Lynda Obst Talks 'The Hot Zone's 25-Year Journey to the Screen
"It was the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me," says the prolific producer of losing out to 1995's 'Outbreak.'
Veteran producer Lynda Obst has spent the last 25 years trying to make a project about the 1989 Ebola outbreak. But on May 27, she'll finally get to see that script come to life as National Geographic Channel's star-studded miniseries The Hot Zone, featuring Julianna Margulies, Noah Emmerich, Topher Grace and Liam Cunningham.
Back in 1992, Obst and studio 20th Century Fox had won a bidding war for the film rights to Richard Preston's book of the same name, which would be published in 1994 and detail the spread of the highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest to U.S. soil. But simultaneously, the late movie producer Arnold Kopelson began working on a similar film with Warner Bros. — and that movie, 1995's Outbreak, ultimately beat Obst's project to the screen.
"It was the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me," says Obst of the experience, one she chronicles in her book Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches. She'd gotten Ridley Scott to come on board to direct the movie, and they'd rounded up Robert Redford and Jodie Foster to star. "I don't think I had felt that I had ever done better," she adds. Even when Foster dropped out of the film, Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone and Robin Wright were all rumored as possible replacements.
"We still had the better package and we had the better script, so we were moving as quickly as we could, but when you have Robert Redford and Ridley [Scott], they can't agree necessarily on everything easily. You need the time to get them to all come to the same conclusions. While we were doing that, they started shooting monkey footage," she says, exclaiming: "Just monkeys!" (Outbreak prominently featured a white-headed capuchin monkey named Betsy who brings the virus with her when she is smuggled in the U.S.)
With Outbreak seemingly moving full-speed ahead, 20th dropped Obst's film. "It was like the first time I ever did really good work and lost. It was totally traumatic," she says, looking back. "I didn't think the good guys could lose. But this is the movie business." She still can't believe that director Wolfgang Petersen, who helmed Outbreak, tried to lure Redford over to his movie instead. "It really was hideous," she says, remembering a call she got from Redford, saying, "Don't worry toots, I'm hanging in there."
Obst may have lost the battle but not the war. She was still intent on getting the project made in some capacity. As she watched virus movie after virus movie come out, she felt like they were all offshoots of Preston's best-seller. "Every time one hit the screen, I wanted to bang my head against the wall," she says. Then, six years ago, she went to David Madden, who was at Fox at the time, and they began developing it as a miniseries. Obst quickly hit another roadblock when Fox later pulled back on miniseries. "It was heartbreaking," she says. "I said to him, 'Well, what else can I do?'" And that's when they both thought of Nat Geo.
The project took on a whole new life at the cable network. Scripted content head Carolyn Bernstein had a lunch with Margulies, where she brought up the lead character of Nancy Jaax. Margulies said yes almost immediately. "We never had to send this out because how many female, veterinarian, virologist, colonels stop outbreaks in America who are wives and mothers?" Obst says. "She was always my perfect protagonist."
Now, with the miniseries set to debut in a couple months, Obst's two-decade quest to get The Hot Zone made is culminating with an award. The prolific producer will be honored by EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of animal, environmental and human health. She'll be feted May 16 at Guastavino’s in New York City for her work producing the project.
"I think it's called the Perseverance Award," Obst jokes, adding with a laugh: "It's the Still She Persisted Award."