November 27, 2011

contagion-2011

To: Steven Soderbergh

From: Steve Gorelick

Re: Your Film Contagion

Date: November 27, 2011

I am about to watch Contagion.

For many years, any film having to do with large-scale epidemics or catastrophes would have automatically attracted my interest. And knowing that you are the director of Contagion would normally have had me in the theater weeks ago. Ever since Sex, Lies, and Videotape, I’ve come to admire your raw and honest take on the character flaws that are at the very core of the human condition.

But you’ve also made some wonderfully frenetic, high-energy blockbusters, and I hope you won’t be insulted when I tell you that I am least a little jittery at the thought of seeing a film about a global pandemic done by the creator of Ocean’s 11. I love a good caper film, and I really loved yours. But I have a special interest in the stories and narratives of large-scale epidemics and other catastrophes, and I’m just a little on edge at the thought of what you might do with the very real threat of a pandemic. But you were the guy who made one of my favorites — Erin Brockovich — so you’ve more than earned my attention. I’m going to watch.

Actually, I’ve heard that Contagion manages to avoid some of the stereotypes about medicine and infectious diseases that are rampant in today’s popular culture. But, to tell you the truth, I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it without some concern. So, if you’ll indulge me some silliness, I thought I would share my concerns with the full knowledge that your film was finished quite a while ago and that you probably will not even see this memo.

  • I know that as the director of a high-budget feature film, your ability to entertain and attract an audience has to be your major concern. And believe me, I like to be entertained as much as anyone. Do you think, though, that you might make a special effort to draw the required heroes and villains with at least a little of the nuance and subtlety that is the raw material of real, deliciously complex, human beings? I respect your dramatic conventions, and know that you are not making a documentary film, but at least consider for a moment the fact that complex and nuanced characters — in the hands of someone like you who understands the art of cinema — can also be entertaining. Don’t be afraid to make heroes who are occasionally confused, contradictory, and — at times — absolutely lost as they face a life-threatening crisis. And why not be gutsy enough to avoid cartoonish villains and show that horrible, even lethal mistakes can sometimes be the result of a tragic miscalculations rather than evil or venality.
  • And the science. I really do understand that some dramatic telescoping is mandatory when you are depicting an enterprise as gallingly unpredictable and nonlinear as scientific research. I wouldn’t expect you to make a film that, however dramatic, ended inconclusively. Believe me, if I was one of your producers, you wouldn’t get a penny from me for a film called Null Hypothesis. But that doesn’t mean you can’t at least try to build some of science’s mysteries, mistakes and inevitable dead ends into the drama.
  • I can’t believe I almost forgot about special effects. You have made films about human nature revealing subtleties and complications that many people might not have even seen. So I know you are all too aware that no razzmatazz, regardless of how technically impressive, substitutes for finely crafted narrative. I’m not worried that you’ll be blowing up a “Death Star” in Contagion. But when I think about some of the riveting effects that could legitimately be a part of a film dealing with a global pandemic, and when I further think about the skill you have shown in creating such effects, it reminds me to leave you with a simple question that I hope you might ask when somebody from digital effects or pyrotechnics stops by the trailer with the latest gizmo: Will this gizmo, and the effect it will create, advance the careful narrative you are creating? Will it be, in essence, a crucial character whose presence fits seamlessly into an overall story structure? Or will it find its way into our film because some skittish financial backer was afraid that a film without fireworks and explosions and flesh eating bacteria might not get a great word-of-mouth from younger members of the audience? We both know that fair amount nuttiness gets into high-budget films precisely because of those skittish backers. Hold your ground.

I really appreciate your listening. So here I go. I’m ready to watch. Your overall artistic and conceptual supervision comforts me, but too many films about science and medicine have — in their telescoping and telegraphing and oversimplifying and stereotyping designed to be entertaining — ended up making clunkers.

My guess is that you’ll pull it off. I mean, that you pulled it off.