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Exclusive: Writer Scott Z. Burns Talks Contagion

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For the upcoming Warner Bros. thriller Contagion (review here), writer Scott Z. Burns knew that crafting a script around a global pandemic would be no small feat when he started working on the project back in early 2010. Dread Central caught up with Burns, who is collaborating with Steven Soderbergh for the fourth time, during a recent press day to talk to the writer about his experiences working with the acclaimed filmmaker in an effort to create a realistic and terrifying portrait of how one disease can instantly change people’s lives forever.

What makes Contagion one of the most ambitious disaster-style movies of all time is Burns’ approach as a storyteller to track this virus on every level and explore its ultimate impact on modern day society.

Burns relies on numerous characters throughout Contagion to explore the terrifying reality of how just one simple touch could leave so many lives changed forever- including the everyday victims (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow), those fighting against the virus on the front lines (Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet), the government and the Center for Disease Control (Bryan Cranston, Enrico Colatoni, Laurence Fishburne), the doctors working around the clock just to find a cure (Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Demetri Martin) and even the internet press gets thrown into the mix (Jude Law).

Considering Contagion is one of the most expansive cinematic explorations of society’s response to a major disaster movie (in terms of scope), we spoke extensively with Burns about his approach to the script and heard a little bit more from him on his collaboration with director David Fincher on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well as an official word on when Burns would be back in the director’s chair next.

Check out Dread Central’s exclusive chat with Burns below and look for coverage from the Contagion press conference featuring Soderbergh, Damon, Fishburne, Ehle and Burns coming your way tomorrow!

Dread Central: So I heard that you came up with the idea of Contagion while working on The Informant with Matt and Steven. Since these two movies feel very different in both tone and scope, can you talk about that more?

Scott Burns: “Sure. I had written a scene in The Informant when Matt’s character goes on a rant like a lunatic after Scott Bakula coughs on the phone they’re sharing. He starts going on and on about giving it to his kids, paying for medical coverage- stuff like that. And while that moment was humorous, I thought about looking at something like that on a more serious level. So when I came up with the idea, I think my pitch to Steven took all of thirty seconds, and he said ‘absolutely’.”

“Part of what Steven and I wanted to do differently with Contagion that maybe a lot of the other virus movie haven’t done was to get into all the other things a disease can affect beyond just the initial victims. How does the government react? What happens to society? How long would it really take to control a virus like this? So I started doing a lot of research and met with a lot of scientists and even the CDC because basing this story in reality was important to both of us. About a year later we had a script, and things picked up from there.”

DC: How much influence did real-life diseases like Mad Cow, Swine Flu, H1N1 come into play when you were writing the script?

Burns: “My research actually began about six months before H1N1 happened so that timing was really helpful to my work on Contagion because it demonstrated how society actually dealt with pandemics. I saw issues like school closing, treatment protocols and internet hysteria come to the forefront during that time. The film also has this great viral pulse to it because of Jude’s character being an internet blogger turned profiteer. But we knew this movie had to be more than just about the disease itself- it’s about how the disease is interpreted by the population at large.”

DC: So you and Steven always envisioned Contagion to be an ensemble effort then?

Burns: “Absolutely. We also wanted to make sure there was one character always working forward in time in the movie so that it kept up realistically with the moment of the virus itself. So we needed Laurence’s character at the CDC and epidemiologist characters like Kate and Marion who faced the virus head-on, but we also felt like we needed someone in the film representing our audience, and that’s Matt and his family.”

“I developed storylines for each of the characters and then whittled it all away to what was most interesting about their POV and how it related to the overall story. It’s kind of like handing off a baton during a race, but in Contagion everyone keeps the story advancing each time you come to them. So you have to keep looking for opportunities when creating the story, and I think that’s also something Steven’s really brilliant at as well- making strong transitions. It’s why he’s such a respected filmmaker; Steven is the master of knowing how to move from one point to the other at just the perfect moment. I think that’s what makes him one of the best directors working today.”

DC: I guess it’s safe to say that you and Steven enjoy collaborating together then.

Burns: (laughs) “I guess you could say that. After all, Contagion is our fourth time working together. I love working with Steven- it’s like getting to live out your dream job, and I have such respect for him as a director. But even beyond all that, he really allows me to be a part of the process every step of the way. I am on set every day, I give my notes on the cuts during the editing process and my job on set as writer is to help Steven and the actors keep their focus on bigger things and I worry about the more intimate ones.”

DC: I read somewhere earlier that you’re also collaborating with David Fincher on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Is there anything you can talk about on that project yet?

Burns: “Well, I can’t really say too much about it, but I know that what both David and I want to do is not just adapt the book for the big screen but rather let the book serve as our inspiration for the story and push ourselves to come up with something extraordinary. That’s our overlying goal. And I don’t think I can say too much more than that.”

DC: Since I know you’re also a director in addition to being a writer, I was wondering if you have any plans to return to directing anytime soon.

Burns: “Actually, I do. I recently wrote a psychological thriller which is set in a world of psychopharmacology. And no, it’s not another Contagion movie- this one is a bit different actually. But Lorenzo di Bonaventura is producing it, and I hope to be shooting around the first of the year.”

Look for Contagion in theaters on September 9th!

Exclusive: Writer Scott Z Burns Talks Contagion

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