Contagion: Hollywood's newest film is going to go viral

By Helen Barlow

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion counts among its high-profile cast Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard (above), Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle. Photo / Supplied
Steven Soderbergh's Contagion counts among its high-profile cast Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard (above), Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle. Photo / Supplied

A Hollywood disaster movie packed with stars where the planet goes to hell, just like that? Where are the aliens? Or the zombies? And the square-jawed heroes putting the world to rights?

In Contagion, the A-list cast doesn't have B-grade monsters to fight - just a global pandemic as created by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the medical thriller following extensive research.

There are no zombies or extraterrestrials here, just feasible science regarding the transmission of viruses from animals to humans, which happened with Sars in Hong Kong (via pigs, as in the film) and the Hendra virus in Australia (via bats). Just don't blame mother nature, says Burns. It's the more highly developed humans who are to blame.

"Nothing in the screenplay is not possible," Burns asserts. "It's not the pigs or the bats that are the problem - it's the way we industrialise food." He points to Hendra, named after the outer Brisbane suburb where it emerged, as an example.

"Someone had cut down an orchard of mango trees and moved these bats into a place where horses were being pastured. It [came from] the bats being near the horses, and when a horse gets sick - and the first thing you do is rub its nose - these things do connect."

In the film directed by Steven Soderbergh, it's Gwyneth Paltrow's adulterous traveller who sends the bug viral. Ultimately her husband, Matt Damon, has to not only deal with the fact that he has lost his wife, but that she was having an affair, as she passed on the disease to her lover. Paltrow is the film's sacrificial movie star.

"I got sent the script and they said, 'Do you want to just go to Hong Kong for a couple of days, and Chicago for a couple of days, and I said, 'Sure'," Paltrow recalls. "I think the idea was if a movie star died right away, then all bets are off. But I do keep popping up throughout, in flashbacks."

Luckily Damon doesn't catch the virus and it becomes his task to save their daughter. "I have four daughters so the story hit close to home," he admits. "But the one thing the movie says is, 'Don't panic!' that fear can be as dangerous as any virus. It creates a lot of mayhem."

As a parent, Damon doesn't get too paranoid about germs. "I want my kids to be exposed to germs. It's good for them. George Carlin [the late stand-up comedian] used to do a great monologue, saying 'People's immune systems today are pussies! In my time we used to lick the curb in New York City and we had tough immune systems'. Still, if there was a pandemic like in the movie, I would definitely change my behaviour."

Burns and Soderbergh had previously enjoyed working together on The Informant! and realised they had shared humanitarian concerns and storytelling styles.

With Contagion they wanted to make a disaster movie with movie stars in jeopardy, like those from the 70s, so that audiences are able to feel for the characters.

"We like characters who make intimate choices with very big things going on around them," Burns explains. "We see how Matt chooses to raise his daughter and how his paranoia influences that relationship. Laurence Fishburne, as the deputy director of the US Center for Disease Control, has to decide whether he can give classified information regarding the virus to a loved one - and does that make him a bad guy if he does? Both Steve and I thought Jude Law's activist blogger should be ambiguous. Yes there is probably some sort of a conspiracy, which he believes exists, yet he's also morally compromised. Pandemics bring out all sorts of behaviour."

They also, he says, create saints. "People at the US Center for Disease Control and the people who worked in Hong Kong on Sars came to visit us on the set and they are such a committed group of people. They go in and investigate what happens before a lot of people die, and a lot of them die. They are remarkable."

While everyone who worked on the movie admits to now washing their hands more, it's not as if that will last forever, or even be that effective. You can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"It's very easy for these things to tip over," says Burns. "I went online and there's an exercise that American scientists and a bunch of diplomats created called Atlantic Storm, a hypothetical pandemic outbreak where in 20 minutes you see what would happen if there was a bio-terror attack in Europe and how bad it gets how fast. When I watched, that was scary, wow! But you soon forget. Like when you get food poisoning you say you're never going to eat that again, then in three months you're back having oysters or whatever. Human beings have bad things happen to them, but we're very strong and we move on.

"I'm sure I've integrated this research into my behaviour. Though I also realise we've been sharing the planet with viruses for millions of years. They're just part of life."


- NZ Herald

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