Side Effects: Is the Thriller Movie Inspired by a True Story?

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, ‘Side Effects’ is a psychological thriller film that revolves around two people: Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist, and Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman who becomes Jonathan’s patient. Emily claims to suffer from depression. After a seemingly failed attempt to take her life, she meets Jonathan and agrees to work with him on her issues. After the drugs that Jonathan initially prescribes don’t work, he reaches out to Emily’s former psychiatrist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests Jonathan should prescribe a new drug called Ablixa to Emily.

Initially, Emily gets better while using Ablixa and decides to continue taking it despite the side effects of sleepwalking. However, during one such episode, she stabs her husband to death, triggering a chain of events that brings down both the drug and the doctor who prescribed it. The core of the narrative of the 2013 movie is dedicated to the potential side effects of antidepressants. If that has made you wonder whether ‘Side Effects’ is based on actual events,’ we got you covered.

The Truth Behind Side Effects

‘Side Effects’ is a fictional story. Soderbergh developed the film from a script by Scott Z. Burns, who told the Interview Magazine that he wrote the screenplay intending to direct himself. He compared his attempts to get the film made to the myth of Sisyphus. “Trying to get it made was like pushing a boulder up a hill for seven or eight years and then realizing that the hill has no top and eventually you’re going to get crushed by the boulder or possibly push it forever. Or, you let somebody else do it, like Steven, and all of a sudden there is no boulder and there’s no hill,” Burns said.

‘Side Effects’ is Soderbergh and Burns’ third film together after ‘The Informant!’ (2009) and ‘Contagion’ (2011).’ In the beginning, the film sets the base for the exploration of big pharma and how it exploits the people and the system before turning into a conventional psychological thriller. However, the focus of the narrative soon shifts from corporate greed to personal one. We can even say that the ending vindicates a big pharmaceutical company and its antidepressant drug.

One can understand Soderbergh’s reasons for this. After all, he directed ‘Erin Brockovich,’ a movie about a regular citizen taking on a big company. Perhaps he wanted not to be repetitive, and that’s why he chose to tell this story. Soderbergh and Burns’ 2011 film, ‘Contagion,’ is also set in the healthcare system and touches on big pharma and its malpractices. So, it’s entirely possible that they wanted to do something different with ‘Side Effects.’

Burns did extensive research while penning the script. He was fascinated by psychology and consulted both healthcare professionals and patients. “Ten years ago, or so, I spent months trailing a forensic psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital who dealt with people whose psychiatric problems had led them into crimes,” the screenwriter told the same outlet. “I met patients and heard about their crimes. I learned about the intersection of psychopharmacology and the law and psychiatry—there were just so many complicated stories.”

The forensic psychiatrist Burns mentioned is Dr. Sasha Bardey, who served as one of the producers on the film. “… they were either based on—or inspired by—actual cases,” She told Time Magazine. “But most of the action that you see in the movie is derived from real incidents that occurred. What makes the movie fictional is that it all happens to one person and to one psychiatrist over time, whereas in reality, these were all elements from different cases and different experiences.”

Burns told Interview Magazine that he wanted to explore how much human perception of the world has changed because of drugs in ‘Side Effects.’ “We are getting better at making drugs that can change people’s brains,” he explained. “If, as a society, we start to take more and more of these drugs for different reasons, it becomes more complicated to assess what a person’s internal state really is. Are we experiencing a slightly tweaked version of them? I wanted to find a story within that world, and I wanted to do a little mind-f***ing.”

Clearly, the narrative of the film is rooted in reality as it is based on Bardey and Burns’ experiences at Bellevue Hospital. There have also been many incidents in real life where people on antidepressants reportedly turned violent and killed others. However, the story that drives ‘Side Effects’ is a work of fiction.

Read More: Side Effects Ending, Explained