The role of the screenwriter in studio filmmaking is sometimes marginalized by the more prominent role of the director or the involvement of the studio in the creative process, which often makes it a rarity for a screenwriter who starts on a project to be on it until the bitter end.
Scott Z. Burns has been fairly lucky in that regard as he has collaborated with filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher and Paul Greengrass, all whom appreciate the importance of the screenwriter in allowing for a cohesive vision.
After his directorial debut Pu-239, starring Paddy Considine as a Russian worker at a nuclear facility who gets exposed to radiation, Burns was called upon to work on the script for The Bourne Ultimatum (along with Tony Gilroy and The Adjustment Bureau helmer George Nolfi). Two years ago, his earlier adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald’s The Informant! was turned into a movie by Steven Soderbergh, once against starring Matt Damon, and though it wasn’t a hugely memorable film, many cited Burns’ clever dialogue as something that really stood out.
Burns’ latest collaboration with Soderbergh and Damon is Contagion, which is about a deadly virus that a number of individuals are trying to figure out how to contain before it turns into a full-scale global epidemic killing millions. It’s a film with a dream ensemble cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and more, all playing characters that get equal screen time. It’s clearly a screenplay that took a long time to research to the point where it maintained realism and accuracy towards what might really happen if a deadly virus were ever let loose on the globe.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Burns back in July for an extensive interview about what went into creating this intricate and eerie real world thriller.
ComingSoon.net: How did this whole thing start and when did it start? There have been some very specific’ viral pandemics going on in the last few years. Scott Z. Burns: It’s a really interesting thing. You’re actually the first interview I’ve done for this movie, so you will hear it here first. What happens is while Steven (Soderbergh) and I were working on “The Informant!” we decided we were going to do another movie together. We were going to do a movie about Leni Riefenstahl and I started doing research on it, and then Steven called me one day and said, “You know, I don’t know if anyone’s going to see a movie about Leni Riefenstahl and I’d rather make something that people might want to go and see. Do you have any other ideas?” I said, “Well, I always thought it would be cool to do a pandemic movie but a pandemic movie that was more rooted in reality.” I was certainly aware there were other pandemic movies, but I wanted to do one that really felt like what could happen. There’s a scene in “The Informant!” where Matt (Damon) is watching Scott Bakula’s character talk on the phone and Scott coughs on the phone, and there’s this whole ramp that Matt goes off on of “Oh, great, now what happens? He gets sick and then I’m going to get it, my kids are going to get it.” I’ve always been fascinated by transmissibility, so I said to Steven, “I want to do an interesting thriller version of a pandemic movie” and he said, “Great! Let’s do that instead.” So I put my Leni Riefenstahl research aside and I went to work on that. There’s a really great scientist who I was aware of named, oddly enough, Dr. Larry Brilliant, and Dr. Brilliant had done a TED Talk about pandemic disease. The point of view of people within that field isn’t “If this is going to happen,” it’s “When is this going to happen?” The talk was so thrilling and so fascinating to me. I went and met with Dr. Brilliant and he put me in touch with a brilliant virologist named Dr. Ian Lipkin, and Dr. Lipkin works at Columbia and I went up and visited him at his lab, and he told me about how at his lab, they discover almost a new virus every week now. So I spent some time with him. I spent some time with a writer named Murray Garrett, who wrote a book a few years ago called “The Coming Plague,” which had a big influence on me, and I started coming up with a bunch of different storylines. I wanted to do the storyline of what happens to a CDC official and how their life changes, what their job is and how they connect with it and then I decided I liked the idea of a role of an epidemiologist, which is what Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard’s characters play and how they have to go into the field and deal with the population, but they also have to do the detective work in figuring out where this virus came from.
CS: I’m curious whether this was before the whole Swine Flu epidemic of 2009 or was this as that was happening? Burns: Yeah, I started researching about six months before H1N1 happened, so in a way, it was really helpful to my research, ’cause I got to see how all of society’s apparatus were dealing with pandemics. I saw them come to life and I saw issues about, “Well, do you close the schools and if you close the schools, then who stays home with the kids? And will everyone keep their kids at home?” Things happening online, which is where the Jude Law character came from, that there’s going to be information that comes out online where people want to be ahead of the curve, so some people will write things about anti-virals or different treatment protocols, and so there’s always going to be an information and that information also has sort of a viral pulse. So it’s not just the disease that you have to track, it’s how the disease is interpreted by the population. It was great, because while I was writing this, it was playing out in real time.
CS: Right. I was in New York at the time and if you were riding in the subway, even the most logical and practical person would start panicking when someone would cough. Burns: Well, Lori Merritt who was one of the people who helped me and a technical advisor on the film, she and I had a meeting right in this room when I was working on the movie and at one point, she walked in, and I went to hug her, and she was like, “No, we don’t do that right now.” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s like that?” and she said, “Yeah.”
CS: We’ve seen a few of these in New York from the Anthrax scare after 9/11… Burns: And West Nile is an amazing story. A lot of people don’t know this and it’s almost a movie unto itself, but there was a vet at the Bronx Zoo named Tracy McNamara, who I also met with while I was doing this, and Tracy McNamara went to work one morning at the Bronx Zoo and all of the birds were dead, and she called one government agency, and they didn’t give her the time of day. She actually took one of her birds to Dr. Lipkin at Columbia, and he was the person who said, “This bird has West Nile, which means it’s all over the birds of New York City and it’s a real problem.” The way these things show up is really fascinating and always very different. SARS showed up in what they call a “wet market” in China and was suddenly all over the world.
CS: Were you able to get in touch with anyone from the World Health Organization (WHO)? Burns: Yeah, I went to CDC in Atlanta a number of times. We actually shot part of the movie there, and we did have a lot of conversations with WHO throughout the process. Larry Brilliant and Dr. Lipkin helped us a lot in terms of reaching out to WHO, so they were very aware of the movie. In fact, we shot part of the movie there as well. The scene where Marion Cotillard walks in (to the office) in Geneva.
CS: I think only Steven can probably get that kind of access to those places. A couple other directors I’m sure, too. Burns: Yeah, I think what we told them was that we really wanted to talk about what really could happen. We didn’t really want to sensationalize and to me, that’s the scary part of the movie is I can sit here and tell you or the audience I made up very little.
CS: What’s interesting to me is that a movie like this would normally be a genre movie and it would be sensationalized and be all about the panic and riots and looting. This is very different and it’s almost informative in that you can watch it and see, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good thing to know in case it ever really happens.” Burns: Right, and there’s really wonderful things that you can do with pandemic movies as a metaphor. If you look at “I Am Legend,” which in a sense, it scores the aftermath of a pandemic, or “28 Days Later,” which is a pandemic movie, but obviously one that is really heightened and amplified. They do become metaphors. I mean, Camus in “The Plague” uses the plague as sort of a metaphor for the human condition. Even in Philip Roth’s last book “Nemesis,” he talks about polio quite a bit and it becomes a metaphor. For me, sort of the metaphor that kind of availed itself to me to the research was this issue of the internet and information and how the two imitate each other, how they’re the same way, a virus spreads out is very similar to the way information disseminates itself and what that does to human behavior.
CS: Obviously you tell this story through a lot of different viewpoints and characters. Matt Damon’s obviously supposed to be us. He’s the person who has someone die from this and he has to deal with it and go from there. Was he always going to be the core of the story? Burns: Yeah, I always feel like in a movie like that you want to have your proxy, both for me as a writer, but also I think for the audience. It’s someone to go on the ride with in a very relatable way. Matt is so good at that as an actor, so Steven and I had always talked about that character being Matt. Yeah, you’re exactly right, that was sort of the function of that character. I didn’t want to do kind of a braided storyline where the things interact by some kind of magical thing. What I wanted the stories to parallel and inform each other, but not necessarily overlap.
CS: After directing “Traffic” and other movies with a lot of different characters, Steven has shown that those kinds of complex movies are his strength, so was the script in a similar form that it was easy to get actors to fill different characters, even the ones in smaller roles? Burns: Yeah, I mean… look, I’m really fortunate as a writer in that this is the fourth time Steven and I have worked together, so it makes it easy as a writer when you know first of all, that you have a director who, like you said, can manage multiple storylines and has a really good sense of what is required to really service a character over the course of a piece. So when I write something, Steven can say to me, “I think we’re going to need more Kate Winslet here or we’re going to need more of Matt Damon’s character here.” I can really trust his judgment on that, so that’s great. The other part of that of course, is because he’s done that and because of the relationships he has, then someone like Kate Winslet who’s so talented or Laurence Fishburne or any of them are excited to be part of an ensemble because they like the way that process works. It was great for us because they would come for two weeks and we’d shoot Jude Law out and then someone else would come and they’d shoot them out. We’d sort of just build the movie from character to character.
CS: Each actor would come in and you’d shoot just their parts? Burns: Yeah, we shot every storyline through and then put them together. Because of people’s schedules, that’s the only way you can really shoot a movie like this is we started in Hong Kong and did Marion Cotillard’s part for two weeks. Then we went to Chicago and we started shooting Laurence Fishburne’s part and then Kate Winslet’s part and then Matt came in. And then there’s Jennifer Ehle who just became, I think she’s amazing in the movie.
CS: She’s very good. Almost everyone after my screening was asking who that was, and that’s not a bad thing when you’re in a movie with Matt Damon and Kate Winslet. Burns: Because of the way we did this, Steven and I could look at it and go, “Wow, Jennifer Ehle’s really great. It’d be good to write another scene for her.” Or, Kate Winslet’s character – I mean, Kate Winslet is so talented that it’s hard as a writer. Steven allows me to be on set the entire time and I’m very involved with the whole process throughout, so I could sit there and go, “Wow, you know what? It’d be great to do another scene with Kate. We have her for another day. Let’s come up with something else.”
CS: So you’d spend the night writing something new? At what point does Steven actually get involved in the script? How much writing do you do before you actually turn something over to Steven for him to give his first notes or sit down with him and start developing it? Burns: I mean, we’ll talk at the beginning about what we think the movie is for a little bit, and then I go and write for a few months. When I have a draft I’ll bring it to him and hopefully he likes it.
CS: I find it interesting how that aspect of a pandemic is visualized, and while I know most people assume that writers just write the dialogue, that’s mostly not true, so did you write in a lot of those visual ideas in terms of showing the transmission of the virus? Burns: I do. I mean, I directed as well. If I could be a painter, I think I would be really happy, but I’ve never been able to paint very well, and so I think my version of paint is words. So I do put those on the page. Sometimes Steven uses them or sometimes I hope they inspire him to take another picture that’s even better. Look, a script is a bunch of dialogue and some suggestions. When you work collaboratively with someone you hope that they honor your suggestions and explore them. Steven is a really great cinematographer and most people don’t know that Peter Andrews is Steven Soderbergh, so I chose Hong Kong because I’d been there a number of years ago and it’s a visually spectacular place. Steven went there and was taken with it, so yeah, there is a lot about this movie that we wanted to make people think about. When you and I are sitting here and (the waiter) brought us our beverages and he put them down and he grabbed the glass and then I rubbed my nose and then I touch your microphone and then we shake hands when we’re done. I’m not a phobic person. I’m not going to stop doing that.
CS: I actually sneezed during the movie and no one moved away from me, but people did comment about it later. Burns: Oh, it’s something we all have to think about. I mean, sometimes when we’re making a movie, if we’re all on a plane or on a scout, you gather in a car and Michael Shamberg, one of the producers would sneeze, Steven would go, “Oh no. Here we go.”
CS: I have to watch “The Informant!” again because I remember that specific scene you mentioned but would never put the two things together if you hadn’t mentioned it. Burns: Well, I think we all have that. There are times in your life I’m sure where you’ve been in an elevator and there’s been someone really sick and you get sick the next day and you go, “It was the dude in the elevator. He got me.” Or every time you get on a plane.
CS: I want to ask about working with Matt because obviously you’ve worked with him a few times, and I’ve spoken with other filmmakers who’ve worked with him before. They all rave about him as a collaborator. Charles Ferguson said that pretty much wrote the last line of his movie “Inside Job” while doing voiceover, so I’m curious about how you collaborate with Matt when it comes to the dialogue in this. Burns: Well, it’s great for me. Because Matt is a writer and has such a great feel for language, it works two ways. One, it’s more fun for me to write for him because I can hear his voice while I’m writing, so I think that may help me write better, but also, if there’s something that isn’t working, he’ll come to me in the morning because we have a kind of relationship where he’ll come to me in the morning and go, “Let’s go sit in my trailer and talk about this scene.” We’ll work on a scene together and then when we’re happy with it, we’ll go and talk to Steven about it. People in Hollywood would go, “So Steven actually lets you talk to Matt? How can that be?” The great thing about working with Steven is that he doesn’t really stand on ceremony and everyone is very respectful of each other and he does feel collaborative. When Matt and I come to him it’s like, “Hey, we thought this might be better.” Steven sometimes will go, “You’re right. That is better. Let’s do that.” Or he’ll say, “Nah, that’s not better. Let’s do it the way we talked about it.” It isn’t about whose name is higher than whose on the call sheet. It’s about the work that day and what makes the best scene.
CS: So you generally have a say in things and can throw ideas out like that even once you’re done writing? Burns: At this point, if (Steven) wanted me to shut the f*ck up he should’ve told me a long time ago, so I definitely think he wants to create an environment for me to offer ideas. What I’ve learned is that when he doesn’t take an idea, that doesn’t mean I should stop offering. It just means that he didn’t want to take that idea. I respect that and I’m grateful that I get to work with somebody who’s that talented who gives me an audience.
CS: I also wanted to ask about Jude Law’s character. Burns: Obviously, as a writer, it’s clear from the movie that that’s the most fun I get to have is writing that character. I would sit there and say to Jude in the mornings, I’d go, “If you get on a roll on a rant and you go off the page, that’s completely fine with me. I think you have a really good feel for the character.” Jude was like, “It won’t happen.” I go, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “I spent every night getting everything you said exactly perfect.” There’d be takes where he was great and he would come up to me afterwards. He’d be like, “Transpose those two.” I’m like, “Okay.”
CS: I’m hoping I get a chance to ask Steven about the character because it’s not the first time he’s taken a shot at the whole online versus serious journalism type thing. Burns: I can tell you about that, if you want, or you can ask Steven. Jude had a really good idea about where to take that character, but Steven and I have talked about this for a long time and my view is… Look, that line that I wrote about blogging as being graffiti with punctuation, I feel like there’s a lot of unfiltered content in the world now. It is both a great freedom and a huge danger. I don’t think we spend enough time talking about that. When you look at the Syrian lesbian radical who turns out to be a grad student. We’re watching this thing on the news for months as a society and there’s allegedly some Syrian lesbian who is writing this blog about how bad things are in Damascus. Then someone breaks a story that there is no Syrian lesbian, that it’s an American grad student who’s been blogging under the guise of this, so now the content of those blogs may or may not have had great relevance and may have helped people. But we’re living in the Wild West on the internet.
CS: Twitter is a great example of that because on the one hand, it’s unfiltered, which is good, but you rarely know whether a person tweeting about something is a reliable authority. Burns: Yeah, and again, like a virus, it’s one of these things where it can get outta control really, really quickly. I think Steven and I share a concern. On the one hand, I think we applaud the openness of media and the exchange of ideas; on the other hand, if you’re going to live in a world where everyone has a microphone and that big a loud speaker, it’s a scary world. It can get pretty noisy.
CS: You mentioned improvisation, and Steven’s done a number of movies that haven’t been that tightly-scripted, but can you do that with this type of movie? Burns: Yeah, when you’re doing something that’s as layered as this movie was, you do have to keep people a little bit closer to the page because the storylines do sort of connect to each other. They inform each other in different ways, so you can’t really let someone completely go for a walk on a scene because you do need them to get a certain amount of information to make the story track.
CS: It’s impressive how Steven can get a movie like this made at a studio. Warner Bros. is a fairly progressive studio who likes to take chances, but I think when people heard Steven was making a movie about a global epidemic and that it was going to be IMAX, I think they were assuming it was going to be this big epic, but it’s still very character-driven and like “Traffic” and some of those other movies. How was it making a movie like this within the studio system? Burns: Ideally, you don’t want to be in a situation where you need to be left alone. What you’d prefer is to be in a situation where the people you’re working with want to make the same movie and they understand what your goals are as a filmmaker and that they support those. That has been our experience at Warner Brothers, I mean, it was that way on “The Informant!,” so, whether it’s Alan and Warren who loved the idea of this movie from the very beginning or Jeff Robinov who looks at the cuts and sits there with Steven and I and the producers and gives us notes. I mean, Steven’s a final cut director, so at the end of the day, it is up to Steven, but it’s not done in isolation and we work very collaboratively with Warner Brothers, which is great.
CS: So this experience was very similar to “The Informant!”? Burns: Yeah, I mean, they gave us notes and some of them we embraced and some of them we didn’t, but it’s done really in the absence of animosity I think. I know we have this view that it should be this incredibly adversarially thing and it’s really not.
CS: That seems to generally be the case I’ve gotten from talking with filmmakers, that the studio system is becoming less and less adversarially in terms of creativity. Burns: Yeah, and we didn’t make this movie so that no one would see it. We were trying to make a movie for a variety of reasons that would really reach people, because we wanted to make something thrilling and exciting and entertaining, but also because I think that this movie has value to people. It’s a movie where I think people go and have a really good time and hopefully walk out of it and think about some things a little differently.
CS: It also seems like the kind of movie that you can show to officials in Washington and maybe they can be aware of other aspects of what they do than they might not have otherwise, which is kind of interesting. Burns: Yeah, I mean, the people who’ve seen it so far who are in that profession I think feel like we did a really… Dr. Lipkin and Laurie Garrett were in Hong Kong for the SARS outbreak and they’ve seen the movie and they were like, “Yeah, this is what it felt like.” You walk around and you are paranoid and you look at social gatherings and you look at the world and you think as animals we are messy and we do eat from the same bowl and touch the same knobs and we hug each other and touch each other and that’s part of the great thing about being a human being. It’s also dangerous.
CS: How do you feel about the movie being marketed as a genre movie? Maybe the new trailer has gotten away from that but I do think that some people feel it’s a genre movie. Do you think that’s necessary to get people to see it? Burns: Yeah, when I started in this business, I used to sit and think that I was sitting there writing the movie and I was making the movie while I was writing, then I realized that a movie gets made three times. It gets made when you write it, it gets made when you shoot it and it gets made when you edit it. Now, I think it gets made a fourth time; it gets made when you market it. I just want people to see this movie because I think there’s a lot of really great stuff that you can get from it and I understand because I came from an advertising background that advertising the movie as being able to be a thriller is the broadest and its best opportunity to get life, and I think it delivers on that, so I’m fine with that.
CS: So I understand you’re directing another movie, but it’s been a while since you directed “Pu-239,” so what was the driving force to go back to directing when you have a lot of writing gigs? Burns: I keep meaning to direct another movie. I was going to do it before we did this, but the executive at the studio that was going to do it left literally three weeks before we were going to be greenlit, so by the time a new person showed up and we started to cast again it was time to go and do this movie. Then, in the interim I wrote “20,000 Leagues” for Fincher, so we’ll start to work on that in the next year, then Steven and I decided we would do one more movie together, so we’re going to do “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” with George Clooney hopefully at the beginning of next year. Once those movies are kind of going in the right direction, then I think I can go… David has offered to come onto my movie as a producer, so they’ve been really supportive of me going back and directing again, which is really gratifying. Either that or they’re sick of having to talk to me as a writer.
CS: So that first movie is what got a lot of people interested in you as a writer or how did that happen? Burns: When I wrote that script it was the first script I’d ever written and Steven read it and really liked it. He and George, when they had Section 8 said they would produce it, so while I was writing “The Informant!”, I went and directed that. Then, Steven obviously he liked what I did or I don’t think I would still be around, so I guess I did okay. Look, when you get to write for Steven or David Fincher or Paul Greengrass or some of the other people I’ve been fortunate enough to write for, it’s awesome. So, I’ll always, I think, want to collaborate with people who I can learn from and go from. But sometimes, it’s really fun to go and do your own work.
CS: Can you give a general idea of what the movie you’re going to direct is going to be about? Will be in a similar vein of some of the recent things you’ve been doing or very different? Burns: I hope it’s different. I mean, I don’t really want to do the same thing more than once. Although, it was really fun writing “The Informant!” and I wouldn’t mind doing more dark comedy, but the movie that I wrote I guess it’s a psychological thriller, but it’s sort of set against the world of psychopharmacology and kind of explores how it is that we all now live in a world where people take everything from Red Bull to Klonopin to Prozac, so it’s sort of set against the backdrop of better living through chemistry.
CS: The first movie you directed starred Paddy Considine who just directed his first movie, “Tyrannosaur.” Have you seen it? Burns: I haven’t seen it. I just heard from Paddy. I hear his movie’s great.
CS: Yeah, it’s really interesting. It’s very quirky, dark, but it’s really great for a first movie. Burns: Paddy was a photographer. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, and I’m glad that you mentioned him because he called me about three weeks ago and said, “I have this really cool book that I think we should work on together, adapting*.” I’m a huge fan of his. I mean, not only is he a really talented guy, but he is one of these people who is really living his whole life from the deepest part of his artistic heart and it’s great to be around people like that. It’s really inspiring.
(*If you read our interview with Paddy Considine from the Sundance Film Festival, you can probably assume Scott is talking about the ghost story “The Leaning.”)
CS: He’s underestimated as an actor and I think I was more impressed by him when I found out he could make a movie like that as well. Burns: I mean, this is what it’s like with Paddy. You’ll be sitting there talking to him and he’ll pick up a guitar and play a song and sing and you’re like, “Wow, you’re really good.” Then, you find out that he’s really a photographer. Then you watch him act and then you realize he can direct and he’s one of the most talented people I know. He’s great.
Contagion opens nationwide in regular and IMAX screens on Friday, September 9.