CONTAGION: Working with Hollywood

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Audiences in movie theaters across America and on YouTube are currently being treated to a scary trailer for “Contagion,” Director Steven Soderbergh’s latest, to be released September 9th by Warner Brothers. Since 2008 I have worked on the movie as one of its two key science consultants, trying to ensure that this timeHollywood would get it right. Judging by the final cut, which I viewed in a Manhattan VIP screening room in early July alongside Hollywood icon Mike Nichols, “Contagion” will be the first blockbuster Hollywood motion picture to accurately portray what is likely to happen if the world is slammed by a pandemic involving a highly virulent organism.

When in November 2008 my agent called me at the Council on Foreign Relations to say Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh wanted to “take a meeting” with me I reacted with equal parts delight and skepticism. I’ve been a fan of Soderbergh’s work since his 1989 “sex, lies and videotape,” and “Traffic” is on my list of top ten movies ever made. But I was skeptical because since the 1994 publication of my first book, THE COMING PLAGUE, and receipt of the 1996 Pulitzer for coverage of the Ebola epidemic in Zaire at least six film companies have asked my assistance on plague movies.  With the exception of a multi-part documentary series aired on Ted Turner’s networks in the mid-1990s all have been disappointing or worse.

Indeed, the Soderbergh request came just two weeks after Columbia University virus-hunter Dr. Ian Lipkin and I met with writer Lawrence Wright, who was working on a similar epidemic idea for director Ridley Scott, of “Alien” fame. The seemingly impossible had happened: Two of Hollywood’s biggest directors had simultaneously decided to do epidemic movies, and both had reached out to Lipkin and me at the same time.

I was worried: Hollywood and television have long portrayed contagious diseases in roughly the same way as they’ve treated vampires, zombies, space aliens and radiation: Terrifying entities incomprehensively visited upon innocent humans with catastrophic outcomes for the entire species. Depictions of scientists haven’t been much better. If something truly evil happens in a Hollywood creation odds are it’s executed by a serial killer, scientist, or scientist-that-is-a-serial-killer. The only consistently “good” Hollywood scientists are those that work in police forensics labs.

Just before Thanksgiving 2008 I walked into Da Umberto’s on West 17th Street and spotted a quartet dressed in extremely hip, mostly black clothing seated around a back table. A hand was raised by producer Michael Shamberg of “Erin Brockovich“ fame,  signaling me to the table.  Along with Soderbergh and Shamberg were producer Stacey Sher (“Out of Sight”) and screenplay writer Scott Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”). After sufficient discussion, I rather arrogantly laid down my conditions, none of which involved money.

“I won’t work on a film that has a virus turn people into zombies. I won’t have my name on something that thinks all that will be left at the end of a pandemic is Will Smith. Or that the world can be saved by a few drops of blood from one monkey,” I said in reference to the 1995 film “Outbreak.” I didn’t want Africans depicted as disease-crazed, or viruses to come from outer space. “I have to have your word that this isn’t going to be another damned movie about evil scientists or secret American military weapons programs.”

As I finished my tirade Shamberg and Sher exchanged knowing glances, Soderbergh had a bemused expression and Burns was grinning from ear to ear, nodding vigorously. Had I done more homework before this lunch I would have realized these conditions would be music to their ears. A few wintry days later Lipkin and I were in the bar of the Mandarin Hotel on Columbus Circle with Burns, spinning scenarios and discussing viruses and modes of transmission.

Burns and I settled into an on-line work pattern, squeezed out of days already saturated with more than enough toil. As he started plotting out the film that would eventually be called “Contagion” Burns was completing his 2009 Matt Damon hit “The Informant!” I was running the Global Health Program of the Council on Foreign Relations, working with the UNAIDS Programme on outlines of a new HIV prevention scheme, and racing to finish my third book, I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks, before the 10th anniversary of the events. To be honest, neither Burns nor I had time for this movie effort.  But we were having fun, and by March 2009 the characters, including a deadly influenza virus, and plot were well formed.

But then on April 21 California health authorities reported that two children in that state were hospitalized with what appeared to be a dangerous new type of influenza, and within days the entire nation of Mexico was on emergency status amid a rapidly spreading H1N1 swine flu outbreak. Over the next few weeks Burns and I exchanged emails at a furious pace, watching the very scenario we had envisioned for the movie unfold as reality – with one key exception: Our make-believe flu was highly virulent. It was a comfort to see that the public health, governance and pharmaceutical issues we laid out in the script proved prescient, playing out exactly as we’d imagined. But it made no sense to hew to the flu scenario once the world had a taste of the H1N1 mess.

So we went back to the drawing board that summer. By then my days were packed with anthrax and 9/11-related public health issues, as I was working 10-12 hours a day on I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM, hoping to release the book before 9/11/11. Having seen all the errors and misjudgments made by well-meaning law enforcement and public health investigators in the anthrax fiasco, I felt something that combined lessons learned from the 2003 SARS cover-up in China, the biology of bat viruses and the bumbling Amerithrax investigation made for a terrifying film. Lipkin loved the bat connection, having worked on the SARS bat-virus in 2003, and set to work designing an appropriate microbe. We decided it should be an ancient germ that was newly introduced to our species as an encephalitic virus, causing seizures in its victims. And once we’d decided its origins, modes of transmission and clinical aspects the rest of the characters and plot twists seemed to fall in place.

But something was missing: a human protagonist. During every outbreak I’ve experienced since the ascendance of the internet there have been “authoritative” voices on the blogosphere, claiming to know more than public health leaders, often weaving conspiracy theories. During H1N1 the influence of such internet “experts” included now-imprisoned crooks hawking phony cures. I emailed Scott to imagine such a blogger: “He is in basement with Snickers bars and stale nachos, monitoring genetic sequences posted on websites. He seizes on a WHOA moment. It's on a sequence posted by a graduate student working in a lab in southern China.”

“I think the new character may be key,” Burns replied.  “I want to make the movie about everything that has a viral progression in the world. Disease, information and in the end the ability to care for each other...”

By Christmas 2009 Scott Burns’ script was ready. He’s a genius – an appellation proven by how swiftly the script not only won praise from all that read it, but also a spectacular list of stars that Burns delineated in a February 18 e-letter: “Warner Brothers bought CONTAGION yesterday! Our cast now includes Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cotillard. If all goes well we will begin shooting in the fall…”

By September 2010 Soderbergh was in Hong Kong, shooting scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow, and over the next few months the extraordinary cast and crew shot the picture in Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and other locations. Lipkin was usually on the sets, teaching Paltrow how to realistically suffer a seizure or Winslet how a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer would talk about infectiousness. Burns was also on the set every day, occasionally e-mailing me for biology or public health advice.

I don’t know what ever happened to that Ridley Scott project. I have come away from the “Contagion” project proud of my involvement – which is astonishing given my initial skepticism.

And here’s the kicker: It’s a really scary, action-packed, emotion-laden, brilliantly-filmed, nail-biting, heart-thumping rip-snorter of a movie.