How did “Contagion” come to you?
I had been having conversations with my father, whose background was as a scientist, about the possibility of something like bird flu jumping into the human population. I was curious about what would happen in a world where now people travel on airplanes between cities, where someone could work one week in London and one week in New York, and how the way we live could be used by any sort of virus to get a foothold. I asked epidemiologist Larry Brilliant if he thought the movie that I was proposing was outside the bounds of scientific possibility. And he said, “Well, it’s not even a question of if there will be another pandemic; it’s just simply a question of when.”
Many people are turning to you because your “Contagion” screenplay seemed to predict the global pandemic. What do people want to know when they reach out?
It is sad, and it is frustrating. Sad because so many people are dying and getting sick. Frustrating because people still don’t seem to grasp the situation we are now in and how it could have been avoided by properly funding the science around all of this. It is also surreal to me that people from all over the world write to me asking how I knew it would involve a bat or how I knew the term “social distancing.” I didn’t have a crystal ball — I had access to great expertise. So, if people find the movie to be accurate, it should give them confidence in the public health experts who are out there right now trying to guide us.
People also want to know what I think will happen next. My sense is that we are still very much in the first act of this story — how it will go from here depends on how both the people and the government react in the days ahead. I never contemplated a federal response that was so ignorant, misguided and full of dangerous information. I thought our leaders were sworn to protect us. I don’t get to write this story this time. This is a story we are all writing together.
Are there scenes or characters you would change or adjust based on what we are seeing now with this novel coronavirus?
I would have never imagined that the movie needed a “bad guy” beyond the virus itself. It seems pretty basic that the plot should be humans united against the virus. If you were writing it now, you would have to take into account the blunders of a dishonest president and the political party that supports him. But any good studio executive would have probably told us that such a character was unbelievable and made the script more of a dark comedy than a thriller.
Are there things in the film that make you brace yourself a bit because you are now seeing the scene you put on paper in the news?
I worry most about the time it could take for us to find an effective vaccine and how that squares with the meager limits of our attention spans. Matt Damon [the husband of the first American victim to die of the virus in the film] and his daughter stay in quarantine for a long time in our script. They remain vigilant. How long will people really do that for?
And what happens when people turn on the news and realize this is not just happening in New York or Seattle? We will all know people who get sick — and we will all likely know people who die from covid-19. So, it isn’t going to be a story you just see on TV. It is going to be a story that merges with your own life — no matter where you are. So, my concern is that places that have relatively low case counts right now may not fully appreciate what is about to happen to their communities.
It has been reported that Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, one of your key guides in understanding pandemics, has tested positive for covid-19. He revealed his diagnosis during an interview on Fox News, which is almost like something out of a screenplay itself. You could say that was a moment of irony. You could say that was a moment of grace. As a writer, how do you see that?
I see it as profoundly heroic. Ian has tried to pierce the bubble that keeps certain segments of the population from fully understanding what is happening in the world around them. He knows that we all need to be on the same page to write a better ending to this book. The virus doesn’t care what TV network you watch or newspaper you read. We now have more sick people in this country than anywhere else in the world. And even with a three-month head start, we find ourselves scrambling to provide protective gear for our doctors and tests for our neighbors. That is not the fault of the virus. That is something everyone who called it a hoax has to answer for.
In the film, the script assumes a fairly high level of government competence.
I never thought in a million years that the scientists and public health people would be questioned and doubted and defunded and, in many cases, dismissed from their posts. That was something as a screenwriter and storyteller I would have never anticipated, because the threat is so obvious.
In the film, the virus that you created is deadlier even than covid-19 is, but by the end of the film, they’re able to come up with a vaccine.
Well, one of the criticisms of the film by the scientific community was always that in the movie it seems like we came up with a vaccine too quickly. I’m not a scientist, but my understanding is that coming up with a vaccine itself is only a part of the battle and not even the hardest part. To kill the virus in a petri dish is one thing. To make a vaccine that will not hurt people, that is safe, that does what we need it to do without it doing things we don’t want it to do, is a painstaking process that requires doing trials that are safe before you scale up production.
Was there some hidden message that you left in the film to find our best selves or to stay calm instead of panic?
Yeah, I think the intention in the film — and there are a few scenes where you do see basic human kindness in the face of panic — is that this is an opportunity for a country, as divided as we are, to find common cause. And one of the things that epidemiologist Larry Brilliant has said to me over the years is that love is a big part of survival in these situations. Do you love someone enough to take care of yourself and to respect their vulnerability? Do you have a basic compassion for people less fortunate than you? Dr. Brilliant, you know, had always said to me, “There is, in every one of these, an opportunity for people to become heroic in the way that they respect and treat each other.” And it would have been my hope that this virus gave this country an opportunity to heal from a lot of other problems by pointing out the thing that I think is instructive about a virus, which is, in its eyes, we’re all the same. And that lesson would be very helpful right now.