How Carl Sagan's novel about intelligent extraterrestrial life became a movie with two lawsuits, two directors, and billions of rewrites
The dark, inquisitive eyes. The deep, intelligent brow. The messy moptop of brown hair. Six-year-old Sam Sagan looks so much like his famous dad you half expect him to be wearing a tiny black turtleneck and a corduroy jacket. The boy even thinks like Carl. Presented with a new toy — a bulbous-headed alien puppet with glow-in-the-dark eyes — he examines it with cool, scientific detachment. “You know,” he concludes, “real aliens probably wouldn’t look like this.”
Like father, like son.
In fact, speculating on what real aliens would or wouldn’t look like was a large part of what made Carl Sagan the best-known astronomer of the century. And it’s a large part of Contact, the film he toiled to bring to the screen during the final 17 years of his life, before he died of cancer last December at age 62. A serious science-fiction epic set on a world stage and packed with cosmic meditations on the duel between science and God, it’s the most unabashedly esoteric film about aliens to come out of Hollywood since Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A $90 million Event Movie for intellectuals — is Earth prepared?
“Who knows?” says star Jodie Foster. “Maybe by next week, audiences will be really sick of seeing aliens. Maybe they’ll want to see a movie with more mystery?”
Here’s how the mystery starts: Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a maverick astronomer whose obsessive search for extraterrestrial intelligence almost wrecks her career — until one day she tunes in to what could be an email from outer space. Matthew McConaughey costars as her romantic interest/philosophical foil, a sort of Billy Graham-meets-Bruce Springsteen pop priest who distrusts technology but loves the aloof Ellie (“He’s got the girl’s part,” Foster cheerily notes). And because it’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, the technical wizard who had Tom Hanks shaking hands with JFK in Forrest Gump, expect improbable guest stars to pop up (President Clinton has such a big part he could snag a Best Supporting Actor nomination this year).
But Contact is really Carl Sagan’s film, his swan song to the cosmos and its mind-bending possibilities. “We had one overwhelming impulse with this movie,” says his widow and Contact coproducer, Ann Druyan, 48, settling into the patio of their home in Ithaca, N.Y., where Sagan taught at Cornell University (Sam and his puppet have disappeared, presumably to bug his 14-year-old sister, Sasha). “We wanted to show a serious depiction of what an alien encounter would really be like, informed by Carl, who was one of the handful of people on earth who knew most about it. We wanted to do a story about a woman like Carl, who wanted to find out how the universe was put together, a character driven in an almost Old Testament way by the need to know the truth.”
In other words, no giant space Frisbees, no Will Smith dressed in black, no bulbous-headed aliens with glow-in-the-dark eyes. No wonder it took 17 years.
Pasadena, 1979. Sagan has been zooming around the galaxy in a plywood and Plexiglas spaceship, taping Cosmos, the breakthrough PBS series that would make him an international celebrity. He’d already won a Pulitzer (for The Dragons of Eden) and advised NASA on the Voyager and Viking probes (just last week, the space agency renamed the Mars Pathfinder lander the Carl Sagan Memorial Station). But now he was being parodied on The Tonight Show by Johnny Carson (who invented the “billions and billions” shtick — Sagan never uttered the words) and courted by Hollywood.
As it happened, one of Sagan’s closest pals, Lynda Obst, had just landed a gig at the short-lived production company Casablanca FilmWorks. She suggested the two of them, along with Druyan, whip up a movie treatment based on Sagan’s work with the SETI program — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, an array of radio telescopes searching the skies for alien messages. “It was the toughest thing I have ever done,” Obst recalls. “It was a grueling Socratic exercise. I tried to translate the rules of screenplay drama to Carl, but he was so rigorous he wouldn’t let me. He’d say, ‘Is this an argument by authority or an argument of convention? Is this a priori?'”
Eventually, the scientist and the D-girl tapped out a 60-page treatment, the thrust of which was, What if aliens really did decide to give SETI a jingle? What if, in fact, they sent us the blueprints for an advanced spaceship? Could we build it? Should we build it? And how would the world react to the news that we are not alone?
Obst’s boss at Casablanca loved the concept, bought it, and spent the next 10 years hiring teams of screenwriters to change it. New characters were added, like a cliched Native American ranger-turned-astronaut. “And there was one person, who shall remain nameless, who kept talking about a teenage stowaway,” Druyan says, rolling her eyes.
Oh, what the heck, let’s name him: It was Peter Guber, who was then heading Casablanca. “It wasn’t a teenage stowaway — it was an estranged teenage son,” he says. “And I thought it lent a tremendous element to the picture. Here was a woman consumed with the idea that there was something out there worth listening to, but the one thing she could never make contact with was her own child. To me, that’s what the film had to be about.”
Sagan, big surprise, disagreed. So while Guber continued massaging his version of Contact — dragging the project to his new job producing for Warner Bros. in 1982 — Sagan started to turn his original idea into a novel. He fleshed out Ellie’s character, worked out the details of an alien encounter, and filled page upon page with humanistic polemics on spiritualism and science. “I don’t think it would ever win a prize as the best-written novel in the world,” says Foster. “But it is kind of great. It’s big and melodramatic and has this epic quality. It delves into every type of science and unites them all.”
Contact was published in 1985 and became a bestseller, but the movie remained in development limbo until after 1989, when Guber left Warner Bros. for his infamously bumpy ride co-heading Sony Pictures with Jon Peters. Despite his efforts to hold on to the project, it stayed at Warner Bros., where, coincidentally, Lynda Obst had just taken a job as a producer. “It was a lovely karmic boomerang,” she says. “We got the piece back. And the first thing I did was to bring Carl and Annie back in.”
Contact finally got the green light in 1993. Obst took charge, hiring screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Bed of Roses) and director George Miller, the Aussie auteur behind the Mad Max movies, then hooked Foster with Goldenberg’s second draft. “I don’t find many movies I love,” says the actress, who last appeared on screen in 1994’s Nell. “I have to have some acute personal connection with the material. And that’s pretty hard for me to find.”
But not all systems were go. For one thing, Warner’s insistence on a splashy Close Encounters-type ending sent the script caroming in awkward directions. One version had aliens parking in orbit around Earth and putting on a giant laser show for all mankind. Another had an alien wormhole swallow up the planet, transporting it to the center of the galaxy. “Suddenly it really was Spaceship Earth,” Goldenberg chuckles. Miller, meanwhile, wanted revisions of his own — including a lengthy subplot in which the Pope somehow figured as a major character.
Preproduction crept along for more than a year. “It was like Zeno’s paradox,” says Druyan. “You know, you’re always going a fraction of the way you have to go, so theoretically you never actually get there.” Warner was hoping to have Contact ready by Christmas 1996, but as deadlines loomed, the studio started losing confidence in Miller. Cameras had initially been scheduled to roll in February 1996, but by October 1995 the sets still hadn’t been built, the budget was still being debated, and Miller was insisting that the script needed five more weeks of tweaking. “Warner Bros. finally came to the conclusion that George would make a great movie, but it wouldn’t be ready until after the millennium,” says Druyan.
So they fired him. “George did not see it coming,” Foster recalls. “He’s an unbelievably inspirational person and a great filmmaker. He’s the kind of director that could make a two-and-a-half-hour movie about an eye blinking and it would be the most extraordinary, deep, beautiful film. But he’s very naive about the business.”
Not that naive: He’s suing Warner Bros. for breach of contract and has returned to Australia, where he’s shunning interviews while preparing the sequel to the film he produced before his run-in with Contact — the 1995 megahit Babe.
The Skywalker Ranch, about an hour outside San Francisco, is testament to what a few trillion Star Wars action figures can buy. At George Lucas’ massive film postproduction compound, directors can lease the very latest in cinematic light and magic. Equipped with lavish guest lodgings (continental breakfast included), a barnyard menagerie (horses, cattle, potbellied pigs), and its own vineyard (Chateau Wookiee, anyone?), it’s a massive spread, what a summer camp for billionaires might look like. And right now, inside the Technology Building, Robert Zemeckis is putting the final touches on Contact‘s most ambitious special effect: a psychedelic intergalactic journey through a cosmic wormhole.
“The fact is,” Zemeckis says during a break, “no matter how successful this movie ends up being, it’s always going to fall short of Gump. I’ve had to resign myself to that. To quote Carl Sagan, the mathematical probability that I would ever make a movie like Gump again is pretty nil.”
A little performance anxiety is to be expected: Gump, after all, grossed more than $600 million worldwide and swept the 1994 Oscars — what do you do for an encore after that? In any case, Zemeckis had actually been offered the Contact job before Miller but turned it down. “The first script I saw was great until the last page and a half,” he recalls. “And then it had the sky open up and these angelic aliens putting on a light show and I said, ‘That’s just not going to work.'”
When studio execs reapproached Zemeckis, they promised to let him end the film the way he wanted. The director prodded Goldenberg to fashion a more ambiguous, enigmatic conclusion with a did-it-ever-happen X-Files edge. “It’s a much more satisfying payoff than any bug-eyed monster could ever be,” says Goldenberg. Zemeckis also signed McConaughey for the male lead (Miller had approached Ralph Fiennes, but a deal was never sealed). “It was the first script I’ve ever read that made me say, ‘I’ve got to do this,'” says McConaughey. “It took me about eight hours to read, ’cause I kept running upstairs to my attic to get my old college papers on technology and society.”
Foster, meanwhile, tried not to panic. “I was scared the movie wasn’t going to happen,” she says. “There was another film that I was supposed to do that fell apart at the last minute, Crisis in the Hot Zone, one of the Ebola virus movies. Brilliant story. I became obsessed with it. But it just didn’t work out, and it broke my heart. And I didn’t want that to happen again.” Still, she waited it out. “I’m one of the few people who stick,” she says. “That’s the good news and the bad news.”
Sagan stuck too — in fact, Zemeckis pulled him even further into the creative fold. At one point, as the author was becoming increasingly ill, he even held a mini-symposium for the Contact cast in Washington, D.C. “It was a slide show,” recalls McConaughey. “Sagan walked us through history — how man once thought the world was flat and then Galileo comes along and, okay, well, now the world is round…. He explained it all really well.”
There were still some details to be worked out before filming could start — like who should play the President of the United States. Miller had toyed with the idea of casting Linda Hunt (in Sagan’s book, the President is a woman). Zemeckis went in another direction, approaching Sidney Poitier, but he turned the part down for a role in this fall’s The Jackal. Then the answer literally dropped out of the sky, when NASA announced last August that it may have found signs of life in a Martian meteorite. “Clinton gave his Mars rock speech,” Zemeckis explains, “and I swear to God it was like it was scripted for this movie. When he said the line ‘We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say,’ I almost died. I stood there with my mouth hanging open.” A star was born — or at least computer-pasted out of old news clips.
Foster, on the other hand, had to earn her screen time the old-fashioned way — by acting. The two-time Oscar winner had played opposite cannibals and psychos but had never stepped in front of a blue screen. “It was a blue room,” she corrects. “Blue walls, blue roof. It was just blue, blue, blue. And I was rotated on a lazy Susan with the camera moving on a computerized arm. It was really tough.
“If I had directed it,” she adds, “it would have been a $6 million movie about three people in a room with a little radio going ‘Is something out there?'”
Sagan, meanwhile, was getting sicker and sicker. In 1994, he had been diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a rare bone-marrow disease, and told he had six months to live. He had managed to stretch those months to years with painful bone-marrow transplants. But last winter, as the movie he spent so much of his last two decades working on was finally being filmed, he was readmitted to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where, on Dec. 20, after a farewell visit from his wife and their two children, he died.
“He had been on the set two weeks earlier,” Zemeckis recalls at Skywalker Ranch. “As sick as he was, he was sending us notes on last-minute rewrites. He worked until he died. I was so hoping he’d be down on the stage and working on the final cutting of the film. It’s so sad.”
It would get even sadder — and stranger. Just days after her husband’s death, Druyan was served court papers: Sagan was being sued posthumously, along with Warner Bros., by Francis Coppola, who claims he had the idea for Contact in 1975 and approached Sagan about collaborating on a TV program for the Children’s Television Workshop. The director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now is demanding $250,000 in compensatory damages.
“It’s pending litigation, so I’m advised by my lawyer not to talk about it,” says Druyan. “All I can say is, when a man writes a complaint with his lawyer while your husband is dying after a third bone-marrow transplant, and then waits for him to die so he can file it — it’s outrageous.”
Obst is even more outspoken. “He’s a nut — you can quote me on that,” she says. “Ann and Carl made up this idea from scratch, piece by piece. I sat in the room watching them do it. Of course Carl had been thinking about alien encounters all his life. He’s the one who made the subject credible in science. And for Coppola to file a lawsuit within days after he died — it’s appalling.”
Why Coppola didn’t file his suit earlier — say, during preproduction — is a matter he’s apparently chosen to keep to himself. He declined to comment for this story.
With Contact‘s opening this week, a great cosmic question will finally be answered: Is America ready for a summer alien movie with no death rays, no acid-spewing bugmen, not even a pair of pointy ears? It’s a gamble, to be sure. And unlike most other Event Movies this summer, there’ll be no Ellie Arroway action figures or Happy Meals to help cushion the books should the box office disappoint (although the Warner-owned Six Flags amusement parks did consider a Contact ride).
“I’m not worried,” insists Zemeckis. “After the way the world embraced Gump, I feel very secure that audiences can not only accept ideas but are starved for them.”
Obst is counting on a hungry audience as well. “I’ll be disappointed in America if it can only think of aliens as green monsters that objectify our xenophobia,” she says.
Back in Ithaca, as Druyan prepares for a Sagan family tradition — the weekend water-balloon fight with Sam — she floats a few thoughts of her own about aliens and the American moviegoing public. “You know,” she says, “all those gooey reptile guys — those are just a failure of imagination. We have no idea what a real alien would look like. If you had never seen a snail, do you think you could make one up? And we have much more in common genetically with snails than we would with anything that evolved on another world. We have much more in common with a marigold. So who knows what they’d look like?”
They might even have bulbous heads and glow-in-the-dark eyes.