugs at the same time. When you do that, bad things happen.
DETAILS: In Side Effects, there's a great line from one of the characters: "This isn't supposed to happen—the ads on TV say you're supposed to be happy if you're on these pills," which is hilarious because those ads always showcase people running in slow motion through fields of daisies, with looks of effervescence and joy on their faces.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Meanwhile those ads spend about 10 seconds on the positive and the other 20 seconds are spent on the side effects, which are so awful you can't believe it.
DETAILS: It sort of is, in its own right, propaganda.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Someone asked me the other day what's the difference between the world of Contagion and the world of Side Effects, and I said, "The CDC isn't trying to make money—they're trying to solve a problem." You could make an argument that there's a fuzzy line between solving a problem and maybe creating a problem. And then you get into a whole thing about how the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual] is the sort of textbook that health policies and insurance companies use to determine how people should be treated . . . this thing is kind of the [medical community's] bible. [But] it's just a group of doctors that get in a room and just decide. Billions of dollars are weighed on this.
DETAILS: Your films seem to create a certain awareness . . . the stories are fictional, but you can't negate the research that has gone into the subject matter.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Well, after these films, you'll never look at a male stripper the same way again, and after Side Effects, you'll never look at your medicine cabinet the same way again either.
DETAILS: How did you come up with Ablixa, the name of the drug that's at the epicenter of the film? Did you throw a bunch of names into a hat?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Scott [Z. Burns, the screenwriter] came up with most of the ideas for it. There's a certain algorithm; the drug companies want associations with certain sounds that are "positive." Albixa is perky. The word you associate it with is ability. We made fake commercials for the drug, too. They're on the website.
DETAILS: This is your last pre-retirement theatrical release. So what's the plan?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: I need a radical change. I couldn't tell you right now how permanent it will be. I know what would need to happen for me to make another movie.
DETAILS: And that would be?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: I would have to become a completely different filmmaker.
DETAILS: Are you tapped out?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: I just feel like I've hit the wall of what I'm able to do as the filmmaker I am today. In the hopes I can annihilate and rebuild from scratch, I need to drop off that grid for a while. I need to see if I can come back and literally start over. The only reason I feel stupid talking about it is, in this economy, for someone to be walking away from a high-paying job, it's something you shouldn't be discussing out loud.
DETAILS: We hope you've been saving your money.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Yes, I have. This has been a five-year plan—that when I hit 50, I'll be done. And I made it.
DETAILS: Your last last non-theatrical film is Liberace, for HBO, costarring Matt Damon. I'm sure the costumes were fabulous. Was there a specific outfit that really stands out?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Oh my God. Every day there was a costume that made you gasp. Matt had this one outfit that he wears in the film that is this sheer top, unbuttoned, with a male bikini with sequins all over it . . . climaxing sort of, in the right place. They spread out but get more dense at, sort of, the "action point." He happens to be wearing this ensemble when he's really upset and storms through the house—complete with big sunglasses and flip-flops. You see him and just think, "Wow. That's really brave." I have a great picture of him in it standing next to a Christmas tree.—Susan Michals is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to Details.com. Follow her@Susan_Michals