Director Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller Contagion opens in theaters this weekend. The film deconstructs the events that follow a global pandemic from multiple points of view. The world medical community desperately searches for a cure for the virus, as the government attempts to contain the panic and fear that has spread throughout the population, and an ordinary family struggles to navigate and survive the chaos.
With an all-star ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon; Jude Law; Laurence Fishburne; Gwyneth Paltrow; Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard Contagion acts like a detective story in which the virus is the villain and the task is to both trace its origin and find a way to defeat it.
Stars Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle were joined recently by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant, The Bourne Ultimatum) and director Steven Soderbergh to talk about the film at a press conference in Los Angeles.
One of the first, and ultimately most frightening, things that Burns shared was that during the course of his research scientists told him that when it came to a viral outbreak such as the one depicted in Contagion, it is not a matter of if, but when.
“If you look at the medical records,” Burns said to reporters “it ends up being every few hundred years that there is some kind of outbreak.”
Fishburne added that when he was doing his research with a scientist at the Center For Disease Control for his role in the film that is was, “almost every day that there was a new disease the CDC is tracking and kind of keeping an eye on.”
“Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anything”
One of the film’s taglines is “don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anything” and you may well find yourself with an overwhelming desire to wash your hands (repeatedly) and keep anyone with the fainest hint of a sniffle a football field’s length away from you after the lights go back up in the theater.
The story was in fact inspired by a moment in The Informant where Scott Bakula’s character coughs while he is on the phone with Matt Damon’s character, causing Damon to rant about the possibility of being made ill. The exchange stayed with Burns, who felt drawn to the idea of creating a film about a pandemic that was grounded in a sense of realism. It is that very sense of realism that makes Contagion so disturbing. Even as I type, I imagine a thousand little creatures crawling across my keyboard just waiting for the chance to go toe-to-toe with my immune system.
Director Steven Soderbergh has said that now that he has made Contagion he will forever be conscious of the silent threat that strangers pose with their potential cooties. Sitting in the press conference he confessed that he was very aware when people had touched the microphones in front of him and joked about wiping down the lip balm the make-up artist handed to him. The director added that as much as he was affected, he found it fun to watch others become germaphobic as well. Noting that it was a kick “during previews to watch the lights come up and four hundred people realize that they’re next to a bunch of strangers and they’d touched everything — you could tell they weren’t happy.”
He paused to ask the audience if they were prepared with disaster kits, and seeing that in fact, very few were, scolded with “wow not many, that’s shocking, we’re in Los Angeles…I’m ready.”
Matt Damon, who plays a father desperate to keep his daughter clear of the virus in the film, reflected that in reality, “I’m probably more protective than I’ve ever been now that I have children,” adding laughingly, “I mean my wife’s nickname for me is ‘red alert’…I think the tendency is to be a little overprotective without being a helicopter parent.”
Laurence Fishburne brought in the voice of down-to-Earth reason when he said, “I ain’t afraid of germs man, and I ain’t afraid of getting sick — dying that’s some other shit.”
An Adult Drama
Aside from encouraging us all to be a bit more conscientious when it comes to germ control, Contagion represents the type of film we have seen less and less of over the last several years — the adult drama. Soderbergh was surprised by how rapidly the film was greenlit and produced “given the state of the business.”
The industry, as we know, is in a period dominated by adolescent properties reworked to include an adult audience or adolescent properties that are simply — aimed at adolescents.
Laurence Fishburne said that when he read the script he was “blown away by how smart it was, because a lot of what is being made now is really stupid” and as such, jumped at the opportunity to be a part of of this story.
Damon, who received the screenplay with a note from Soderbergh that read, “read this and then wash your hands” agreed with Fishburne, saying he felt that it was a film he wanted to both see and be a part of.
“I thought I really want to be in this movie. It’s just a terrific, riveting, really fast read and really exciting, and really horrifying but manages to be touching too.”
Contagion was shot using simple lenses and framing with the specific intent of keeping the focus on the performances, rather than using large sweeping crane shots that would distract from the characters and development of the story. The filmmakers were clear that this was not meant to be the kind of film that removed itself from the audience with flashy cinematic techniques, rather Contagion works to invite the audience in to imagine these circumstances as a very real possibility. When Soderbergh was asked which tropes of the more glossy, event-film, versions of a movie like this he wanted to stay clear of (such as the aforementioned showman’s shot-selection, a General doing something despicably evil, and people screaming at each other endlessly) the director laughingly responded:
“That was kind of it. The one rule that we had was we can’t go anywhere that our characters haven’t been. We can’t cut to a city or a group of extras that we don’t know. That was our rule, and that’s a pretty significant rule to adhere to in a movie in which you’re trying to give a sense of something that’s happening on a large scale. But we felt that all of the elements we had issues with, prior to when you see any kind of disaster film, were sort of centered around that idea that suddenly you cut to Paris where you’ve never been – and suddenly it’s a bunch of people that you don’t have any emotional engagement with. We were trying to have it be epic and intimate at the same time, so that was our rule.”
Audiences will decide this weekend if they feel that Soderbergh and his team have found that balance.
Contagion is in theaters now.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc