In the new thriller Contagion, the emergence and rapid spread of a deadly virus threatens not just the population but the very foundations of civil society, dividing families and crippling government institutions. Worst of all, it makes Gwyneth Paltrow look really, really unappealing. The film represents the second collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns, who previously paired for the 2009 comedy The Informant! Their third project together, an adaptation of the ‘60s TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., is slated to go into production in February (provided it can find someone to star).
In an exclusive interview, we spoke with Burns about Contagion, U.N.C.L.E., and Mr. Soderbergh’s oft-discussed retirement plans.
This is a pretty drastic shift from The Informant! What was the genesis of the project?
When Steven and I were finishing The Informant!, he took me aside and said, “What else do you got?” I’d always wanted to do a pandemic movie, but I wanted it to be based in reality and not some invented virus that was divine retribution or the product of an experiment gone wrong. And there’s a scene in The Informant! where Matt [Damon]’s character goes on a rant after Scott Bakula’s character, who has a cold, coughs into a phone and gives it to Matt. And Matt’s like, “Oh great, so now I get sick and now my kid gets sick and he misses school, and what effect is that going to have on his life, and who pays for it?” The ripple effect of transmissible illness, I’ve always been fascinated by. And Steven said, “I love it. Let’s do that.” I told him the only way to do this was to really immerse myself into the research. I spent the better part of a year really researching before I did much writing at all.
In your research, what sense did you get that something like this could actually happen?
All of the people who we worked with, the creative contract that we sort of made with them was that we wanted to make a realistic movie. At some point you put numbers into an equation and the math takes care of itself. What Dr. Larry Brilliant, who is a famous epidemiologist told me, was that with a disease that has an R-not [a term representing the exponential rate at which a disease spreads; I’ve likely misspelled it] of two or four, which is not unheard of in the world – things like the flu spread at that rate – it’s only 30 steps from two to a billion. Flu may not be tremendously fatal, but what if it changed a lit bit, or something else happened to make it more dangerous? These things are real; they do happen. The 1918 pandemic killed 40 or 50 million people, we think. That’s more than died in World War I, and yet we talk about World War I certainly than the Spanish Flu. And there were other, smaller things since then, outbreaks in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Every years, 20 or 30 thousand people die of seasonal flu. A lot of those people might be immuno-compromised anyway before they get sick, but our whole history on this planet is marked by these things. Even though we’re getting better at medicine, and we think that will keep us safer, we also move around faster than we ever have before. We’re also putting our hands in places we’ve never put them before. We’re going into wild places where we’ve never been and coming in contact with plants and animals that we’ve never been in contact with before.
What interested me about this film, and what separates it from other pandemic movies, is that it’s as much about the cure as it is about the disease. In many ways, the cure is worse than the disease, in terms of what it reveals about human nature.
I’m glad you said that, because what the virus brings out, I think, is our fear and self-interest and all of these other things that, when we’re put under pressure, always come to light. That was what I really wanted to talk about, and what you noticed, which is gratifying to me, is those things don’t go away when the cure appears. What I wanted to do with each of our individual characters is resolve their stories in ways where they make peace with things.
For the most part you avoid Hollywood over-dramatization, but you do touch upon some darker, more conspiratorial aspects. They tend to metastasize in these circumstances, don’t they?
Yeah, I think that’s a part of the problem, and it’s kinda the big metaphor we invested in. Information and misinformation travel with the same transmissibility as the virus. And so some of the things that Jude Law’s character says are true, and some of them, for some people in the audience, may provoke their conspiracist [leanings]. But he also spreads a lot of misinformation, and that becomes a huge danger.
I remember when H1N1 was at its zenith, there were all sorts of conspiracy theories revolving around the vaccine and its supposed effects.
Jude’s character became the receptacle for all of that. I just read a couple weeks ago that the guy who created that flu stuff, Zycam, he also created some homeopathic H1N1 cure. Well, it was bogus and he was just indicted. And it was the same thing. It was this guy who went on the internet and said I have this herb that’s gonna cure H1N1, and it didn’t, and he made a lot of money. All of these things when they happen, in their randomness and in their inexplicability, they become opportunities for every agenda. Again, that’s another problem that doesn’t go away with the cure. There is no cure for that.
By my rough estimation, this is the fourteenth film Soderbergh has made with Matt Damon. Did he have you write with him or any other actors in mind?
No. Steven and I will generally talk about the movie before I write a little bit, and then we don’t really talk much while I’m writing. I knew Matt was going to do The Informant! pretty early on, and it was helpful to me when writing some of the monologues for that to hear Matt’s voice in my head. But we didn’t start casting this until the script was done.
[Caution - Minor Spoiler Alert]
How present were you on-set? Is Soderbergh the type of guy who likes to re-write on fly?
On The Informant! we barely changed a word. On this movie, there were new opportunities constantly coming up. There’s a lot of material we ended up not using in the final cut. If we were sitting around the bar at night and thought oh, it would be really cool if Kate Winslet’s character ended up building the hospital she ends up sick in, that that would be a really great thing, we’d go and shoot an additional scene. So that’s the great opportunity for me in being on-set. I’m sort of the steward of the story, and if I can come up with ways to make it better, Steven and Greg Jacobs, our producer and A.D., will always try to make it happen.
Is that a challenge on film like this, when you have so many different characters and storylines, to come up with new material so quickly?
It’s a challenge in that you need to find ways to tell just enough of a story to keep that character afloat in the movie without tipping the movie over. That’s the trick to it, figuring out how little information you can give to the audience and still get them emotionally invested in this character, and making sure that you leave a scene early enough so that the audience wants to know what’s gonna happen next. So it’s just creating little emotional cliffhanger after cliffhanger, to give the movie a sort of forward momentum.
Having worked with Steven for as long as you have, what do you make of all this talk about his retirement from filmmaking?
I hope he doesn’t retire. Look, Steven has made a lot of really great movies, and I think like any artist, he wants to push himself to continue to try and do new things. And I think he’ll retire when he can’t find a good reason to go make another movie. I know we’re going to do Man From U.N.C.L.E., and I hope by the time we’re done doing Man From U.N.C.L.E., we’ll have an idea for something to do after that. I really hope he doesn’t retire; I really think he has a lot to contribute to American cinema. I’d be sad to see him go.
What can we expect from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Will it be a straightforward take on the material?
Yes. It’s gonna be period. So it will be set in the ‘60s. Some of it has, I hope, the wit and wryness of the series. It was a really brave series in its day, because it was a Russian and an American working together, and they didn’t have a government. They were working for U.N.C.L.E., and I think Steven and I both loved the idea that there was this unaffiliated organization trying to make the world better. That sounds awesome to me.
Contagion opens everywhere Friday, September 9, 2011.
S07E04 Comparing Weeds and Breaking Bad is nothing new. The comparisons are obvious right from the elevator pitch: a down-on-their-luck suburbanite turns to the drug world to make ends meet. But this week’s episode of both shows made me realize how far the void has become between the two of them. Breaking Bad is widely considered the greatest show on television (perhaps ever) while the only praise Weeds has gotten lately is “hey, it’s not as bad as it was a few seasons ago!”
Why though? I think it all comes down to motivation. For seven years now we’ve watched Nancy Botwin slowly turn from a suburban housewife into a bona fide criminal drug dealer. For the past four years we’ve seen Walt White transform from a high school chemistry teacher to a full on gangster. Excluding other factors like production value, supporting actors, writing, and cable vs premium chanels, Walt’s story is just more engaging because his motivation is more enjoyable to watch. Why does Nancy do what she does? Why does she immediately jump back into the weed game three years after being locked up? So she can fund her kid’s preschool bill? That’s all we get? At least with Walt we see his transformation into a master. We understand that he does what he does because he likes the power, he has an addiction, and he still has nothing to lose thanks to his cancer. But Nancy? While I do think she likes the power (she is still a master manipulator) I just don’t understand why she would continuously drag her family and friends through all of this.
She still makes some fairly interesting television though and in the end, that’s all that matters.
And perhaps Nancy does what she does because that’s what her family is good at doing. By the end of the episode, Silas proves himself a fantastic weed salesman, Shane successfully scams the student loan system, and Nancy clears out a territory to deal. It's fairly impressive for an iced coffee enthusiast. Nancy also manages to take care of that half-way house requirement of finding a job by forcing herself in at Doug’s new job (who took to steroids to help in company softball and as a result shrank and straightened his penis). For a show that moves oh-so slowly a fair bit of stuff happened.
"The Steward Havens Trapper Keeper of Broken Dreams" -Steward Haven
We also had a fairly strong bit from the season’s guest stars. We got our first look at Aidan Quinn as the CEO of the company and SHOCKER another man in a position of power is taken with Nancy. Lindsay Sloane’s Maxine turns out to already have a husband which kind of throws Andy off. But after a heartfelt confession that he has cancer and only wants the best for his wife, Andy goes right back to the Popsicle cunnilingus. I’ve also found it funny that Andy, the only member of the family who has a history of dealing in the drug world, is the only one left out of the new family business. And we also got our first look at Martin Short, Nancy’s pro bono lawyer. Funny, definitely, but a bit one-note. There were a ton of guest stars and plots to get through however, so he'll probably get fleshed out in the weeks to come.
Speaking of things I hope don’t get fleshed out, holy hell where did that Afghanistan scene come from? I know it was an attempt to be funny, but it didn’t work for me. And not in some it’s-politically-incorrect-to-depict-the-people-of-Afghanistan-like-that way, but it was so broad and so random and so out of left field. But I appreciate them taking the risk and maybe the next one will hit a little stronger.
So Weeds managed to keep me on for another week but who knows how long that’ll keep up. Again maybe it’s just Mary-Louise Parker’s devilish smile that keeps me coming back. In fact, I know that’s a category that Weeds always trumps Breaking Bad: I’d much rather see Parker naked than Bryan Cranston. But that doesn’t always win you an Emmy (it should).
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Honestly the most disappointing aspect is how plodding and well boring Fool's Gold is considering it’s a romantic action adventure about treasure hunting in the Florida Keys. How can you mess that up? In plenty of ways it seems. The story introduces Ben “Finn” Finnegan (McConaughey) who has spent most of his surf-bum-turned-treasure-hunter life obsessed with finding a legendary 18th century Spanish treasure lost at sea in 1715. So consumed in fact that he loses just about everything including his marriage to the lovely history buff Tess (Hudson). But on the day their divorce is final Finn tells Tess he may have finally found what they’ve both been searching for. All he needs is money and a boat. Luckily Tess is currently working as a steward on a yacht owned by the kindly billionaire Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland) and Finn convinces the lackadaisical Nigel to go on a treasure hunt. Tess isn’t pleased at first but then her passion for history and discovery--and eventually her ex--is rekindled. Of course others want the treasure too--including a rapper--so there’s the obligatory race to get the booty. Yo-Ho-Ho hum. It’s really a shame Hudson and McConaughey didn’t click as well as they did in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. You watch their characters in Fool's Gold--all tanned and buff and clearly still in love with each other even though they won't admit it--and you want the magic to work again. You really do. But alas the script whittles whatever chemistry they have down to basically nothing. McConaughey is pretty much playing the same screw-up he played in Sahara while Hudson gets little to do besides boringly reading from 18th century diaries on the whereabouts of the treasure. Sutherland looks pretty uninterested as well and Ray Winstone (Beowulf) as the rival treasure hunter has about two lines in the whole thing. The only spark plug in the bunch is Alexis Dziena (Broken Flowers) as Nigel’s ditzy BlackBerry-obsessed daughter looking for daddy’s love. At least someone should have some fun frolicking in the Caribbean. Writer/director Andy Tennant should have known better--shame on him. He knows what a successful romantic comedy should do having helmed Hitch and Sweet Home Alabama. But instead he takes a perfectly good premise full of action-adventure potential and pisses it away. Unlike say a National Treasure-type film Fool's Gold is a dull journey to the loot with long expository scenes explaining the history behind the treasure and the people who wielded it and very little oomph elsewhere. Most of the action comes at the end when the treasure is close at hand but by that time we don’t care so much. The one thing Fool's Gold does have going for it is the gorgeous scenery with Queensland Australia posing at the Caribbean. It makes you want to chuck it all and live on a tropical island so in that regard Fool's Gold touches upon some of that fun escapism you’d expect from a film of this nature. It’s nice to find something at least a little positive about the movie isn’t it?