Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle & Writer Scott Z. Burns Discuss Intense Virus Thriller
Steven Soderbergh’s new film “Contagion” depicts a scenario where a deadly virus breaks out across the globe, inspiring fear and paranoia among even close friends and relatives. In spite of the film’s portrayal of the threat, which is as deadly as it is invisible as it is ubiquitous, several of the members of the cast and crew, including Soderbergh, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns seemed unafraid to sit down next to one another at a recent Los Angeles press day. That said, Soderbergh admitted that he was more conscious of the potential threat of germs having made a film about their imminent danger.“I don’t know if my behavior has changed, but I’m just really aware of it now,” Soderbergh said. “I’m aware of the fact that all of you have touched all of these recorders that are in front of us, and somebody set up this microphone. That I was handed some lip balm by one of the makeup people, which I took a Kleenex and cleaned off, but who knows if that worked. So don’t get near my mouth. It was fun during the preview to watch the lights come up and four hundred people realize that they’re next to a bunch of strangers and that they’ve touched everything. You could tell they weren’t happy.”
Soderbergh’s developing germophobia was but one of the subjects he and the cast discussed at the press day for “Contagion.” Meanwhile, check out our review from the Venice Film Festival this past weekend.
As much as a sense of fear seems to be spreading in contemporary culture, Soderbergh indicated that the film was a product of many people’s confidence.
The most obvious predecessor for “Contagion” is the 1995 film “Outbreak,” which depicted a similar scenario albeit in a decidedly more sensationalized way (primarily in the casting of a still-hot Rene Russo as Dustin Hoffman’s love interest). While the current atmosphere of political and social uncertainty seemed to make this a hot-button story to tell, Soderbergh said it really came together because everyone involved felt strongly about telling it.
“I guess the only thing that would indicate that the timing might be good is my reaction,” Soderbergh said, “[and] the reaction on the part of the participants when we went to them to float the idea of developing it, 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.”
In the film, Matt Damon plays an everyman kind of character, even though it didn’t come as naturally as ass-kicker characters like the one he portrayed in the “Bourne” series.
When asked which kind of role he gravitates towards, Damon joked that he’s more comfortable beating people up than relating to them on a realistic level. “I mean, the action guys come way more natural,” he said with a laugh. “No, if the director is good and the script is good it all comes pretty naturally, and if those things are in place then it’s possible no matter what the role is.”
Damon revealed that he actually jumped on to the film when development of another one he started with Soderbergh was delayed. “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’ve 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.’ And I read it and it’s just a terrific, riveting, really fast read, and really exciting, and really horrifying, but managed to be kind of touching too.”
In the process of making “Contagion,” Soderbergh imposed limitations on himself in order to enhance the film’s intimacy, not to mention its accuracy.
Precisely because of films like “Outbreak,” paranoid thrillers like this one have become more than a little melodramatic, ultimately undermining their impact by pushing emotional buttons or depicting scenarios that feel more like science fiction than fact. But Soderbergh indicated they held themselves to a couple of simple but strict rules in order to keep proceedings dramatically credible. “The one rule that we had was that we can’t go anywhere where one of our characters hasn’t been,” he confessed. “We can’t cut to a city or a group of extras that we’ve never been to, that we don’t know personally. 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 saw 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.”
Soderbergh’s efficiency – not to mention familiarity with members of his cast – helped give the production an energy and a sense of collaboration that other films might not enjoy.
After three “Ocean’s” films and “The Informant,” “Contagion” is Damon’s six film with Soderbergh (there’s also a cameo in the second part of “Che“). He said that the director works in a markedly different way than other filmmakers he’s collaborated with in the past, which not only helps him avoid acting clichés, but gives him unique and enriching experiences that he’s able to truly discover for the first time when he actually steps on set to perform them. “Working with Steven is very different from working with anybody else,” he revealed. “To give you kind of an example of a day, 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 open up his laptop and just kind of sat in the corner for forty five 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.”
In one of the film’s key sequences, a doctor informs Damon’s character that one of his loved ones passed away. Damon said that Soderbergh’s use of a real physician gave him some unexpected options when they went to shoot the scene. “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. Nobody, we’re not invested in me or her. 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? And we had a guy there who had done this a lot, and we talked to him.”
“He said, ‘is it the kind of death where you’re not expecting somebody to be dead?’ And I said, ‘Right exactly’,” he continued. “And so they have this specific way that they put it, and Scott had written it. It was close – 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.’ 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, an I’ve never seen it done that way and I totally believe that that’s the way.”
Because of some near-misses with cast members from some of his producorial projects, Soderbergh was also interested in introducing new actors to his usual stable of performers.
Jennifer Ehle plays a crucial role in the film as one of the scientists who races to find a cure for the virus that is wiping out Earth’s population at an exponential rate; arguably, next to Damon, she’s one of the emotional epicenters of the film. According to earlier reports, Soderbergh cast Ehle in the role after he saw her in “Michael Clayton,” where she played George Clooney’s wife before the role was cut from the film. Ehle said that she was excited to work with Soderbergh, even if she wasn’t sure whether her work would once again end up on the cutting room floor. “This came out of the blue for me,” she said. “I usually have to audition and sort of jump through hoops and I didn’t for this. It completely blew me away 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.”
Soderbergh said he knew she was right for the role because she was willing to take on perhaps the biggest challenge in the film – deciphering and delivering dialogue that discussed the virus in detailed, clinical terminology. “I knew that by her saying yes she was willing to take a run at some very complex language,” he observed. “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.’ Well we had sort of, 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 you know excitement, and the high stakes, high emotional stakes for the world, because it was a lot. It’s hard. Well, it looked hard.”
Despite the back and forth contradictions about his “retirement” or “sabbatical” or whatever you want to call it (the answer seems to have changed from Comic-Con to Venice and back several times), during the L.A. press day Soderbergh was happy to deflect and not answer the question.
Looking at Soderbergh’s IMDB page, the imminent retiree has four upcoming films: “Haywire,” which is slated for release before the end of the year, the male stripper movie “Magic Mike,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and “Liberace” (yet another collaboration with Damon). But when asked to specify what his career plans are beyond that, he deferred to Damon, whom he blamed for starting that conversation. “Well, the good news is that we have the man who started all this,” Soderbergh quipped. “I don’t know,” Damon said. “I’m not going to comment, Steven.” Soderbergh suggested Damon wasn’t properly lubricated to discuss the subject. “He’s got total recall when he’s drunk,,” he said. “It’s really alarming.”
“Do you tell me things just expecting that I won’t remember them?” Damon asked.
“Yeah,” Soderbergh admitted. “Anyways, Matt started that,” he said without denying it. Who knows. Either way, we still have four more Soderbergh pictures to look forward to until then. “Contagion” opens in wide release this Friday, September 9.