Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Contagion and the triumph of the screenwriter

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If you want to understand how hard it can be for original ideas to thrive in Hollywood, just find a list of any recent year’s highest grossing films, and count how many movies are based on original screenplays. From this past year, the only movie in the top ten not based on an existing franchise or property is Bridesmaids, while a year earlier we had Inception and Despicable Me. And while a sequel, adaptation, or reboot can sometimes be a great movie—as Toy Story 3 proved last year and Kung Fu Panda 2 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes did more recently—we’re still left with a system that seems increasingly unwilling to take risks on a property that isn’t based on a toy or video game.

Which brings us to Contagion. Steven Soderbergh’s paranoid epic, which opened strongly at the top of last weekend’s box office, is newsworthy for any number of reasons: it’s a thriller for adults, involving and expertly crafted, that manages to be smart, scary, and exceptionally restrained. Most remarkable of all is the fact that it was based on a truly fine original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, whose most notable credits until now have been The Informant! and The Bourne Ultimatum. Burns clearly benefited from initially pitching the story to Soderbergh, who protected the movie from studio interference and executed it with his usual level of skill. But it remains Burns’s story, a major original screenplay from a lone writer who isn’t a famous director or movie star, and as such, it deserves to be celebrated.

Reading about the writing process for Contagion can feel like a dispatch from another level of Hollywood reality, in which films are allowed to grow organically from an idea, rather than being forced to incorporate as many commercial elements as possible. In an excellent interview with CinemaBlend, Burns talks about how he began by researching his subject deeply, reading books on epidemiology and talking with experts in the field, then developed characters and storylines inspired by his discoveries. This is pretty much what a novelist does all the time, but something that screenwriters are rarely allowed, since they’re either working from a prepackaged premise or replaced long before they have a chance to put their own stamp on the project. And the fact that Burns was able to see it through counts as something of a miracle.

Of course, any movie is really about collaboration, so it can be hard to assign credit to one artist or another. In a valuable essay in the Wall Street Journal, Burns makes this point himself, taking pains to acknowledge the contributions of the director and actors—although editor Stephen Mirrione also deserves high praise. Burns writes:

The first draft of a screenplay is printed on white pages. Each time a page is revised, it’s given another color so that the cast and crew can track the changes. And so it goes from white to blue to pink to yellow to green to gold to salmon, cherry and tan. Then back to white again. The script for Contagion was a rainbow by the time we finished. The white pages gave way to what we learned along the way from scouting and research and actors—and finally from director Steven Soderbergh, as he assembled the “dailies” every night and contemplated the next day.

Elsewhere, Burns notes that thirty to forty minutes of material was cut, with Soderbergh and Mirrone streamlining the movie considerably in the editing room, and that new material was frequently written on the set. In the end, though, it was Burns who took the first pass, and the result should give hope to screenwriters everywhere. It can be a rough way of life, but Burns beautifully sums up its purpose: “It’s easier to collaborate once you’ve got something down on paper and it’s my job to go first. That’s what I do.”

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2011 at 9:27 am

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