Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns first worked together on the movie The Informant! starring Matt Damon. Their new movie Contagion also headlines Damon as Mitch Emhoff, whose wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) dies of a virus just two days after returning from a business trip to Hong Kong.
Soon a multitude of others around the world exhibit the same mysterious symptoms: hacking coughs and fever, followed by seizure, brain hemorrhage and death.
As the global pandemic explodes, the scientists at the US, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mobilize to find a cure as quickly as possible.
Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z Burns spoke with journalists at the press day for the movie in Los Angeles.
Why is now the right time for this type of movie?
Steven: The only thing that would indicate that the timing might be good is my reaction to Scott proposing this, the reaction on the part of Participant Media when we went to them to float the idea of developing it, and the reaction of Warner Brothers when we presented them with the script. Everyone felt there was a place for an ultra-realistic film about this subject.
Nobody hesitated and it all happened uncharacteristically quickly considering what the business is like now for adult dramas, and that made me feel like maybe we’re onto something.
Scott: When we started doing research with all of the scientists that we spoke to about it, I anticipated that some of them would say, ‘Yeah, this is possible,’ but all of them said it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. Every few years there ends up being some kind of outbreak.
The 1918 Spanish Flu wiped out 50 million people, one fifth of the world’s population at the time and more than the total killed in World War I. It just takes 30 steps to jump from one to one billion. Factoring in the incubation period, we could reach that number in 120 days.
What interested you about the story?
Steven: I think it’s always compelling to watch people struggling with a real-world problem, especially one with a ticking clock, where the stakes couldn’t be any higher. It’s not often you get the opportunity to make a movie that touches on themes that resonate with everyone, and can also be an entertaining thriller.
Were there things that you were definitely going to avoid with this film?
Scott: The one rule that we had was we can’t go anywhere one of our characters hasn’t been. We can’t cut to a city or to a group of extras that we’ve never been to [or seen before], that we don’t know personally. And that’s a pretty significant rule to adhere to in a movie in which you’re trying to give a sense of something that’s happening on a large scale.
We felt that all of the elements that we had issues with when we see any kind of disaster film, were sort of centered around that idea, that suddenly you cut to Paris where you’ve never been, and something happens and it’s a bunch of people that you don’t have any emotional engagement with. So we were trying to have it be epic and also intimate at the same time.
Can you talk a little bit of shooting the movie and the balance that you got between the big spectacle and the intimate moments?
Steven: Honestly, I was just trying to keep it very simple and that meant the entire film was shot with two lenses basically. When I would look at a scene I would try and figure out how few shots I needed as opposed to how many. I really wanted it to be, in terms of style, one of the simplest movies I’ve ever made.
Often that can require more thought that just walking in and saying, ‘I’m just going to cover the hell out of this and I’ll figure it out later.’ [I went in] saying, ‘I really want to keep this simple and I want every shot to have a purpose, and I want every cut to have purpose, I don’t want any waste.’
If you pulled one shot out it meant something would be diminished. That was my approach, so that all you were paying attention to were the performances.
After doing this movie would you ever eat peanuts or chips at a bar again?
Steven: I don’t know if my behavior has changed, I’m just very aware of it now. I’m aware of the fact that all of you have touched all of these recorders that are in front of me, somebody set up this microphone. I was handed some lip balm by one of the make up people, which I took a Kleenex and cleaned off, but who knows if that worked. So don’t get near my mouth!
Having gone through it, I’m always going to be conscious of it now.
It was fun during the previews to watch the lights come up and 400 people realized that they’re next to a bunch of strangers and that they’ve touched everything. You could tell they weren’t happy.
I’m much more conscious of everything I touch and what people around me touch. I’m not turning into a germaphobe, but you really begin to see things differently. This film could do for elevator buttons and doorknobs what Jaws did for going to the beach!