IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Contagion'

Thursday, 08 September 2011 18:34 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Contagion'

On the surface, Contagion might just seem like your average action thriller about a deadly pandemic, but in actuality it is a an exciting motion picture roller coaster ride with some serious award-winning pedigree. The film, which opens in theaters on September 9th, was not only directed by an Oscar winner, but it also stars four Oscar winners, four Oscar nominees, and a three time Emmy winner. No matter which way you slice it, that’s a whole lot of Hollywood gold for one movie.

The film was directed by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), based on a script by Scott Z. Burns (An Bourne Ultimatum), and stars Academy Award winners Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), Kate Winslet (The Reader), Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), and Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love), Academy Award nominees Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got To Do With It), Jude Law (Cold Mountain), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), and Elliot Gould (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), as well as three time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad). Contagion follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving pandemic gets worse, the medical community races to find the cure and control the panic that ensues around the world. As the disease spreads, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society that is coming apart. The movie plays like Outbreak done Traffic style.


IAR recently had an opportunity to attend a press conference for the film, along with several other members of the press. On hand were director Steven Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns, and actors Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, and Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech). Burns, who also wrote Soderbergh’s The Informant! starring Damon, began by discussing the origins of the project. “There's a scene in The Informant! where Scott Bakula is on the phone. He coughs and sneezes and then gives the phone to Matt's character. Then Matt's character goes on a rant, ‘Now what happens? I get sick, and my kid gets sick!’ I'd always sort of been fascinated by that ever since I went on an airplane. So I called Steven and I said I think it would be really interesting to do a pandemic movie, but one that was more rooted in reality and he said, I'm in! The pitch was not any longer than that,” Burns explained.

Since we really haven’t seen a big screen pandemic film like this since ‘1995s Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman, Soderbergh addressed why he thought this was the right time for a film with this subject matter? “Well I guess we're going to see if the timing is perfect or not,” he joked. “I guess you know the only thing that would indicate that the timing might be good is my reaction to Scott proposing this, 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 actually considering what the business is like now for adult dramas and that made me feel like maybe we're onto something,” Soderbergh said.


“I was blown away by how smart it was cause a lot of what is being made now is kind of stupid. So I was really very honored to be asked to be apart of this. It's a really smart movie,” added Fishburne. “It was a wonderful page turner and that doesn't happen that often. I was just thrilled to be asked to be a part of it,” replied Ehle.

“Yeah, I had a similar reaction,” continued Damon. “Actually (Steven and I) were getting ready to do something else, another project we're still going to do, when Steven called and said he had this other thing. He said that we really had to make it now because it's very timely and he also said that he thought it was the best thing Scott has ever written, which is saying quite a bit. Obviously I 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. It's just a terrific, riveting, really fast read and really exciting and horrifying, but managed to be kind of touching too.”

The film deals with several current and political issues and Burns addressed these elements of the movie. “I guess our experience even formally was that the people of the center of disease control, especially the people who are there now, are incredibly conscientious. It feels really great to know that there are a lot of very, very bright people who think about this everyday, game for it and drive it,” said Burns. “One of the things that I learned around the way, which I think Laurence actually says in the movie is that each state has a different protocol, and has a different health department. There are a lot of different organizations with some really bright people. I don't think 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 is in spite of all of the plans you can make, there's always an a person who's going to become part of the news story, that's going to change the shape of this thing and how the public manages it.”


Commonly in a Hollywood epidemic film like this there is usually a lot of screaming and yelling, and a subplot about an evil General out to destroy the world or something like that, which Contagion omits. Soderbergh discussed this and how he was able to avoid these traps in his film. “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 seen before, that we don't know personally; that was our rule, “ he explained. “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. We felt that all of the elements that we had issues with prior to making this when we see any kind of disaster film were sort of centered on that idea. That suddenly you cut to Paris where you've never been and something happens with a bunch of people you don't have any emotional engagement with. We were trying to have it be epic and also intimate at the same time so that was rule number one.”

“Honestly, I was just trying to keep it very, very simple,” the director continued. “That meant the entire film's shot with basically two lenses and when I would look at a scene I would try and 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 I'm going to figure this out later, when you're going in saying I really want to keep this simple and I want every shot 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. That was really it, you know, eye level, no crane shots, no like throwing the camera around, just keep it simple so that all you were paying attention to was the performances.”

Jennifer Ehle plays Alley Hextell in the film, the researcher tasked with finding a cure for the disease, and the actress discussed the research that she did for the role. “I had two really fascinating mornings with Dr. Ian Lipkin (Center for Infection and Immunity) and his team up at Colombia in New York at his lab doing experiments. Basically they gave me a crash course and did all sorts of extraordinary things; growing bacteria, growing viruses and finding the DNA sequence from the sample. It was really an extraordinary couple of days and then at the end I got a certificate that said I am now qualified as a microbiologist to practice absolutely nowhere,” she laughed. “It was wonderful and I think being with them was really very present during the shoot.”


Laurence Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever in the film and was asked if all the medical terms that he had to recite helped him to create his complex character. “Well, it might take you out of the movie if he said, we’ve got an outbreak of some blah-blah-blah,” joked Matt Damon. “I did that for a long time on CSI,” replied Fishburne in jest. “But I think it’s how I got this job so it wasn’t all bad.”

“It wasn’t really that complex to me once I talked to Dr. Lipkin who had real strong opinions about how all of this should play out,” continued Fishburne. “He was with us every day and he really is committed to what he does, he loves what he does. So we’d be working and he’d be on his phone and he’d go, let me show you this, and it’d be like something that could potentially be an outbreak. Almost every day, he’d have some new disease that the CDC is tracking and keeping an eye on. So it became really easy to just remember that the stakes for this thing are always high.”


Another challenge in making the film was juggling all of the different storylines, so Burns discussed how Soderbergh and he carefully chose which characters they needed for the film. “When we started thinking about this, Steven and I talked about having 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,” he explained. But then we also needed a character who’d be sort of marching through time going forward with the virus and that became Laurence’s character.”

“Then we wanted kind of a proxy for a human being and how they would experience a virus,” Burns continued. “So we knew we were going backwards and we knew we were going forwards and we needed a proxy. Then there’s this other voice that starts approaching on the 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 anymore.”


Matt Damon plays Thomas Emhoff in the movie, a father dealing with the sudden death of his wife and the ramifications of her actions. The actor discussed how he related to his character and the challenges of surviving through a medical emergency like the one in the film. “It was kind of easy to relate to, it was just on the page. Working with Steven’s very different than working with anybody else. To give you an example of a day, first we’d go and we’d shoot. Then we’d talk about what we were going to do, we’d figure it out and we’d execute the plan. Then we’d go back to the hotel, go to the bar and in the backroom of the bar, they’d deliver the footage.”

Steven, Scott, our producers Gregory Jacobs, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, and I would just sit there and talk while Steven put on his headphones, opened up his laptop and sat in the corner for 45 minutes or an hour,” Damon continued explaining. “Then at the end he’d take his headphones off and turn the computer around and he’d show us what we shot that day, already cut. So, when you’re working that way it’s kind of like making a movie in your backyard with friends. The body is kind of out on the operating table and wide open. It’s very different from going off on my own, doing three months of research and showing up. It feels more like the hocus pocus is taken out of the experience.”

“One of my favorite scenes we did was the scene where I find out that my wife is dead very early on in the movie. I went to Steven and I said, I don’t know what to do. How do I do this scene? It’s five minutes into the movie. We’re not invested in her or I. You can’t have this big scene. You can’t dwell on this thing, we’re five minutes into the movie. We had a guy there who’d done this a lot and we talked to him, this doctor who delivers horrible news. We asked for certain trends. He said, sometimes people fall apart but there is this other reaction that we get just as much. I asked him about it. He said 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, exactly. He said, what you get a lot is absolute shock. It’s just too much. So they have this specific way they put it,” Damon explained.


Scott had written it close but he had written words like she passed away and the guy said, no. She did die. You have to be completely specific and look at the person. You have the social worker with you. There’s a whole script that they go on and they expect you to not even get it,” he continued. “They expect you to go, okay, can I go talk to her? That’s the reaction that they have. 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. 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’s the way and these doctors that really do it say that’s actually the way it goes down a lot of the time.”

Finally without giving away too many spoilers, actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is an early casualty in the film and then undergoes a very graphic autopsy, including the peeling back of her forehead and the dissection of her brain. The director discussed the jaw-dropping scene and Paltrow’s willingness to participate in the difficult process. “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,” explained Soderbergh. “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, we cut here and then we peel the skin over the front of the face. I immediately turned to Greg (Jacobs) and told him that we needed to find a flap of something that looked like a pizza on one end without the sauce that we could then attach some wig hair to so that we could do the scene.”


“We scrambled around and we were able to do it,” Soderbergh continued. “It took about forty minutes of having Gwyneth in that position. Greg actually ended up being the person that put the skin flap over and she was completely still, didn’t say a word. She had contact lenses in and she asked the medical examiner to tell her about the rest of her face and her mouth. The woman said, your tongue would be extruded just a little bit and you would have some sort of yellowish fluid coming out of your nose. 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. It’s kind of jarring. There were no tricks, no freeze frame, or high-speed frame rate. That was just her being stock still with some really good effects.”


Contagion explodes into theaters on Friday!


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