‘The Hot Zone’ Bosses Break Down Writing About Ebola and Not Depicting the Monkeys as Villains

Julianna Margulies in The Hot Zone
Still: Courtesy of NatGeo/Book: Courtesy of Anchor

Richard Preston’s 1994 book “The Hot Zone” reflects on the origins of Ebola and the 1980s outbreak that saw the fatal disease hit U.S. soil, and follows the journeys of many individuals who were touched by it at the time. But Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders’ limited series adaptation honed in more specifically on one woman’s experience: Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax (played by Julianna Margulies), who was appointed to work on the Ebola outbreak operation for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Fear Factor
Peterson and Souders wanted to match the heightened level of situational drama for their viewing audience, but because they were working with National Geographic, it was also imperative to root the series in reality when it came to such science.

“We really had to straddle these two worlds,” Peterson says. “There are scenes where the audience won’t know what’s going on, but the scientists watching will. That was a decision we came to together. One of our producers called it ‘science porn.’”

In addition to Preston’s book as source material, Peterson and Souders met with the real-life Jaax, as well as a number of other “science consultants and cultural consultants” to determine “when to showcase the science and when it should be background.” The decisions, which were made on a scene by scene basis, Peterson admits, were based on the entertainment factor because ultimately they were not out to make a documentary.

No Monkey Business
In the sixth episode, Nancy suits up to assess the situation inside the monkey facility once again. Prior to this, she had a scare with a rip in her suit after handling contaminated materials. The audience had seen her get ready before, so rather than follow the book’s detailed description of how she suited up, including why each step was necessary, Peterson and Souders showed a simple series of shots, focusing heavily on the duct tape she used to secure herself.

“We wanted to show it so you could feel like you were along for the ride, not being hand-held through an explanation like a science project,” Souders says.

“With the duct tape, what we loved about this show is you’ve got these crazy space suits that seem like they’re from the future but it’s 1989. So it was state of the art, but it’s 1989 state of the art.”

When Nancy walks into the facility, she has to instill confidence in the soldiers around her, as well as study the monkeys’ faces for signs of illness. Souders admits they did not have to write specific emotional direction into their scripts at this stage because the show had already been cast and she knew what actors like Margulies would bring to the situation. Instead, they focused on creating “the drama in the situations and lines to develop rich nuances.”

However, they dictated specifics for the monkeys, which were created using CGI. Research monkeys are a very specific kind, and an animal wrangler is not likely to have access to them, Peterson notes. Additionally, productions have become more “socially conscious” about the use of live animals in filming, Souders admits, resulting in further need for the digital creation.

Peterson and Souders worked with DNEG visual effects for the series, having conversations at every stage of production from script to post about the emotions of the monkeys.

“You don’t want to present the monkeys as the villains because they didn’t ask for this; they are as much victims as the people. That was an interesting journey,” Peterson says.