How's this for timing?
As the planet deals with the spread of the coronavirus, now infecting more than 105,000 people in over 80 countries with over 3,600 succumbing to the potentially deadly virus since the start of January (as of March 8), a film depicting the Hollywood big budget version of the lengths some might go to contain such a pandemic is celebrating 25 years since first scaring the pants off audiences.
On March 10, 1995, Outbreak arrived in theaters, pitting heroes Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo against the spread of a fictional, Ebola-like virus known as Motaba, brought to America by an African monkey, and villainous military leaders played by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman. The film, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, was a smash hit. It also wasn't exactly the most accurate thing out there.
Unlike Stephen Soderbergh's 2011 hit Contagion, which more closely resembles the situation we all find ourselves in currently (albeit amped up to the nth dramatic degree), Outbreak was deemed by disease expert and ecologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Brian Amman to be the least accurate portrayal of disease outbreak in modern film and TV.
"This one has so many flaws," he told Wired in October. "It's total chaos. It's a mess. It's pure Hollywood fiction."
(And if you're panicked that anything you've seen in films from Outbreak to Contagion might happen with COVID-19, Amman had this to say: "Viruses that you've seen in these clips are basically Hollywood fiction, and the real-life viruses that are out there are hardly ever, if at all, as fast-acting as what you've just seen in these clips.")
While the idea of an Outbreak re-watch in honor of its 25th anniversary might not be the best one right now, all things considered, we've got the best best thing: 25 of the most surprising secrets from the film!
1. Hoffman's character originally written with Harrison Ford in mind. Coincidentally, Ford's character in Blade Runner had been developed for Hoffman, who spent months meeting with producers before departing over differences in vision.
2. According to Hoffman, Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone were offered the role after Ford, but they also turned it down.
3. If Betsy, the white-headed Capuchin monkey, looked familiar, that's because it was the same monkey who appeared as Marcel, Ross' pet in the early seasons of Friends.
4. The monkey's role in the film was spoofed in Friends when a poster showed Marcel as the star of the fictional movie Outbreak 2: The Virus Takes Manhattan.
5. There are no naturally occurring Capuchin monkeys on the continent of Africa, however. They are native to Central and South America.
6. Similarly, when the opening of the film reveals the setting to be "Zaire, 1967," that's not quite accurate. The country was only called Zaire between 1971 and 1997. In '67, it was called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which it reverted back to in 1997.
7. There are also no naturally occurring pine cones in redwood forests, despite what is shown in the film.
8. In the film, Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Major Salt tells Hoffman's character he is from Sioux City, SD. The only problem? There is no Sioux City in SD. It is in Iowa.
9. Yellow suits like the one Kevin Spacey's character is wearing when he gets infected are pressurized with positive pressure (meaning air can go out if torn, but never in) by way of a small motor inside it and a set of batteries, though the suit shows no sign of being inflated at all (and when helmets are moved, no air rushes out). Realistically, the tear in his suit should not have ended with infection.
10. In scenes where Hoffman's character is wearing his Army uniform, he's not seen wearing his Army headgear, despite being required to do so. This was done because the actor refused to as he disliked the way he looked on-screen while wearing it.
11. When Outbreak was in production, a competing film based on Richard Preston's 1992 article in The New Yorker that became the 1994 best-selling book The Hot Zone, itself based on a 1989 outbreak of the Ebola virus, was in development with Robert Redford and Jodie Foster set to star and Ridley Scott attached as director. That film fell apart over script issues.
12. Producer Lynda Obst, who eventually turned The Hot Zone into a NatGeo miniseries in 2019, recalled Petersen attempting to lure Redford over to his production. "It really was hideous," she told The Hollywood Reporter last year, remembering a call she got from Redford, saying, "Don't worry toots, I'm hanging in there."
13. When producer Arnold Kopelson lost out on the rights to Preston's book to Obst, he hired Laurence Dworet, a doctor, and Robert Roy Pool to create an original story that covered similar material. Hoffman wasn't such a fan of the script, calling Peter Jahrling, the senior research scientist at the United States Army's Medical research Institute of Infectious Diseases to first identified the Ebola-Reston virus, to give scientific advice to the filmmakers early in the film's production. "Dustin Hoffman said, 'This script isn't making any sense to me. Could you explain it?' And I said to him, 'Don't ask me. Ask the fool who wrote it,'" Jahrling recalled to The New York Times in 1995.
14. According to a 1994 NYT article on the two warring virus films, Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs), Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) and Carrie Fisher (you know, Princess Leia) were all brought in to work on the script.
15. Hoffman is said to have insisted that the late poet Maya Angelou be hired to make the ending of the film less depressing, though little of her work is said to have made it into the finished product.
16. The Cedar Creek scenes in Outbreak were filmed in Ferndale, Calif., a quaint, Victorian-era dairy town in Humboldt County. The town, which was repairing damage from a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in 1992, was also home to two TV productions in the late 1970s: Salem's Lot, a miniseries adaptation of the Stephen King novel, and Death in Canaan, a movie about a Connecticut boy accused of murdering his mother.
17. With a pledge from Warner Brothers to pump $5 million into the town's economy, the citizens of Ferndale allowed tanks and helicopters to become a regular part of their daily lives for nearly two months of filming. Not everyone welcomed loved the experience. "It was frankly a pain in the a--," Jose Briseno, a retiree living in town, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995.
18. In 2016, Petersen told DW.com that he was surprised by "the insecurity" of Hoffman while the two worked together. "He's very much like a stage actor; he has always problems with very simple things like turning around and having a certain look on his face," he explained. "You know, those typical movie star moments. He was very insecure about it. So with the 'big Dustin Hoffman,' I really had to take his hand and say, 'look Dustin, I'll do it for you.' I couldn't believe it. Here I was, acting something out for Dustin Hoffman."
He continued, "There was always a little bit of a jealously because he knew that I'd originally wanted Harrison Ford for the part [in the film Outbreak]. And Harrison Ford, of course, does that in his sleep. He had these moments when he said, 'I can't do this, Wolfgang!' And I'd say, What's the problem? You just turn around slowly and use your body language. And he'd go, 'Yeah I know, Harrison Ford would do that in a second, right?'"
19. The bomb that explodes over the ocean in the film's ending was originally scripted to explode over the down, vaporizing it. The effects sequence showing the destruction was created, but test screenings forced the filmmakers to re-shoot the ending to allow the town to be saved. The CGI artists at Boss Film Studios added a little note to the bomb that read "To Ferndale with love, Boss Film Studios."
20. While Outbreak shows the identification and synthesizing of enough antibodies to treat the entire town within 24 hours, it would never happen as swiftly in real life. "If you can make antibodies that worked," Preston told the NYT of the film in 1995, "you might be able to clone up a lot of them to save a town. But it would take six months to a year.
21. The little girl in the film who is found playing with Betsy the monkey in her yard? None other than Kara Keough, daughter of Real Housewives of Orange County album Jeana Keough.
22. When the film was released, a real-life outbreak of the Ebola virus was occurring in Zaire.
23. According to a 2014 THR story, the film's 1995 L.A. premiere left people feeling a little queasy at the afterparty, where when guest was overheard remarking, "After seeing a movie like this, you kinda don't want to eat something that somebody else has touched."
24. The film scared up $13.4 million on opening weekend, spending three weeks at No. 1 until the Chris Farley comedy Tommy Boy was released. It went on to gross over $189 million globally.
25. In 2013, NBC gave a pilot production commitment to an hourlong series based on the film. Co-written by former ER executive producers John Wells and Jack Orman, the medical thriller followed an ensemble of characters as they race to contain a lethal virus before it becomes a global pandemic. It never even seemed to have actually gone into production, however.