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This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Two decades before the CDC’s Sept. 30 confirmation of the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S., Hollywood put two films with a virus-battling premise into preproduction.
Warner Bros. had Outbreak with Arnold Kopelson producing, Wolfgang Petersen directing and Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo starring; 20th Century Fox had Hot Zone with Lynda Obst producing, Ridley Scott directing and Robert Redford and Jodie Foster set to co-star. Both films drew inspiration from Richard Preston‘s 1992 New Yorker nonfiction article “Crisis in the Hot Zone” (which he turned into the best-selling 1994 book The Hot Zone), about Army doctors who feared that the U.S. outbreak of a deadly monkey-borne virus would become an epidemic.
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Preston elected to sell story rights to Fox, so Kopelson developed his own fictional script and set out to beat the Fox film to market. “Our script was going through final stages,” says Obst, “and before we could finish our process, they started shooting monkey footage.” Recalls Kopelson: “I announced our production was commencing and we shot second unit until our script was ready. And Fox pulled the plug.”
There was still one hiccup for Outbreak: Hoffman insisted poet Maya Angelou be hired to make the ending less depressing. (Little of her work is said to have been used.) In the end, Outbreak made it onscreen with a 1995 L.A. premiere and an afterparty at Chasen’s, where one guest was overheard to remark: “After seeing a movie like this, you kinda don’t want to eat something that somebody else has touched.”
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