Make a movie about casino robbers,and you dont get worried about the safety of your money. Make a movie about an epidemic,though,and its a different story.
Steven Soderbergh,director of the new plague thriller Contagion,sits down for an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel and looks doubtfully at the reporters tape recorder. Who else touched this thing? he asks warily. He pulls a tube of lip balm from his pocket,starts to apply it and then stops. The makeup lady handed me this lip balm, he says. I just took a Kleenex and cleaned it off,inside and out. Who knows if that Kleenex actually worked? The filmmaker laughs. He knows that he sounds a little crazy,but after making a movie about a virus that wipes out millions of people,its hard not to get a trifle paranoid.
Im always going to be conscious of germs now, he says. I wont grab peanuts from a bowl on a bar. He has at least the comfort of knowing he isnt alone. It was fun during the previews for this film, Soderbergh says. Id watch 400 people,at the end of this film,squirm. I could see them realise that they were in a small theatre near a bunch of strangers,coughing,sneezing and touching everything around them.
In Contagion,the trouble starts when a bat and a pig meet badly,and the interaction of their biologies produces a virus thats a killer. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Patient Zero,an international businesswoman named Beth who doesnt feel very good on the plane home. Two days later she has a seizure and dies. Her grieving husband (Matt Damon) must bury his wife and,then,his young son as well. The virus spreads quickly. It sweeps the US,Europe and Asia.
Contagion is much scarier,in short,than any movie about mad slashers or alien invasionsbut its also an old-fashioned Hollywood epic packed with star power. It was fun, Soderbergh says,because the stars would come in and then leave. I felt like I was making several little films. It kept it fresh for me. Laurence Fishburne plays the deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control,with Kate Winslet as the young doctor he sends out to find answers. Marion Cotillard plays another young doctor,from World Health Organization. Jude Law plays an activist blogger convinced that the government is keeping secrets about natural cures from the public.The film was inspired by a scene in The Informant! (2009),which was directed by Soderbergh and starred Damon. In the film,theres a scene where Scott Bakula coughs and sneezes. Then he gives his phone to Matt,who goes on this rant of Here it begins. Now my kid will get sick! So was planted the,well,germ of an idea. Everyone felt there was a place for an ultra-realistic film about this subject, he says. The film got a quick green light from Warner Bros. Developing the script,and talking to real-life scientists about the premise,heightened that feeling.
All the scientists that we spoke to said a major virus sweeping the globe is not a matter of if,but when, Soderbergh says. Then,a few months into our research,H1N1 hit,which was pretty creepy. We tried to make it epic and intimate at the same time.
The 48-year-old Soderbergh was born in Atlanta. His big break came when the short Winston (1987) then expanded into his feature debut,Sex,Lies and Videotape (1989). That film made him an indie legend overnight,winning the Cannes Film Festivals Palme dOr and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He went on to a string of hits that have included Out of Sight,Erin Brockovich,Traffic,Oceans Eleven and its two sequels,The Good German,Che. Traffic won him an Oscar as Best Director.
Next up for him is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,a TV remake starring his longtime friend George Clooney. All I can say is that my next 18 months will be very busy, Soderbergh concludes. Thats about as far as I can see into the future. And with that the director concludes the interview,rising with a nod and heading for the door. There will be no handshake this time. Germs,you know.