While working for Steven Soderbergh is an easy choice for Matt Damon — the two have teamed up on the three “Oceans” movies, “Che” and “the Informant!” — the eclectic director’s pitch for their latest collaboration, “Contagion,” gave Damon pause. “He sent it over to me with a note saying, ‘Read this and then wash your hands,’” Damon remembers.
The warning was well-founded, though, as “Contagion” covers some nerve-rattling subject matter: A new virus quickly spreads throughout the world, quickly becoming an epidemic, while scientists and doctors race to find a cure and governments work to keep society from falling apart. What surprised Soderbergh the most about the film was how easy it was to get made. “Everyone felt there was a place for an ultrarealistic film about this subject. Nobody hesitated,” the director says. “It all happened very quickly — uncharacteristically quickly, actually, considering what the business is right now for adult dramas.”
Working on the movie hasn’t had much impact on Damon’s disaster preparedness. He’s always been bad about stuff like that. “After the Northridge quake, I put the flashlight by my bed for like two weeks, and then forgot about it,” he admits. Now that he’s a parent, however, some of his behavior has certainly changed. “I’m probably more protective than I’ve ever been now that I have children,” he says. “My wife’s name for me is ‘Red Alert.’ I sometimes just check to see if the kids are breathing.”
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As for Soderbergh, working on “Contagion” certainly has made him much more aware of the microscopic dangers around him. “I don’t know if my behavior has changed. I’m just really aware of it now,” he says. “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.”
Damon is only one part of the massive, big-name cast Soderbergh assembled for “Contagion,” making it something like a brainier descendent of the star-studded disaster films of the 1970s like “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno.” Playing Damon’s wife — and Patient Zero — is Gwyneth Paltrow, while their “The Talented Mr. Ripley” co-star, Jude Law, pops up as an opportunistic blogger. On the disease-fighting side, Marion Cotillard plays a World Health Organization investigator, while Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne’s CDC officials work stateside. For Fishburne, the appeal of the project was simple. “I was blown away by how smart it was, because a lot of what is being made now is kind of stupid,” he says.
Fear the germs
Taking the movie out into the world has produced some surprisingly entertaining moments — even if they are at the audience’s expense. “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,” Soderbergh says, a mischievous glint in his eye. “You could tell they weren’t happy.”