How the makers of ‘Contagion’ saw an outbreak like coronavirus coming
There’s a moment early in the movie “Contagion” when health officials lay out what’s known about the film’s villain, a novel virus that is sweeping the globe and leaving dead bodies in its path.
For many watching in 2020, the scene hits a little too close to home.
In front of a whiteboard in a drab government office, a health investigator with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, played by Kate Winslet, reviews the basics: the virus appears to spread through coughing and sneezing. The particles released can also land on surfaces such as doorknobs and elevator buttons, which then transmit the virus when people touch their faces, she says.
To stop the spread of the pathogen, Winslet explains, officials need to determine its contagiousness, whether people without symptoms can infect others and who exactly is susceptible.
“So far that appears to be everyone with hands, a mouth and a nose,” quips a local health official.
Nine years after its release, “Contagion” has become the movie du jour as the world grapples with a very real disease: COVID-19, which has infected more than 100,000 people in dozens of countries.
In late January, the 2011 thriller, which also stars Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, rocketed into iTunes’ top 10 movie rentals chart and became among the most popular films on Amazon Prime and Google Play. Though other pandemic movies, including “Outbreak” and “12 Monkeys,” have also enjoyed renewed favor in recent months, none seems to resonate with viewers as much as “Contagion.”
That’s likely because the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, conducted months of in-depth research into the science of pandemics. He then recruited several well-established epidemiologists to develop a realistic plot, edit the script and train the actors who would portray health officials, doctors and scientists.
“When I started talking to experts, they all said, ‘It’s not a matter of if there will be another pandemic, it’s a matter of when,’” Burns said. “There’s nothing uncanny to me about doing research.”
Amid a growing public health crisis, the movie’s near-documentary precision has also become a source of alarm for some.
Some fans believe the film’s fictional destruction and high death toll are signs of what it is to come and suggest that officials are hiding information from the public. In the vacuum created by how little is known about this new virus, fear and misinformation have flourished.
The movie, prescient as it is, predicted that, too.
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.
The 9-year-old movie has become one of the most popular rentals for video streaming services in 2020.
“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.”
Which brings us to 2020, when there is seemingly little distance between “Contagion” and real life. Paltrow, who (spoiler alert) gets killed off in the first 10 minutes of the film, recently posted an Instagram selfie from an airplane wearing a mask.
“I’ve already been in this movie,” she wrote. “Stay safe. Don’t shake hands. Wash hands frequently.”
Paltrow isn’t the only one drawing these comparisons. Many have taken to Twitter to tell people to watch “Contagion” to figure out what is really going on with COVID-19. A commenter wrote on the YouTube page where you can rent the movie for $3.99: “This movie should be FREE due to Coronavirus! We must prepare!”
Stephen Tegethoff, 28, said that watching “Contagion” recently with friends made him suspect the virus is going to spread across the globe faster than officials have said.
“Honestly, it did make me a little paranoid,” said Tegethoff, who lives in Pittsburgh.
Burns anticipated that a pandemic would trigger fear and distrust in government. In addition to the scientist characters, the movie features a freelance journalist played by Jude Law who questions the CDC’s motives, hawks a fake cure for the virus and gains fans as people grasp for answers after their loved ones’ deaths.
The movie’s portrayal of panic and scapegoating is what Burns sees as most analogous to what is happening today, he said.
“I had someone write to me on Instagram and accuse me of being part of the Illuminati, and that I always knew this was coming,” Burns said.
For the most part, he said, he is gratified that people might glean public health lessons from the movie. But his research into the destructive social effects of pandemics makes him worry about widespread fear, which led to dips in the stock market, countries blaming each other, as well as people hoarding masks and other supplies, he said.
“What I do hope the movie illustrated is how misinformation and fear cause people to behave in ways that frequently are going to make the problem worse, or cause new problems,” Burns said.
Burns said that making the film showed him how connected people are by public health. For example, it is the responsibility of those with strong immune systems to not spread diseases to their neighbors, who may be more fragile, he said.
In this way, he hopes a pandemic would bring people together as they realize they need each other to survive an outbreak, he said. But he knows that is unlikely.
He made a movie about it. On the original “Contagion” poster, in red and all-caps above the title, is the film’s tagline: “Nothing spreads like fear.”
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