Steven Soderbergh has a solid commercial double in his disease thriller Contagion, which is holding strong at the box office in second place this weekend, with $44.2 million to date. Part of the credit goes to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant) who helped to supply what Soderbergh calls “an ultra-realistic feel about a pandemic.”
The sprawling picture–described by one producer’s wife as “a smart Irwin Allen movie”– has scope, hitting locations in Macau, Tokyo, Chicago, Atlanta and Geneva as it explores the way the World Health Organization (repped by Marion Cotillard) and The Centers for Disease Control (led by Laurence Fishburne, with assistance from Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet) would handle a real pandemic.
Patient zero is Gwyneth Paltrow, whose husband Matt Damon watches his wife return to Minneapolis from a trip to Hong Kong and suddenly die, along with his son. And she’s not the only movie star knocked off by the virus during this movie. “It was not my idea to cast Gwyneth as Beth Einhoff,” says Burns. “But we had to put a star in that role, because you had to show early on that we were willing to kill famous people. It works psychologically in the movie: ‘if they’re willing to kill Gwyneth, then I’m not safe.’ This movie is about our own vulnerability and fear; and we share the planet with really small things that are changing.”
But the film is as much about bloggers spreading news as a virus spreading around the globe. “When I started writing I realized that internet misinformation was a great metaphor for a virus,” says Burns, “and that the internet has the capability of transmitting misinformation at the same rate as a virus starts spreading through the population. Paranoia is faster than science.” Bloggers like the one played by Jude Law in the film can have an impact, when “it’s one person’s perspective in a corner,” says Burns. “We get seduced by a story.”
Law gets excited by an early video about the virus and starts to run possible scenarios by various editors. “He’s already pitching a story,” points out Burns. “What is verifiable? What is journalistic integrity? He wants to be first, not verified. A lot of people abuse the pulpit of the internet, spout crazy shit. They lack credibility because of unfiltered content. We rely on people to be their own editors. There’s no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
The movie was inspired by a moment in The Informant when someone coughs and sneezes into a phone and Damon has an internal monologue about catching a cold. When the movie wrapped, Soderbergh asked Burns, “What else you got?” He said, “What if we make the common cold scary? It’s not a hurricane, it’s something you cannot see.” Soderbergh said, “I’m in!”
They agreed to develop and cast it themselves. Participant’s Jeff Skoll got wind of it and demanded to be involved. When the script was done, and half the cast was on board, led by Damon, they went to Warner Bros. “If you walk in with the thing put together it’s easier for the studio to understand your vision,” explains Burns. “Steven and I were confident in our ability to create an interesting story; we didn’t need their input early in the process.” Otherwise you forfeit creative control. “If they’re paying me to write a script than I should listen to them. They’re running the movie I am writing for them. But if I walk in with Steven and a script that’s done, we’re selling something and they’re buying it.”
Burns and Soderbergh (who has final cut) share strong feelings about the economics of Hollywood. The best way to make movies is to get everyone involved in sharing in success. Otherwise you give up creative freedom. “Look around, a lot of people wish some movies were being made and they’re not. Under no circumstances is a sense of entitlement good for business.”