Putting Science in the Movies: A Conversation With Contagion’s Scott Z. Burns

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: Scott Z. Burns attends the ‘Contagion’ premiere at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center on September 7, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

After months of debate, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has reversed its position and will approve the controversial publication of two studies that examined how bird flu could be altered to become transmittable between two mammals. Initially, the NSABB had asked the journals Nature and Science not to publish the work in full.

The fear was the information could be used to create a biological weapon, spurring a flu pandemic that could ravage the United States and beyond—perhaps a bit like we saw in the 2011 film Contagion.

Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who has also worked on such films The Informant!, The Bourne Ultimatum, and An Inconvenient Truth (for which he served as producer), conjured up his own “mutant flu,” as Nature has taken to calling H5N1.

Recently, Burns came by Arizona State University, which is a partner in Future Tense. I spoke with him about the difficulty of getting the science right while keeping a story accessible, and entertaining, for a crowd. A lightly edited version of our conversation follows.

Future Tense: In An Inconvenient Truth, Contagion, even The Informant!, you’re dealing with topics viewers might have last heard about in chemistry class. How do you balance your tasks as a storyteller between grappling with techno-scientific issues on the one hand and creating a human narrative on the other?

Burns: I try and use my own curiosity because it’s really the only thing I’ve got, and I figure that I’m more curious about scientific things than the audience. It becomes this cocktail that you have to calibrate: how much science vs. how much stakes. You also have to factor in the character that’s delivering it. If it’s a character that people are really engaged with, and they’re involved in the personal story of that character, they’re going to listen a little bit longer and more attentively. I also think that it’s easier for people to take in the science if it’s related to the plot in a meaningful way. If they know that the safe is going to crush the hero, then gravity becomes a little bit more interesting to them as the safe nears the edge of the roof. I always want to make sure that there are stakes to the information that’s going to propel the story. Otherwise you’re turning it into a documentary, which is a great thing but it’s different than a scripted movie.

Future Tense: I think it’s a really interesting balance that you struck in Contagion. How to compare that approach with a movie like Outbreak?

Burns: Well, I don’t want to take potshots at Outbreak. Outbreak was a movie about a hypothetical conspiracy that I don’t think there was a lot of basis for. Because they were really in service to their conspiracy, they didn’t really do the homework on the science. They, in fact, went so far in a direction that begged credibility that it took the audience out of the movie. I think that that’s really got to be your guideline. You’ve got to do enough of your homework and enough science so that the audience remains connected to the story, that it seems to them that this is plausible. And that was, in Contagion, really the guideline: Is this something that could really happen? For all of the scientists who I worked with, that was the governing principle. Not “Has it happened?” but “Is it within the realm of possibility, the natural laws, their experience, their expectations that these events could occur?” There isn’t really anything to which anybody ever said “no, absolutely not.” I don’t think that can be said for Outbreak.

Future Tense: How do you think humanity is doing at thinking constructively about the future? About imagining outcomes and planning effectively? What role do you see for yourself in that process?

Burns: I think some of humanity is doing a really good job. Sadly, the lion’s share of humanity isn’t doing that job at all. To some degree, I think that’s because there are a lot of us on this planet whose issues are so related to the present and making it to tomorrow that there isn’t a lot of future for them to dig into. It’s hard to think about how we’re going to change the way we get energy when you’re really hungry. And sadly, there’s a very sedentary group in the middle who need to get motivated to join the problem-solving part. I’m really incredibly fortunate that I’m allowed to write movies, which are a pretty influential form of entertainment. I want to continue to make films that entertain people but also inform them and challenge them. I think that’s the best contribution I can make right now.  

Future Tense: How do we impart a sense of agency to the public and get people to feel directly connected and empowered when it comes to scientific challenges?

Burns: Boy, that’s a tough one to answer. At the end of my research for Contagion, [someone said to me that] at some point, the thing that saves a community is its ability to start behaving like a community. That people will take care of one another. That they’ll keep their kids home if their kids are sick. That the people who are immune will realize that they’re no longer at risk and will take care of the sick and that they’ll start providing services that they may not have been trained for initially. Obviously experience is really the best way to motivate people and change them. The only other thing that we have besides actual experience is storytelling, which is just a form of education. I think if you can tell people that there are things about computers and the Internet that are going to enrich their lives and there are things about social networks that create justice and spread information, that’s great. But I think that you have to also educate them that those tools can also be used to spread misinformation and can be manipulated by people and that they have to be informed participants.

Future Tense: What kinds of work would you like to do in the future and how do you see your trajectory moving forward?

Burns: Right now I’m actually looking for a new movie to write. I just wrote a play for the first time, and for me that’s really exciting because I want to have the experience of sitting in a room with people and having them experience something live. There’s an immediacy to that that’s different from cinema. When you go to the theater there’s a communal aspect and there’s something about encountering an event that is wholly unique in that moment that is a little bit different and less passive than a film.

In terms of movies, I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to write action movies and comedies and thrillers and do different kinds of things. I really want to continue that. For me as a writer what’s most exciting to challenge myself with a new thing. In Hollywood that’s not what they want you to do. If you write The Bourne Ultimatum, they want you to write another spy movie. If you write a movie like Contagion, they want another scary conspiratorial horror movie. I really don’t have any interest in repeating myself. To me it’s hopefully being commercially successful enough so that people will allow me to do a different thing. Because, selfishly, my inspiration comes from all over. The movie Steven Soderbergh and I want to do about the brain—I read a bunch of articles about the amygdala and about mirror neurons, and I thought: “I want to do this. I want to figure out how can I turn this into a narrative that will bring people in and that they’ll get the same rush that I got out of learning about this.” And so I hope that that one’s a comedy!