Kate Winslet as an epidemiologist in "Contagion." (Warner Bros. photo)

Kate Winslet as an epidemiologist in "Contagion." (Warner Bros. photo)

By Harlan Jacobson
Special to the Star Tribune

PARK CITY, UTAH — Film festivals love panels. It’s the abiding insecurity of the film world that somehow it’s a shallow platform unjustly compensating a collection of ridiculous narcissists. And so when it comes to a festival like Sundance, which is the epicenter of independent films that pride themselves on not having to dumb themselves down like those super-hero loving franchise mastodons from Hollywood, it’s only fitting to have panels that bring together filmmakers and rocket scientists.

Well, not rocket scientists precisely, but how about a neuroscientist, a theoretical particle physicist, and a rocket scientist’s kid?

That last would be Scott Z. Burns, screenwriter of "Contagion" and producer of "The Inconvenient Truth," who held his end up on a panel here, mounted by the festival for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in its 10th year of sponsoring a prize at Sundance for scientific based filmmaking, to explore the ways science and filmmaking fit together.

Scott Z. Burns

Scott Z. Burns

Up on stage at the Egyptian Theatre, one of those olde-tyme restorations that feature 290 beautiful but back-breaking wood lecture hall seats and a design motif suggesting King Tut used to hang here watching silent movies, Burns joined a panel moderated by Paula Apsell, senior producer of PBS’ "Nova" series, and including star scientists Dr. Lisa Randall, Harvard physics professor and author of "Knocking on Heaven’s Door" (Echo Press), Dr. Andre Fenton, a New York University professor of neural science, and filmmaker Jon Amiel, whose last film, "Creation," put a human face on Charles Darwin.

This is good for Burns, who is a proud dropout of Golden Valley High School in his junior year, whose best memory of life in the Minnesota of his youth was batting 4 for 4 in a Little League championship game that he saved with a diving over-the shoulder-catch in shallow right. He is technically a rocket scientist’s kid. His father, Neal, a Honeywell research psychologist, worked on various Defense Department contracts, including how people perform in sensory deprived environments, and had a hand in designing the lunar lander. His mom was a psychologist.

For Burns, who went on to earn a B.A. in English in 1985 from the University of Minnesota, his parents “taught me their respect for scientific discipline and the empirical method,” he said in the Egyptian’s upstairs green room, waiting for the panel to begin. Just when you think your kids never listen to you, Burns turned all those object lessons over the orange juice into the point of his screenplay of "Contagion" (2011), in which director Steven Soderbergh captured the nearly three-decades-old fear of infection. Burns also laced in the scientific trappings of "The Informant" (2009), "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007) and the all out assault on the body politic that was former Vice President Al Gore’s "The Inconvenient Truth," which rocked Sundance and later the country in 2006. That was Burns' last visit to Sundance.

“Science has as many great stories as anywhere else. As a writer I look for stories that have stakes, characters and consequences,” Burns said, likening his process to the scientist’s asking “What if …?” Which was how he got to writing the script for "Contagion": “My father is a hypochondriac and kept asking: What if one of those viruses jump into humans any day now?”

Burns didn’t know which film clip the Sundance organizers had selected to show his work, but rolled with it when the house lights went dark and up onscreen came the scene with Kate Winslet as a CDC doctor explaining to actors whose job it was to look slack jawed at the R-naught factor, the multiplier effect specific to known diseases passed on by door handles and elevator buttons, after people unconsciously touch their faces at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 times per day. “It’s the key scene, because it sets up the stakes,” Burns said.

To map out those stakes onscreen, for three years Dr. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, guided Burns. “Here he was curing diseases, and I come in, and he thought I was a [bleep]ing idiot.” Burns related what he’d learned from the process on how science and filmmaking might better fit together. For starters, wearing a suit to the lab can’t hurt.

“And buying dinner and a nice wine helps,” Burns said, with a roll of his hands. “Scientists’ egos are commensurate in size to our own.” The Bordeaux and boeuf must have done the trick. “After that when I’d show him pages [of the script], he’d say, ‘Oooh, you can push it a little further.’” That got a big laugh from the movie hipsters at the Egyptian, as Burns then extrapolated the guiding principle of screenwriting: “A lot of it is learning enough about their world to ask the right questions.” Lipkin subsequently established a fellowship at Mailman named for Soderbergh and Burns.

For his part, Jon Amiel, sketched out the terrain of filmmaker dos and don’ts. Don’t put glasses on actors with six-pack abs to show they’ve won the Nobel Prize, Amiel complained. “There’s something in the eyes, the shape of the mouth saying the words that tells you they’re not originating the ideas,” he deadpanned. He was reluctant to accept the offer to do a film about Darwin, whom he described as “a Mt. Rushmore figure,” until he perceived something beyond what he called “the inherent drama of science, of atoms colliding, and … started connecting to the man.”

Rolling a clip from "Creation" about the cycle of life, Amiel drew the link between the death of Darwin’s 10 year-old daughter by flu, Darwin’s fevered work after that and putting together the puzzle of evolution. In one of those life-imitating-art moments, Amiel was a last-minute replacement for the flu-sidelined Darren Aronofsky, whose career was launched at Sundance in 1998 with "Pi," a thriller linking Torah, numbers theory and corporate global ambitions.

Burns is awaiting the release next month of his new collaboration with Soderbergh, "Side Effects," originally titled "Bitter Pill." Big Pharma probably isn’t going to like it, as Mamie Gummer, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum all bounce off the walls of our over-medicated culture.

“I wanted to write a modern, psychological noir thriller,” said Burns, who followed a forensic scientist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and worked on the script for seven years.

“If you look at the way depression is diagnosed now,“ he said in the green room, ”we’re in the midst of an epidemic. People have prescription drugs stuffed in their medicine cabinets, their purses. Sure they help a lot of people. But there are bound to be people,” he continued in the added responsibility of marketeer to artist, “who encounter difficulties with… side effects.”

“The film takes a pretty controversial stand, so it’ll be interesting to see how the scientific community responds."

Harlan Jacobson runs Talk Cinema, which screens sneak previews of films for audience discussion. His next local event is at 10 a.m. Feb. 2 at the Edina Theater.


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