Contagion, the new disease thriller from Steven Soderbergh is a rare smart and entertaing disaster movie. So it’s no surprise that it attracted performers like Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne. We were at the junket, and they were obviously happy with the movie they made, but the material, it’s easy to see how they got such a great cast. Check it out…

Disease Control

Why was the timing for this type of outbreak movie perfect for Contagion?

Steven Soderbergh: I guess we’re going to see if the timing is perfect or not. The only thing that would indicate that the timing might be good is my reaction to Scott (Z. Burns) purposing this, the reaction on the part of the participants when we went to them to float the idea of developing it, 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 quickly, actually — considering what the business is right now for adult dramas. So that made me feel like maybe we’re on to something.

Did doing this movie change your behavior?

SS: I don’t know if my behavior has changed. I’m just really aware of it now. I’m aware of the fact that all of you have touched all of these recorders that are in front of us, somebody set up this microphone, I was handed some lip balm by one of the makeup people, which I took a Kleenex and cleaned off, but who knows if that worked. So don’t get near my mouth. Having gone through it, I’m always going to be conscious of it now. It was fun, during the preview, to watch the lights come up and 400 people realize that they’re next to a bunch of strangers and that they’ve touched everything. You could tell they weren’t happy.

Would you be the guy who is extra prepared and overprotective, or let loose, in terms of an outbreak like in the movie?

Matt Damon: I think, with kids, I’m probably more protective than I’ve ever been now that I have children. I try not to be. My wife’s name for me is “Red Alert.” I sometimes just check to see if the kids are breathing, but no. I think it’s a probably tendency to be a little overprotective without trying to be a helicopter parent.

Do you have a stock pile of supplies?

MD: No. After the Northridge quake, I had. I put the flashlight by my bed for like two weeks and then forgot about it.

Where was your germ paranoia before the movie and then after working on the movie?

Laurence Fishburne: I ain’t afraid of germs. And I ain’t afraid of getting sick. Dying — that’s some other sh*t.

Filming

Was there a list of things that you were definitely not going to do in this film?

SS: The one rule that we had was: we can’t go anywhere where one of our characters hasn’t been. We can’t cut to a city or a group of extras that we’ve never been to that we don’t know personally. That was our rule. And 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, but we felt that all of the elements that we had issues with prior, when we see any kind of disaster film, we’re centered around that idea. That suddenly you cut to Paris where you’ve never been, and something happens and it’s a bunch of people you have no emotional engagement with. We were trying to have it be epic and also intimate at the same time. So that was rule number one.

What did you think of the script?

LF: I was blown away by how smart it was, because a lot of what is being made now is stupid. So I was honored to be asked to be a part of it, because it’s a really smart movie.

MD: I had a similar reaction. Actually, we were getting ready to do something else — another project that we are still going to do — and Steven (Soderbergh) called and said, “I’ve got this other thing and we’ve really got to make it now because it’s really timely.” And he said, “I think it’s the best thing Scott (Z. Burns) has written.” Which is saying quite a bit, and I obviously think a lot of Scott. So he sent it over to me with a note saying, “Read this and then wash your hands.” And I read it and I had the same reaction that Laurence did. I just really want to be in this movie. It’s a terrific, riveting, really fast read, and really exciting, and really horrifying, but it managed to be touching to.

Can you tell us how you managed the epic and intimate scenes of the movie?

SS: Honestly, I was just trying to keep it very simple. And that meant the entire film is shot with two lenses, basically, and when I would look at a scene, I would try to 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 I have ever made. Often, that can require more thought than just walking in saying, “I’m just going to cover the hell out of this and figure it out later.” When you’re going in saying, “I really want to keep this simple and I want every shot to have a purpose, and I want every cut to have a purpose; I don’t want any waste. I don’t want any shot… If you pulled one shot out, it meant something would be diminished.” That was my approach. So that was really it — eye level, no crane shots, no throwing the camera around; just keep it simple so that all that you were paying attention to were the performances.

I understand that Jennifer Ehle was cast because you saw her performance in Michael Clayton, which was cut out of the finished film. What did you see in that which made you want to cast her?

SS: That was an amazing performance, and so…that sounds horrible. I had known who Jennifer was for a long time, and this didn’t take a lot of thought, honestly, I have a somewhat long list of people that I’ve seen in the course of my career and thought, “Wow they would be great to work with.” And I did know from Tony (Gilroy) that they had really good experience and I wasn’t in any danger. So I’m just glad that worked out and of course now she’s reteamed with George (Clooney) in Ides of March. So it’s all happening this year.

Character Work

Matt, you’ve played both family man and action hero characters. Which type of character comes more natural to you?

MD: Obviously the action guys come way more natural. No, if the director is good and the script is good, it all comes pretty naturally, and if those things aren’t in place, it’s impossible no matter what the role is.

Laurence, can you talk about the complexities of your character, who is somebody of authority in the film?

LF: It wasn’t really that complex for me, once I talked to Dr. Lipkin, who had really strong opinions about how all this should play out. He was with us every day, and he is really committed to what he does. He loves what he does. So we’d be working, and he’d be on his phone and he’ll go, “Let me show you this.” And it would be something that could potentially be an outbreak almost every day. He has some new disease that the CDC is tracking and keeping an eye on. So it became really easy to go, “Oh right, so the stakes for this thing that you do are always here.” The personal stuff that I have as Ellis Cheever was telling my fiancé, soon-to-be wife, Sanaa Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk. That’s really easy. Any human being in that situation is going to do that, I think.

How important was it to use the right equipment and terminology in this film?

MD: Would you believe it if I was like, “Pass me the thingy.” It might take you out of the movie. “We’ve got an outbreak of some hush-mish-a-ma.” I don’t know. Fishburne lost me with that performance.

LF: I did that for a long time, but I think that’s how I got this job. So it wasn’t all bad.

Dealing With Death (Scenes)

Matt, how did you relate to your character?

MD: I thought a lot was easy to relate to. It was just on the page. Working with Steven is very different from working with anybody else. To give you an example of a day, we go and we shoot. We’d talk about what we were going to do, we’d figure it out, we’d execute the plan, and then we’d go back to the hotel and go to the bar. And in the back room of the bar, they’d deliver the footage, and Steven, Scott, and I, and Greg Jacobs, our other producer, and A.D., and Michael and Stacey (Sher)…we’d sit there and talk while Steven put on headphones and opened up his laptop and sat in the corner for 45 minutes or an hour. And then, at the end, he’d take his headphones off and he’d turn the computer around, and he’d show us what we shot that day, cut.

So when you’re working that way, it’s like making a movie in your backyard with your friends. It’s like the body is out on the operating table and wide open, and you talk about it. “All right, what else do we need?” It’s very different from going off on my own and doing three months of research… It feels more like the hocus pocus is taken out of the experience.

One of my favorite scenes that we did was this scene that I find out my wife is dead. You know very early on in the movie. And I went to Steven and I said, “Look, I don’t know what to do.” How do you do this scene? It’s five minutes into the movie. We’re not invested in me or her, we don’t care. And Steven goes, “the slump?” Everybody knows the slump. You’re down in the hall and just see that guy slump down. And I’m like, sh*t, I don’t know. What do you do? We’ve got to find some shorthand to do. You can’t dwell on this thing. We’re five minutes into the movie.

We had a guy there who had done this a lot, and we talked to him, and this doctor who delivered this news, and we asked for certain trends, like what happens? And he said, “Sometimes people fall apart, but there is this other reaction that we get just as much.” And I said, “What is it?” He said, “Well, it depends on what kind of death it is. Is it the kind of death where you’re not expecting somebody to be dead?” And I said, “Right, exactly,” and he goes, “Oh, what you get a lot is absolute…it just doesn’t…it’s just too much.” So they have this specific way that they put it, and Scott had written it. It was close. He just intuited it and it was close, but he had written words like, “She had passed away,” and the guy says, “No no no. She didn’t die.” You have to be completely specific and look at the person, and 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. They expect you to go like, “Okay, can I go talk to her?” because that’s the reaction that people have.

So 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, and I end up going to work and getting this scene that’s really interesting, and I’ve never seen it done that way, and I totally believe that’s the way. And these doctors who actually do it say, “Yeah, that’s actually how it goes down a lot of the time.” It’s a very long-winded answer to a very short question.

How was filming Gwyneth Paltrow’s autopsy scene?

SS: Gwyneth is a trooper, we got into that room and we had an actual medical examiner there who does that sort of thing all the time. We asked them to walk us through the steps in which someone has died under these circumstances. And when they got to the part where they said, ‘Well, we cut here and we peel the skin over the front of the face,’ I immediately turned to Greg and said, ‘Okay, we need to find a flap of something that looks like pizza up on one end without the sauce, that we could attach some wig hair to so that we could do this.’ And so we scrambled around and we found we were able to do that.

And while it took about forty minutes of having Gwyneth in that position, Greg actually ended up being the person who put the skin flap over. And she was stalk still and didn’t say a word. She asked the medical examiner, ‘Talk to me about the rest of my face. What about my mouth?’ And the examiner said, ‘Okay, your tongue would be extruded just a little bit. You’ll have some sort of yellowish fluid coming out of your nose.’ And 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. There were no tricks there, no freeze frame, no high speed frame rate. That was just her being stalk still with some really good effects.

Contagion opens September 9. Check it out.