Contagion: Art, Politics, and Science

Soderbergh’s thriller “Contagion” opens Sep 9, 2011.

Before Scott Burns began work on the screenplay for “Contagion,” he met with world-class experts in the field of infectious diseases and committed himself to months of research to ensure the veracity of the story he and Soderbergh wanted to tell. “These people,” he marvels, “get excited at the point most of us would be terrified.”

Among those who contributed their time and expertise were W. Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University and a professor of epidemiology, neurology and pathology; Larry Brilliant, MD, MPH, board-certified in preventive medicine and president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund; CDC-trained epidemiologist Mark Smolinski, MD, MPH, also of Skoll Global Threats; Nathan Wolfe, MA, DSc, director of The Global Viral Forecasting Initiative and a member of the team that discovered the Hantavirus; and science writer Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Coming Plague.

Not only did they share their own knowledge as technical advisors, they opened doors for the filmmakers and cast to sources of additional research that would inform their work both in front of and behind the camera. Lipkin was also a regular presence on the set. Says Shamberg, “When you invite audiences into a high-level lab in a film like this, you want the equipment to look right, you want the procedures and the language to be credible and the actors to be fully in control of that environment.”

Based on the film’s proposed storyline, Lipkin designed the pathogen that runs rampant in “Contagion,” a fictional virus he deems “biologically possible,” with a reality-based scientific lineage akin to the existing Coronavirus, but with a more aggressive impact. He even created a 3D model of it for the film.

“Over the past 10 to 20 years, the frequency with which we are seeing reports of emerging infectious diseases has increased dramatically,” he says. “There are a number of factors which have contributed to this, including the movement of people into areas where they’re coming into contact with animals they didn’t previously see and changes in climate that can redistribute biting insects and change their range, giving them the capacity to bring viruses into areas that are more temperate. In addition to people, we also have the movement of products all over the world. So it’s a combination of things.”

The knowledge gained while working on “Contagion” leads Soderbergh to now say, “I came away both more worried and more secure. More worried in the sense that everyone we talked to felt there will be a virus at some point that tips over, but more secure in seeing the intelligence and skill level of the people who are the first line of defense if that happens. Although we were never conscious of making them heroic, they are. When something erupts they get on a plane and fly right into the belly of it.

“When we started working on this project, our understanding of the work they do was superficial,” the director continues. “We understood there was science involved but I don’t think any of us expected the complexity of the political, practical and human issues they face every time they’re combating an infectious disease. To be in their crisis room and see the degree to which they are tracking every tiny, potentially suspicious thing in remote villages around the world…it’s incredible. I hope the next time people hear something from the CDC or the WHO they realize that there are literally thousands of dedicated, passionate people behind those soundbites, working tirelessly to keep us safe.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that our relationship with viruses is not going away; it’s part of life on this planet,” says Burns. “Science, medicine and communication have improved, but with that has come a greater amount of risk because of how quickly we travel from continent to continent. That’s what Steven and I wanted to capture with this film—how connected we are. There are infrastructures in place to help us, but in the end a lot depends upon our protecting each other.”

“It’s also a reminder of how tenuous our civility is,” notes Matt Damon. “I heard a report recently about the big influenza disaster of a hundred years ago and how they estimated the population then was a week away from what they called the end of the world, not because of the deaths but because that’s how long they gave it before social structures broke down. And this movie skates along that same timeline.”

During production, almost none among the cast and crew were immune to the anxiety “Contagion” stirred up about their everyday interactions, and it undeniably altered their behavior in subtle ways. It also resulted in a lot of humor as fist bumps—then elbow bumps—became the new standard greeting. But underneath it all was a surprising new degree of awareness.

“I’m much more conscious of everything I touch and what people around me touch. I’m not turning into a germaphobe, but you really begin to see things differently,” Soderbergh says. “This film could do for elevator buttons and doorknobs what ‘Jaws’ did for going to the beach.”.