This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: In a movie that is filled with characters—played by actors we know well—dying of this illness, this is the first one. What were you conscious of wanting to accomplish when you wrote Beth’s seizure and the emergency room scene?
Scott Z. Burns (screenwriter): One of the conceits that Steven Soderbergh and I wanted to play off of is: A lot of disaster films in the ’70s, there were casts with a lot of movie stars in them. And the idea was, if we were willing to kill Gwyneth Paltrow early on in the movie, people would lean in and think, This is gonna be a very wild ride. If they’re willing to kill Gwyneth in the first few minutes, is anybody safe?
So when you wrote the screenplay, you knew Gwyneth would play the role?
I didn’t know for certain it would be Gwyneth, but Steven and I had a conversation that whoever was going to play that role needed to be someone notable enough that it would inflect the rest of the movie. We knew that we needed somebody who you wouldn’t think could possibly die in the first 15 minutes.
Sometimes a death scene gets its power from how well we know the character and how their death affects us. That’s not the case here—we barely know Beth. What gives this scene its power?
We’ve met her husband, we’ve seen a familiar scene of her coming home. We don’t know exactly how she got sick or what she did on her way home. What we were betting on was, the notion that your mom comes home from a long business trip around Thanksgiving, and that it’s this very iconic kind of moment for a family to come together. And to see that shattered by something that appears to just be a random cold or flu and then escalates into something deadly, that was the emotional underpinning to it. There’s no reason not to be on the side of this family.
As in many of the death scenes on our list, we don’t see the moment of death—but we see the response from Mitch, her husband, played by Matt Damon. What were you working with in writing Mitch’s reaction?
I’m glad you asked that. For me that was an excruciating thing to watch but a really interesting experience as a writer. I had spoken to an emergency room doctor who I knew at Bellevue in New York, Dr. Billy Goldberg. What he had told me was that in shocking situations like that, people can’t take it in, and the euphemisms that we use around death are very ineffective. If you say “we lost them” or “they passed,” that sometimes doesn’t actually penetrate the shock that the next of kin find themselves dealing with. So you need to say, “And then they died.” Sometimes over and over again, to make sure that the family member really takes it in.
Frequently the family member will push back. They’ll go into denial. I hadn’t seen that very much in entertainment. I hadn’t seen the visceral nature of that exchange. Matt is such a listener, and I don’t think people give him enough credit—when people talk about how certain basketball players move without the ball, I think there’s a corollary in acting, which is if you don’t have a line, how active are you with the other actors? And Matt is listening so forcefully in that scene that it really allows the viewer to understand it from his end.
He’s listening forcefully, but he’s not hearing.
Yeah, which is the agony of loss. Something doesn’t make sense and you listen desperately trying to grasp something that will help this make sense.
And the doctor exacerbates this by starting to speculate about the cause of death. Which feels a little insensitive, but also, we’re speculating about the cause of death.
It’s a fine line for a physician in that situation. There is a responsibility on the part of a doctor to have a public health concern in the event of an inexplicable death. You want to be empathic and provide comfort to the next of kin, but you are also looking for an explanation.
I think for a lot of people, the shock of Gwyneth Paltrow’s death was nothing compared with the shock of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head being sawed open. Was that autopsy scene always in the script?
I wrote it in the script, and I’ll tell you why. When I was doing my research on viruses and how they’re discovered in the world, I met a woman named Tracey McNamara, who’s a real hero people don’t know about. Tracey worked at the Bronx Zoo, and she noticed that birds were dying, and she started doing necroscopies—an autopsy on a bird, basically—and she noticed when she looked at their brains that their brains were being severely damaged by something she’d never seen before. She’d also seen birds dead in Central Park the week before. She tried to get the FDA to look at these samples, and the FDA was slow in responding, and she took them to a doctor at Columbia University who said: “You have to be very careful. These birds all have West Nile virus.”
One of the ways these things are discovered is through autopsy. In the early days of COVID, we weren’t always performing autopsies, so it slowed our learning. The point of that scene was kind of a homage to Tracey McNamara. It’s through the autopsy that they can answer the questions that the doctor couldn’t.
Read more about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time, including the Contagion screenwriter’s own pick for the greatest.