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The Directors: Steven Soderbergh, 'Contagion'

The award winner works with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns to get at the heart of how people rise to the challenge of a world in peril.

September 04, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Anna Jacoby Herron and Matt Damon in a scene from "Contagion."
Anna Jacoby Herron and Matt Damon in a scene from "Contagion." (Warner Bros. )

Before you see a single frame in "Contagion" you listen to a cough, and by the time the movie is just a few minutes old Gwyneth Paltrow's Beth Emhoff — the character heard hacking off-screen — suffers a fatal seizure (relax, it's in the trailer).

MEV-1, the fictional virus with the starring role in director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns' pandemic thriller, is nearly as deadly as 1918's Spanish flu (an estimated 50 million killed worldwide), but the filmmakers are less interested in mass graves than epidemiological war rooms. "Oh, my God. Should I call someone?" a coroner asks when he examines Emhoff's brain. Replies his colleague: "Call everyone."

Constructed much like Soderbergh's "Traffic" — overlapping, international narratives linked to the central plot — "Contagion," which opens Sept. 9, has far more in common with Albert Camus' "The Plague" than "I Am Legend" or "Outbreak": How does civilization react — for better and worse — to a global health crisis? "A lot of really dangerous human behavior," Burns said, "comes out of fear."

Suddenly widowed, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) tries to protect his daughter as the virus races from Hong Kong to Chicago, Minneapolis, London and Tokyo, triggering quarantines, quack cures and panic. While the mutating virus marches forward in time, "Contagion's" epidemiologists and molecular biologists struggle to rewind the clock; only in discovering how and where MEV-1 originated and spread can it be understood and controlled.

The film's heroes are the doctors and the agencies charged with preventing a real-life replica. At the World Health Organization, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) tries to trace the virus back to Patient Zero. Inside the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) struggle to control the virus' spread, while Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), at great personal risk, searches for a vaccine. "Our exposure to the real people like this is strictly through television sound bites," Soderbergh said. "But that's the smallest and least interesting part of what they do."

Soderbergh said he was determined to avoid the usual mistakes and clichés of the genre: The science would be correct, and nameless hordes wouldn't succumb. "When you're making a movie about an issue this serious, inaccuracy and misinformation is not cool," Soderbergh said. "And the rule was we couldn't go anywhere that our characters haven't been. We can't go to Paris unless we have a character there. I don't want you to abstract the people who are dying — to cut to people you didn't know."

Burns, who researched the script with a prominent epidemiologist, said he was also interested in the potential perils of media speculation — personified by a double-dealing blogger played by Jude Law. "Unfiltered communication has the same sort of radioactive pulse in the world as a virus does," said Burns, who wrote Soderbergh's "The Informant." "How do you contain information? How do you vaccinate against misinformation when you don't have your own story to put out?"

While "Contagion" certainly doesn't minimize the mortality of its pandemic, it's ultimately a hopeful tale of how people facing extreme peril rise to the challenge. But the filmmakers admit that they now look behind them when they hear someone cough. "It made me nervous," Soderbergh said of making "Contagion." "Like Dr. Cheever says in the movie, 'We're due.'"

john.horn@latimes.com

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