Movies

Contagion’s Screenwriter on Watching His Movie Go Viral

Scott Z. Burns on why the coronavirus pandemic is better—and worse—than the one he imagined.

Kate Winslet holds a marker up in front of a whiteboard. The whiteboard says "FLU - 1, SMALLPOX - 3."
Kate Winslet explains the R0 of various diseases in Contagion.
Warner Bros.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, people are turning to the 2011 movie Contagion for a glimpse of the future. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie eschews the hyperbole of typical disaster movies for a chillingly logical progression, which screenwriter Scott Z. Burns based on extensive research about the nature of real pandemics. (One of his consultants, Ian Lipkin, recently spent two weeks in self-imposed quarantine after visiting China to investigate the virus’s origin.)

The movie starts with the sound of a single cough over a black screen, and within 15 minutes, Gwyneth Paltrow is lying on an autopsy table with her skull cut open—a terrifying reminder of just how fast and how far a novel infection can spread. The movie’s invented virus is far deadlier than COVID-19, but watching it is an unnerving reminder of what might be in store, especially if we don’t act to stop it. Slate talked to Burns about what it’s been like to watch his predictions become reality, how it’s felt to watch his movie rise up the iTunes rentals chart, and what steps we can take to stop the worst of his predictions from coming to pass.

Slate: There’s been a surge in people rewatching Contagion, and some of the parallels with what’s going on now are positively eerie. What does it feel like to watch a script you wrote 10 years ago more or less coming true in real time?

Scott Z. Burns: Well, obviously, you know, it’s very upsetting to see people getting sick and dying. The part of me that is a human being is more struck by this than the part of me that is a filmmaker.

Right.

That being said, it has been very strange to me, whether on social media or in conversations with friends, that people will say to me, “This is uncanny how similar it is.” And I don’t find it to be that surprising, because the scientists I spoke to, and there were a lot of them, all said that this was a matter of when, not if. So, I guess my feeling as someone who believes in science is that when scientists tell us those things we would do well to listen.

Which is unfortunately still an issue right this minute.

It is incredible to me that we are not letting the really amazing public health people in this country lead the response—that we are finding out that we don’t have enough test kits and have for some reason disbanded our pandemic-preparedness teams. When I was at the CDC researching the movie in 2009 and 2010, those people were extraordinary. It was no different than the feeling you might get if you went to a firehouse and saw how committed those first responders are to keeping people safe. Slashing the budgets of those things is something I would have never contemplated as a screenwriter. When people tell me that the movie seems to be coming true, I say to them that I never contemplated that we would have leadership in this country that would gut our defense. This administration and this Republican Party talk about protecting people with a wall, and we can’t even make test kits.

Trump has been talking about closing the border with Mexico, but there’s absolutely no evidence that’s how the virus is spreading.

There was an article that I read in the New York Times yesterday where a public health official in Seattle had said that they’d been aware of community spread for a long time. So it’s already in our country. The issue isn’t playing games with our borders; it’s how we take care of people now. It’s stunning to me that our administration can’t put out a clear message on how people can stay safe and what our tools are for understanding the current spread. There’s a video on YouTube of a song they did in Vietnam about hand-washing and how important it is. Why isn’t our government putting out public service messages about how to stay safe? That isn’t that hard.

I did have that uncanny feeling watching Contagion this week, where the characters are talking about social distancing and fomites and R0s—like, how did they know? But then you stop and think it’s because this is just the science of how epidemics spread, and it’s no different now than it was 10 years ago.

I mean, yeah. And we were in a better place to deal with this when I was doing research on the movie. We had a Department of Homeland Security that had a pandemic-preparedness team in place. There were people who understood how public health works. I listened to a press conference that the president gave where he described himself as a businessman who didn’t like it when people were just sitting around. Well, I wonder how he feels about the fire department. I live near a firehouse, and those people spend some time sitting around when there’s no fire‚ but you can’t build a fire department once your house is on fire. Unfortunately, this administration has decided that is what it wants to do, and it puts people way behind. When you look at the amount of testing this country has done compared to other countries, that’s the part that is scary to me.

The virus you concocted for the movie is much deadlier than COVID-19: One of the characters estimates the fatality rate at 25 to 30 percent. But the truly scary thing is where the movie’s scenario seems to be more optimistic than real life. The heroes of the movie are the scientists and bureaucrats at CDC, Homeland Security, and WHO, but the institutional response in the U.S. thus far has been underwhelming to say the least.

One of the beautiful things I learned while doing my research is what public health really means. What I came to understand it to be was an obligation we have to each other. Right now, as our country is so divided, this is actually a moment to build bridges and to say, regardless of your differences with your neighbor, we can keep each other safe if we do the right things. And that means social distancing. That means washing your hands a lot. That means staying home if you are sick. Those are three really good first steps to take. If you talk about it with people in public health, until we have a pharmaceutically generated or a scientifically generated cure, we are the cure. We can be the cure. It means listening to public health officials and being conscious of your obligation to your fellow humans.

The title Contagion has an obvious plot connotation, but the movie also stressed that other things can spread like a virus: panic, misinformation.

If you go back and look at the poster, the tagline for the movie was “Nothing Spreads Like Fear.” When Steven and I talked to public health officials, that was always their biggest concern. There is profiteering, like with the Jude Law character. We are seeing that.

I just bought a thermometer on Amazon that was $40 more than it was last week.

Right. So, where is our attorney general to stop people from price gouging? Where is law enforcement when people are getting on the internet and selling false cures? I know it is against the law to yell fire in a public movie theater if there is no fire, but it should also be against the law to be yelling “calm!” in a movie theater if it is on fire. I think we have to be really nuanced and responsible with each other about what is really important information for people to have to keep themselves safe, and what is inflaming panic. Those things are these knock-on effects that we felt were important to put in the movie.

Based on the research you did and the way you gamed out this fictional scenario, what in your opinion is the gravest mistake we are making right now?

I think the gravest mistake is not giving the space and the microphone and all of the support to the public health officials who can help guide us through this. We have really good people in this country. They need to get together and be allowed to speak to us clearly and not be filtered. I have read accounts in the press that Dr. [Anthony] Fauci isn’t really allowed to speak until Mike Pence has approved his messaging. That is concerning to me. If we are going to get through this in the best version, it is by empowering those people and giving them the resources that they need. One thing that makes this even more complicated is that this is an election season. The voters in this country get to decide what is an election issue and what is not an election issue. The leaders in this country get to decide how to take care of people. And it concerns me very much that anybody on either side would use this moment to advance any sort of political agenda or edit the story to make themselves look good, because that is not helping.

Unless you consider “Just let the government do its job” a political agenda, which some people do.

I mean, look, I think at this point it is going to take most likely a combined effort between the private and the public sector to get through this. It has happened before. We need people to join hands—first, wash them, then join them—and figure out the best course of action. If you don’t stop these things early in the spread, it gets much harder as time goes on. So, if you’re really concerned about the stock market, then you take aggressive public health measures right now so that we can get ahead of this. If you take half-measures because you want to protect the market now, that is going to cause so much more long-term damage. I think that policymakers need to think about that.

One of your first screen credits was as a producer of An Inconvenient Truth, and as if worrying about the coronavirus weren’t enough, the response to this threat has ominous implications for how we respond to even slightly non-immediate threats. Experts were warning months ago this would happen, and we did almost nothing because we couldn’t as a society think that far ahead. How can we think 50 years into the future? Earlier today, James Inhofe, one of the Senate’s most notorious climate change deniers, was asked if he was concerned about the coronavirus, and he offered to shake the reporter’s hand.

Jesus.

So, has that parallel between the coronavirus response and climate change occurred to you?

You sound like the voice in my mind right now, because that’s what I think about every day. We have a very odd relationship to science in this country. We rely on it for so many things. Science makes it so your car can get to work. Science is how you know to cook your food so you don’t get sick. It is what keeps airplanes in the air. Our entire society and our computers and all this stuff is so reliant on science. And the only time that certain political leaders seem to turn on science is when it gets in the way of making them some fucking money. I don’t understand why the people in this country don’t wake up and see that. The scientists who are telling us, and have been telling us for 40 years, that climate change is a real problem, aren’t doing that because they want people to lose money. They are doing that because they are trying to save our planet. There are opportunities to actually make money based on a changing planet. But someone like James Inhofe, who I’m sure takes a lot of money from oil companies, won’t be candid with the people he’s supposed to protect.

And I don’t understand this other than that it seems that people, elected officials, are afraid that if the economy slows down, they will lose their jobs—instead of being afraid of the fact that if we don’t pay attention to this, people who are not elected officials are going to lose their lives. And that is so cynical of some of our leaders that, you know, we really need to start calling them out on it. Everyone knows someone who is over 70. To say “My experience of this virus might not be that bad,” OK, that’s great if you’re in your 20s or 30s. But you probably love someone who is over 70. Where is your compassion for them?

So that we don’t end on a note of utter despair, is there anything about the current situation that gives you reason for hope?

This will sound really naïve and silly, but I really do believe this. I have incredible confidence in the scientists that I know, and I have unbelievable faith in American ingenuity. Knowing that there are people in every sector right now—whether it is microbiology or tech or whatever—who are trying to come up with ideas that will keep us safe is very heartening. I am encouraged by the ability of scientists to sort these things out, and I am grateful that the mortality rate of this virus is not like the one in the movie. I do believe that we will sort this out. But it is really up to our government leadership to decide how fast we sort it out, and how many people need to suffer before they pull their heads out of their asses.

To listen to Sam Adams and staff writer Rebecca Onion discuss Contagion in full spoiler-filled detail, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.