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- Monday, Jul. 13, 2020
"Contagion" writer Scott Z Burns “virtually” visits film students on lockdown
Last week Scott Z. Burns, writer of the movie Contagion (2011), which in some ways foreshadowed the current coronavirus crisis, virtually visited during this time of lockdown MetFilm School students for an exclusive masterclass (MetFilm School has campuses in London and Berlin.) He discussed Contagion, his career journey and finding his passion.
Burns has worn different industry hats with great aplomb. He was a producer on the Oscar-winning feature documentary An Inconvenient Truth and then its sequel. His writing credits range from The Mercy (with MetFilm Production) to director Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum to Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects and the Netflix release Laundromat. Burns also served as a producer on Side Effects and Laundromat.
He further extended his filmography and storytelling reach with The Report (Amazon) which he not only wrote and produced but also directed. Released in November 2019, The Report is the second feature directed by Burns, the first being Pu-239, a 2006 release. He has also ventured out directorially into television with episodic credits on Californication (Showtime) and this season’s The Loudest Voice (Showtime), the miniseries which starred Russell Crowe as Fox News founder Roger Ailes.
Earlier in his career, Burns was an advertising agency creative and then a commercials director. He was part of the creative team at Goodby Silverstein & Partners that brought us the iconic California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board’s “Got Milk?” campaign.
Here’s a taste of what he recently shared with MetFilm School students....
“Ahead of filming Contagion, I did a huge amount of research as any screenwriter would do when taking on a subject like this,” related Burns. “Along the way I was fortunate enough to meet some incredible and prominent epidemiologists and virologists. I made a deal with them that I would not cut any corners on the science when filming this. There is a scene that didn’t make it into the movie where Matt Damon is approached by an unknown wealthy person who wants to buy his plasma to make an antibody cocktail, we cut it out as it opens up a lot of questions; it’s interesting as plasma based therapy is mentioned throughout reports regarding COVID-19.
“Steven Soderbergh and I had just finished shooting a film called The Informant! where I revealed the idea, I had for my next project (Contagion), a science-based film around a global pandemic, and within a couple of sentences of explaining the plot, Steven was in! Jeff Skoll, a philanthropist had a major interest in global pandemics, and it was through Jeff that I met the best scientists in the world, whom I am still in touch with today. It took around three years to make.”
“The stories that I tell, choose me as much as I choose them. Nothing is easy, which is important to remember when picking projects. I have friends who come up with something very formulaic and they get made quickly; most of the work I have chosen to work on tends to have a gestation period that are many years long. The only way I get through that is passion. If I am not passionate about it, I will never make it through the five years of disappointment, searching for finance, etc. In some ways Contagion was the easiest thing to get made.”
“I graduated from university in America, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t want to stay in academia and become a professor. I began working in advertising which was a safety net at the time. For me, it almost became my film school because when I started writing television commercials there were a lot of people in the film industry who in between projects would go work on television commercials as they paid well. I met incredibly talented filmmakers, especially cinematographers. I then progressed onto directing.”
Burns is one of many virtual visitors to MetFilm school this summer. Other visitors have included, Normal People’s Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, Jonathan Pryce, (The Two Popes, Game of Thrones, The Wife, Tomorrow Never Dies, Evita), writer Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Gentleman Jack), cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049 and 1917), Colin Trevorrow who re-launched the Jurassic Park franchise, Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham and Beecham House), and many more--with more to come!