In Contagion (review here), director Steven Soderbergh explores what might happen if a highly-contagious and deadly virus began to spread in today’s ultra-connected society which taps into a primal fear that is far scarier than anything Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger could possibly throw your way. After all, you can’t shoot a virus six times or stab it to death.
So how do you kill something you can’t see and don’t understand? How do you cure the incurable? And is it possible that just one simple touch could actually cause hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide?
To get all those answers (and a few more that maybe you germophobes out there may not have been looking for in the first place), you’ll just have to check out Contagion for yourself when it hits theaters on Friday. In the meantime though, we thought we’d share with you some highlights from a recent press conference in conjunction with the upcoming release of Soderbergh’s thriller.
On hand to field questions from the press were Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns and cast members Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle. Check out Dread Central’s coverage from the press conference below and make sure to catch the movie this weekend when it spreads to theaters everywhere (pun absolutely intended).
Question: Can someone talk about how this movie came together?
Scott Burns: “We just finished The Informant and there is a scene in the movie where Scott Bakula is on the phone and he coughs, then hands it back to Matt’s character to use. Then we see Matt go on and on about how people get sick and I’ve always been fascinated by that ever since. I then called Steven and said are you interested in doing a realistic pandemic movie and all he said was- ‘I am in.'”
Question: Steven, why do you think the timing for this type of outbreak movie was sort of perfect for Contagion?
Steven Soderbergh: “Well, I guess we’re going to see if the timing is perfect or not. (Laughs) I guess the only thing that would indicate that the timing might be good is my reaction to Scott [Z. Burns] proposing this, the reaction on the part Participant when we went to them to float the idea of developing it and the reaction from Warner Brothers when we presented them the script. Everyone felt there was a place for an ultra-realistic film about this subject. Nobody hesitated. It all happened very quickly- uncharacteristically quickly actually considering what the business is right now for adult dramas. So, that made me feel like maybe we’re on to something, you know.”
Jennifer, Laurence, and Matt- when you guys read the script what was your reaction to it? Was there something overall to the script that persuaded you into doing the project?
Jennifer Ehle: “It was just a wonderful page-turner and that doesn’t happen that often. I was just thrilled to be asked to be a part of it.”
Laurence Fishburne: “I was kind of blown away by how smart it was, because a lot of what is being made now is kind of stupid. So I was really, really very honored to be asked to be a part of it, because it’s a really, really smart movie.”
Matt Damon: “Yeah, I had a similar reaction. Actually we were getting ready to do something else, another project that we are still going to do, and Steven called and said, ‘I got this other thing and we really got to make it now because it’s really timely.’ And he said, ‘I think it’s the best thing Scott’s written,’ which is saying quite a bit, and I obviously think a lot of Scott. So he sent it over to me with a note saying, ‘Read this and then wash your hands.’”
“I read it and I had the same reaction that Jennifer and Laurence did, that whole ‘I just really want to be in this movie.’ It’s just a terrific, riveting, really fast read, and really exciting, and really horrifying, but managed to be kind of touching too.”
Question: The message of the movie seems to be “trust the government but get a gun.” What about the gun control aspect of the film?
Soderbergh: “What, because he finds a gun across the street? I think under those circumstances that’s understandable. I don’t view that as any kind of statement. I think four weeks into an event like this, a truly cataclysmic event in which you’re alone and your neighborhood has got cop cars and military blowing through it… He’s not going there looking for a gun. He’s going over there looking for help and for food. I mean, that’s the way I read it, and he finds a gun. I would have taken it, absolutely.”
Damon: “I also was very aware of that in the second act, I haven’t seen the final film yet, but I believe that’s about where this is taking place. So you know that would be about the same time in an apocalypse where the zombies would come in, and you’re going to want a gun for that. I don’t care who you are. That’s not a political statement at all. (Laughs)”
Question: Did you create a list of things that you wanted to avoid doing in this movie at all?
Soderbergh: “Yeah, the one rule that we had was we can’t go anywhere where one of our characters hasn’t been. We can’t cut to a city or a group of extras that we’ve never been to, that we don’t know personally. 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 that we had issues with prior when we see any kind of disaster film we’re sort of centered around that idea, that suddenly you cut to Paris where you’ve never been and something happens and it’s a bunch of people you have no emotional engagement with. We were trying to have it be epic and also intimate at the same time. So that was rule number one.”
Question: So, can you tell us then just how you managed to balance both the epic and intimate scenes of the movie then?
Soderbergh: “Honestly I was just trying to keep it very, very simple and that meant the entire film is shot with two lenses, basically, and when I would look at a scene I would try to figure out how few shots I needed as opposed to how many. I really wanted it to be, in terms of style, one of the simplest movies that I have ever made. Often that can require more thought than just walking in saying, ‘I’m just going to cover the hell out of this and figure it out later.’ When you’re going in saying, ‘I really want to keep this simple, and I want every shot to have a purpose, and I want every cut to have a purpose. I don’t want any waste.’ If you pulled one shot out it meant something would be diminished. That was my approach. So that was really it: eye level, no crane shots, no like throwing the camera around. Just keep it simple so that all that you were paying attention to were the performances.”
Question: Jennifer, what kind of research did you do to prepare for your role?
Ehle: “Well, I had two really fascinating mornings with Dr. Ian Lipkin and his team up at Columbia in New York at his lab doing experiments. Basically they gave me a crash course where I did all sorts of extraordinary things, looking pigs’ brains with encephalitis, growing bacteria, growing viruses, and doing finding the DNA sequences from a sample. It was really an extraordinary couple of days, and then at the end I got a certificate that said I was now qualified as a microbiologist to practice absolutely- well, nowhere really but it was wonderful.”
Question: Laurence, can you talk about the complexities of your character?
Fishburne: “Well it wasn’t really that complex for me once I talked to Dr. Lipkin who had really strong opinions about how all this shit should sort of play out. He was with us every day, and he really, as Jennifer said, he is really committed to what he does. He loves what he does. So we’d be working on set and he’d be there on his phone and out of the blue, he’ll go- ‘Let me show you this.’ And it would be like something that could potentially be an outbreak almost every day. He has some sort of new disease that the CDC is tracking and kind of keeping an eye on. So it became really easy to sort of go, ‘Oh right, so the stakes for this thing that you do are always here.’”
“The personal stuff that I have as Ellis Cheever was telling my fiancé, soon to be wife, Sanaa Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk. That’s really easy. Any human being in that situation is going to do that, I think.”
Question: So Matt, how did you relate to your character?
Damon: “I thought a lot was kind of easy to relate to. It was just kind of on the page. Working with Steven is very different from working with anybody else. To give you kind of an example of a day, we go and we shoot. We’d talk about what we were going to do, we’d figure it out, we’d kind of execute the plan, and then we’d go back to the hotel and go to the bar. And in the back room of the bar they’d deliver the footage, and Steven and Scott and I, and Greg Jacobs our other producer, and A.D., and Michael and Stacy, and we’d just kind of sit there and talk while Steven put on headphones and opened up his laptop and just kind of sat in the corner for 45 minutes or an hour, and then at the end he’d take his headphones off and he’d turn the computer around and he’d show us what we shot that day cut. So it’s a really – when you’re working that way – it’s kind of like making a movie in your backyard with your friends. It’s like the body is kind of out on the operating table and kind of wide open and you talk about it, ‘All right, what else do we need?’”
“It’s very different from kind of going off on my own and doing three months of research and showing up. It just feels more like…I don’t know…the kind of hocus pocus is taken out of the experience. Like, one of my favorite scenes that we did was this scene that I find out that my wife is dead, you know, very early on in the movie. And I went to Steven and I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what to do.’ You know, ‘How do you do this scene?’ It’s five minutes into the movie. We’re not invested in me or her. We don’t care. ‘How do you…? You can’t have this big…see, I mean, do I do?’ and Steven goes, ‘The Slump?’ You know everybody knows the slump. You’re down in the hall and just see that guy slump down.’ And I’m like, ‘Shit, I don’t know. I mean what do you do? We’ve got to find some shorthand to do. You can’t dwell on this thing. We’re five minutes into the movie, you know?'”
“We had a guy there who had done this a lot and we talked to him – this doctor who delivered this news. We asked for certain trends. Like, ‘What happens?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sometimes people fall apart, but there is this other reaction that we get just as much.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Well, it depends on what kind of death it is. Is it the kind of death where you’re not expecting somebody to be dead?’ And I said, ‘Right, exactly.’ And he goes, ‘Oh what you get a lot is […]it’s just too much.’ So they have this specific way that they put it, and Scott had written it. It was close. He just kind of intuited it and it was close, but he had written words like, ‘She had passed away.’ And the guy says, ‘No no no. She did die.’ Like, you have to be completely specific and look at the person and you have the social worker with you. There’s a whole script that that they go on, and they expect you to not even get it. They expect you to go like, ‘Okay, can I go talk to her?’ because that’s the reaction that people have. They literally don’t understand what you’re saying to them.”
“So, it’s like working with these guys. I get up in the morning and I’m freaking out about how the hell I’m going to do this scene, and I end up going to work and getting this scene that’s really interesting. I’ve never seen it done that way and I totally believe that that’s the way. And these doctors who actually do it say, ‘Yeah, that’s actually how it goes down a lot of the time.’ It’s a very long-winded answer to a very short question.”
Question: Speaking of- Steven can you talk about Gwyneth Paltrow’s autopsy scene?
Soderbergh: “Well, Gwyneth is a trooper because we got into that room and we had an actual medical examiner there who does this sort of thing all the time. We asked her to walk us through the steps in which someone has died under these circumstances. And when she got to the part where she said, ‘Well, we cut here and we peel the skin over the front of the face,’ I immediately turned to Greg and said, ‘Okay, we need to find a flap of something that looks like pizza up on one end without the sauce, that we could attach some wig hair to so that we could do this.’ And we scrambled around and we found we were able to do that. And while it took about 40 minutes of having Gwyneth in that position, Greg actually ended up being the person who put the skin flap over. And she was stalk still and didn’t say a word.”
“She asked the medical examiner, ‘Talk to me about the rest of my face. What about my mouth?’ And the women said, ‘Okay, your tongue would be extruded just a little bit.’ She said, ‘You’ll have some sort of yellowish fluid coming out of your nose.’ And she wanted it to be exactly right. I think she had a feeling this was going to be some sort of weird iconic image somehow.”
Damon: “And she was right.”
Soderbergh: “Yeah, it’s kind of jarring. There were no tricks there. No freeze frame. No high speed frame rate. That was just her being stalk still with some really good effects.”
Question: Steven, you cast Jennifer because of her performance in Michael Clayton. What did you see in that that made you want to cast her?
Soderbergh: “That was an amazing performance and so… that sounds horrible. I had known who Jennifer was for a long time, and this didn’t take a lot of thought, honestly. I have a long – somewhat long – list of people that I’ve seen in the course of my career and thought, ‘Wow, they would be great to work with.’ And I did know from Tony [Gilroy] that they had really good experience and I wasn’t in any danger. So I’m just glad that worked out, and of course now she’s re-teamed with George [Clooney] in The Ides of March, so it’s all happening this year.”
Question: Was there something that made her right for that role in particular?
Soderbergh: “I knew that by her saying yes she was willing to take a run at some very complex language. I mean, one of the most difficult scenes in terms of the language in the movie is the explanation and when she says, ‘Okay, we know what it is now. The green part is this. The red is that,’ Scott had written it in sort of general terms and then Ian Lipkin was on the set and we wrote it right there. It’s not really fair to throw dialogue like that at someone at the last minute. I was hoping the fear of having to say it would translate as excitement and the high emotional stakes for the world, because it was a lot. It’s hard. It looked hard.”
Ehle: “Well, I just have to say this came out of the blue for me. I usually have to audition and sort of jump through hoops and I didn’t for this. It completely blew me away to be asked to do it, for somebody that I admire as much as Steven to have that kind of faith that I could do it. I also took it assuming that, the same way I took the part in Michael Clayton, assuming that probably it would be cut but that I would have a wonderful experience meanwhile doing it, and that didn’t happen this time.”
Look for Contagion in theaters on September 9th!
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