Going Viral: Revisiting Contagion

March 25, 2020
Director Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 virus thriller Contagion now feels eerily prescient in the midst of the global Coronavirus disaster.

This is a direct, unaltered post of an article that FilmInk Magazine published back in 2011 upon the cinematic release of Contagion. Note its shocking relevance!  

“Steven sent the script over with a note saying, ‘Read this and then wash your hands!’” says Matt Damon, recalling how he first received Scott Z. Burns’ script for Contagion. If Steven Spielberg’s Jaws sent people fleeing from the ocean 36 years ago, then Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller Contagion is the movie to stop people shaking hands or touching one another again. Soderbergh hopes that his film – about a virus that spreads from bat to pig, and then human – doesn’t create a nation of hysterical germophobes, although basic hygiene might go a long way, he suggests. “We were dubbing the film, and I go into the restroom at the same time as another guy,” the director says. “We both take care of ourselves, but then he walks right out the door. I’m literally going, ‘Really?’ So, if we can reach that guy, I’d be thrilled,” he laughs. “Contagion could certainly do for elevator buttons what Jaws did for the beach.”

Steven Soderbergh on set.

Starring a flotilla of A-listers, including Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law, the real star of the film is the science. Bearing in mind the recent narrowly-averted crisis that was H1N1 swine flu, Burns was surprised when he talked with scientists to learn how a new virus is discovered nearly every week. “That’s 52 fresh bullets loaded into a gun and aimed at the human race every year,” says the writer. Searching back to the history books, he’s today a walking encyclopedia about viruses. “The 1918 Spanish Flu wiped out 50 million people, which was one fifth of the world’s population at the time, and more than the total killed in WWI,” he offers. “Diseases spread exponentially. It just takes thirty steps to jump from one to one billion. Factoring in the incubation period, we could reach that number in 120 days.”

Jennifer Ehle in Contagion.

In the US, where the film has been a major box office hit, the media have been relentless in trying to pull apart the science behind Contagion. Unfortunately for the yellow press, scientific wisdom concurs with the film’s plot on every level. Mindful of this potential minefield, Burns worked closely with world class epidemiologists to ensure that he got his facts straight. “We did as much research as we possibly could, because we really wanted this movie to come from reality,” says Burns. “About six months into doing the research, the H1N1 epidemic happened. That allowed us to see a lot of these issues play out in real time, especially with regards to how the world would respond to a virus. That particular virus – though it was incredibly widespread – wasn’t that serious, but we were told repeatedly that another virus could create all sorts of symptoms which could be much, much more lethal.”

Soderbergh and Burns became fascinated by the science, although it wasn’t until they began testing the film that they realised how their enthusiasm was shared. The director even went back and shot more scenes with actress Jennifer Ehle’s character at the US Center For Disease Control And Prevention. “Most people who saw the early version were interested in the scientific aspects of the film, and wanted to know more about the process,” Soderbergh recalls. “Young people, in particular, really responded to the science, and the fact that it was real – maybe because they’re all watching House – so we decided to go back and augment that.”

Matt Damon and Anna Jacoby-Heron in Contagion.

Despite the fact that vaccinations and viruses have become a hot topic in recent years, Soderbergh was happy to be free of any major political constraints on Contagion. “Certainly, I was aware of the difference between a subject like this and, let’s say, something like Traffic. When you start talking about drugs, there’s an immediate political aspect to it because people have very strong feelings about drugs in both directions. Straight out of the gate, you’re polarising the audience. As far as we were concerned, there really isn’t that barrier here. A virus doesn’t have a political association; it just exists to propagate itself. I felt that there was a wider audience for this film. You can avoid drugs, but you can’t avoid germs…you just can’t! We felt a responsibility with this subject matter. We wanted to do it realistically in the hopes that, having seen the film, if all you got out of it was – when this happens – that you don’t immediately panic, and that you count to eleven before you do something stupid, then that would be great.”

Matt Damon in Contagion.

Burns concurs: “I certainly hope that people don’t look at the movie and think that we shouldn’t be shaking hands, or that we shouldn’t be close to each other. In a sense, I hope what people take from the movie is quite the opposite of that. When viruses and illnesses appear, there’s a concept called Public Health; if your kid’s sick, then you shouldn’t send your kid to school; or if you’re sick, you should stay home because we all share common spaces. The message isn’t that you shouldn’t shake hands – it’s that when there’s a virus on the scene, we should observe social distancing. If you can afford and have access to vaccines, you should probably take advantage of that, if that’s what your doctor thinks is appropriate. I hope that it isn’t fear of your fellow person, but a sense of responsibility to your fellow person.”

Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishburne in Contagion.

“So it’s fine to touch your fellow person,” interrupts Soderbergh. “As long as you still go to the movies!”

Though Soderbergh has a track record in assembling high profile casts (Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic), the director says that it’s never cut-and-dried. “It’s always a double-edged sword when you try to hire somebody who’s won an Academy Award,” he smiles. “Maybe they’re talented, but then you know that they’re going to be really expensive. The good news in this case was that everybody’s commitment was really short – a week to eight days.”

Matt Damon in Contagion.

Soderbergh’s friend, Matt Damon, was the first to sign on. “I had really high expectations, because Steven had called me saying how he thought that it was the best thing that Scott had written,” says the actor, who had already starred in two films based on Burns’ screenplays, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Informant! “He was bullish about the script. I obviously think very highly of Scott’s writing, and the script was fantastic. I related to all the characters for different reasons. It’s well balanced, and it’s a real page-turner. If I see a script that’s really good and I have a chance to be in it, I always want to jump at that chance. This is my sixth movie with Steven, so that’s a very easy decision. I trust the director. Every other director that I work with is always interested in Steven’s process; they want to know what he does and how he does it. His is an incredibly streamlined process; all of the energy is around the camera and in front of the camera. There are no chairs on his sets…there’s no video village, and no culture of relaxation. Everybody’s focused and there to work. Everybody knows what the scene’s about and what their job is. It’s fun to watch him problem-solve and figure out where the camera’s going to go and what’s the least number of shots to do the scene in and how to do each shot in a way that’s honest but still unique. Then, at the end of the day, he’s cutting together that day’s work and you’re sitting in a hotel bar – all around the computer – looking at what you did that day. You always know where you are, and are aware of the movie that you’re making. You can get spun out on other productions thinking that you’re in a different kind of movie. Steven actually shows you the movie while you’re making it.”

Kate Winslet in Contagion.

Indeed, actor and director have become very close…close enough to result in a recent news report documenting Soderbergh’s premature retirement. “He’s kind of exhausted with everything that interested him in terms of form,” Damon told The Los Angeles Times. “He’s not interested in telling stories. Cinema interested him in terms of form, and that’s it. He says, ‘If I see another over-the-shoulder shot, I’m going to blow my brains out.’ After this movie, [Soderbergh and I] are doing Liberace next summer with Michael Douglas, and then he might do one more movie after that with George [Clooney], and then after that, he’s retiring.” Addressing Damon’s statements, Soderbergh shoots the actor a faux dirty look. “I was really drunk,” the director laughs. “So was Matt. I thought there was the tacit agreement that exists in most advanced societies: that when you’re both drunk, the conversation won’t be in the newspaper. Clearly Matt didn’t share that philosophy, and is about as discreet as a fourteen-year-old girl.”

Marion Cotillard in Contagion.

Damon briefly squirms in his seat. “He calls it like he sees it,” the actor laughs. “What can I say? Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so liberal with my spreading of that information. I acknowledge that, and things said in that state will be kept in confidence in the future!”

After Contagion, Matt Damon should certainly know how dangerous things can get when they spread…

Contagion is available on DVD and VOD now. Check out our feature on films to freak you out while self-isolating, and our interviews with Scott Z. Burns for The Mercy and The Report.

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