Nobody following the work of Steven Soderbergh could deny that the filmmaker is indefatigable. The Academy Award-winning director of both the Ocean's Eleven franchise and the Che movies, Soderbergh is famed for his ability to churn out films at an alarming rate. Even now, as Contagion screens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and opens in cinemas across the UAE on Thursday, Soderbergh has already completed Haywire, a female-action movie out in US cinemas in January.
Contagion, a thriller about a lethal airborne virus, features a strong cast and spans the globe. It is also co-produced by Image Nation International, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National. And despite Soderbergh's reputation for a hectic and fast-paced filming schedule, it is still hard to imagine a more exhausting shoot than the one Contagion required.
Soderbergh says: "We started in Hong Kong and then we had a bit of a break and then we went to Chicago, which was standing in for a couple of different places, then we had a break, then we went to Atlanta, then we had a break, then we went to London and Geneva, then we had a break, then we went to San Francisco."
It's tiring just reading the list. Even a character in Abu Dhabi catches the bug, despite no scene being shot in the UAE. Still, Soderbergh insists that the shoot for Contagion was easier than the Cuban set of Che. Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that Soderbergh would succumb to a virus while making the movie. "I got sick in Hong Kong," he confirms. "I got a really bad stomach virus."
Soderbergh's status is such that he can get A-list stars such as Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law to appear in a film with a B-movie premise. A deadly virus infecting the human race is movie fodder, but in the hands of Soderbergh it becomes a serious look at how people would react in such circumstances, whether they're scientists trying to find a solution, parents mourning their children, journalists reporting or opportunists exploiting the situation for their own ends.
One of the most intriguing characters is a blogger played by Jude Law, but Soderbergh admits that the British star almost didn't make it: "With Jude, we wanted him so much. There was a schedule conflict with the Sherlock Holmes film, and we broke for a month and waited for him. And during that period we cut together everything that we had and I had this fantasy that even without Jude, the movie would work. I thought, 'Wow, I don't know, maybe we'll have to call Jude and tell him, don't bother coming to San Francisco.' I can't tell you how obvious it was that we needed him in the movie; you need that voice, you need that energy."
In order to make a unique film, Soderbergh set himself conditions. "I had this list of things that we would not do: we would not show the president, we would not cut to Moscow or Sydney, where none of our characters have ever been, to show a bunch of extras that you don't know and that are dying, and yet you're supposed to care. None of that. When you look at the film, despite the fact that it takes place all over the world and is supposed to have a certain scale, almost all of the scenes are between two people."
With Soderbergh's willingness to kill off big stars, there's a guarantee that predictability will not be an issue.