Premise: A contagious and deadly disease confounds an international team of doctors who try desperately to contain it before it becomes a worldwide plague.
About: Contagion sold earlier this year with Steven Soderbergh attached to direct. Scott Z. Burns, the writer, was a producer on The Inconvenient Truth and is best known for writing The Bourne Ultimatum. He also penned The Informant. Set to shoot later this year, Soderbergh once again shows he can bring the talent. Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Lawrence Fishburne, and Gwyneth Paltrow are all a part of this amazing cast.
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Details: 131 pages – January 14, 2009 draft (This is a very early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
Steven Soderbergh continues to remain a curious figure in Hollywood. He never does what the studios want him to do and that’s given us cinephiles some brilliant little films and - let’s be honest - some really shitty ones. “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” is still one of my favorite indies of all time (some say it’s the movie that officially started the indie movement). I revisited it recently and while our shock-a-minute society had dulled my senses to some of its more “risky” moments, it’s still one of the best pure talking heads movies I’ve ever seen.
Staying true to form, Soderbergh refuses to explore his virus-thriller, Contagion, via conventional storytelling means, nixing the “hero with personal issues to overcome,” angle and going for more of a cinema verite, documentary approach. This would make sense as Soderbergh loves shooting his films in the that gritty unflattering mold. No doubt it gives the script a unique edge, as we’re pulled into the world of disease control as if we’re right there making the decisions with the characters.
It’s Thanksgiving week. Beth Emhoff is coming back from work in Hong Kong. At O’Hare airport, she begins to feel sick.
Li Fai, a worker at a casino, is heading to Hong Kong on a ferry. He, also, is feeling weary.
Irina, a Ukrainian model, doing her best to push through a photo shoot, feels like she’s going to pass out.
Beth makes it home to her husband, Thomas, and her son, Clark, where she plans to sleep off the flu-like sickness and regroup in the morning. Well she gets to do plenty of sleeping all right. In Heaven. Yes, poor Beth goes into a seizure and ends up dead at a hospital an hour later.
This leaves us with her husband Thomas, whose son has also been feeling lousy ever since mom got home. Clark’s health deteriorates at a terrifying pace and soon the unthinkable happens. He too dies, leaving a shocked Thomas, and a lot of unfinished coloring books, all alone.
Panic mode hits Clark's school, with teachers and parents wanting to close the school down in case the deadly sickness is contagious. Eventually Dr. Ellis Cheever, a viral specialist, is called in. Once he gets whiff of the danger, he immediately isolates Thomas in quarantine while he tries to find out what the hell killed a mother and a son in such a short period of time.
Oh and wouldn’t you know it, both Irina, the model, and Li, the ferry passenger, die as well. A link is found between Beth and Li and before you know it, International CDC doctors are scrambling to figure out just how concerned they should be. What first looked like an isolated tragedy, is quickly becoming a viral outbreak of Mega-Death proportions.
For a virus this potent, you have to know where it originated before you can start building a plan to stop it. So the CDC and international authorities begin pouring over thousands of hours of video footage in the buildings Beth frequented while she was in Hong Kong.
But the clock is ticking. This virus is spreading like wildfire and soon there are death clusters in Western Europe, Hong Kong, and the U.S. This is starting to look like the big daddy, the Black Plague of the 21st Century.
In the meantime, a conspiracy theorist blogger named Alan Krumwiede starts up a rumor that the virus is spread through water. This sets the world into mass panic mode, thrusting it perilously close to the tipping point. If the public believes that the government won’t save them, there will be a run on the banks, the grocery stores, the gas stations. Society will cease operating.
Every second that passes in which the world’s top doctors don’t figure this out, is one second closer to that worst case scenario.
As you can see, Contagion is a look at what would really happen if a modern day plague broke out. Gone are character motivations, intricate sub-plots, backstory or the 3-Act structure. Contagion bounces around to whichever government or medical body would be dealing with the problem in real life. So even though we assume that Thomas, losing his wife and son, will be our guide in the film, his character disappears off the face of the earth after the quarantine scene. It’s like he was never there to begin with.
The script survives this odd choice, though, due to its Titanic-sized plot engine. I mean we’re talking about the end of the world here. Will they or won’t they stop the virus before it’s too late? It’s hard not to get wrapped up in that. And one of the unique things Contagion has going for it is BECAUSE it favors reality over traditional storytelling, we almost believe that it’s the world we inhabit that’s in danger, and not some Michael Bay perfectly lit idealized New York City.
The script also does a nice job spinning the old attic noodle. You realize afterwards that we are so underprepared for an event like this, even though these super-killers have popped up every 80 years since the beginning of time. It’s terrifying to realize that under the wrong circumstances, our society could cease functioning in as little as two weeks. There’s also some very poignant commentary on big business and the way vaccines would be distributed if this really went down. With so much money on the table, you can bet your ass people are going to be dying while they figure out the percentages. All of that stuff was really fascinating.
The big problem with Contagion though, is that the ending is mushy. We spend the entire screenplay building up this virus to DEFCON 5 status, and then we get this tame middle-of-the-road resolution to it all. It’s hard to explain without spoiling it, but there’s no dramatic conflict in the climax. It just sort of…works itself out. And a part of me commends it for staying true to its “real life” aspirations, but in this case, real life was a really fucking boring option. I guess I wanted more of an “all or nothing” finish and since this is an early ’09 draft, maybe they’ve gone ahead and added one. But this ending was so unsatisfying it really hurt my opinion of the script.
There were some other minor things that bothered me as well. Krumweide was a dumb character, the only cartoonish aspect of the entire piece. And while the lack of character development didn’t bother me at first, as we got towards the end, I was really wanting to latch on to someone – ANYONE – in order to feel something. There are no heroes here. Just real-life faces doing their jobs. I only wish I'd known more about those faces so I could care about them. Add a disappointing ending to this and I can’t give this draft of the script a passing grade. I'll just hope Burns and Soderbergh worked out all these kinks since. Because this project has a lot of potential.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I have a theory about why this ending didn’t work. The climax of almost every good movie is tied to the main character’s inner conflict (or “thing” as I called it in yesterday’s “What I Learned” section). So in Inception, Cobb has to overcome his issues with his wife in order to finish the job with Robert Fischer. In The Matrix, Neo has to believe in himself before he can stop the bullets and defeat the agents. Since there isn’t a single character developed in Contagion, since we don’t know what’s going on under anyone’s surface, it's hard to construct an emotionally satisfying ending. Unlike Cobb and Neo, there’s nobody here with issues to overcome. That means the plot has to do it all by itself, and I don’t think any plot can hold that kind of weight. As a result, Contagion folds in the third act. So remember that a good climax usually involves a main character who’s finally overcoming his flaw. It’s by no means the only way to write your climax, but it usually works when done well.