I had about fifteen minutes with Burns at the junket for Contagion, and I wanted to ask him as many smart, probing questions as possible. But I also had a question I needed answered, about his rumored near-brush with being a powerful Hollywood film producer back when he was just 18 years old. You’ll have to read through the rest of the interview to get to that bit, though.
Obviously you did a ton of research and made things as accurate as possible, but where does accuracy give way to drama?
I don’t know that it does. I the way that I approached it was it became additive rather than a shift. It becomes a question of you know that you have a virus and you have a woman on a plane and she’s fine from A to B, and she’s going to get some people on the plane sick - but what if she gets off the plane? And what if she’s having an affair? And so it was an issue of adding in more things that a human being could do, building this framework. We talked about what the virus would do - we needed to come up with an incubation period for it, we needed to come up with a means of transmission, and we needed to put it in population centers where there’s high density. Then it was just an issue of looking at what is normal human life. People do have affairs. People do disclose information indiscreetly. People, like Jude Law’s character, do become opportunists when they see they have power. So it was a world where people are doing what they’re doing anyway and then laying the virus over that and saying ‘This is our lives, what does it look like through this lens?’ So it wasn’t so much at what point to imagine the science as to pick the things that are happening and applying the science to it.
One of the things I really like about the movie is that the government bureaucrats and the scientific establishment are not bad guys. It feels very easy in these kinds of movies for the government to be withholding information, for scientists to be the ones who fucked everything up, but in Contagion they’re honest and hard working people. Was this something you wanted to get across from the beginning?
That came from the research. The people I met were so impressive. There are people in three groups: the bureaucrats are trying, with limited resources in an economy that’s failing and a government that’s obviously dysfunctional, to take care of us. That’s a lovely and often lost sentiment. To some degree our government is supposed to protect us; in fact I’m not even sure what else it’s supposed to do, but I know that’s one of the things it would be great if it could do. You meet people who are trying to do that.
Then you meet people who are bench scientists who work in these suits with test tubes of samples from all over the world and they’re amazingly hard working and they’re constantly on their phone because someone got sick with something on the other side of the world and blood and tissue samples are flying in to New York. They’re amazing, and it’s exciting.
And then there are the people like Kate Winslet’s character and Marion Cotillard’s character, who have to go out in the field and have to practice this detective science against the backdrop of panic, against the backdrop of paranoia, governments that are protecting their own agendas. I think Steven and I both emerged feeling like the scientists are heroes. When we started doing it we were open, if we had found out the scientists are assholes or are just about winning Nobel Prizes, to making them villains, but most of the scientists we met are very hard working and so devoted to saving us.
When you’re writing a picture like this, which has multiple stories weaving together, are you deciding the transitions in the script? Is that a decision Soderbergh is making in the editing room?
I think I make it once, and where I make good choices he sticks with them. Where I haven’t made great choices he does something else. Or you learn that because an actor is so great and the performance is so rich that you may not need a scene. Or you may know the audience wants more of that character. To me the rhythm for this movie - and I think it’s true anytime a writer is doing a multiple storyline piece - is that you want to get out of a story at a really suspenseful, critical point so that the audience is going to be wanting to come back to that story. It has to be a big enough moment that it resonates with the audience. What you hope for, and I think that this is where Steven has a really great sense of the whole, which is helpful for me, is the transition from that storyline to another storyline, and how will those two inform one another. Someone is talking about ‘No we’re not leaving,’ and the next scene you’ll hear an expert say ‘We’ve got to get all those people out of there,’ then you know you’ve created tension. In some multiple storyline movies it always seems like it’s about getting these three different things to converge. We never wanted convergence. We wanted the escalating informing of one another. We wanted this one to swell and then you saw its impact on another thing, so it wasn’t about convergence but about informing.
There’s a sequence you leave out, about what happens to Marion Cotillard during a specific period. There are some really big character changes for her that happen in this missing sequence. Was that always happening off screen or did it get cut out?
It got cut.
How did that happen?
I think the pace of the movie started dictating what fell away, and some of what fell away was that. But yeah, there was more footage and more scenes of Marion realizing that if she’s going to be a hostage she’s going to do what she does and she’s going to be a doctor. She’s going to help people. And she begins to see that ‘Why shouldn’t these people get a vaccine?’
It’s hard. As a writer it’s hard.
Do you butt heads at all with Soderbergh about stuff like that?
Butt heads is sort of how it may seem to the outside, but it’s more like Steven and I share a responsibility to make a great movie. Ultimately he has to make the decision. Certainly he’s unbelievably generous and tolerant and I can walk in and go, ‘Oh man, I really, really miss that scene,’ and he’ll say ‘You know what? We need to keep this pace?’ And that’s the hard part of his job - sacrificing the parts for the whole.
What is your working relationship like? You’ve worked together now a number of times and you’re working together again on Man From UNCLE. How do you work together?
I think the reason we do it is that it’s pretty organic. We’ll have a few conversations about what we think is interesting, whether it’s Man From UNCLE or this, and then I want to go away and write. In part I think that’s my job, and if I’m always coming back to him he’s going to get sucked into my process, and I don’t want that. There’s a conversation at the beginning and then I’ll go away and write for six months or eight months and then I’ll come back and we’ll react to the piece together. Once we get the movie going Steven has been unbelievably generous with me in that I’m on set every day. We drive together to set every day.
We do. Greg Jacobs, Steven and I get into the same car every single morning, we sit in the same seats every morning, we go have breakfast and we’ll talk about the work. He allows me, especially with Matt [Damon], because Matt’s always been there with us, I can go talk to Matt in his trailer about the scene. Initially when that was going on I actually went to Greg Jacobs and asked if this was bad. I don’t think writers generally get to talk to the movie stars, and he said, ‘No, we want you to do this, you’re the steward of the story.’ And if Steven doesn’t like the way it’s working, he’ll see it first. He’s his own DP. He’ll fix it on set. What Steven would say is that if he didn’t give me that freedom he’d be losing one of his tools, one of his collaborators. He’s really taught me that when you go into a collaborative process with people you have to check your ego at the door if you want to get the best work done. On this movie Winslet and I spent a ton of time going over her lines so that she could really feel like a scientist. I hope that in my doing that it frees Steven up to do other things.
The stuff you’ve written so far has been generally factual, often based on true stories. Your next few projects are much more fantastical. Has that been a difficult gear shift for you, or is that something you’ve always been interested in doing?
20,000 Leagues, David [Fincher] and I had a really great take on it, and how to leave it in time but also make it really current. I think it has literary merit and it’s been the most fun. It’s great because I’m a huge David Fincher fan, and to be able to sit there and go ‘Huh, I wonder what David Fincher would do with a submarine? What’s that going to look like?’ or write for him a submarine that rams a ship - that, because he’s so visually gifted, is great. It’s fun to open up your head and do other stuff.
UNCLE... you’ll see. It’s almost a nostalgic look at the Cold War, so there is something to research and go look at.
I’ve heard that you had a brush with Hollywood when you were much younger. A brush that didn’t quite come to be.
I worked at a summer camp in northern Minnesotta, and there was a guy I knew who was the son of a heart surgeon. He had some money and said ‘These guys from St. Louis Park, Ethan and Joel Coen, are going off to make a little movie. We should all invest.’ And I was like, ‘What should I use to invest, my student loans?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re using,’ but I actually needed my student loans for school. So I didn’t invest in Blood Simple, but now when I watch the movie at the end I see these guys listed as executive producers, titles they got for giving five grand. As an 18 year old I had my opportunity to get in.
But it all worked out anyway.
It took a lot longer. It’s funny, knowing those guys existed had such a huge impact. Without [the Coens] having grown up in that part of the world I don’t know that I would have believed it was possible.
There’s some kid in Minnesota right now reading this interview who will see that you’ve come out of there and that it’s possible for them.
It’s funny - I hope people watch this movie and go, ‘It’s cool to be an epidemiologist.’ That would be great.