Dr. Erin Mears : “The average person touches their face 2- or 3000 times a day. Three to five times every waking minute. In between, we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains, elevator buttons and each other. Those things become fomites.”
As a young man I loved disaster movies. I must have driven my parents insane with my insistence on repeatedly seeing films like “The Towering Inferno” (1974) and “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972). I probably saw each at least five times during their first run in movie theatres. There was something comforting about being in a seat and watching people in danger on the big screen, overcoming insurmountable peril. Since this was make-believe you knew that by the time the final credits rolled that Gene Hackman and Paul Newman would figure out a way to stay alive and save as many people as possible.
It’s been a year in which we have starred in our own version of a disaster movie. I would not have ever imagined that over 500 thousand lives in America would be lost. It is sad and infuriating and absurd. Our resilience and patience have been put to such a test. Yet for every sign of a world crumbling around me, I was always reminded of human kindness and goodness. Recently, I had the great blessing of getting my first shot of the vaccine. As I sat to undergo the quick procedure I was overcome with emotion and couldn’t stop crying. Not understanding where all these tears were coming from I instinctually apologized to the nurse. Unable to touch me she simply and in a gentle whisper repeated that it was ok. “Everything’s ok,” she said.
There has been a constant in each and every day since March 17, 2020, and it has been my ability to write to you. I had a routine that I developed early on, and as time went by I never tweaked it. I’d pick a film that I thought was important, that reflected on current events or that if I were teaching I’d want my students to see. I’d sit and watch it again, even if I was familiar with it — it was essential that I see it fresh. I’d take notes as I experienced it, grabbing dialogue that struck me as important. The following day between 12:30pm and 2pm I’d sit and write. There were many instances in which I stared at the blank page for long periods of time, unable to put words together. And there were others in which sentences and paragraphs streamed out effortlessly. You were always kept in mind. Yes, you. You have been my constant companion through all of these. Sometimes, I may have felt that nobody was reading this or questioned the purpose of me putting all these thoughts together. But I always knew there was you, and for that I’m very grateful. As we navigated this strange terrain, I hope film managed to give you a sense of encouragement. Here’s to a year of connecting through film.
When the pandemic started, I thought about watching Steven Soderbergh’s thriller “Contagion” (2011), but I had been so scared the first time I saw it and didn’t think I could muster it. I had read Albert Camus’ “The Plague” while studying French in 1982, and it gave me nightmares for weeks on end. On March 2020, “Contagion” was so popular that it became one of the top movies for rent on iTunes. In February 2021, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock mentioned that watching the film propelled him to order a much larger quantity of vaccines for the UK.
I was still reticent to watch it, until last night. Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns (the screenwriter) obviously did a lot of research and got most of it right. It is a chilling film, yet watching it at this juncture does deliver a cathartic, purging effect as well as a sense of hope and trust in the experts, science and all the healthcare workers who have been looking after us. Its depiction of the media, fake news, misinformation, denial of science, and political self-service is uncanny. And how exhilarating to watch the development and deployment of a vaccine.
The first ten minutes captures through enhanced interest on everyday objects — a glass of peanuts, a handle on a bus, the elevator button, the credit card swiping — how quickly a virus can dart from Hong Kong to Chicago. Soderbergh introduces each city of the world with data on the screen factually telling us its population. Just like Irwin Allen did in his 70s epics, we’re introduced fast and furiously to a cast of characters around the world played by A-list stars including Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and most impressively Matt Damon who becomes the most compelling character. He loses his wife, learns he is not susceptible to the virus and is determined to shield his young daughter from it.
There’s still much more to be done to get us out of the woods. But let’s not give up. Let’s keep moving forward and very soon, I will see you at the movies.
Jory Emhoff : “Why can’t they invent a shot that keeps time from passing?”
Available to stream on DIRECTV, Sling and to rent on Microsoft, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Rebox and AMC Theatres on Demand
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan
Director Steven Soderbergh on “Contagion”
“I think it’s always compelling to watch people struggling with a real-world problem, especially one with a ticking clock, where the stakes couldn’t be any higher,” states director Seven Soderbergh…The inspiration for “Contagion” was sparked by a conversation, he believes, “anyone can relate to.” While working together on their previous project, “The Informant!,” Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns did a fair amount of traveling. Burns recalls, “Steven and I spent a lot of time on planes, and we talked about how often it seems people get sick when they travel. So the idea began as an exploration of the vulnerability of human beings in public places. I think all of us, when we come down with something, tend to think back over the past few days and who we spoke to, sat next to, or touched. It’s human nature.” Sharing airspace with a contagious passenger or handling objects that harbor bacteria and then unconsciously rubbing our eyes can result in an annoying cold, but, the two began to speculate,
what if these common, innocent interactions were circulating something much worse? And what if it rapidly expanded to worldwide proportions? People could be dead before they knew what hit them. Even more insidious, in the hours between contact and the onset of symptoms, it would be impossible to tell who had it…or who would get it next…”It’s not often you get the opportunity to make a movie that touches on themes that resonate with everyone, and can also be an entertaining thriller,” says Soderbergh. “When Scott and I talked about doing a serious film about a pandemic, I thought that because of what’s been happening in the world, plus all the advances in medicine and technology, we had to approach it in an ultrarealistic manner.” He admits, “Having been through the research now, I will never again think the same way about how we interact with one another. You cannot immerse yourself in this world and not be forever altered by your awareness of it.” (web.archive.org)
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns on “Contagion”
Burns said “Contagion” was inspired by his father, who often worried about the possibility of avian flu becoming a human pandemic. Not wanting to make a conventional disaster movie, Burns turned to Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who spearheaded the successful global eradication of smallpox. At the time, around 2009, the public seemed to react strangely to the swine flu epidemic, Brilliant said. People acted almost disappointed that it was not as severe as health officials had warned, he said. “We all started talking about the fact that modernity didn’t know what a real pandemic looked like,” he said. So they set out to create one. “Contagion” tracks the arrival of a fictional virus called MEV-1 that sends officials from the CDC and the World Health Organization scrambling to stop the outbreak and quell growing fear and distrust among the public. By the end of the film, chaos reigns and the disease’s death toll has reached at least 26 million. The fictional virus originates from a bat — and then jumps to a pig and then a person — which reflects the fact that 75% of new diseases in people come from animals, according to the CDC. These diseases include HIV, Ebola, SARS and now, COVID-19. In the film, knocking down trees in Hong Kong displaces the bat and triggers the emergence of the virus, which shows how deforestation and the destruction of animal habitats makes such leaps more likely. The virus’ rapid spread, in just hours from Hong Kong to Chicago to Minneapolis, reveals the way increasing global travel can quickly turn diseases into pandemics, sometimes becoming impossible to contain.
“It was not going to be pure entertainment — it was actually going to have some public health messaging,” said Dr. Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University epidemiology professor who served as the movie’s main scientific consultant. “The idea was to make people aware of the fact that emerging diseases will continue to emerge and reemerge.” Lipkin, who has identified hundreds of new diseases throughout his career, shared with Burns his experiences from 2003 on the frontlines of the SARS outbreak in Beijing. Elliott Gould’s character in the movie, a UC San Francisco scientist named Ian Sussman, is a nod to Lipkin. Lipkin invited Winslet and actress Jennifer Ehle, who plays the researcher developing a vaccine for the virus, to his lab at Columbia to help them prepare for their roles. He developed a 3-D model of the virus that rotates on screen. He helped Burns during post-production to ensure the whooshing and whirring sounds of the fictional labs were accurate. In one scene, Winslet explains the concept of an R-naught — which refers to how many people each sick person is likely to infect, essentially a measure of contagiousness. The scene brought a wonky epidemiology term to the general public, much to the delight of public health professors and biology teachers who now play the movie for their classes each year. Watching that scene, Brilliant said, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” Burns said that while filming the movie, Damon joked that they needed to amp up its fear factor and add some zombies for it to be a real Hollywood thriller. But Burns said it had become clear to him and director Steven Soderbergh that the film was even scarier because it was plausible, “as opposed to creating a monster that gives the audience this kind of distance from the story.” (latimes.com)
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns on the Research for “Contagion”
“I probably spent two or three years deeply involved in the science. That was sort of the real revelation for me. I met Dr. Larry Brilliant, who is an epidemiologist, who was involved with the eradication of smallpox in the ‘60s. And Larry introduced me to a virologist at Columbia University named Ian Lipkin. Dr. Lipkin and I spent a lot of time together talking about how viruses work and where the next one was likely to appear in the world. The deal that he made with me was he would help me with the film as long as we made it scientifically substantive…There were a lot of surprising things. First of all, the intersection between human behavior and what people in the world called ecotones, which are these zones where human beings are encroaching on previously wild spaces. As we cut down trees and invade habitats where humans have not lived, it puts us in contact with microbes and animals and a host of other factors that can traffic in these diseases. There are viruses in the wild that don’t affect human beings. But if they can be successful in bats or in pigs – mammals that have similar body temperature and other attributes that humans have — they frequently can use that as a midway point on their way to the human population. I didn’t fully appreciate the pathway until I started doing the research…I was allowed to go to the CDC in 2008 and meet with people there. I really learned a lot about what public health meant. Public health has a lot to do with our obligation to each other. Science is great, but what’s also great is a shared responsibility to keep each other healthy. I think that’s a really important message that I hope comes out of the movie. If we all wash our hands and observe social distancing and take care of each other, that does a lot more than almost anything.” (variety.com)
The Making of “Contagion”
Production on “Contagion” began with principal photography in Hong Kong in September 2010 and continued in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco, with stops in London and Geneva. Production designer Howard Cummings, working with Soderbergh for the third time, used Skype to communicate with his teams across the globe. Additionally, he says, “We created a huge research website that anyone on the movie could access if they needed to know what kind of uniforms the police wear in Kowloon or what an N100 mask is.” Renowned for his streamlined process, Soderbergh once again functioned simultaneously as director and cinematographer on “Contagion,” using the latest version RED digital camera that utilizes available light. “He also cuts every night so you can see what you’ve just worked on,” adds Sher. “As much as Hong Kong is known for guerilla filmmaking, the crew joked that Steven out-guerilla’d the guerilla filmmakers.” One of the film’s key scenes takes place in a Macau casino, but, since filming around the gaming tables is prohibited, the production re-created the room at the landmark Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbor. “When Steven walked into the room, I thought, ‘Oh no,’ because I could tell he loved it and I could see my future held multiple trips with my crew carting everything over to the restaurant on sampans,” Cummings laughs. That proved to be the case, but, luckily, the designer discovered that the local crews were accustomed to using sampans like trucks. Additional practical locations included the Hong Kong International Airport; the Intercontinental Hotel; the Princess Margaret Hospital; and a scene shot aboard the Star Ferry, crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island. The production then used Chicago and its environs to double for both Minneapolis, where the Emhoffs live, and Atlanta. Throughout, snow was an essential element. Whether real or recreated with effects, it lent a persistent coldness to Mitch Emhoff’s world as well as what Cummings describes as “a hypersensitive kind of glare.”
Filming took place at Elgin’s Sherman Hospital; O’Hare and Midway Airports; Central Elementary School in Wilmette, where Matt Damon later offered an interview and photo-op for the 3rd and 4th Grade students’ newspaper; and Chicago’s Henry Ford Bridge, shot at night in a genuine freezing downpour that set the stage for a volatile border confrontation. The largest and most ambitious set was Chicago’s National Guard General Jones Armory, transformed into an infirmary, and, in Waukegan, a portion of the Amstutz Expressway was closed for a day to stand in for Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, in a scene that dramatically featured a convoy of military trucks escorted by two Black Hawk helicopters, all on loan from the Illinois National Guard. The Guard’s contribution included Humvees, FMTV Troop Carriers, jeeps and two UH 60 Black Hawk Helicopters, as well as upward of 100 uniformed personnel from California, Illinois and Georgia. “The Department of Defense gave us approval to include National Guard soldiers and equipment in the film,” says Jacobs. “We also had access to many of their vehicles. Vince Ogilvie [Deputy Director, Entertainment Media, OASD-PA] was on the set with us. He was a terrific technical advisor and helped us keep it looking realistic, which was very important to us.” In Krumwiede’s home base of San Francisco, Cummings depicted the utter collapse of services, months into the siege, by littering North Beach and Potrero Hill neighborhoods with piles of trash and laundry—as if tossed from windows by people trying to get rid of anything contaminated. Also seen on screen were the San Francisco Chronicle and television station KPIX, Golden Gate Park, and the University of San Francisco at Mission Creek, where Krumwiede confronts Dr. Sussman. The designer’s biggest challenge was recreating the BSL-4 (Biosafety Lab, Level 4) for scenes in which Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin, as doctors Ally Hextall and David Eisenberg, experiment with dangerous biohazards. BLS-4 rooms are pressurized so that no air escapes, with steel doors, inflatable gaskets and an air-lock exit with disinfectant shower sprays. “It was a tough job for Howard to authentically reproduce these labs and their equipment,” Soderbergh attests. “Plus, there are pressurized oxygen hazmat suits fed by tubing that needed to be hooked up properly so they appear to really work. He had to design an enormous grid of pipes over the entire set.” Costume designer Louise Frogley, another regular on Soderbergh’s creative team, had the suits custom-made for Ehle and Martin to BLS-4 specs, designed to encapsulate the wearer in an impenetrable bubble of air. Says Ehle, “If people want to move from one area to another in the lab they have to unhook the air hose and then they have about two minutes to connect to the next one so they can continue breathing because the suit is continuously expelling air to create a barrier between them and potential toxins in the room. The tiniest rip could be fatal.” (web.archive.org)
About Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns
Scott Z. Burns is a writer, director and producer. His credits include: the original screenplay for “Side Effects,” a psychological thriller starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Channing Tatum—which received the coveted Golden Tomato for 2013– directed by Steven Soderbergh (produced by Burns, Greg Jacobs and Lorenzo Di Bonaventura), the original screenplay for “Contagion,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Jude Law, the screen adaptation of Soderbergh’s “The Informant!,” also starring Damon, co-writer of the Academy Award-winning “Bourne Ultimatum,” directed by Paul Greengrass, producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Academy Award-winning documentary, for which he received the Humanitas Prize and the Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America. He also wrote and directed HBO Films’ critically acclaimed “PU-239,” starring Paddy Considine and Oscar Isaac. Burns’ stage play “The Library,” appeared at The Public Theater in New York City in 2014 starring Chloe Grace Moretz and directed by Soderbergh– it was nominated by the Outer Critics Circle for Best New American Play. Burns began his career in advertising after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota. He was part of the creative team responsible for the original “Got Milk?” campaign and his advertising work has been recognized by the Clio Awards, the Cannes Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. Burns has written for GQ Magazine, Time, Condé Nast Traveler, Interview and The Huffington Post. (mediax.stanford.edu) Burns’ most recent works include “The Mercy” (2017), “The Report” (2019) and most recently “The Laundromat” in 2019.
About Director Steven Soderbergh
Steven Andrew Soderbergh was born in Atlanta, Georgia. The second of six children, Steven’s father Peter Soderbergh was a Professor and Dean of Education at Louisiana State University, an institution in which Steven himself enrolled at the tender age of 15 in order to do an animation course. This demonstrated enthusiasm for film continued throughout his high school career, after which he packed up and moved to Hollywood, earning his way as a freelance editor, writing scripts and making short films in his spare time. Soderbergh got his big break at the age of 23, when he directed a video for rock group Yes entitled “Yes: 9012 Live,” a project for which he was nominated for a Grammy. Hot off the heels of this early success, Soderbergh completed his short film “Winston” (1987), a project which would eventually become his multi-award winning drama “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989). This film, focusing on the lives, loves and sexual adventures of a group of twenty-somethings, won a number of highly-coveted awards, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as his first Oscar® nomination for Best Original Screenplay…his next big critical success, “Out of Sight” (1998)…starred George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in break out roles. Two short years later, Soderbergh would release two of his most successful films to date: “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney and “Traffic,” which featured an all-star cast including Michael Douglas and Benicio De Toro. These two films swept the Oscars® in 2000, with Erin Brockovich winning Best Actress for Julia Roberts and being nominated for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor. Traffic garnered four Academy Awards: for Best Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), Best Director, Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay. Soderbergh’s strength as a director lies in his determination to excel in his field regardless of casting, budget and production values. This resolve has led the director to produce a number of low-budget pieces with non-professional actors such as Bubble (2005), or films with a highly artistic and conceptualized aesthetic such as his remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (2002), and “The Good German” (2007). Soderbergh’s willingness to take risks combined with his aversion to the “ordinary” has earned him a place amongst the cinematic greats. (madman.com.au) A prolific writer, director, producer, cinematographer and editor, he has directed more than 30 films in a three-decade career, including “Magic Mike,” “Contagion,” the “Ocean’s” trilogy, “Out of Sight” and, most recently, “Let Them All Talk,” premiering this month. He also has produced or executive produced a wide range of projects for both film and television, including “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” “The Report,” “Ocean’s Eight,” “Citizenfour,” “Michael Clayton,” “Good Night, and Good Luck.” and two seasons of his own series, “The Knick.” (oscars.org)