Catching the Hollywood bug
Contagion director Steven Soderbergh and lead actor Matt Damon tell Kate Whiting why a deadly virus is on its way, and they're not just talking about their latest film
Just in time for flu season, Hollywood has recruited a crack team of its finest actors to whip up fear of a global pandemic.
Contagion, the latest collaboration between Matt Damon and Ocean's Eleven director Steven Soderbergh, is a thriller exploring what happens when a deadly virus spreads like wildfire and overwhelms the system set up to contain it.
"In the back of our minds we thought this movie could do for elevator buttons what Jaws did for the beach," says Soderbergh, who lined up Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cottilard, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle as his ensemble cast.
The action begins when Beth (Paltrow) returns home to the States from a business trip to Hong Kong. What she first believes to be jet-lag turns into a fever that kills her in just a few days, leaving her grieving husband (Damon) to look after their daughter.
Damon says: "Steven was really bullish about the script. He said, 'It's fantastic and I'm sending it over for you to take a look'. He sent it over with this note that said, 'Read this and then wash your hands'."
As a father of three daughters, the 41-year-old actor found it only too easy to relate to the role of a protective father.
"Even though they're going through this extraordinary experience, they're still dealing with typical issues of parents and teenagers," he says.
"His daughter wants to see her boyfriend and he keeps trying to impress on her the severity of the situation and why even the slightest contact with him, if he's infected, could kill her. It leads to some highly charged moments."
Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns began chatting about the idea for Contagion while working on another film starring Damon, The Informant.
"We talked about how people seem to get sick when they travel, so it began as an exploration of the vulnerability of human beings in public places," explains Burns.
Then six months into their research, came the H1N1 virus (swine flu) outbreak, which helped with their investigation.
"There's a sort of triangle of elements when you're talking about a virus," says Soderbergh. "The first is the mode of transmission, the second is the incubation period and the third is the mortality rate.
"And when we were doing the research it was really alarming to find out how subtle a shift in any of those three elements could result in something that would immediately overwhelm any infrastructure you had set up."
He adds: "At the beginning of H1N1, before they knew what each of those elements were, there was a lot of concern this could be something more like what you see in Contagion."
The story taps into our primal fears and most basic survival instincts. As society begins to break down, litter is left lying in the street and looting is rife.
"I think it's going to be shocking, dramatic and a little upsetting," says Jude Law, who plays a journalist who believes the outbreak is being badly handled - his reports spread alarm among his millions of readers.
On the front-line of defence is Kate Winslet as a US government scientist. "She serves as a gateway for the audience," says Soderbergh. "It's part of her job to explain the situation in layman's terms. But she's confronting people in panic mode who aren't always rational."
From talking to the experts, Soderbergh is convinced there will be another pandemic of similar proportions to the Spanish Flu of 1918, which wiped out 50 million people.
"They are confident, they're sure. It's cyclical, every once in a while, a really bad one turns up. So they made me feel worse, but what made me feel better was that the people we talked to were very, very good at their jobs and they're working really hard."
The director admits he felt a weight of responsibility not to stir up undue fears.
"With a subject matter like this, we had to do it realistically in the hopes that, having seen the film, when something like this happens, you don't immediately panic, that you count to 11 before you do something stupid."
Damon's aware the film's had an impact on his family, but has tried to keep it in perspective.
"We live in New York City, so when the kids come back from the park, we definitely do a lot of hand washing. But besides that, I do think, on a day-to-day level, germs are a good thing and I want my kids to build up an immunity.
"I know fear is marketed pretty intensely and so I always ask myself the extra question, 'Am I falling prey to what they're trying to sell me or is there really reason to be worried?'"
EXTRA TIME - HEALTH SCARES ON SCREEN
:: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)
This recently released prequel to Sixties sci-fi movie Planet Of The Apes, ends with the spreading of a powerful virus that gives apes greater intelligence and kills humans.
:: I Am Legend (2007)
Will Smith plays a virologist who's immune to a man-made virus created to treat cancer. He's the last man standing in a Manhattan besieged by violent victims of the virus.
:: 28 Days Later... (2002)
Danny Boyle's horror film revolves around Jim (Cillian Murphy), who awakes from a coma 28 days after the Rage virus has been spread from infected chimps who were busted out of a lab by animal activists.
:: Resident Evil (2002)
Amnesiac heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) tries to contain an outbreak of the deadly T-Virus, which turns people into zombies.
:: Outbreak (1995)
Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey team up to explore what would happen if there was an outbreak of a fictional Ebola-type virus in the United States.
:: Contagion is released in cinemas on Friday, October 21