Steven Soderbergh is no doubt very proud of his work on “Contagion,” his biggest non-“Ocean’s Eleven” movie hit since 2000’s “Traffic,” but the Academy Award winning director likely isn’t trying to play the Oscar game this season. Well, at least not for himself.
On Friday evening, Soderbergh and buddies Jerry Weintraub, Gary Ross and Benecio del Toro hosted a reception and special screening to remind the press about “Contagion” in the context of awards season. It’s unlikely anyone at Warner Bros. seriously believes “Contagion” could land a best picture nomination, but one of the primary focuses of the evening was to focus attention on the screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. A previous collaborator with Soderbergh on the underrated “The Informant,” Burns’ script for “Contagion” is easily a contender in the always wide open original screenplay category.
Introduced to Burns for the first time, he seemed thrilled with the night’s event and more than satisfied with “Contagion’s” critical reception. We discussed the fact “Contagion” had a strange release date (effectively the Friday after Labor Day, usually a dump date), but the strategy had worked in the film’s favor and it played throughout the fall to a $74 million U.S. gross (strangely the star-studded ensemble didn’t play as well overseas). And we had some interesting words on just whether or not the film was a thriller (as the advertising sold it) or a drama (as most who saw it in theaters would classify it). Honestly side-stepping the issue, Burns told me with complete sincerity he didn’t go to film school so he didn’t put labels on his films. And, hey, it’s a great way to leave yourself open creatively from the limitations of a particular genre (my words, not his).
Whether Burns lands in the Oscar hunt remains to be seen (we’re a little skeptical considering a good chunk of Marion Cotillard’s storyline got cut out of the final picture), but he did tell me he’s hoping Soderbergh isn’t retiring so they can work together again. He’s also excited about his finished screenplay for Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” which will be directed by David Fincher. Burns isn’t sure when the film will start exactly because of a non-movie project Fincher is committed to early next year, but surprised by revealing he’d had little interference from Disney execs over his adaptation of the classic Jules Verne tale. Burns also revealed his version, while period, isn’t based on Disney’s 1954 film. Pressing him on Disney’s involvement so far, he did admit there was a cute kid in the current script, but it was completely his own idea and the character’s fate and/or arc is not what you’d expect. And, he promises the film will be much darker than what you’d expect for a Disney film (with Fincher we’d actually expect no less).
In the meantime, Burns will see where this awards season run ends up for “Contagion.” He may not find himself in the nominee circle this time around, but based on his work so far he’ll get their very soon.
“Contagion” debuts on DVD and Blu-ray on Jan. 12.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.