A Reassuring Conversation With the Writer of Contagion

Scott Z. Burns talks about his own pandemic preparedness and why he’s optimistic “we’ll get through this one.” Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Until a few weeks ago, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion was just a well-made, medium-grossing, scientist-approved medical thriller from 2011, best remembered for killing Gwyneth Paltrow (and then sawing off the top of her head) in its first 15 minutes. But the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an emergency critical reassessment (and sent the film back into the iTunes top rentals chart), and suddenly Contagion looks more like the most prescient disaster movie of all time. This is obviously terrifying — but also a credit to the film’s writer, Scott Z. Burns, who consulted with experts, including epidemiologists Larry Brilliant and Ian Lipkin, to ensure that his screenplay held to the realities of real-life viral science. Over the course of a surprisingly reassuring phone call, Burns tells Vulture about his own preparedness and the differences between his virus and COVID-19.

Where are you right now, and what kinds of precautions have you been taking?
I’m driving around L.A. in the rain. I was just trying to buy some cleaner, because I’m running a writers room, and I want to get some disinfectant because I’m not really sure what the protocols are for the cleaning crew where my offices are. I thought I would get some products for my writers, and of course, you can’t find anything anywhere.

It seems like most people only woke up to the seriousness of the coronavirus on Wednesday, when Trump gave that terrifying address, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive, and the NBA suspended its season. As the writer of a movie that anticipated a situation like this almost a decade ago, when did you start paying attention to COVID-19?It was clear to me in January that this was something unlikely to be kept in China; it seemed quite likely that we would be where we are now. I knew it was much bigger than our government was telling us, or even than the media was reporting. It’s a tricky situation for a government. You don’t want to cause panic, but if you minimize what’s going on, it means people won’t have adequate time to prepare themselves, and so you see things like hoarding and panic. And then when things do get worse, people don’t listen to you anymore because the last thing you said ended up not being true.

A lot of the things you warned us about are now coming true. What have the past few weeks been like for you? What kinds of calls have you been getting? 
There’s been some strange shit going on in my social media, where people I’ve never met have done everything from accuse me of being able to travel to the future, to having access to God, to being a member of the Illuminati. But mainly it’s just been friends and people with kids asking if I have any insights into what I think is going on and what’s going to happen next.

What have you been telling them?
Generally what I tell them is I’m not a doctor. I’m not a public-health professional. I know really wonderful ones who helped me with Contagion, Dr. Ian Lipkin at Columbia University, and Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist in the Bay Area. Listening to really smart public-health officials is the best thing you can do right now. And observing fundamental things like social distancing, washing your hands frequently, and staying home if you’re sick.

During interviews for Contagion in 2011, you said the all experts you consulted with told you the world was overdue for a major pandemic. Are you surprised by how flat-footed the United States seems to have been caught by this?
Yes. I stayed in touch with the consultants on the movie, and became friends with a lot of them. Whenever I spoke with them, they told me they were concerned about the fact that the current administration made the decision to cut funding to the CDC and disband the pandemic preparedness team at Homeland Security. Donald Trump and the Republican Party made the choice to leave our country vulnerable to exactly this kind of situation.

What did you think of Trump’s address the other night?
I don’t understand why my country doesn’t have testing. He certainly didn’t explain that to me. It was stunning that he talked more about the health of the economy than of the health of anybody over 70 years old. I love a lot of people who are over 70, and this is a very difficult and real disease for them, and somehow our president, who is also over 70, doesn’t see fit to say anything about that. He’s reversed his own course two or three times about the seriousness of this illness. And even though we have ads for political candidates on TV almost every minute, for some reason, our government can’t put together a PSA that tells people to wash their hands.

Do you wish you’d thought to include a European travel ban in Contagion, or would it have been much shorter movie that way?
As a storyteller, in a horror movie where someone locks the door after the monster’s already inside the house, that’s generally regarded as a pretty stupid move. So I don’t quite understand why banning travel from Europe is going to help people here. That just seems ludicrous. I think what would be better is if he told everybody who comes here to bring a test kit or two with them because we don’t have any.

The virus in Contagion, MEV-1, was deadlier and more transmissible than COVID-19, but the response to it was instantly and appropriately serious. I’m not sure we’re much better off in real life.
I would have never thought in writing the screenplay for Contagion that one of the variables would be a government that doesn’t believe in science and then misinforms the population. But that’s what we have.

How did you and your experts design of Contagion’s virus? You nailed the bat part.
Our virus, MEV-1, was not a coronavirus. It was based on two existing viruses, one of them called Nipah, which affects pigs, and the other called Hendra, which affects horses. But other things are consistent across families of viruses, and the scientists all felt that one of the most likely places for a virus to jump into the human species was in one of these live markets that exists throughout the world, especially where people don’t have refrigeration and the cultural preference is to buy live animals.

As the screenwriter of a disaster movie with $60 million budget and larger commercial expectations, did you ever feel hindered by your promise to stick to real science? Were there scarier or more dramatic things you wanted to do that your experts vetoed?
No. Ian Lipkin, on the day that I walked into his office at Columbia, told me he wasn’t going to participate unless what we did was scientifically authentic and verifiable. So from the beginning, I knew that I had to stay within the lines of what was possible. But Ian would say to me, “Look at all of the things that happen in nature and you’ll realize that almost anything is possible.” And then you look at the struggles we have with understanding science and math and the human predilection for panic in the face of the unknown. And on the even darker side, the opportunism that comes from the situations, whether it’s people profiteering with bogus cures, or using this for whatever political agenda they have, whether that’s xenophobia or anything else.

COVID-19 is most dangerous in older people. Your virus takes out Gwyneth Paltrow, whose character is 34, and then her son, who is 5 — which probably has more dramatic impact than if it were, say, Ed Asner. Was that a deliberate concession to the rules of disaster filmmaking?
Well, my recollection is that smallpox is very deadly [to younger people] too. I do remember from my research that it’s actually the people with really robust immune systems that struggle the most because there’s a thing called a cytokine storm, which is that your immune system hasn’t seen this virus before and it reacts too strongly. The response becomes so overwhelming that your lungs fill up with your own fluids. It depends on what the immunological response is. But I hate saying stuff like that, because this is research I did for a movie ten years ago, so it’d be better for you to talk to Ian or Larry about that.

But for whatever reason, [coronavirus] seems to be problematic with people who have underlying conditions and respiratory issues and other problems that we commonly see in the elderly. Another really important point about this virus, is that in Europe and other countries, old people are usually taken care of by their families, so there’s only one old person per household, and if that person is susceptible, it’s more isolated. But we [in the U.S.] put our old people together in nursing homes.

Contagion’s Jude Law character was especially prescient — a conspiracy theorist selling a fake homeopathic cure. Alex Jones is apparently selling toothpaste he claims can kill coronavirus.
I hadn’t heard that. I know that people have told me about stories involving elderberry and other kinds of things that I don’t know of any science that supports that.

Where have you been getting your news about the coronavirus?
I was sent an article today that I think is really the best accounting of public health that I’ve seen. It’s got kind of an intense headline: “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now,” by Tomas Pueyo on Medium. I don’t know his background, but it’s a wonderful exploration of how public health works.

And if we all listen to [Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] Anthony Fauci, we’ll all be healthier and better off. I really hope that the administration is allowing him to speak freely.

The other thing that I think was great was Rachel Maddow’s interview with Ron Klain, who was Obama’s czar on the ebola outbreak. It’s probably the most clear-eyed assessment of where we’re at, and it’s a great critique of what the President said the other night.

I wouldn’t say Contagion has a happy ending, since 26 million people die, but in the movie, scientists are able to create a working vaccine before the virus eradicates all of humanity. Please tell me that was your idea, and it was vetted by scientists, and not just something Warner Bros. insisted on.
Well, I’ll give you what you want: That was not Warner Bros. It was Soderbergh, me, and the scientists I worked with. But when we picked the mortality rate for our virus, it was in the 20s, and the things that are more problematic and stick around for longer are things like [the coronavirus], which are not as deadly but are incredibly transmissible. My hope is that, like in the movie, people begin to understand what social distancing means and the government comes up with a coherent policy that keeps people safe.

Can we end this interview on a more reassuring note than that?
Look, Larry Brilliant, who is one of the people who worked with us on the movie, was part of a team that eradicated smallpox, which is a much worse disease than COVID-19, and we were able to chase that off the entire planet in the 1960s. And we got rid of polio. And measles has an r-nought [the average number of people a sick person infects while contagious] of 12, while COVID-19 seems to have an r-nought of around 3. And yet we have been able, through the use of science, to make measles something that doesn’t terrify communities anymore. So we have an amazing track record of getting through these things, and we will get through this one.

We’re committed to keeping our readers informed.
We’ve removed our paywall from essential coronavirus news stories. Become a subscriber to support our journalists. Subscribe now.

More From This Series

See All
A Reassuring Conversation With the Writer of Contagion