Entertainment behind the scenes
By Peter Christian Hall
The opinions expressed are his own.
The most riveting player in Contagion, the star-laden thriller about a global pandemic, is a virus — the so-called MEV-1 paramyxovirus that an American businesswoman spreads from Hong Kong to Minneapolis in the movie’s opening sequence. The bug that emerged from years of brainstorming by top scientific and creative minds has itself become an overnight superstar.
Contagion’s proprietary serial killer — the offspring of related viral strains from a bat and a pig — started out its scripted life as a souped-up avian influenza. “Flu seemed the worst-case pandemic to talk about,” says Laurie Garrett, an emerging-disease expert and bestselling author (The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust) who in 2008 began working closely with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns on at least 30 script drafts.
“A tremendous amount of work went into coming up with a very detailed scenario about how all the elements around the world would respond if we had a truly virulent 1918-type flu.” The Great Pandemic that accompanied World War I infected more than half a billion people and killed well over 50 million, most of them aged 16 to 40.
When nature surprised Garrett and Burns with the 2009 swine flu pandemic, they quickly realized Novel H1N1 wasn’t going to be virulent enough to hold the public’s interest in “a flu movie.”