Included in American Scientist magazine’s list of “books that shaped a century of science,” Richard Preston’s non-fiction classic The Hot Zone has long been considered the definitive study of the origins of the Ebola virus. It is also, as chiller writer Stephen King would testify, a gripping read: “The first chapter of The Hot Zone is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life,” he famously wrote, “and then it gets worse.” It was this perfect mix of drama, information and entertainment that drew in its writer-showrunner duo of Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson. “Richard’s book was such a page-turner,” says Souders, “that I’d say about halfway into it we realized we wanted to do it and that there was no turning back.” Add the involvement of Ridley Scott’s Scott Free company and the deal was sealed. “It was a no-brainer,” adds Peterson.
In development since publication, with producer Lynda Obst, The Hot Zone was initially envisaged as a standalone feature until Nat Geo showed interest in running it as a six-part miniseries, focusing on the pioneering lab work of Dr. Nancy Jaax, played by Julianna Margulies. “I’m sure it would have made a good feature film,” says Souders, “but being able to do six hours of it allowed us to get into the characters a lot more. Not just our hero, Nancy Jaax, but also her husband Jerry—we were able to look at their relationship, going through something like this together. So what ended up happening was that it gave us a chance to take the things that were in the book and create and develop storylines and character arcs that really were just tailor-made for a TV miniseries.”
To create the series, Peterson and Souders had to look at the practicalities of adapting a book with a wide cast of characters and a number of locations. “The book does focus on Nancy quite a bit,” says Souders, “but, there were a lot of other people who were on the ground in the event that happened, who all acted heroically and were wonderful scientists and dedicated military personnel. Obviously, as a TV show, we can’t have a cast of 40 people – you had to try to narrow it down so people would have someone to really root themselves in.”
Nancy and her husband Lt. Col Jerry Jaax (Noah Emmerich) were a given, while Dr. Peter Jahrling (Topher Grace) also made it into the main focus of the drama. “All the other people we kind of melded into singular characters,” says Souders, “so that we could have a cast that wasn’t made up of hundreds of people.”
“The way Richard introduce Nancy in the book is just so engaging,” says Peterson. “And, also, we thought there was something interesting about being a woman in a man’s world at that time – especially in 2016, when we started developing this project. It was, and still is, incredibly relevant, and so having a women in this world, this military world, this scientific world of 1989, felt like the freshest and most unique point of view to enter the story through.”
From the very start, say the pair, they always knew that The Hot Zone would be a psychological thriller. “One of the things that appealed to us about the book,” says Souders, “was that it took everyday people and threw them into this really extraordinary, insane situation, and you got to imagine what you would do in that situation. So we loved the idea of having to figure out a way to put the viewers in these people’s shoes, in the middle of such a crisis.”
But as well as writing relatable characters for the audience, Souders and Peterson had to stay true to the actual heroes of the Ebola crisis. “The science is real,” says Peterson, “or at least as real as we could get it, and we had multiple scientific advisors. We worked with Nancy and Jerry Jaax themselves and Michael Smit, our technical advisor, who happens to be the Jaax’s nephew and the leading expert on Ebola, so that was handy.”
The science may not have been a problem for Souders and Peterson, but it put an extra burden on the production team—although the nightmare scenario presented in The Hot Zone is still very a clear and present danger, some of the once-cutting-edge scientific instruments it shows us belong in the past. Which might be reassuring for the viewer, but it posed substantial challenges for its crew and even its cast, who had to perform in weighty, outdated biohazard suits. Along with art director Britt Doughty, it was up to production designer Mark Hutman to tackle the minutiae of antiquated technologies and the complexities of laboratory protocol in order to make the experience feel urgent—and real.
Zeroing in on the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where the series takes place, Hutman and Doughty engaged in exhaustive research in order to understand the look and the geography of the building. Examining photographic and written materials from sources such as Getty and National Geographic, the pair were also aided in their endeavors by the Jaaxes, whose harrowing experiences are seen in the series. “Their information trickled in to us,” Hutman recalls, “and it was copious.”
It was ultimately down to property master Emma Monaghan to track down all the appropriate varieties of centrifuges and electron-scanning microscopes so that sets could be dressed correctly with period-accurate equipment. “It wasn’t an easy task, but she did a lot of digging,” Doughty says. “It was those little details that I think were really key to selling this reality.”
But despite their sterling work in replicating the era, the team would prefer viewers just to focus on the drama and forget about the set dressing. “I think what we really responded to in the book as writers,” adds Peterson, “were the different types of dilemmas that each character faces. They have to ask themselves, ‘Who do I have a duty to protect in this moment—do I have to protect the general public or do I just keep my family safe? Or do I just look after myself?’ That’s why the book really spoke to us. And so our hope is while people are watching it, they’re sitting there thinking, ‘Whoa, what would I do?’”
The result is a series that, from its terrifying opening scenes, takes a forbidding subject matter and turns into something human, relatable, and strangely life-affirming. Says Souders, “Obviously, it’s a TV series and not a documentary, so we did create it to be entertaining and to be something that people are excited to tune into and love talking about. But also, as a bigger takeaway, we would like people to realize this isn’t a nation-versus-nation issue. This is a human issue, it’s a global issue, and it’s something that we all need to come together to work on.”
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