MoviesOnline sat down at a press conference in Los Angeles with director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, and actors Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle to talk about the fast-paced, riveting movie and what distinguishes “Contagion” from other bio-thrillers that have been made in the past. They told us how they reacted when they first read the script, what convinced them to be a part of the project, and why it was the right time for an ultra-realistic movie about this subject. They also discussed the challenges of striking the right tonal balance to make a film that’s both epic and intimate at the same time, and most importantly, why they’ll think twice the next time they reach for the peanuts and chip dip at a bar.
Q: How did this project come about?
Scott: We had just finished “The Informant” and we were talking about the next thing.
Steven: We were basking in the glow.
Scott: Yeah, of having finished. There’s a scene in “The Informant” where Scott Bakula is on the phone and coughs and sneezes and gives the phone to Matt’s character and then Matt’s character goes on a rant about “Now what happens? I get sick. My kid gets sick.” I’d always been fascinated by that ever since I went on an airplane. I called Steven and said “I think it’d be really interesting to do a pandemic movie but one that was more rooted in reality,” and he said “I’m in.” I don’t think the pitch was any longer than that.
Q: Outbreak viral types of movies aren’t like zombie movies where you have a zillion of them. There was “Outbreak” in ’95 with Dustin Hoffman, then “Crisis in the Hot Zone” was going to be made but never happened. Why was the timing perfect for a movie like “Contagion”?
Steven: I guess we’re going to see if the timing is perfect or not. The only thing that would indicate that the timing might be good is my reaction to Scott proposing this, the reaction on the part of Participant [Media] when we went to them to float the idea of developing it, the reaction from Warner Bros. 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 like now for adult dramas. That made me feel like maybe we were onto something.
Scott: When we started doing research, all of the scientists that we spoke to about it, I think I anticipated that some of them would try and tamp down things or go “Yeah, well this is possible.” But all of them said it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If you look at the medical record, every few years there ends up being some kind of outbreak. We had started the movie and then about 3 or 4 months into the research is when H1N1 happened. That became a really interesting tracer bullet through the system for us to follow some of the issues.
Q: Jennifer, Matt and Laurence, when you first read the script, what was your reaction and what convinced you to be part of the project?
Jennifer: It was just a wonderful page turner and that doesn’t happen that often. I was thrilled to be asked to be a part of it.
Laurence: I was a little worried about how smart it was because a lot of what is being made now is kind of stupid. I was really very honored again to be asked to be a part of it because it’s a really smart movie.
Matt: I had a similar reaction. We were getting ready to do something else – another project that we’re still going to do – and Steven called and said “I’ve 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 has written” which is saying quite a bit because obviously we think a lot of Scott. So he sent it over to me with a note that said “Read this and then wash your hands.” I read it and I had the same reaction that Jennifer and Laurence did. I really wanted to be in this movie. It’s just a terrific, riveting, really fast read and really exciting and horrifying, but it managed to be touching too.
Q: Matt, we’ve seen you play action-heroes and regular family men similar to your character in this movie. Which type of character comes more naturally to you?
Matt: It’s obvious. (laughs) I mean, the action guys come way more naturally. If the director is good and the script is good, it all comes pretty naturally. And if those things aren’t in place, then it’s impossible no matter what the role is.
Q: Would you be the type of guy who is very prepared and over protective or would you just let things happen?
Matt: In terms of an outbreak like this? I think with kids I’m probably more protective than I’ve ever been now that I have children. I try not to be. I mean, my wife’s nickname for me is ‘red alert.’ I sometimes just check to see if the kids are breathing. I have a tendency to be a little over protective without trying to be a helicopter parent.
Q: Do you have a nice stockpile of supplies?
Steven: How many people here have earthquake preparedness kits and the backpack with all the stuff? [Very few journalists raise their hands] Wow, not many! That’s shocking. We’re in Los Angeles. (everyone laughs) I’ve got two of them.
Matt: After the Northridge earthquake, I did. I put the flashlight by my bed for two weeks and then forgot about it. I’m ready.
Q: The message of the movie seems to be “Trust government, but get it done.” Can you talk about the politics of the movie especially given there is always so much mistrust of government?
Scott: Really? I don’t have a gun, nor do I trust the government. Our experience, even formally, was that the people with the Center for Disease Control, especially the people who are there now, are incredibly conscientious and it feels really great to know that there are a lot of very, very bright people who think about this every day and game for it and try. But one of the things that I learned along the way, which I think Laurence actually says in the movie, is that each state has a different protocol, has a different health department. The CDC has to be invited in. We have FEMA which is part of Homeland. There’s a lot of different organizations and some really bright people. I don’t really think that there’s a lot of politics to a virus. I wasn’t aware when I was writing it that I was trying to blame anybody. What I think is fascinating though, in spite of all the plans you can make, there’s always an outlier of a person who’s going to become part of a news story that’s going to change the shape of this thing and how the public manages it.
Q: Can you talk about the gun control aspect of it?
Steven: Why? Because he finds a gun across the street?
Q: And seems to think he needs it.
Steven: 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 throw it…he’s not going over 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’ve taken it. Absolutely. How many people in here have a gun? [Two people raise their hands] Not very many.
Matt: I also was very aware that in the second act – which I haven’t seen the final film yet but that’s where this is taking place – that would be about where the zombies would come and you’re going to want to have a gun for that. I don’t care who you are. It’s not a political statement at all.
Q: For Matt and Steven, has this movie changed your behavior? Would you ever eat peanuts or chip dip at a bar?
Steven: I don’t know that my behaviors have changed. I’m just really aware of it now. I’m aware of the fact that all of you have touched all of these recorders that are in front of us. Somebody set up this microphone. I was handed some lip balm by one of the make-up people which I took a Kleenex and cleaned off, but who knows if that worked so don’t get near my mouth. Having gone through it, I’m always going to be conscious of it now. It was fun during the previews to watch the lights come up and 400 people realize that they’re next to a bunch of strangers and that they’ve touched everything. You could tell they weren’t happy.
Q: Steven, could you address these rumors that said you may be retiring in a few years?
Matt: (laughs) I said that.
Steven: Well the good news is we have the man who started all this.
Matt: I’m not going to comment on Steven’s plans.
Steven: (about Matt) He’s got total recall when he’s drunk which is really alarming.
Matt: Do you tell me things just expecting that I won’t remember them?
Steven: Yeah! So anyway, Matt started that [rumor].
Q: Where was your germ paranoia before the movie and then after you learned all the things by doing the movie?
Steven: Like on a scale of one to ten?
Laurence: I’m not afraid of germs, man! And I ain’t afraid of getting sick. But dying, that’s some other shit!
Q: For Steven and Scott, a lot of these films that have come in the past have certain tropes that they hit: a lot of people screaming at each other, there’s usually some general who does something really evil. Was there a list of things that you made that you were definitely going to avoid in this film?
Steven: That was kind of it. The one rule that we had was we can’t go anywhere one of our characters hasn’t been. We can’t cut to a city or to 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, were 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 that you don’t have any emotional engagement with. We were trying to have it be epic and also intimate at the same time. That was rule #1.
Q: Jennifer, your character is very much a workaholic. Can you talk about the research you did to play that sort of totally devoted, single-minded character?
Jennifer: I had two really fascinating mornings with Dr. Ian Lipkin and his team up at Columbia [University] in New York at his lab doing experiments. Basically, they gave me a crash course and did all sorts of experimental things – pigs brains with encephalitis, growing bacteria, growing viruses and finding the DNA sequence of chroma samples. It was really an extraordinary couple of days and then, at the end, I got a certificate that said I’m now qualified as a microbiologist to practice absolutely nowhere. It was wonderful and I think being with them was really [exciting]. And then, he was very present during the shoot and very hands on. The research was ongoing while we were shooting.
Q: Why did you choose Hong Kong as the place where the virus originates? The Chinese government is very sensitive about things like that. Were you concerned and did you ever consider choosing another location?
Steven: Who wants that one?
Scott: (to Steven) I expected the first words out of your mouth to be “Scott.” One of the things that I learned while doing research, because we wanted to ground this as much in reality as possible, was part of this virus is based on SARS which started in Guangzhou as far as we know. The reason that we chose Hong Kong instead of the mainland is because there are some tensions in terms of changeover in government. There are two governments there, and even though they seem to be working it out, during times of stress in governments and organizations, there’s always going to be difficulties with sharing information. The Chinese were very helpful to the World Health Organization during SARS and there was a lot of cooperation, but in places in the world where there’s not a lot of refrigeration, people tend to go to wet markets and buy animals, and at certain times of year, it’s culturally appropriate to eat furry mammals and that’s one of the things that surrounds SARS. It was to highlight how different cultures interact with the natural world.
Q: Steven, can you talk about the process of shooting the movie, showing the characters and their situations, and the tonal balance you wanted to achieve without making it too commercial?
Steven: Honestly, I was just trying to keep it very, very simple. The entire film is shot with two lenses basically. 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’ve ever made. Often that can require more thought than just walking in and saying I’m just going to cover the hell out of this and figure it out later. When you go in saying I really want to keep this simple, I want every shot to have a purpose. I want every cut to have a purpose. I don’t want any waste. I don’t want any shot [wasted]. If you pulled one shot out, it meant something would be diminished. That was my approach. That was really it – eye level, no crane shots, no throwing the camera around, just keep it simple so that all you were paying attention to was the performances.
Q: Did you storyboard any of it?
Q: Stepping into this film when you have an ensemble cast of characters where any one of them could conceivably have their own film about this, how many is too many characters and how many is too little and where do storylines begin and end?
Steven: C’mon, Scott.
Scott: When we started thinking about this, Steven and I talked about how they move one character sort of tracing the virus back in time and that was Marion’s (Cotillard) character. She was going to be doing the detective work. Then we also needed a character who would be marching through time and going forward with the virus and that became Laurence’s character. And then, we wanted a proxy for a human being and how they would experience the virus…
Matt: …in the land of zombies. That got my interest.
Scott: So we knew we were going backwards and we knew we were going forwards and we knew we needed a proxy. Then, when I started doing research, I just was fascinated by how H1N1 had happened, how there’s this other voice that starts approaching on a consciousness about these things, and that’s where Jude’s (Law) character came in. Jennifer’s character was born out of the fact that I met Dr. Lipkin and I saw how interesting the research was. I guess at that point I thought that’s a lot of people. We probably can’t afford any more.
Q: Laurence, your character is in a position of authority and has to think about the big picture but still can’t get out of the way of his personal motives too. Can you talk about the complexities of the character you’re playing?
Laurence: It wasn’t really that complex for me once I talked to Dr. Lipkin who had real strong opinions about how all of this should play out. He was with us every day, and as Jennifer said, he really is committed to what he does. He loves what he does. We’d be working and he’d be on his phone and he’d go “Let me show you this,” and it’d be about something that could potentially be an outbreak. I mean, almost every day he had some new sort of disease that the CDC is tracking and keeping an eye on. It became really easy to just go “Oh right, so the stakes for this thing that you do are always here.” The personal stuff that I have where Ellis Cheever is telling his fiancée, soon to be wife, [played by] Sanaa Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk to anybody, that was really easy. I mean, any human being in this situation is going to do that, I think.
Q: Matt, was it difficult to play a person who is the only one who survived exposure to the virus? How did you handle your character?
Matt: I thought a lot was easy to relate to. It was just on the page. And, working with Steven is very different from working with anybody else. To give you an example of a day, we’d go and we’d shoot. We’d talk about what we were going to do. We’d figure it out. We’d 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. Steven, Scott and I and Greg Jacobs, our other producer, and A.D. and Michael (Shamberg) and Stacey (Sher) would sit there and talk while Steven put on headphones and opened up his laptop and sat in the corner for 45 minutes or an hour. Then, at the end, he’d take his headphones off and turn the computer on and he’d show us what we shot that day, cut. It’s really [streamlined]. When you’re working that way, it’s kind of like making a movie in your backyard with your friends. The body is on the operating table, wide open, and you just talk about what else do we need? It’s very different from going off on my own and doing 3 months of research and showing up. It feels like the hocus pocus is taken out of the experience. One of my favorite scenes that we did is this scene where I find out that my wife is dead very early on in the movie. I went to Steven and said “Look, I don’t know what to do. How do you do this scene? It’s five minutes into the movie and nobody is invested in me or her. They don’t care. How can you have this big scene? What do I do?” And Steven goes, “The slump? Everybody knows the slump. You’re down the hall and you just see the guy slump.” And I’m like “Well shit, I don’t know! What do you do? We gotta find some shorthand to do this. We can’t dwell on this thing. We’re five minutes into the movie.” 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. What happens? And he said yes, certain times people fall apart. But he said 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 someone to be dead?” We said “Right, exactly” and he said “Oh well, what you get a lot is just absolute…it just doesn’t [register]. It’s just too much.” So they have this specific way that they put it and Scott had written it and it was close. He’d just kind of intuited it and it was close. But he had written words like “She passed away” and the guy said “No, no, no. [You say] She DID die.” You have to be completely specific and look at the person and you have a social worker with you. There’s a whole script that they go on and they expect you to not even get it. They expect you to go “Okay, well can I go talk to her?” That’s the reaction that people have. They literally don’t… Working with these guys, it’s like 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 and I’ve never seen it done that way. I totally believe that that’s the way. These doctors who really 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.
Q: Matt, I’m appreciating your new look. (referring to his shaved head)
Matt: (turns to Steven and Laurence) Well, inspiration can strike at any time.
Q: I’ve never seen you rock this particular look before. What inspired you to shave your head?
Matt: It’s for a movie. I’m doing a movie with Neill Blomkamp who directed “District 9” and this is what the character looks like. I did shave my head once. When I did “The Brothers Grimm,” I had a wig just because it was easier to get on the wig than lacquering my hair down. I just shaved my head so I walked around in my regular life like this. And I love it (looking at Steven, Laurence and Scott and their bald look) and I see why these guys rock. It’s great in the summer time, real easy getting out of the shower.
Scott: We just lost our hair.
Q: In the spirit of solidarity, I expect Jennifer to pull her wig off now.
Jennifer: I did shave my head once. It’s my favorite hair cut that I’ve ever had.
Q: One of the things that really impressed me was how much effort there was in getting things right. As the spouse of somebody who works in a medical laboratory, with all due respect, Laurence, the CSI versions drives her up the wall.
Laurence: I understand. That’s why I’m not there anymore.
Q: You guys are not lab workers and you’re not a doctor at the head of the CDC. How important is it for you as actors to be around the right equipment and know how to use the right terminology to help you create your character?
Laurence: Would you believe him if he said “Pass me the thingee”?
Matt: That might take you out of the movie. We’ve got an outbreak of some [mumble, mumble]. I don’t know. Fishburne kinda lost me with that one.
Laurence: Yes, I could’ve done that. I did that for a long time. But I think the thing is, I got this job, so it wasn’t all bad.
Q: Laurence, there’s a lot going on in this film and in the midst of it, you got to play opposite Sanaa Lathan and you two have a lot of sweet, romantic moments amidst all this chaos. You’ve had a lot of great leading ladies in your career. What was it like playing opposite her?
Laurence: It was wonderful playing with Sanaa. Thank you for saying that because it’s nice to know that that feeling is there. The only thing that I really missed was that little Thanksgiving thing that we had, the Chicago real estate. But, in spite of that, it was beautiful. It was nice playing with Sanaa. It was as nice playing with Sanaa as it was playing with Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Laurence: Thank you.
Q: Matt, with 9/11 coming up, what are your recollections and what do you recall from the day?
Matt: I lived in lower Manhattan at the time. I just remember walking out of my apartment and seeing it and then going back in and watching CNN because I was so hungry for information trying to figure out what was going on. I just remember being glued to my television despite the fact that it was happening right outside my door.
Q: Can you talk about the autopsy scene with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character?
Steven: Gwyneth is a trouper. We got into that room and we had an actual Medical Examiner there who does this sort of thing all the time and we asked her to walk us through the steps in which somebody has died under these circumstances. When she got to the part where she said “Then we cut here and then 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 on one end without the sauce that we can attach some wig hair to so that we can do this. We scrambled around and 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 that put the skin flap over. She was stock still, didn’t say a word. She had contact lenses in. 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. You’d have some yellowish fluid coming out of your nose.” She wanted it to be exactly right. She had a feeling this was going to be some sort of weird iconic image somehow.
Matt: And she was right.
Steven: Yeah, it’s kind of jarring. There were no tricks there, no freeze frame, no high speed frame rate. That was just her being stock still with some really good effects.
Q: Steven, I understand one of the reasons you cast Jennifer was because you had seen some of her work in “Michael Clayton” that didn’t make it into the movie. What did you see there that made you want to cast her in this film?
Steven: That was an amazing performance. (laughs) That sounds horrible. I’ve known who Jennifer was for a long time. It didn’t take a lot of thought. Honestly, I have a somewhat long list of people that I’ve seen over the course of my career that I’ve thought wow, they would be great to work with. I did know from Tony (director Tony Gilroy) that they had a really good experience and that I wasn’t in any danger. I’m just glad that worked out. Of course, now she’s re-teamed with George (Clooney) in “Ides of March” so it’s all happening this year.
Q: Was there something that made her right for that role in particular?
Steven: I knew by her saying yes that she was willing to take a run at some very complex language. One of the most difficult scenes in terms of the language in the movie is the explanation when she says “Okay, look, we know what it is now. The green part is this and the red part is that.” Scott had written it in general terms and then Ian Lipkin was on the set and we wrote it right there.
Scott: At one point, we were shooting a scene and Ian said she should say that it’s morphologically pathognomonic and I said I can’t ask another human being to say that. There’s no way. But I was amazed. Not only could she say it, but she could say it as though she truly understood it, which as a writer, and I’m sure everybody else up here feels the same way, when you have someone who can do that, it means that your script can live basically.
Steven: Yeah, it’s not really fair to throw dialogue like that at someone at the last minute. I was hoping that 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 was a lot and that’s hard. It looked hard.
Jennifer: Well I can say that this came out of the blue for me. Usually I have to audition and sort of jump through hoops and I didn’t for this, and it completely blew me away to be asked to do it and for somebody I admire as much as Steven to have that kind of faith that I could do it. Also, I took it assuming — the same way I took the part for “Michael Clayton” — that it probably would be cut and that I would have a wonderful experience meanwhile doing it, but that didn’t happen this time.
“Contagion” opens in theaters on September 9th.