When you craft a film about the next pandemic to rip across the world, you’ve got to do your research, and Scott Z. Burns was very invested in finding out the realities of Contagion. Working with Steven Soderbergh for his fourth time, the two weave a portrait of how disease changes peoples lives, from the victims (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow) to the people dealing trying to control the spread (Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet) to the head of the Center for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne) to the doctors working on curing it (Jennifer Ehle), to those who wish to profit from it (Jude Law). It’s a dense script, but made simple, and we talked about the writing process on the film. We also talked briefly about his work on David Fincher‘s upcoming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Check it out..
You’ve mentioned that the idea for Contagion came from working on The Informant.
Yeah, there’s a scene in The Informant where Matt Damon’s character is with Scott Bacula in France on the phone, and he goes off on a rant. Bacula’s character coughs, and he starts saying “Great, now I’m going to get this and I’m going to give it to my kids, and who pays for that? Who compensates? Who pays for it when a government worker makes a private citizen sick?” And I was intrigued by the tertiary effects of an outbreak, and that’s what Steven (Soderbergh) and I wanted to get into, how it’s not just the disease, but all the other things a disease causes.
You mentioned this to Steven and he was in right away?
I think the pitch took all of thirty seconds, and he said “great I’m in, let’s do it” So I started doing research, and met some really amazing scientists, and a year later we had a script, and a lot of really wonderful people who said they’d throw in with us.
Where did you start with research?
I started a few different places. I was introduced to an epidemiologist named Larry Brilliant, believe it or not. And Dr. Brilliant had done a TED talk a couple years ago, and I watched that in preparation of meeting him, and then when I met him he walked me through what happens in a pandemic, and how some people have to march forward in time with the disease to keep the population healthy while others have to walk backwards in time to try to find its origins. And that began to suggest a structure to the movie.
Dr. Brilliant sounds like a really good rap name.
(laughs) And he’s an amazing guy, he was my rabbi through the process, and he introduced me to a guy at Columbia University named Dean Lipkin, and Dr. Lipkin is a world renown virologist, and around the world when they don’t know what it is he gets a sample and has a lab in Columbia in New York that uncovers a new virus every week.
That’s scary (laughs)
Very scary. So I went there and I met with him, and spent some time in his lab, so we sent Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne, so everyone would get steeped in the science that inspired me to write the script.
You have the idea of the new disease, when you’re breaking down the story, did you decide quickly if it would be an ensemble, or did you think of sticking with the doctors because that was part of your research?
No, I always thought it should be an ensemble, and so did Steven. We wanted to have one character working forward in time – as Larry had suggested – so we needed a Laurence Fishburne character, and we needed some epidemiologists, so that was Kate Winslet and Marion Cotilard’s characters working in the field. And it also felt like you needed an audience’s proxy, and that became Matt Damon and his family. And then I felt like it needed someone who spanned across those two worlds, and I started thinking about how information and misinformation has the same transmissive pulse that a virus has, and that’s where Jude Law’s character came from. He was the final piece.
How do you structure it then, do you have the wall of notecards, do you think “oh, we haven’t been with this character in a while” or is that a more organic process for you?
Yeah, that’s exactly what I do. I kind of develop storylines for each of the character, and look for the most interesting points, so it’s kind of like a baton where everyone is advancing the story when you come to them. So you look for the opportunities, but then so does Steven, and that’s where he’s amazing at transitions. He’ll say that’s really the mark of the direction – someone who can move from one point to the other at the perfect moment. So write a little bit that you’re going to throw away because you need to create the entire arc for those characters even if you aren’t with them every minute.
So in some way you wrote a screenplay for each character, and then integrated it?
I wouldn’t go that far, but there were notecards that were suggestive of that.
When people were hired did you have to bump up any of the roles, was there any consideration for that?
Less when people were hired, but Steven has me on set the entire time, because of the way we work – we shoot during the day and he cuts it at night – and if we see a really great opportunity, if we’re sitting around the bar with Matt (Damon) we’ll say “oh that’s really cool, but if would great if Matt’s Emhoff’s character did this” We only had people for a week or so, and we used those opportunities to add or fill ideas as we were working, so we did a little bit of that.
How was it working with Mr. Soderbergh for the second time?
Well, it’s kind of the fourth time, I did work on Ocean’s Twelve, and he produced a movie I did called PU-239, and was very involved with me during the post-production part of that. I love working with Steven, and I have such respect for him as a director, but beyond that the process that he allows me to be a part of is a dream for a writer. I get to be on set every day, I get to give notes on the cut, and he allows me to be the steward of the story, and that’s my job on set is to help Steven and the actors, and let him keep focus on the macro.
And you’re working with him on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Yeah, so I hope I’m doing something right.
Have you heard anything about that lately?
The script is in, and Warner Brothers wants to make the movie next year, and we’re going to start casting once we get this out into the world.
How would you compare working with Steven Soderbergh versus working with David Fincher on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
It’s funny, I’ve known David for a while, and I did visit the set of The Social Network. And they’re very different. Steven will do two or three takes, and David will do thirty or forty takes. It’s a different approach to filmmaking that they have, in a way, I think their taste levels are similar, and they’re friends, so I think they respect each other’s films, but they have really different processes, David is a little bit more inclined to get into detail earlier in the process, and Steven is more inclined to figure stuff out on set.
You guys are in pre-production, perhaps it’ll be a little different when you’re shooting.
I’m pretty sure I know that Sorkin was there, so I hope that David will have me around. It’s fun to be there, and watch people work with your words. But it’s also – Steven also gives me a lot of access to the actors, especially Matt, and Steven’s attitude is “you guys should feel free to talk amongst yourselves, and share ideas because you get to set, if it’s not the way I think it should go I have an opportunity to change it there, but if I don’t give you that access, I never get to know what you might have done, or what you were thinking of.”
One of the strongest things about Contagion is how it avoids the pitfalls of the genre, did you guys watch Outbreak beforehand, or some of the disaster movies of the 70’s, like The Swarm?
We didn’t watch them, we did talk about some of the tropes of the genre, and what we wanted to avoid, and what we could learn from.
Was there anything that stuck out as a do that, or don’t do that?
The only thing that was specific was more of a philosophy of our films, which is that we wanted the science to drive the movie, and we didn’t want anything that happened in the movie to not be possible in the real world.
(Spoilers) in one section a doctor tests a vaccine on herself. Was there any thought of going for a more apocalyptic version of the story?
Not really. The whole idea of it came from a book Dr. Lipkin gave me called Who Goes First? About Scientists who’ve done that kind of move. And sometimes when scientists explore vaccine and cures it goes really well, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Having done the research, did you show it to Dr. Brilliant and Dr. Pitkin when you finished it?
Dr. Lipin was on set almost every day, and he and Larry Brilliant read the script and offers a lot of notes, and we shot at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and they read the script and passively endorsed it by letting us be there, so there were a lot of scientists who looked at it, and made sure we were operating in the realm of possibility.
I assume that Doctor notes are very different than studios notes.
(Laughs) they are, and sometimes they’re things you kind of scratch your head at, but sometimes you learn more, because they’ve had to put on Tyvex suits and they know what the issues are when you’re dealing with a hot zone.
You started with the writing and directing of PU-239, are you looking to go back to directing?
Yeah, I wrote a psychological thriller, it’s set in a world of psychopharmacology, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura is producing it, so I hope to be shooting around the first of the year, we’re starting to cast that as well.
And what can you tell me anything awesome about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
I’m not really not supposed to talk about it that much? Anything awesome I can say about it? What David and I wanted to do is not just turn the book into a movie, we wanted to be inspired by the book, and really push ourselves to come up with something extraordinary, and that continues to be the goal. I don’t know if there’s anything I can give away.
I am not going to comment on the giant squid. (laughs)
Contagion opens September 9, check it out.