Written by Don't Panic
09 Sunday 09th October 2011

There have been other movies about viral outbreaks (12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later, The Crazies). Did you feel that the timing was right to make a movie like Contagion?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: Well, I guess we’re going to see. [Laughs] The only thing that might indicate that the timing might be good was my reaction to Scott proposing this, the reaction on the part of the Participant [Media] when we went then to float the idea of developing it, the reaction for Warner Bros. when we presented them the script. Everyone felt there was a place for an ultra-realistic film about this subject. Nobody hesitated. It all happened very quickly, uncharacteristically quickly, actually, considering what the business is like now for adult dramas. So that made me feel like maybe we were on to something.

SZB: And when we started doing research, all of the scientists that we spoke to about it - I anticipated that some of them would try and tamp down things or go, “Well, yeah, this is possible” - but all of them said, “It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.” If you look at the medical record, every few years there ends up being some kind of outbreak. We’d started the movie and in about three or four months into the research, H1N1 happened. So that became a really interesting tracer bullet through the system for us to follow some of the issues.

Can you talk about the politics of the movie?

SZB: I guess our experience, I think uniformly, was that the people at the Centers for Disease Control—especially the people who are there now—are incredibly conscientious. And it feels really great to know that there are a lot of very, very bright people who think about this every day and are game to try. But one of the things that I learned along the way—which I think Laurence actually says in the movie—is that each state has a different sort of protocol, has a different health department. The CDC has to be invited in. We have FEMA, which is part of Homeland Security. There are a lot of different organizations and some really, really bright people. I don’t really think that there’s a lot of politics to a virus.

So, I wasn’t aware when I was writing it that I was trying to blame anybody. What I think is fascinating though, is that in spite of all of the plans you can make, there is always an outlier of a person who’s going to become part of a news story that’s going to change the shape of this thing and how the public manages it.  

Steven, how did your involvement with this project change your behavior? Would you ever eat peanuts at a bar again?

SS: I don’t know that my behavior’s changed. I’m just really aware of it now. I was handed some lip balm by one of the make-up people, which I took a Kleenex and cleaned off, but who knows if that worked. So, don’t get near my mouth. [Laughs] Having gone through it, I’m always going to be conscious of it now.

It was fun during the previews to watch the lights come up and 400 people realize that they’re next to a bunch of strangers and that they’ve touched everything. You could tell they weren’t happy.

Laurence, where was your germ paranoia before the movie and then after all the things you learned by doing the movie?

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: I ain’t afraid of germs, man. [Laughs] And I ain’t afraid of getting sick.

Were there any conventions of the thriller genre that you were consciously avoiding with this film?

SS: Yeah, the one rule that we had was we can’t go anywhere one of our characters hasn’t been. We can’t cut to a city or to a group of extras that we’ve never been to, that we don’t know personally. That was our rule.

And that’s a pretty significant rule to adhere to in a movie in which you’re trying to give a sense of something that’s happening on a large scale. But we felt that all of the elements that we had issues with prior, when we see any kind of disaster film, we’re sort of centered around that idea - that suddenly you cut to Paris, where you’ve never been, and something happens. And it’s a bunch of people that you don’t have any emotional engagement with.

So, we were trying to have it be epic and also intimate at the same time. That was rule number one.

Jennifer, your character is very much a workaholic, but these diseases don’t take off after five o’ clock. You’ve got to keep up with it. What kind of research did you do to play such a single-minded character?

JENNIFER EHLE: Well, I had two really fascinating mornings with Dr. Ian Lipkin and his team up at Columbia, in New York, at his lab doing experiments. And they gave me a crash course and did all sorts of extraordinary things with [things like] Encephalitis, and growing bacteria, growing viruses and finding the DNA sequence from a sample. It was really an extraordinary couple of days. And then, at the end, I got a certificate that said I’m now qualified as a microbiologist to practice absolutely no where. And it was wonderful.

And then, he was very, very present during the shoot and very hands-on. So, the research was kind of ongoing while we were shooting.

Can you talk about shooting the movie in terms of the balance that you got between the big spectacle and the most intimate moments?

SS: Honestly, I was just trying to keep it very, very simple. That meant the entire film’s shot with two lenses, basically. And when I would look at a scene, I would try to figure out how few shots I needed, as opposed to how many. I really wanted it to be, in terms of style, one of the simplest movies that I’ve ever made.

Often that can require more though than just walking in and saying, “I’m just going to cover the hell out of this and I’ll figure it out later.” My approach was, “I really want to keep this simple and want every shot to have a purpose and want every cut to have a purpose. I don’t want any waste.” If you pulled one shot out, it meant something would be diminished.

So, that was really it—eye-level, no crane shots, no throwing the camera around. Just keep it simple so that all you were paying attention to were the performances.

With this film, you have an ensemble cast where any one of the characters could have had their own film. Did you ever think about, how many characters is too many? How many is too little?

SZB: Well, when we started thinking about this, Steven and I talked about having one character sort of tracing the virus back in time, and that was Marion’s character. She was going to be doing the detective work. But then we also needed a character who would be sort of marching through time going forward with the virus. And that became Laurence’s character. And then, we wanted kind of a proxy for a human being and how they would experience the virus.

So, we knew we were going backwards and we knew we were going forwards and we knew we needed a proxy. And then, when I started doing research, I just was fascinated—because H1N1 had happened—by how there’s this other voice that starts encroaching on the consciousness about these things, and that’s where Jude’s character came in. And Jennifer’s character was born out of the fact that I met Dr. Lipkin and I saw how interesting the research was. I guess at that point I thought, that’s a lot of people. We probably can’t afford anymore. [Laughs]

Matt’s character’s motives are very personal. Laurence, your character is in a position of authority and has to think about the big picture, but it still can’t get out of the way of his personal motives too. Can you talk about the complexities of your character?

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Well, it wasn’t really that complex for me once I talked to Dr. Lipkin, who had real strong opinions about how all of this should play out. He was with us every day. And, as Jennifer said, he really is committed to what he does. He loves what he does. So, we’d be working and he’d be on his phone and he’d go, “Let me show you this.” And it would be like something that could potentially be an outbreak almost every day. He’d have some new sort of disease that the CDC is tracking and kind of keeping an eye on.

So, it became really easy just go, “Oh, right, so the stakes for this thing that you do are always here.” The personal stuff that I have as Ellis Cheever, with telling my fiancé, soon to be wife, Sanaa Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk—that’s easy. I mean, any human being in this situation is going to do that, I think.


Contagion will be on UK general release come 21 Oct

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