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First Person: Going Viral Before Contagion

Bryce and Jackie Zabel

While everyone in the Internet world wants to go viral, back in the real world not everyone is so big on the concept. And for good reason.

Remember how lousy you felt the last time you had the flu? Now imagine that instead of getting better, well, that was it. The End.

The medical experts at the Centers for Disease Control think about such things all the time and, for over a year recently, we also obsessed about how a flu epidemic would change the world.

We came to the conclusion that it would be a pretty rough ride. And we got to have our say in a multi-million dollar four-hour television miniseries.

Now, from what we can see of the new feature film Contagion, we feel like we were ahead of our time.

Although the final produced version of our project — Hallmark’s Pandemic — can’t compared to the brilliant production elements (fueled by studio cash and budget) that Steven Soderbergh brings to his version (written by Scott Z. Burns), our take Pandemic (written by Bryce Zabel & Jackie Zabel) won the Writers Guild of America award for “Outstanding Longform Original” in 2008. This means that multiple writers read our script that year and decided that, in our category, ours was the best of the bunch. We were pretty jazzed, truth be told.

Remember all the fear and loathing over the possible spread of the Bird Flu? Our pitch that got us the script commitment to write Pandemic was based on trying to go beyond that evening news focus into something potentially scarier. We wondered what would happen if authorities were so busy getting ready to fight the Bird Flu that another strain took them by surprise and before they could get a handle on it, it was running the table from one country to another, worldwide.

The Pandemic Storyline

Pandemic began with a surfer dying on a plane bound from Australia to Los Angeles. Upon landing, everyone on the plane is quarantined in a Los Angeles hospital, not ready to deal with the emergency.This surfer becomes the first fatality and is known as “Patient Zero.” We called him Ames Smith, using the name of one of our son’s friends, thinking it would probably be changed during legal clearances. But it cleared. So to the real Ames, we can only wish you a long life and happiness, and imagine how weird it must have been to watch a movie made where you’re a character who becomes a flu fatality who starts a worldwide panic. Well, everybody wants to feel important, right?

The main character in the piece is Dr. Kayla Martin (Tiffany Amber-Thiessen) with the CDC. Don’t laugh because of her 90210 credits; she’s very good in this. Another great performance comes from Bob Gunton, who plays Dr. Max Sorkosky, the top dog at the CDC out of Atlanta whom we modeled after Donald Rumsfeld. The character is pedantic, corrects the media, scolds his doctors and, for all his efforts, ends up kidnapped and having a coersive measure applied to him that, well, it’s something that would make Jack Bauer proud.

Because it was a four-hour piece with a large ensemble cast, there were lots of subplots. They involved shut-ins, National Guard soldiers, political advisors, realtors, you name it.

The big story, however, is that the quarantined passengers break out and spread the disease which eventually causes California’s governor (played by Faye Dunaway) to call out the National Guard to lock down Los Angeles.

In the meantime, as flu medicine gets hoarded, a criminal used to selling hard street drugs, starts selling Tamiflu and things get complicated.

You want to know more, the script is available to read, and you can rent Pandemic from Netflix or buy it from Amazon.

The Production of Pandemic

Pandemic was shot entirely here in Los Angeles and has big production values — from shooting at the Tom Bradley International terminal with lots of extras to scenes in Beverly Hills. Plus, there are car chases and shootouts that are first rate. We were also impressed with how multi-cultural the cast feels — it is as diverse as Los Angeles is in reality.

Pandemic – Official Trailer


What We Learned

During the research and writing phase of this project, we certainly learned enough to scare the hell out of ourselves. People compare the possibility of a pandemic today to the one that hit the world so hard back in 1918. This one will be different though. Viruses traveled much more slowly back then. These days, as we show in our film, they can hop, skip and jump an entire continent in a jet full of new carriers. On the other hand, the knowledge and understanding we have of disease is greater than ever. Will the two balance themselves out? Who knows?

One other teaching moment for us was how life imitates art. In the script, we have the CDC pull people off the plane and segregate them in the hospital based on how close they were sitting to Patient Zero. We just made that part up; it seemed logical. But when the CDC read the script, they told us it was a great idea and they would consider putting it into use during a similar emergency in the future. Go figure!

Another thing that hit us is that once the bodies start piling up, they will overwhelm the morgues.  In our research, we ran across the thought of using ice skating rinks to keep the bodies cool. So we made a little girl training for the Olympics in ice skating a key character, and made the ice skating rink a main set.

Our film certainly follows the spread of the disease, and the medical attempts to contain it. What we found most interesting, however, was adding in the fact that people being imperfect humans are going to screw things up — constantly — even when it’s ultimately not in their best interests. So we have people breaking out of the hospital, blockade-runners, carriers who cough and sneeze their way across LA, others who steal anti-viral drugs, etc. Obviously, the film is meant to be dramatic and not a documentary. If you want to become an expert on disease control, this is probably not the best way to get that expertise. But we did receive some great technical advice from the CDC’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and from Los Angeles superstar internal medicine expert Dr. Jeffrey Galpin. They really did help us keep it authentic and even gave us some reason to believe that hope could beat fear when things get tough.

How We Live Now

Here’s all we can say. Our family has purchased a box of high quality surgical masks and stashed a good supply of Sparkletts water and jars of peanut butter. If the real pandemic comes, you need to be able to keep a low-profile for three weeks at least, and maybe more. There won’t be any public gatherings: no school, no movies, no concerts or awards shows. It will be time to stay home and wait it out. There is only one thing you can take heart in:

There will always be TV to watch.

You Decide: Is Contagion the Same Movie as Pandemic?


Contagion -vs- Outbreak “Microbes from Hell”


About Bryce Zabel 196 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, creator of five produced primetime network TV series, and fast-food frycook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of "Movie Smackdown." While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. That, plus the fact that he has a new StudioCanal produced feature film, “The Last Battle,” shooting this summer in Europe about the end of World War II. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and a past enthusiast of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. His new what-if book series, “Breakpoint,” just won the prestigious Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and has so far tackled JFK not being assassinated and The Beatles staying together.
Contact: Website

1 Comment on First Person: Going Viral Before Contagion

  1. I’ve got a healthy supply of DVD’s and BluRays to keep me occupied while I’m waiting the three or four weeks for things to blow over. Might have to invest in a shotgun security system though, in case somebody wants to come over and watch as well. 😉

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