Local movie lovers who venture out to Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, Contagion, when it opens Friday are likely to experience a profound and eerie feeling of recognition.
Contagion is a mournful and utterly realistic thriller about the devastating outbreak of a global viral epidemic. Starring Matt Damon, Academy Award-winning actresses Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marion Cotillard, the story shuttles between a series of foreign and U.S. locations.
Movies are the most illusory of arts. Even for large-budget Hollywood movies, it is financially untenable to move an army of actors, crew and technicians from city to city.
Chicago was the production’s nexus that doubled for Atlanta and Minneapolis. Contagion was largely shot in the city, the North Shore and western suburbs over a two-month stretch late last year, according to Rich Moskal of the Chicago Film Office.
In the movie, Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, an executive returning from a business trip in Hong Kong who becomes an unwitting transmitter of a vicious and deadly viral strain. Damon plays her husband, Mitch. Their scenes are set in the comfortable, tree-lined block of the Minneapolis suburb Edina.
Soderbergh actually staged those dramatically crucial scenes in the 500 block of Woodlawn Avenue in Glencoe. The hospital scenes, where Dave transfers the stricken Beth, were shot at Elgin’s Sherman Hospital. Their child's grade school was actually Wilmette’s Central Elementary School.
As the story deepens, Damon’s bereaved everyman becomes the emotional centerpiece of the film who must retain his sanity amid the enveloping social breakdown. In another critical moment, he pursues his daughter into the deep woods where she tries to rendezvous with her boyfriend. For that scene, the filmmakers used the Robert Everly Wildlife Sanctuary near the Glencoe Park District.
The movie’s effectiveness is sharpened by the way Soderbergh skillfully draws on the escalating panic and dread to underline the enormity of the crisis, especially the mounting body count.
Winslet plays Erin Mears, a doctor assigned by her supervisor (Laurence Fishburne) at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta to manage the field operations. (The filmmakers used Sara Lee’s Downers Grove corporate headquarters on Lacey Road for the sequences representing the CDC and military response to the unfolding disaster.)
Contagion is not just a thriller but a contemporary horror allegory. Logistically, the movie was intensely complicated. The transformative nature of moviemaking is how directors use specific landmarks, architecture or physical space to, in this case, very chilling ends.
For instance, Winslet’s Dr. Mears works at a vast makeshift infirmary that was created at General Jones National Armory on Chicago's South Side, at 52nd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Later in the film Damon has an ugly confrontation with federal authorities trying to enter Chicago, filmed at the Henry Ford II Memorial Bridge on Torrence Avenue on the far South Side.
The filmmakers also worked closely with the Illinois National Guard, which supplied critical equipment and personnel. In one of the scenes shot in Evanston, a Black Hawk helicopter is seen dropping medical and food supplies to Damon.
That was just one of several incidents were local governments and municipalities were summoned as active collaborators during the shootings. Waukegan officials closed off a stretch of the Amstutz Expressway, a stand-in for the Dan Ryan Expressway, for 24-hours to film an eerie moment of a military convoy moving through a depopulated stretch of the city.
The filmmakers also shot in Western Springs and a couple of days in the Loop. At day's end, it is only a movie. But even if it disrupted daily life, it provided a jolting change of pace that many who were all too willing to put up with the detours and interruptions for their 15 minutes of cinematic fame.