Viral drama

Viral drama

By Michael Pickard
April 9, 2020


As the television industry – and the world – continues to be gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, DQ speaks to the creatives behind The Hot Zone, Cordon and Between to find out how they dramatised viral outbreaks and how future series could reflect current events.

The past decade has seen no shortage of scripted series tackling real or imagined worlds and societies that have come under threat from plagues, viruses and disease.

The opening episode of The Walking Dead, which debuted in 2010, saw protagonist Rick Grimes awaken from a coma to discover the world had fallen to a zombie apocalypse, with no apparent cure for the plague that had taken hold. Characters in fellow US dramas Helix, 12 Monkeys, The Strain and The Last Ship face similar battles for survival when viruses and pandemics change their worlds forever.

With the real world now in the grips of the coronavirus, how do the writers and producers of series about viral outbreaks feel about the current climate?

“It’s an awkward feeling,” says Carl Joos, creator and writer of Belgian drama Cordon. “I started from scientific articles, but more and more of the things I added when I was thinking ‘what would happen if…’ are now becoming a reality. In some areas of the community, you see the thin varnish of civilisation starting to crack a little bit.”

Carl Joos

Cordon, which ran for two seasons between 2014 and 2016 on VTM, sees everyday life in Antwerp come to a standstill when the city centre is sealed off from the outside world after a contagious and deadly virus spreads rapidly.

The series was inspired by two scientific articles Joos had found and kept for several years, unsure of what to do with them. The first was about a lab in Rotterdam that studied viruses and discovered that one particular avian virus would require just three mutations to be capable of transferring to humans. The second article was about how labs, just like households, would sometimes clear out their freezers, which would often contain samples of deadly diseases. The two ideas were then combined to create a story in which central Antwerp, and the people inside, are cut off from the rest of the world.

“I was thinking, ‘What if this happened in my street?’ and I started thinking of the social ramifications,” the writer continues. “What would it do to that society of people I knew quite well? Who would step up or who would crawl away and hide? Who would show solidarity or be a hero and who would try to profit from it?”

A lot of the foundations for the story came from further scientific research, with support from Antwerp-based Instituut voor Tropische Geneeskunde (Institute of Tropical Medicine, ITG), which even allowed the production to film inside its buildings. But Joos also provided his own answers to hypothetical question such as, ‘Where do they keep dead bodies in a cordoned-off area without a cemetery?’

“I kept on doing research and I kept on going back to the wonderful people at the ITG and also talked to other virologists and nurses who work within the tropical disease field about how they approach their patients and what protection they wear,” he says. “There was a huge discussion about masks, but we opted for visors [for the characters], which protect you from drops, sneezes, coughs, snot, sperm, blood, whatever. And, of course, if you have masked actors, they can only act with their eyes. That wouldn’t be interesting.”

The series, produced by Eyeworks Film, went on to air around the world, most notably on BBC4 in the UK as part of its foreign-language drama strand, while it was also remade in the US as Containment, which aired on The CW.

Belgian drama Cordon was inspired by a pair of scientific articles

Similarly rooted in fact is The Hot Zone (pictured top), a six-part miniseries commissioned by National Geographic that recounts the true story of the origins of the Ebola virus and its arrival in the US.

In 1989, when this highly infectious disease suddenly appeared in chimpanzees in a scientific research lab in the suburbs of Washington DC, there was no known cure. But a heroic US Army scientist, Dr Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies), put her life on the line to head off the outbreak before it spread to the human population.

Based on the book by Richard Preston, The Hot Zone was developed by co-showrunners Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson, who spent countless hours reading, researching and talking with experts before filming the series. It aired in May last year.

“All we did for three years was hear about the next pandemic that’s literally going to go around the globe,” Souders says. “The one fortunate thing about Ebola is it didn’t cross continents too much. There’s been a couple infections here and there, but it’s mostly been contained. But all the experts have been warning for many, many years that something was going to really take off through the entire globe. We are probably watching the news a little bit differently than we would have years ago.”

With only a limited number of episodes, many of the people involved in the real events – each with their own compelling stories – were combined into single characters for the series, while working with Nat Geo ensured the show would always be grounded in reality.

Kelly Souders

“It has been very different for us because we can’t just send Clark [Kent, aka Superman] to the Phantom Zone, and we don’t have a big dome over the city,” Peterson says, noting the longtime writing partners’ previous collaborations on series such as Superman prequel Smallville and Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome. “So where you want to go dramatically as a writer is very different because you have to try to mine what’s there in the actual material, and that’s a different side of your brain to try to use, rather than just thinking the sky’s the limit.”

With scenes filmed in Toronto and South Africa, the pair give huge credit to the cast, which also included Noah Emmerich, Topher Grace and Liam Cunningham, who spent hours inside an array of protective suits, which made movement difficult and meant they struggled to hear each other or the crew around them.

But the biggest challenge was writing a series that an audience would believe in, with so many of the real events seeming stranger than fiction.

“In The Hot Zone, the only thing we took liberty in was trying to figure out how to focus it and contain it,” Souders says of the writing process. “But really crazy stuff happens on the frontlines of these fights against these viruses.

“It’s like what’s going on with the coronavirus today, and certainly what goes on with Ebola. It’s very hard for people to really get the gravity of what’s happening unless it’s happening to their neighbour, to themselves or to somebody in their family. Sadly, it’s only when it happens to somebody in their community that it starts to come home. That’s what’s really terrifying.

“This isn’t a big-city problem or an east coast or west coast problem. This is a global problem. We don’t see inside the hospital; we’re not seeing what’s really happening to people, and that makes it really difficult for people to envision. We didn’t delve into the graphic aspects of it too much because that wasn’t what we wanted to do. But that is one of the things that’s a bit of a stumbling block, because often people really can’t see what they’re battling until it’s too late.”

Souders and Peterson are getting regular emails and messages from people who say they are now catching up with the show, while they are planning a second season about another disease, turning The Hot Zone into an anthology series. Season one was produced by Lynda Obst Productions, Scott Free Productions and Fox 21 Television Studios.

Julianna Margulies as Dr Nancy Jaax inThe Hot Zone

Although the series is packed full of real science and is based on thorough research and expert support, the writing duo believe it serves a different audience compared with a documentary on the same topic.

“We are both documentary fans and think that all these subjects need documentaries on them. It’s important. What we’re trying to do is reach an audience that might not watch a documentary on Ebola, but would be interested in watching a drama based in that arena,” Souders says. “Our hope is we engage viewers but, at the same time, they maybe walk away with better knowledge about how these viruses work, how serious they are and what we need to be doing as a planet to face them.”

Peterson adds: “There’s some nights when you’re like, ‘I really want to learn something,’ and there are others when you’re like, ‘I just want to get thrilled,’ so what we tried to provide people with was a really compelling, gripping psychological thriller. If you’re not in the mood to be ‘educated’ that night, you get a crazy, wild ride but you’re also learning and getting some real facts along the way. That was kind of the niche that we and National Geographic saw this show in.”

Stepping away from reality, Canadian drama Between tells the story of a town under siege from a mysterious virus that has wiped out everybody except those 21 years old and younger, who are stuck in a 10-mile-wide quarantine and left by the government to fend for themselves. Created by Michael McGowan and produced by Don Carmody Television and Mulmur Feed Co in association with Elevation Pictures Corp, it ran for two seasons on CityTV and Netflix.

David Cormican

“What we focused on were the rules of this virus and how it impacts people,” explains exec producer David Cormican. “Mike and I both come from the school of thought that says you get one big buy with your audience, and ours was: could a virus come that would be very discriminatory in terms of who it affects?”

The heightened genre stylings of the series meant there were no virologists or immunologists providing expert advice on set. Instead, the producers just wanted to make sure the show felt believable and that it stuck to its own rules.

“The maths always had to make sense in terms of how people were dying,” Cormican explains. “We did get into a situation in season two where one of the teachers turned 21 on her birthday. They were celebrating and she lasted the entire day until the evening. We were like, ‘How does that work?’ We decided the disease knows the time of day you were born right down to the minute. That was the one time we had to test our own resolve around the rules. There was no discussion about what an inoculation might look like or how long it would take to make a vaccine.”

In fact, the virus merely served as a story via which the underlying theme of the series could be discussed – namely what would happen if children, teenagers and young adults were left to their own devices. “That was a really fun world to explore, to see how the new hierarchies pan out,” Cormican says. “It’s high school on a much more extreme scale because there are no teachers to police them, so what happens when the hall monitor is judge, jury and executioner?”

With production currently shut down in most corners of the world, television writers have lots of time to develop their next series. The unknown factor is how the world will have changed by the time filming starts up again, and how this might be reflected in TV dramas to come.

One simple solution is to set a story before the coronavirus, or in an alternative world, as viewers currently in lockdown are increasingly drawn to fantasy series. Or perhaps elements of life under lockdown will appear on screen, such as working from home or taking school classes over the internet.

The virus in Canadian drama Between only affected those older than 21

Ultimately, Joos admits: “We don’t know how this is going to evolve, so how are we going to take this up? We don’t know how it will be in four or five months. And then, by the time a series airs, it’s one-and-a-half or two years later.”

“We’re still continuing to develop the shows we’re developing. It’s not changing any of that for us,” Cormican says of Don Carmody Television (Tokyo Trial, Shadowhunters, Northern Rescue). “But I don’t know when we’re going to get permits back, in terms of when will we actually be able to start shooting again.

“Plus we can’t have people more than six feet apart. How do you do an intimacy scene, handshakes, a family hugging? How does a wardrobe person dress someone, or how is a microphone fitted? These are going to be some crazy problems we’re facing. How do you get insurance for your production when I can’t guarantee my entire crew is vaccinated or immune?

“These are all crazy questions that aren’t quite keeping me up at night because we’re not there yet, but they will, eventually, for sure. The questions are far and wide, and no one has answers yet.”

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