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Venice: 'Contagion' tracks spread of lethal virus

Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh's latest film "Contagion" can be considered a 105-minute public service announcement with a simple message: Wash your hands. Often.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh's latest film "Contagion" can be considered a 105-minute public service announcement with a simple message: Wash your hands. Often.

Certainly audience members may look more warily at public door handles and subway hand rails after watching, perhaps in a crowded theater, the film about the global spread of a lethal surface-borne virus with a kill rate of about 25 percent.

"It is impossible, once you start thinking about it, to stop thinking about it," Soderbergh acknowledged at a news conference ahead of the film's world premiere out of competition at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday.

"I'm washing my hands a little bit more. But since I showed up in Venice I have been shaking hands, alot. I was on an airplane, which is one of the worst places you can be. This is just the world we live in."

On a filmmaking level, "Contagion" recalls in some ways the great ensemble cast of disaster films such as "The Poseiden Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno" produced by Erwin Allen in the 1970s.

"Contagion" features Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Lawrence Fishburne in a fast-paced drama that depicts the rapid spread of a lethal virus of unknown origin and with no available vaccine.

Damon plays Mitch Emhoff, a father trying to protect his daughter from infection after his wife Beth, played by Paltrow, succumbs to the virus after a business trip to Hong Kong.

Fishburne is Dr. Ellis Cheever, the cool-headed deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control, who dispatches Winslet, Dr. Erin Mears, to Minnesota, where the Emhoffs live, to figure out how fast the virus is spreading. Cotillard is Dr. Leonora Orantes, who heads to Hong Kong.

Law plays a muckraking San Francisco blogger, Alan Krumwiede, whose character provides 12 million unique viewers a day suggestions of conspiracy theories about the virus' spread and government efforts to contain it and develop a vaccine.

"There is a certain amount of conflicting and misinformation, and conspiracy that inevitably makes its way around the world with the same progressive force and the same spread as the virus," said scriptwriter Scott Z. Burns.

Soderbergh said the star cast makes the film with overlapping stories easier for audiences to process.

"You are throwing so many characters and so much information at the audience, that it is very helpful for them to get a reference point to hold onto," Soderbergh said. "There is a reason that movie stars have existed since the beginning of cinema. It's good for the audience."

But while disaster films may come to mind as the virus provokes food shortages, looting and kidnappings — not to mention mass graves in urban America — Soderbergh said he was actually thinking more of "All the President's Men" when he made the movie.

"Scott and I, I think, were interested in making a procedural that was realistic, obviously, in its content, but stylistically also very simple, very clean. So that's the film I was thinking of most," Soderbergh said.

Damon — who has worked with Soderbergh on six films, including the "Oceans" series, said he is especially proud of the scene early in the film when he is told that his wife has died. They wanted an alternative to what Soderbergh called "the slump," a long shot showing the guy getting the news and slumping against the way, so they talked to an ER doctor.

"This guy has delivered this news hundreds of times to people said that, there's 'the slump.' That's the one common thing that happens. The other thing that happens, that someone just can't actually absorb the information. So we literally did the whole scene based on a real conversation and how it actually goes," Damon said.

Paltrow rejected the idea that her character's death was in any way a moral judgment for cheating on her husband, a fact that emerges after her death as investigators tracked her movements.

"I think that if death by virus was a punishment for extramarital affairs, there would be about three dudes left in this room. Maybe less, because we are in Italy," she joked.