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.