Julie Plec on Containment, How to Write a Good Phone Call, and the End of The Vampire Diaries

Photo: Bob Mahoney/CW

Containment has the potential to ruin the commute for any New Yorker. After watching a show where any contact with someone's sneeze causes you to bleed profusely and die, it's hard to look any subway pole the same way. In its pilot, the new CW show introduces viewers to a rich world of characters, all confronting the confusion and panic of an outbreak. By the end of the episode, a huge portion of the city is placed in a cordon de sanitaire, a quarantine that prevents people from leaving an infected area. There are still a lot of questions about where the virus came from and what will come next. So we rang up Containment executive producer Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries) to discuss what we should expect this season, her favorite disaster literature, and of course, the end of The Vampire Diaries.

The pilot begins with total chaos, 13 days from the day of the pilot. What were  the challenges of having that condensed timeline?
It’s actually, in a strange way, right up the alley of how I normally tell stories anyway. We used to get a lot of shit about The Vampire Diaries and the timeline — if people were taking it in real life, about 17 days would have passed by in the entirety of the first season and a half. When you’re telling taut, tight storytelling that has any kind of built-in plot twist elements, you tend to want to stack everything up on top of itself as opposed to letting things breathe and be languid in terms of the passage of time. And so this particular show, you have people under attack by a virus and all trying to go through the basic minute-to-minute steps of how to survive. Then once they get settled into their routine and how it will change day-to-day, it lends itself really nicely to that kind of format.

Speaking of The Vampire Diaries, you deftly handled a three-year flash-forward this season. Did working on [Containment] help in setting that up?
I had done the pilot last spring and then right after that we were talking about how to do Vampire Diaries next season, and it was [Vampire Diaries executive producer] Caroline Dries who came to me and said, “Oh, I have this idea about flash-forwards.” And I said, “That’s great but let me tell you, you are creating a storytelling burden on yourself that is enormous. Because you are making all these decisions on day one of your job (much less the show) that you have to lead yourself back to over the course of the season. That means you’re not giving yourself a lot of wiggle room to get out of it.” But it’s a fun challenge. It’s fun for the audience too, at least I think so. Because you see these people who you wouldn’t know from Adam in the opening scene of the pilot, and then as you meet them you get to know them better and you’re like, “Oh god, wait a second, that was the girl carrying the sick girl from the bus. Oh, that pregnant girl is screwed!”

She’s such a ticking time bomb, that pregnant girl. How did you balance the horror on the show?
We definitely push the envelope of the horror by defining the virus as a hemorrhagic problem. The minute we made the decision that as it kills you you bleed out from the inside out, that’s definitely pushing the boundaries of a risky visual portrayal of a disease. That being said, it is not unrealistic. It’s, in fact, quite likely what it would look like and what it would feel like for something that had been developed in a biochemical way to cause as much damage as possible. So we wanted to be bold in how we portrayed the virus, but in terms of how it impacts people and what each of our characters are going through, we wanted to be extremely human. Being pregnant, knowing that you’re not supposed to touch anybody, that body fluids are a big source of how this disease is communicable, that germs are everywhere and you’re just trying to survive on your own. Then the idea of “if this doesn’t end by the time I give birth then I’m giving birth to a defenseless baby in a petri dish.” That’s terrifying, and it’s a real-world terrifying problem.

In the first episode, what was the most exciting atmospheric shot to shoot, where you have to show big, scary things on a small scale?
The most dynamic thing we shot was Elyse Levesque’s character, who plays the doctor who was one of the first people to be diagnosed, because we shot her stuff in that little room over the course of a day. We had chosen the makeup stages, the stages of her disintegration, so there’s stage-one makeup where she’s just a little sniffly and stage-two makeup all the way to stage-five makeup, which is basically the makeup that takes you to death. So it was such a meticulously planned day with all the departments needing to communicate. You have blood. You have yellow eyes. You have death makeup and sick makeup. You are working in a very tight space, watching this woman basically bleed out and die in front of you again and again and again. It was a harrowing and fascinating day.

One thing you do well on The Vampire Diaries and on this show are phone calls. What have you learned in your TV writing career about writing phone calls? Because they always say that’s the hardest thing to write.
That’s so funny, I’ve never heard that and I’ve never experienced that, probably because I am a sucker for a good phone call. The goal with a phone call is visually to make it as intimate as possible so you really do feel the power of two people in the same space. The nice thing about phone calls is you have a much bigger opportunity for silence and the moments happening in between the words than you do when two people are face to face. Because at a certain point, if you’re staring at someone you gotta open your mouth to talk. But if you’re on the other end of the line with them there can be those deep, epic silences that you’re both searching for the right words to say in exactly this moment.

Speaking of intimate moments, there seems to be a relationship brewing between Jake and Katie. What's challenging about building a relationship with two people who can’t touch or share bodily fluids?
To me, TV relationships work at their best when there is a deep longing and feelings and interest and sexual attraction that is unrequitable. Back in Jane Austen’s day it was because it was improper. When you’re dealing with long-distance relationships, it’s a relationship played out over technology. When you’re in high school, it’s because you’re not supposed to act on those impulses yet. So some of my favorite relationships in drama are based in people that can’t really be together. This is the perfect built-in obstacle because the bottom line is when you’re first becoming attracted to someone and having deep feelings, you want to get intimate in that way. You want to brush their hand with yours or touch their leg or put your hand on their arm as you communicate to show that you’re flirting. And you can’t do any of that here without putting your life at risk. People compare it a lot to Pushing Daisies. And poor Anna Paquin’s character in X-Men where she’d kiss you you’d like turn to a skeleton. There’s a great foundation in many different narrative for couples who can’t act on their interests, and I love it.

Do you have any favorite disaster literature?
The whole reason I like these virus movies is because I read The Stand when I was in junior high and thought it was the greatest book I’d ever read. The first couple hundred pages of The Stand, where you’re just tracing the virus as it basically kills all of society, is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. I loved it so much. Everything kind of emanates from my love for that. But I loved Contagion, Soderbergh’s movie. It’s funny because everybody calls the show Contagion because they can’t remember. I’ve just started nodding, “Yep, that’s it.” And then who doesn’t love the stranded-on-a-desert-island fantasies? Lost, Endless Love, Castaway. I’m always a sucker for that stuff.

Can you tease what we can expect from the last four Vampire Diaries episodes? What is the ratio of kissing to death on the Vampire Diaries final episodes?
Ironically, which I’ve never said in any of the seven seasons of Vampire Diaries: I think we have more kissing than death this year as we get to the finale. We have lots of fear and tension, but when all is said and done, without giving anything away, I think our death count is comparatively low to the size of our kiss count. 

Have you thought at all about your ideal ending for the show when it does end?
Ever since Nina said good-bye, I’ve had a pretty clear ending in my head, which thankfully works wherever I put it. If it’s next year at the end of season eight, great. If it’s the end of season nine, great. Whatever gets us to that moment will change a lot over the next year or two, but that actual last sequence is pretty written in my head already.