One of the producers of ‘Contagion’ says preparation for the coronavirus would have gone better if the ‘government embraced science’

Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘Contagion.’ Warner Bros.
  • “Contagion” producer Michael Shamberg talked to Insider about the movie’s sudden popularity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The 2011 thriller, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, looks at a virus that originates in China and spreads across the globe causing millions of deaths.
  • Shamberg said all the credit goes to Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, and the movie’s consultants who were dedicated to making a horror movie that was extremely realistic.
  • The producer believes that the fight against the coronavirus would have gone better if the Trump administration “embraced science.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In his 48-year career, Michael Shamberg has been nominated for the best picture Oscar twice and has produced classics such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Erin Brockovich.” But recently, his calling card has been that he was a producer on Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.”

The 2011 movie was about a virus that crippled the world and resulted in millions of deaths. It starred Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Laurence Fishburne, and used terms like “social distancing” while painting a realistic picture of a pandemic (thanks to the research of the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns).

Since the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, “Contagion” has received a second life as it has become one of the most popular titles to watch online. It’s currently in the top 10 on iTunes and was the top rental/purchase of non-new releases on FandangoNow this past week.

Insider spoke to Shamberg about why “Contagion” has suddenly become a must-see during this unprecedented time, why the failure to look at science has hurt the response in fighting the coronavirus, and how Hollywood can recover from this shutdown.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Shamberg says he washes his hands a lot more since making ‘Contagion’ nine years ago

Jason Guerrasio: When the coronavirus started to spread, did you instantly think about the movie? When did art become reality for you?

Michael Shamberg: Pretty much from the beginning. You have to give credit to Scott Burns, who came up with “Contagion” based partly on the TedTalk that Dr. Larry Brilliant did about pandemics. Brilliant then introduced us to other experts, including Ian Lipkin, who was our onset advisor. And then there was Laurie Garrett, who is a pandemic specialist. So I think Scott was the one who came to Steven and jointly they came up with the idea that this is something cinema can do.

When we, Stacy [Sher] and I, came on it was the third movie we’d done with Steven and [producer] Greg Jacobs. We really immersed ourselves in it. So my imagination hit the ground running when this thing started for real. And I have to say, for years I’ve been washing my hands a lot more than I used to.

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Director Steven Soderbergh on the set of ‘Contagion.’ Warner Bros.

Guerrasio: When they came to you with the idea for the movie, what did you think about it?

Shamberg: First, I will do anything Steven wants to do and Scott’s really smart, so there was never a question about it. But you get to a point in your career when you want to do movies that are, I don’t want to say “about something,” they all are about something, but movies that take chances and this was an interesting movie. It was a hit and it got really good reviews but the CinemaScore, when they poll people coming out of the theatres –

Guerrasio: Yeah.

Shamberg: It got a C+ CinemaScore. So here’s a movie that people didn’t love when they came out of it, but they told people about it and more people kept coming. So I think what I’m proudest of, and in no way do I take credit, is I was part of something that cinema could contribute to.

Guerrasio: When Steven and Scott did press for the movie in 2011 they both touched on how the consultants on the movie basically felt we were due for a pandemic of historic scale. Did you get that same sense spending time with them?

Shamberg: I don’t think anyone thought for a second that this was a Roland Emmerich disaster film or a movie where an asteroid hits the Earth, it was real. That was the power of it. So, yes, it was always in the front of our minds when we were making it, and then in the back of it after we made it. That, yeah, this could happen someday.

Shamberg believes we would likely have been better prepared for the coronavirus if the Trump administration believed the science

Guerrasio: You brought up the washing of the hands as something that stayed with you after making the movie. Anything else stand out now seeing the movie play out in real life?

Shamberg: We didn’t quite deal with the economic consequences. We certainly dealt with what the medical establishment was going to do. We were dealing more with the actual virus and how to combat it and less with the infrastructure overload.

The thing is, Trump had this 69-page report [completed in 2016 by the National Security Council] that essentially was an operating manual on what to do. 69 pages that laid it all out and nobody bothered to read it. This all could have been foretold and planned for if you had people who believe in science. We’re in an era where science is routinely debunked and now we need only science. Had the government embraced science as it had in the past, arguably, we might have been better prepared.

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Anna Jacoby-Heron and Matt Damon in ‘Contagion.’ Warner Bros.

Guerrasio: Despite how spot-on this movie is with a lot of things going on now, I am happy the complete social chaos depicted in the movie has not happened.

Shamberg: I remember shooting one scene, it was the coldest day of the winter and we were in Chicago shooting the scene where Matt Damon’s character is at the grocery store with his daughter. The shelves are bare and this woman lurches towards them. Now we have seen bare shelves but we haven’t seen zombie-like people lurch towards us. I do think something like this brings out the best in people, but also I think it’s a challenge of leadership that makes people feel things are organised.

Shamberg is amazed how popular ‘Contagion’ is right now

Guerrasio: Has it shocked you how popular this movie has become since the coronavirus began to spread?

Shamberg: Shocked is not the right word. It has amazed me. I don’t think in the history of cinema anything has happened like this before, and I can’t give enough credit to Scott Burns, Steven Soderbergh, and our experts. What I’m proud of is it just tells you that there are many uses of cinema beyond comic book movies. Which I also like. But we should not forget that we need cinema both to entertain us, take our minds off of stuff, but also it is the most powerful medium for informing people.

Guerrasio: What was the reaction for this movie when you test screened it?

Shamberg: This movie never tested great. But people understood it. Here’s the thing about test screenings, you can have movies that can test in the 90s out of 100 and they are flops. But what it showed us was this is a challenging movie that is also riveting because we didn’t sugar coat it, and that made it become a success when it was released. I think the accuracy of it is what makes it oddly entertaining.

Guerrasio: Have you talked to Steven recently about the movie and how people have reacted to it during this time?

Shamberg: We are in touch a lot because we’re doing a pilot together. I think he’s just pleased that his vision as a filmmaker is out there, which was wanting to scare people into learning something. And that’s me saying that, not him. He accomplished his mission.

A consultant on ‘Contagion’ got the coronavirus. His health is improving.

Guerrasio: And speaking of Lipkin, he contracted the coronavirus, how is he doing?

Shamberg: I was texting with him. He’s much better. He did say, “You don’t want to get this thing.” But he’s on the mend.

Michael Shamberg Gary Gershoff Getty
‘Contagion’ producer Michael Shamberg. Gary Gershoff/Getty

Guerrasio: You are someone who has had a very successful career in Hollywood. From “The Big Chill,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Erin Brockovich,” classic movies. Is it funny that “Contagion” is going to be the movie you’ll be known for the most for the foreseeable future?

Shamberg: It’s funny, I have thought about that. It definitely has entered the level of titles where you say you have produced it and people instantly know the movie. It has surprised me. Though my best movies are the ones that aim to be commercial, but in a different way. And this fills that.

Guerrasio: How does Hollywood rebound from something like this?

Shamberg: I don’t know. And I don’t know what it’s going to do to theatrical. You are going to have a glut of product when the theatres open again, but theatrical will only rebound when people feel it’s safe to go back. Somebody was talking about starting a company that would clean theatres and certifies that they are virus-free. The big thing is we don’t know when it will be safe again. It will all come back, we as a country will bounce back because it’s a great country with optimistic people. But when that happens, I don’t know.