A decade ago, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns pitched an idea to Steven Soderbergh for a disaster movie without any aliens or monsters. “Contagion,” as it would be called, involved a deadly global pandemic, and rather than cheap Hollywood thrills, he wanted the movie to be based on something much scarier – real scientific research. Soderbergh immediately agreed to direct the story.
“Contagion,” which featured a sprawling cast that includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard, opened from Warner Bros. in September 2011 to strong reviews and a global box office of almost $140 million, making it a profitable movie. But with the recent pandemic of the coronavirus spreading around the world, “Contagion” has taken on a new meaning. The independent film has resurfaced since January, topping the iTunes movie rental charts. This week, it ranks at No. 9, ahead of “Frozen 2,” “Knives Out” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
The movie follows a group of characters who are left to fend for themselves as a deadly virus takes over the world. Patient zero is Paltrow, who was infected after taking a work trip to Hong Kong. She dies after having a seizure in the arms of her husband (Damon), who then needs to be quarantined. Winslet plays a doctor specializing in infectious diseases. And Law is a blogger — back when they were popular — with a nefarious scheme to profit from people at their most vulnerable.
“Contagion” saw traction on streaming platforms in China in the early days of the COVID-19 spread. In particular, screenshots from a plot about a bogus homeopathic remedy in the film, called “forsythia,” were used online as a coded way to express anger at the Chinese government for pushing traditional medicine remedies that had no proven benefits.
As the number of coronavirus patients has grown to 130,000 cases worldwide, audiences are turning to “Contagion” for information and comfort (the virus in the film has a much higher fatality rate). There are too many eerie parallels to count. In one scene, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, playing himself, is featured on a TV news program discussing preventive measures. Now, nine years later, he’s doing it for real on CNN.
Burns talked to Variety about making “Contagion,” what the Trump administration has done wrong and what he learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tell me about how “Contagion” got made.
I had just finished working on a movie called “The Informant” with Steven Soderbergh and Steven turned to me and said, “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?” And I said, “My father and I always have these conversations about bird flu, and the moment in which a virus jumps into the human population,” which in the aughts was something. People were concerned about if bird flu would materialize in a human population. And so I told Steven that I wanted to do a pandemic movie, but I wanted it to be based really firmly on science. And he said, “Sold. I’m in.”
How much time did you spend researching?
I probably spent two or three years deeply involved in the science. That was sort of the real revelation for me. I met Dr. Larry Brilliant, who is an epidemiologist, who was involved with the eradication of smallpox in the ‘60s. And Larry introduced me to a virologist at Columbia University named Ian Lipkin. Dr. Lipkin and I spent a lot of time together talking about how viruses work and where the next one was likely to appear in the world. The deal that he made with me was he would help me with the film as long as we made it scientifically substantive.
What surprised you the most at this stage of your information gathering?
There were a lot of surprising things. First of all, the intersection between human behavior and what people in the world called ecotones, which are these zones where human beings are encroaching on previously wild spaces. As we cut down trees and invade habitats where humans have not lived, it puts us in contact with microbes and animals and a host of other factors that can traffic in these diseases. There are viruses in the wild that don’t affect human beings. But if they can be successful in bats or in pigs – mammals that have similar body temperature and other attributes that humans have — they frequently can use that as a midway point on their way to the human population. I didn’t fully appreciate the pathway until I started doing the research.
Did you spend time at the Centers for Disease Control?
I was allowed to go to the CDC in 2008 and meet with people there. I really learned a lot about what public health meant. Public health has a lot to do with our obligation to each other. Science is great, but what’s also great is a shared responsibility to keep each other healthy. I think that’s a really important message that I hope comes out of the movie. If we all wash our hands and observe social distancing and take care of each other, that does a lot more than almost anything.
Were you concerned when you read about Trump’s budget cuts for the CDC?
I was terrified. Every scientist who I spoke to when I worked on the movie said that exact same thing to me: It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.” You can decide that most of the time, firemen are just sitting around. But it’s very hard to start a fire department once your house is on fire. And so the notion that we’re going to cut these things and we’ll just try to rebuild them when we need them is foolish and dangerous. I was very aware that our Department of Homeland Security had a pandemic team standing by because this is a real threat. The fact that this administration decided to do away with that puts all of us at risk.
I wanted to talk to you about the construction of “Contagion.” It’s not the story as told through the eyes of one character. It’s really about a community of characters, which might have seemed risky at the time for a studio.
One of the things that I had going for me was that Steven had made “Traffic.” I was very taken with the construction of that film. I think that gave the studio confidence that this was the kind of storytelling that he and I were capable of doing. Also, Steven and I spoke to the studio a lot about 1970s disaster films and the value of an ensemble cast when you’re trying to tell far-flung stories, so there’s always someone onscreen who the audience is really interested in.
What happened after you showed Steven a draft of your script?
He was very excited by the script. We had a relationship with Jeff Skoll and Participant Films. And, as it turns out, pandemic preparedness is a big issue for Jeff. It was one of the missions of Participant. So he became an advocate for the movie. Alan Horn – who is now at Disney, but at that time was at Warner Bros. [as the studio chief] — his wife had been a huge supporter of pandemic preparedness programs at UCLA. I had this really wonderful experience of going into Warner Bros. and having the guy who ran the studio know the subject really well because of his wife. It definitely helped us get the movie made.
Did you have any ideas about casting as you were writing it?
When I’m writing, I have some voices in my head. I had worked with Matt on “The Informant” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” I knew that I was writing Mitch Emhoff for him.
Did you always know that Kate Winslet’s character was going to die?
Gwyneth Paltrow’s character also dies very quickly in the film. Was there any resistance from the actors to keep their characters alive for a little longer?
All of those actors, much to their credit, understood that their contribution to the overall drama was what was really important. What was critical to Steven and I about showing how indiscriminate a virus can be for major stars like Gwyneth and Kate to die. I think it served us well in terms of dramatic storytelling to put people on the edge of their seats. But it also had to do with the real nature of these things. Sometimes, as we’re seeing, first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to save live can get hurt.
When did you start to realize that “Contagion” had so many parallels to coronavirus?
That’s a tricky question for me. What was really important to the scientists that I worked with and Steven was that what we did was their best guess at what would happen with a pandemic. We didn’t see it with SARS, because SARS burned out very quickly. But I think we would have probably gone down the same path if SARS, which is also a coronavirus, had gained this kind of foothold. I wasn’t surprised that scientists were right. I have a lot of faith and confidence in science. There are other aspects of it that have been surprising.
I think in relation to real life, I had spent enough time at the CDC to know that there were really dedicated people there, waiting to deal with problems like this. I hadn’t contemplated as a screenwriter what would happen in an administration where we defunded public health and defunded pandemic preparedness and defunded science, and then went one step further and discredited health officials who were trying to protect us. That was something, as a screenwriter, I never could have anticipated.
In your movie, the president quickly goes into hiding. But in real life, for a very long time, Trump didn’t seem to believe that this was a real health threat.
Yeah. I didn’t plan on that.
What are you doing to stay safe from coronavirus?
I am doing what public officials say. I’m washing my hands very often. I am avoiding large gatherings. And I think that’s all we can do now until we get a handle on this. Unfortunately, because our response was delayed, we’re way behind the curve. And to compound that, you have officials of the government saying this isn’t a problem or this isn’t a bad thing. I think to me, the scary part is, even though you may say that the mortality rate is around 1%, if 10 million people end up getting sick, that’s a lot of people who will die. Most of them, even if they’re old, some of my favorite people are over 70 years old. And we need to take care of them.
Variety‘s China bureau chief Rebecca Davis contributed to this story.