INTERVIEW: ‘Contagion’ screenwriter Scott Z. Burns

Posted by · 9:08 am · August 31st, 2011

There’s a scene in 2009’s “The Informant!,” Steven Soderbergh’s tongue-in-cheek look at corporate malfeasance written by Scott Z. Burns, when Matt Damon’s pathological liar Mark Whitacre rants internally about the spread of a virus, spurred by a sneeze from co-star Scott Bakula.

By the time the film was complete, Soderbergh had built a solid working relationship with Burns and the two were eager to dive into something new. The director asked what Burns would like to do next, and the writer brought up Damon’s rant scene and mentioned that he thought it would be cool to do an outbreak movie.

“That was literally the extent of the pitch,” Burns says over breakfast poolside at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “And he said, ‘That’s great. Go do that.'”

And so the germ (no pun intended) of “Contagion” was born. The film — a dialed down, ultra-realistic look at societal breakdown in the wake of an unpredictable virus strain mutation catching hold and wreaking havoc across the globe — quickly spun away from those simplistic beginnings and became, for Burns and Soderbergh, an opportunity to metaphorically dissect the spread of misinformation in a time of crisis.

Burns set off to work, visiting top experts around the world and putting in plenty of time at places like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, ultimately completing a screenplay he says is his most heavily researched to date.

“I was able to get in contact with people who are really highly regarded in this field,” he says, “people who are on the National Biosurveilance safety threat team. Doctor Ian Lipkin at Columbia University is the world’s foremost virologist and he helped me concoct the virus itself, down to an actual model of the virus.”

The fictional virus in question is a variant of two strains of the “Henipavirus” — Nipah and Hendra — which begin with bats and are transmitted to pigs and horses. The strains were modified for the film to make an elaborate mish-mash, but both are nevertheless present in the world.

Lipkin’s lab in New York is often charged with helping to identify viruses in outbreak situations. He receives blood and tissue samples from a potential or ongoing outbreak and studies them down to, as you might imagine, the most finite detail.

“He has this massive sequencing program,” Burns says. “Within 48 hours, he’s able to compare it to every virus ever and see if it looks familiar or if it doesn’t look familiar, what its constituent parts are. Is it a hybrid of something else? Is it entirely novel? And so we just worked backwards from there and made something that was part bat, part pig, which is kind of what would happen if a virus like Nipah or Hendra mutated inside its host.”

The implications are naturally unsettling, and that was part of the design by which Burns wanted to set his film apart in the sub-genre of outbreak movies. The virus in “The Andromeda Strain,” for instance, originated in outer space. “Outbreak” was ultimately concerned with being a conspiracy film about biological warfare. “28 Days Later,” meanwhile, was about retribution for humanity’s sins, Burns says, depicting the post-apocalyptic effects of an outbreak in the confines of a zombie film.

But the rule Burns and Soderbergh put forth, he says, is that there is nothing in “Contagion” that feels inherently fictional, that couldn’t actually happen.

“I kind of felt that the scariest thing was, what if it’s not about us being bad?,” he says. “What if it’s just a part of being alive? Because it turns out we share the planet with a bunch of other big animals and tiny microbes, and in the course of human civilization, these things happen. They happen all the time.”

For instance, he notes, the Spanish Flu outbreak between 1918 and 1920 killed over 50 million people around the world. “That number is so astonishing to me,” he says. “That was way more than died in World War I, but we talk more about World War I than the Spanish Flu thing. So that’s how I wanted to differentiate it. I wanted it to be that it wasn’t punishment for bad behavior on the part of humanity, it was just part of being alive on earth. This is going to happen. We’ve got to deal with it. There’s something really terrifying about a random event, and this is a genetic random event.”

With the help of Lipkin and various other advisers he consulted for the project (such as Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett), Burns was also able to dig into the minutiae of an event like the one he depicts in the script. He was impressed by what he saw at the CDC, where he was able to witness gaming of scenarios and exercises with variables tossed in, kind of like trial runs and drills based around hypothetical outbreak situations.

“There were good ideas that came out of those, like the secondary and other tertiary events,” he says. “Like at what point do the teamsters get pulled off the road? At what point does the Nurse’s Union say, ‘We don’t want to go to work because no one knows what this disease is and so we don’t want sick nurses?’ Or at what point do you shut down schools? Because once you shut down schools, the people who send their kids to schools now have to stay home, and so now you’re shutting down all these other businesses. And the way it spins out across a society is really fascinating to me.

That became the “math equation” that Burns says he and Soderbergh were really interested in dissecting. “If you know you have a quarter of the population sick, what percentage of the population is then freaked out?,” he posits. “And what percentage leaves or does self-quarantine and won’t go out? And then do you still have police presence and food on shelves and fire departments and is there money in banks and does commerce happen? When anthrax happened after 9/11, I can’t remember, I think two people died, and it shut down the airline industry and our government. So the correlation between how many dead and how devastating the social impact is, that was our escalation.”

He almost sounds like Mark Whitacre rifling off that internal monologue from “The Informant!” But that spiderweb effect was also his way in, thematically, to a story rooted so strongly in not only the plausible, but the possible.

Jude Law plays a journalist figure in the film, annoyingly nagging all quarters for information he deems important to the public interest. Without revealing the character’s story arc, he also becomes a symbol for the chaos Burns implemented on the page. And it’s worth pointing out an early line from Elliot Gould (as virologist Ian Sussman, a tip of the hat to Mr. Lipkin’s namesake) to the smarmy blogger: “Blogging is not writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.” Burns says he was interested in notions of information and misinformation spreading like a virus throughout a population in a time when fact-checking and perspective can so easily fly out the window.

“There are people who write shit on the internet and it’s wrong and there are these distortions that get repeated and repeated and repeated,” he says. “And there is no toothpaste retraction. So it’s out there. It can be extracted and re-appropriated and messed around in all sorts of ways, and it really becomes a metaphor for the way that a virus is transmitted. You can paint over it but you can’t un-paint it, and in times of crisis, that’s really scary to me.

“When that woman in Iran died in a riot and there was a little video and it went viral, it was right when I was writing the movie, and I was like, ‘I want that. I want to come up with a little video,’ and that’s what the guy dying on the Japanese bus was.”

To explain, Law’s character shoots in popularity (and coveted page views) when he discovers and propagates video of a man collapsing on a bus and ultimately dying on a bus in Japan. There is no context provided for the event whatsoever, and that was very much a point.

“We, now, as a society, have to figure out what that means,” Burns continues. “What is that? Is it epilepsy? Is that an art project? Is that going to be an ad? Is that the government? The internet is this great democratization for people to say what they think and feel, but it’s also scary to me that it’s unfiltered content. All of those things are what that Jude Law character is about.”

To the point of rapid spreading, Burns also notes a website called “Where’s George?,” which allows you to type in the serial number of a dollar bill and discover where it has been, how many people have had it, etc.

“It turns out the same program is used by the CDC to sort of predict,” Burns says, then channels Mark Whitacre once more: “You’re going to meet someone today who’s probably going to be getting on a plane and you may shake their hand or you may turn the sink on and they’re going to follow you into the bathroom and now they’re walking out with some of their DNA and they’re going to rub their nose like I just did. And the same thing happens with the internet. It’s the same kind of unpredictable content.”

It’s certainly fair to say Burns learned a great deal while writing “Contagion,” but while he is impressed with the infrastructure to deal with a serious outbreak scenario, he’s also quick to state the obvious, that he’s “never met anybody in this process that says, ‘We’re adequately funded and we’re fine.'” He weaves plenty of that political side of things into the script, notions of state health departments and the differences in funding (and, therefore, quality) across that spectrum. He touches on ideas of civil rights issues and the different and, in his opinion, correct protocols surrounding public health in other countries, protocols that would no doubt leave many Americans stunned if they were implemented here.

But “Contagion” is a dense piece of work with a lot of considerations and the material left unused here could easily fill another 1700 words. And you have to close the door some time. Perhaps it’s best to end on the philosophical stakes of the narrative that Burns discovered over the process of writing the film:

“What I came to love about what we were trying to do is, on one hand, to survive these things, we need to create a little distance between each other. And yet, to survive these things, we really need to rely on each other. When I was writing the script, I was like three months in and H1N1 happened. I was in New York meeting with Laurie Garrett. I walked into the restaurant and she got up and I was going to give her a hug and she was like, ‘We don’t do that right now. We have to observe social distancing.’ And you realize that this concept of public health, that’s what that means.

“Like Japanese people, when they wear masks, they’re not wearing them because they think they’re going to get sick. They’re wearing them because they think they are sick and they don’t want to get other people sick. And so they’re protecting their fellow person. And I think that goes back to this issue of we don’t have, as individuals, a sense of public health. If you go to a football game and you’re sick, but you really wanted to go and you’re passing people’s money down the row and their hot dog back to them and you’re coughing and they’re two feet away from you, you know, not cool. That became really interesting to me. That was probably the thing that changed the most, this idea that if we’re going to live in big cities on top of each other, I have a health responsibility to the person next to me.”

“Contagion” bows at the Venice Film Festival Saturday and opens stateside Friday, September 9.

[Photos: Getty Images, Warner Bros. Pictures]

→ 12 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Interviews

12 responses so far

  • 1 8-31-2011 at 9:40 am

    Brock Landers said...

    Phenomenal interview, Kris. Is it still embargoed? I can’t wait to hear your opinion on it.

  • 2 8-31-2011 at 9:42 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 3 8-31-2011 at 10:32 am

    Micah Gardner said...

    I love how Burns’s approach is so specific, i.e. mining an outbreak for all its logical, nuanced narrative potential. This makes me a lot more excited to see the film. Thanks for the interview.

  • 4 8-31-2011 at 11:04 am

    Billyboy said...

    Wonder if he read Philip Roth’s Nemesis. I read somewhere that Soderbergh did.

    Can’t wait for this.

  • 5 8-31-2011 at 11:55 am

    James said...

    Can’t wait. I’m assuming the embargo will be over when it premieres in Venice. I don’t know. Maybe sooner. I don’t know these things.

  • 6 8-31-2011 at 2:50 pm

    JCS said...

    The Informant! was my fave film of ’08, so with this director-writer combo (as well as Mr. Damon) reunited, this is definitely at the top of my list for the rest of the year.

  • 7 8-31-2011 at 3:28 pm

    Andrew M said...

    I don’t know about this movie, but what I am excited about is the mystery movie Kris tweeted about.

  • 8 8-31-2011 at 3:31 pm

    Andrew M said...

    Unless he was talking about this movie. Than I’m excited for it.

  • 9 8-31-2011 at 6:35 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Wait a minute–Burns is saying every scientist in the field of virology thinks he is underfunded and should be given more grant money? I’m shocked–shocked, I tell you.

  • 10 8-31-2011 at 7:01 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It was a statement laced with sarcastic undertones that clearly didn’t translate.

  • 11 9-01-2011 at 9:16 am

    The Borg said...

    @ Frank Lee: Burns is saying health departments are underfunded for emergency situations, which is true.