The Flu is Coming... and maybe it's the real deal if you read the papers and surf the net but, at the very least, it turned out to make for a compelling and interesting "What-if?" that will soon be coming to a television set near you. All I know is that I spent the better part of year reading about and thinking about what would happen when, and if, the pandemic really hits us.
Writing this particular blog-post may be the literal version of "going viral." At least it involves using the Internet to whip up interest in the three-hour special event movie about a virus that threatens to wipe out life as we know it. It's a script that my wife Jackie and I wrote for the Hallmark Channel and its name is ... PANDEMIC. Look for it to air either in very late May or very early June of 2007.
Regular readers here know that this is my third Hallmark project. "The Poseidon Adventure" aired on NBC, USA and Hallmark in 2005-2006. Last year, "Blackbeard" was on Hallmark as a four-hour version. This year, it's "Pandemic." Hallmark has cut this one down to a three-hour, too, so it can be seen in a single night. Some overseas folks get the four-hour, and that's what will also be out on DVD. In the small-world department, David Kenin who heads up Hallmark is also, like me, an Oregon Duck. So, you see, it's really a team effort. Although when you're talking about a bird flu, I don't know if sharing a team name like the Ducks is really an advantage...
Honestly, I wouldn't push this film if I didn't really like the way it turned out. As it happens, I do. A lot. It was shot entirely here in Los Angeles and has big production values -- from shooting at Tom Bradley International with lots of extras to scenes in Beverly Hills. Plus, there are car chases and shoot-outs that are first rate. Jackie and I were also impressed with how multi-cultural the cast feels -- it is as diverse as Los Angeles is in reality. So, hats off to Hallmark and Levinson Productions for a job well done. They always do an amazing job of getting the money up there on the screen, but this time they've outdone themselves.
That's Tiffani Thiesen, by the way, inside the bio-containment suit above. Over here to the right, she's looking a little more like the Tiffani we know and love, along with two of her co-stars French Stewart and Vincent Spano. She plays Dr. Kayla Martin, the first person to take the "Riptide" virus of our movie seriously. I think there may be some people who might think she would be too lightweight to play a committed CDC doctor but, having seen the final film, both Jackie and I were surprised at how positive we felt about her performance. And, no, her hair does not look that good in the actual film. As you can see below, there's a lot of covering up in the medical scenes.
The project got its start back in late 2005 when Jackie and I pitched a mini-series, "Plague", to Dan Gross and Mike Moran over at Larry Levinson Productions. Basically, the title got changed but the film that got made is remarkably similar to that very first one-page description. In it, we laid out a world where authorities were so busy getting ready to fight the Bird Flu that another strain took them by surprise. Our film begins with a surfer dying on a plane bound from Australia to Los Angeles from a flu that has jumped from dying seagulls to people. Upon landing, everyone on the plane is quarantined in a Los Angeles hospital. There are lots of sub-plots but, suffice it to say, complications ensue. By the second half, the pandemic has escaped from the hospital to the streets of LA and soon authorities have no choice but to use the National Guard to lock down the entire city.
We named that first fatality Ames Smith, using the name of one of our son's friends, thinking it would probably be changed during legal clearances. But, as it turns out, Ames has stayed the course as "Patient Zero" in the pandemic. To the real Ames, we can only wish you a long life and happiness. We can only imagine how weird it would be to be 20 years old and watch a movie made where a character who shares your name is a flu fatality that starts a worldwide panic. Well, everybody wants to be important, right?
Anyway, here's the Hallmark web-page. My only advice is not to read the "synopsis" if you plan on watching "Pandemic" since it lays out every single plot point. The good folks at Hallmark PR (special thanks to Pam Slay) have done their job and then some. I wouldn't be surprised if this complete story is for reviewers who never get around to watching the film when it's mailed out or who can't remember who played what part and how their name is spelled. In any case, Major Spoiler Alert!
On the other hand, since Hallmark is spilling the beans in full, here's something that some of you may find interesting. It's our First Draft of Part One. So, it won't spoil how things turn out, and it's been changed anyway, but for those of you who think it's intriguing to see how things change from "the page to the stage" this might be of interest. Check it out.
In our "Pandemic" world, Faye Dunaway appears as the Governor of California and Eric Roberts plays the mayor of Los Angeles. Roberts gets a lot of advice from Bruce Boxleitner who plays his assistant (he's standing behind Roberts on the cell). Boxleitner, by the way, is married to another friend of mine, Melissa Gilbert, who ran the Screen Actors Guild at more or less the same time I ran the TV Academy. The two of them were interviewed together and the conversation touches on our mini-series. Bruce and Melissa and Jackie and I had dinner together a couple of years ago at Saddlepeak Lodge here in Malibu. Here in Hollywood you won't find many people as real and as easy to get along with as these two.
Another great performance comes from Bob Gunton who plays Dr. Max Sorkosky, the top dog at the CDC out of Atlanta who we modeled after Donald Rumsfeld. The character is pedantic, corrects the media, scolds his doctors and, for all his efforts, ends up kidnapped and having a cohersive measure applied to him that, well, it's something that would make Jack Bauer proud. If you think it's too sick to be believed, all I can tell you is that I thought of it (Jackie is innocent) and Gunton had to shoot it on his first day of production.
During the research and writing phase of this project, we certainly learned enough to scare the hell out of ourselves. People compare the possibility of a pandemic today to the one that hit us so hard back in 1918. This one will be different though. Viruses traveled much more slowly back then. These days, as we show in our film, they can hop, skip and jump an entire continent in a jet full of new carriers. On the other hand, the knowledge and understanding we have of disease is greater than ever. Will the two balance themselves out? Who knows?
Our film certainly follows the spread of the disease, and the medical attempts to contain it. What we found most interesting, however, was adding in the fact that people being imperfect humans are going to screw things up, constantly, even when it's ultimately not in their best interests. So we have people breaking out of the hospital, blockade runners, carriers who cough and sneeze their way across LA, others who steal anti-viral drugs, etc. On the side of truth and justice, we have a very hot looking CDC doctor. The smart money remains on Tiffani.
Obviously, the film is meant to be dramatic and not a documentary. If you want to become an expert on disease control, this is probably not the best way to get that expertise. But we did receive some great technical advice from the CDC's Dr. Stephen Ostroff and from Los Angeles superstar internal medicine expert Dr. Jeffrey Galpin. They really did help us keep it real.
Jackie and I just talked to freelance writer and publicist David Martindale (no relation to Wink) for an hour this morning. He's preparing the press materials for the May campaign. As it turns out, Hallmark likes the way this has turned out so much that there's even talk of mounting an Emmy campaign. Maybe being a past chairman of the TV Academy will pay off.
Here's all I can say. Our family has purchased a box of high quality surgical masks and stashed a good supply of Sparkletts water and jars of peanut butter. If the real pandemic comes, you need to be able to keep a low-profile for three weeks at least, and maybe more. There won't be any public gatherings: no school, no movies, no Dixie Chicks concerts or Oscar awards. It will be time to stay home and wait it out. There is only one thing you can take heart in:
There will always be TV...