A Conversation With Scott Z. Burns on CONTAGION, Adapting 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and Future Directorial Projects

     September 2, 2011


Scott Burns doesn’t rewrite. I found out this interesting tidbit a year or so ago when Burns, at a lecture for The University of Texas, revealed there was only one draft on The Informant! This was surprising not only because of how rich a script The Informant! is, but in that it seemingly disregards centuries of screenwriting scripture yore.

Burns’ latest the multiple interweaving narrative epidemic horror flick Contagion, I thought, must surely prove to be the exception to this rule. There’s just no way that Burns could have successfully dealt with all these “Short Cuts”-like stories (Cotillard’s detective, Fishburne’s morally compromised CDC official, Damon’s overprotective father, Law’s scumbag journalist a.k.a. blogger, Winslet’s do-good crusader) all in one draft. But Burns is not your typical screenwriter. When pressed on how many drafts of Contagion there were – he replied matter-of-factly “just really one”, and maintained that he still doesn’t go through the rewriting process. This just couldn’t be. And in the interview that followed, I attempted to delve into Burns’ anti-conventional approach to the art and the thematics at the heart of Contagion. He also spoke about his adaptation process and how it pertains to the upcoming Fincher directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Hit the jump for the whole conversation.

scott-z-burns-image‘Just one draft?’ I inquire ‘Well then – how closely does the script resemble what’s on the screen?’

Burns answers most of what’s on screen was in the shooting draft, but that the script “evolved” during the shoot. Pressed for an example, Burns makes note of the scene where Matt Damon discovers his wife has died. For the scene, Soderbergh and Burns consulted with doctors and asked what type of reactions people usually express upon hearing such news. Grief, obviously, was the most common, but there was a second rarer reaction – where people didn’t even comprehend the news they had just received and would demand to speak with their significant other. And so the scene (a highlight of the trailer) where Damon asks to talk with his wife despite the doctor just telling him she’s dead was born. These types of changes, Burns states, are common when shooting with Soderbergh – the script adapting to it surroundings, malleable to the moment, but the basic structure and arc of each story within the film always being in place.

‘When structuring Contagion, what was the balance between looking at the script as a whole with one first act break, catalyst, second act break, midpoint, etc… vs. doing the same for each individual storyline/segment?’

Burns smiles at me, laughs to himself and in almost a whisper ‘I don’t really do the whole first act break, second act break thing’.

‘Well then how did you structure the film? What was the first storyline you thought of?’

He points to the Cotillard/detective storyline as being the thorough line for the script. And then in talking with Soderbergh coming up with different people who would be interesting to explore in the epidemic atmosphere. Outlining these various character’s storylines – what would this character do? How would character A respond to the situation versus character B?  And then once having this basic framework: what happens when the characters interact? What happens when you put Winslet in a room with Damon? What is the outcome? And from this comes the building blocks of the script.

Satisfied, I turn to a far more pressing question – Jude Law’s snaggletooth in the film. How do you know Jude Law’s blogger character is up to no good and completely untrustworthy? The hint lies in every time he smiles and/or opens his mouth. A bit on the nose – but amusing, nevertheless. Burns replies the decision was Soderbergh’s and not in the script. But I’m more interested in what this character says of Burns. I know that before becoming a screenwriter Burns was a successful ad-man – responsible for the famous ‘Got Milk’ campaign. I also know that in the past he has expressed reservations about his previous occupation.

‘Contagion’ I ask ‘does have a particular distrust towards the media – if the movie has a villain besides the virus (of course) it’s Jude Law’s blogger character; but even more so it’s the thought of ‘selling’ a product* for less than altruistic purposes that the film seems to be criticizing. Is that element reflective of your previous work in advertisement?’

* Jude Law’s storyline focuses on the sensationalistic blogger selling a homeopathic cure for the disease that may or may not actually work. But who really cares when you have stock in the ‘cure’, right?

Burns replies that it was not so much his background in advertisement but “current events that inspired the Law storyline.” He points to the horrific internet video of a young Iranian girl shot in the head during a protest as the inspiration for a similar moment in the film, wherein Law peddles a YouTube video of a Contagion-sickly Japanese man foaming from the mouth and convulsing on a bus. The inherent questions of “should I be watching this, what’s going on, is this even real?” – becoming the focus for the Law storyline. Internet reaction to the H1N1 virus also factored in– what with all the so-called homeopathic cures being offered for a price. The recent lawsuits against such “cures” and the FDA’S public denouncement (See here or here) served as the backdrop for Law’s “snake oil salesman”.

‘Thematically much of your work deals with characters who know that they are doomed. In Contagion, (REDACTED – as to not spoil the film for the so-inclined reader) discovers he/she has been infected and doesn’t have much time left. In PU-239, Paddy Considine knows he’s going to die in a couple days. Even in The Informant!, by the third act, Mark Whitacre knows the jigs up and he’s going to prison. What is it about the foreknowledge of one’s own impending mortality that interests you?’


Burns responds – it isn’t so much the impending mortality that he finds of interest, but how one reacts to this information. “It just naturally makes the character more interesting… there’s something inherently freeing about knowing.” And then he reveals something I had never even thought about when asking the question – that each of these characters responds to their inevitable demise not through despair or anger but through heroics. Each of them– Considine, (REDACTED) – react to the inevitable by using their last moments for good. Knowing their end date, “enables them to be bold”, Burns states. Considine refusing to sell the plutonium, (REDACTED) offering a coat to a sickly man in his/her final moments – both large and small gestures revealing the innate goodness of the characters.

“Is there a desire to direct any more of your scripts, as you did on PU-239?”

“Yes – definitely. I have a script for a film I’m hoping to direct.”

“What type of genre?”

“Psychological thriller.”

“Based on any pre-existing material or an original idea.”


“Most of your work thus far has been adaptations – The Informant!, PU-239, the upcoming 20000 Leagues Under the Sea – vs. Contagion, to which there is no pre-existing material. What differences do you find between the two?”

Burns offers that the only difference between the two is that when adapting material, you already have the original building block for the script in place whereas for an original script, you have to create that first seed yourself. On the adaptation process in general, he states fidelity to the source material is the furthest thing on his mind. “When adapting, I’m more inspired by the material than interested in creating a filmed version of the book.” As an example, Burns refers to 20000 Leagues – saying that his version doesn’t have any sequences from the novel but that the general “spirit of Verne remains in tact.” He likens it to his work on The Informant!, the added voiceovers of the film bearing no relation to the novel on which it’s based.

And with that my time with Scott Z. Burns ended. Burns has a number of shorts (he either wrote or directed) that I’ve included below. The first is called What We Take From Each Other, and the second is titled Don’t I Know You. Both are well worth your time, especially for the relationship-challenged amongst you. Contagion, also well worth catching, opens September 9th.


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