“There's a scene in The Informant where Scott Bakula is on the phone and coughs and sneezes and gives the phone to Matt's character. And then Matt's character goes on kind of a rant about, 'now what happens, I get sick, my kid gets sick.' I'd always sort of been fascinated by that ever since I went on the airplane,” Burns said. “So I called Steven and I said I think it would be really interesting to do a pandemic movie, but one that was more rooted in reality and he said, 'I'm in!' The pitch wasn't any longer than that.”
Burns is sitting down with Movie Fanatic to talk about the mind that created the madness that is the international epidemic movie striking a chord with critics and audiences alike.
Burns first garnered notice for his work writing The Bourne Ultimatum, again working with Damon. Contagion marks the second time Burns has worked with Soderbergh and he would clearly adore the opportunity to create movie magic with either or both of them once again.
Burns waxes poetic about making Contagion as well as taking us inside the process of writing a film that he hopes will create a fever that all audiences will want to catch.
Movie Fanatic: When you have an ensemble cast where any one of them could have had their own film how do you decide how many characters is too many? How many is too little?
Scott Z. Burns: Well, when we started thinking about this, Steven and I talked about having one character sort of tracing the virus back in time and that was Marion’s (Cotillard) character. She was going to be doing the detective work. But then we also needed a character who’d be sort of marching through time going forward with the virus and that became Laurence’s (Fishburne) character. And then we wanted kind of a proxy for a human being and how they would experience a virus… So we knew we were going backwards and we knew we were going forwards and we needed a proxy. Then when I started doing research I just was fascinated by -- because H1N1 had happened -- how there’s this other voice that starts approaching on the consciousness about these things and that’s where Jude’s (Law) character came in. Jennifer’s (Ehle) character was born out of the fact that I met Dr. (Ian) Lipkin and I saw how interesting the research was. I guess at that point I thought, “That’s a lot of people. Probably can’t afford anymore.”
Movie Fanatic: How difficult is it to insert the medical terminology into a script and have it be real, yet still approachable and understandable for an audience?
Scott Z. Burns: At one point we were shooting a scene and Ian said, “Well she should say that it’s morphologically pathognomonic.” I was like, “I can’t ask another human being to say that.” But I was amazed that not only could she say it, but she could say it as though she truly understood it, which as a writer, and I’m sure everyone else up here feels the same way, when you have someone that can do that it means that your script can live basically.
Movie Fanatic: Why is the timing perfect in September 2011 for Contagion?
Scott Z. Burns: When we started doing research all of the scientists that we spoke to about it I anticipated that some of them were trying to tame down how things were going, "Well yea this is possible." But all of them said it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. If you look at the sort of medical record, every few years there ends up being some kind of outbreak. We had started the movie at about three or four months into the research [which] is when H1N1 happened. So that became a really interesting trade circle through the system for us to follow some of the issues.
Movie Fanatic: Why have the film start in Hong Kong?
Scott Z. Burns: One of the things that I learned while doing research -- because we wanted to ground this as much in reality as possible -- was part of this virus is based on SARS, which started I think in Guangzhou as far as we know. The reason that we chose Hong Kong, the mainland, is because there are some tensions in terms of change over the government and there are two governments there. And even though they seem to be working it out, during times of stress in governments and organizations, there's always gonna be difficulties with sharing information. The Chinese were very helpful to the World Health Organization during SARS and there was a lot of cooperation, but in places in the world where there's not a lot of refrigeration, people tend to go to wet markets and buy animals and at certain times of the year, it's culturally appropriate to eat furry mammals and that's one of the things that surrounds SARS. So it was to sort of highlight how different cultures interact with the natural world.