As a co-founder of and spokesman for Water.org, Matt Damon is concerned about the lack of clean water in many places of the world and the health implications thereof, but he's also concerned with another kind of potential global health crisis, one that plays out quite chillingly in "Contagion," in which he plays the widower of a woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) that suddenly sickens and dies after an overseas trip. Director Stephen Soderbergh, with whom he'd most recently worked on "The Informant!," sent him the script with a note that read, "Read this and wash your hands," and he was immediately hooked — and shaken, finding it "riveting, really exciting and really horrifying."
He signed on for the pandemic movie and the role he describes as "everyman, one of the human faces of the epidemic" who must deal with loss and try to survive in a fearful, chaotic world while trying to protect his teenage daughter. A father himself, he certainly related to that. "My wife's nickname for me is Red Alert," he reveals. "I sometimes check to see if the kids are breathing. I do have the tendency to be overprotective."
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!," "The Bourne Ultimatum") — inspired by the can-of-germs experience that is airplane travel and an "Informant!" scene in which Damon's character blasts Scott Bakula's after the latter coughs, sneezes and hands him a germ-covered phone — devised multiple characters to tell a story of the rise, spread and aftermath of a global pandemic, among them the Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Laurence Fishburne), epidemiologists investigating the crisis (Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard), a researcher trying to develop a vaccine (Jennifer Ehle) and a rabble-rousing blogger (Jude Law). "The deal Stephen and I made was nothing in the movie happened if it couldn't happen in the real world," says Burns, who consulted scientists, doctors, policy makers and other experts to ensure the script's realism, which has had the desired effect on early viewers. "It was fun to watch the audience after the previews and have 400 people realize they're next to a bunch of strangers and they've touched everything," says Soderbergh.
Burns, who produced "An Inconvenient Truth" and has been a big proponent of carbon-neutral film production, says that producers didn't specifically implement those practices on "Contagion." However, because Soderbergh serves as his own cinematographer and runs a tight ship, "We tend to be far more efficient than any other group of people. A lot of waste just comes from people being profligate and that is one thing that we are not," says Burns, who's equally eco-conscious at home and drives a Prius and a Tesla and buys local produce. "I'm very aware of what I eat and where it comes from," he says.
Burns next reteams with Soderbergh on a film version of the Cold War era TV series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," which will retain its '60s setting, and is writing a new adaptation of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," to be directed by David Fincher. "I don't think I'm supposed to turn Jules Verne's book into the movie. I think I'm supposed to read his book and get inspired and write a movie that is inspired by the book," he notes. As for Damon, he's sporting a shaved head for his role in the sci-fi flick "Elysium," which director Neill Blomkamp ("District 9") is shooting in Vancouver through the end of the year. "It's great in the summertime, really easy getting out of the shower," he says of being hairless. Water.org, he reports, is "going great guns. We're going to do the water bottle again this year for a holiday gift."
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