Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh explores how a lethal virus is transmitted from one person to another, until the entire world is affected in Contagion.
The film, which debuted over the weekend at the Venice film festival and hits U.S. theaters on Friday, features an all star cast that includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law among others.
Soderbergh, known for directing such movies as the Ocean's trilogy, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, sat down with Reuters to talk about the film, what he learned about viruses and why he's decided to retire from moviemaking.
Q: Contagion is about a virus that kills people with no cure in sight. With real-life scares like SARS, N1H1 and the bird flu, this is a fear anyone can relate to.
A: Yes (the virus) doesn't speak and it doesn't have a brain, but it is alive and it wants to stay alive and propagate itself. I really felt like this was great movie material because you cannot construct a life for yourself in which you're not around germs.
Q: Once someone gets the virus, death is imminent so it's like a zombie movie without the zombies.
A: Matt (Damon) wanted a zombie. He kept asking for one. He kept saying we'd make a lot more money if we had zombies. I said, 'Call Gwyneth! Let's see if she's up for it.'
Q: This is your sixth film with Matt. What is it about him that made you want him form Contagion?
A: He's one of the few people that can play both ends of the spectrum -- he can be everyman, and he can be Jason Bourne. In 'Contagion' his character needed to be resolutely middle class. Matt's great at that because he's not one of those actors that comes in like, 'I wanna win this scene.' He's so completely lacking in vanity. He'll submit to the larger story and not worry about how he is coming across moment to moment.
Q: You worked with a lot of consultants to get the scientific aspect of film correct. Most audiences wouldn't know the difference. Why was that important to you?
A: As a moviegoer, the more detailed and convincing the world of the film is, the happier I am. You go to the movies to be transported, to go on a ride, and this happens to be a ride you can't just forget the minute the lights come up because you have to touch the armrest in order to stand.
Q: Working with those consultants, what did you personally learn about protecting yourself against viruses?
A: I'm washing my hands a little more. The hand sanitizer, according to the consultants we worked with, lasts about three minutes. The touching of the face is really bad. They said during flu season if you can manage not to touch yourself above the neck, you've got a better chance of not getting sick.
Q: You've got some scenes with monkeys in a lab that are being used as test subjects for the virus cure. Do you think that might cause an uproar within the animal rights community?
A: It might. It should. That's a legitimately volatile subject. I can tell you that just in the brief scenes in which we had Rhesus monkeys in cages, it was really disturbing to film because they know what's going on. They know they're in a cage and that you've put them in there and that it is not cool. There was one that we were shooting with -- he had the lock in his hand and he was turning it and trying to figure out how to undo it. Then he looks at you. He knows. It's disturbing.
RETIREMENT, 'OCEAN'S' AND BERNIE MAC
Q: You've talked about retiring, but you still have three more movies to do. That could take a few more years, right?
A: Nah. 18 months. In a few weeks, I start shooting a male stripper movie with Channing Tatum. We worked together on (the upcoming) 'Haywire.' Then I'm going to do 'Man From U.N.C.L.E' in February and 'Liberace' in June.
Q: So after that you're truly retiring from filmmaking?
A: Call it whatever you want -- hiatus, sabbatical. I'm just gonna disappear for a while.
Q: Is it permanent?
A: I don't know. Maybe. It depends.
Q: Why do you want to disappear?
A: It's not that I want to. I need to. I've been running really fast for quite a while. It's been non-stop since 'Out of Sight.' That's a lot of work.
Q: What do you plan on doing during your sabbatical?
A: I don't know. Interview people. I've done it a couple of times and I really enjoy it. I did a book of interviews with a filmmaker and it was really great to walk him through things and ask 'How was this done?' 'How was this accomplished?' I love process. I'm a process person. I like talking about how things were done as opposed to what they mean.
Q: If you choose to come back to movies in the future, could there be another Ocean's still in you somewhere?
A: Not without Bernie Mac. It was a really unique group and we can't do it without him. We really hit the jackpot with those movies. (The cast) all liked each other, they enjoyed being together. Losing Bernie was a horrible tragedy. It was upsetting. He was such a doll and so much fun to be around.
Q: The Ocean movies were also your most successful. Do you pay attention to your box office track record?
A: For me, all of the pleasure is in the making of the film. Once they're done and delivered, I've moved on. If you start thinking about results, it affects your ability to make things in the moment. You never want to lose the enthusiasm and the attitude of the amateur. You always want to be making creative decisions based on the same criteria you used when you were 15 years-old. What's important is the experience itself.