With 34 titles under his director's belt, Steven Soderbergh has entertained audiences with such movies as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Erin Brokovich, Traffic, and the Oceans franchise. Now he's decided to spread paranoia to his viewers with new sci-fi action thriller Contagion. Try not to bug out after watching it.
Izumi Hasegawa: 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.
IH: The message of the movie seems to be: trust government, but get a gun. Can you discuss some of the politics in the movie? What about the gun control aspect of the movie?
SS: What, because he finds a gun across the street? I think, under those circumstances, that's understandable. I don't view that as any kind of statement. I think four weeks into an event like this -- a truly cataclysmic event in which you're alone and your neighborhood has got cop cars and military blowing through it -- he's not going there looking for a gun. He's going over there looking for help and for food. I mean, that's the way I read it, and he finds a gun. I would have taken it, absolutely. How many people in here have a gun? Yeah.
IH: 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.
IH: 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.
IH: 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.
IH: What about Gwyneth Paltrow's autopsy scene?
SS: Gwyneth is a trooper because we got into that room and we had an actual medical examiner there who does this sort of thing all the time. And we asked her to walk us through the steps in which someone has died under these circumstances. And when she got to the part where she said, "Well, we cut here, and we peel the skin over the front of the face," I immediately turned to Greg (Jacobs) 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 we scrambled around and we found we were able to do that. And while it took about 40 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, didn't say a word; she had contact lenses in. She asked the medical examiner, "Talk to me about the rest of my face. What about my mouth?" And the woman said, "Okay your tongue would be extruded just a little bit." She said, "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. It's kind of jarring. 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.
IH: I understand that Jennifer Ehle was cast because you saw her performance in Michael Clayton. 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.
IH: Was there something that made her right for that role in particular?
SS: I knew that, by her saying yes, she was willing to take a run at some very complex language. This stuff is one of the most difficult scenes, in terms of the language in the movie being the explanation, and when she says, "Okay, we know what it is now. The green part is this. The red is that..." Scott had written it in general terms, and then Ian Lipkin was on the set, and we wrote it right there. It's not really fair to throw dialogue like that at someone at the last minute. I was hoping the fear of having to say it would translate as excitement and the high emotional stakes for the world, because it was a lot. It looked hard.
Warner Bros. Pictures' 'Contagion' is released on September 9, 2011.