25 years later, 'Outbreak' screenwriters on film's sudden relevance amid coronavirus global threat: 'It's a real worry'

Not all movie viewers look for escapism in their entertainment options.

As the new coronavirus COVID-19 remains a global threat, with more than 2,300 deaths reported in China and news Monday that cases have surged in Italy, Iran and South Korea, streaming services and social media platforms have revealed a renewed interest in Hollywood fictions that have depicted similar epidemics — films like 2011's Contagion and 1995's Outbreak.

"I get emails from my friends that say, 'You're movie's coming true!,'" Robert Roy Pool, who wrote Outbreak with Laurence Dworet, tells Yahoo Entertainment during a recent interview (watch above). "No, it's not. But it's still scary."

Pool has a more optimistic — or at least less worrisome — outlook than Dworet, an emergency room doctor-turned-screenwriter, on whether or not the virus will continue to spread and become an even more dire global crisis.

"It's quite scary," says Dworet, who references the deaths of a Chinese doctor and hospital director as evidence of the virus's severity. "It's frightening because there's no treatment for it. So that's the problem. … I think it's a real worry [that it spreads into the United States]. I think it's a big problem."

Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak. (Warner Bros.)

Dworet and Pool did extensive research in writing Outbreak, which tracks a fictional Ebola-like virus from the African country of Zaire to a small town in California that is eventually quarantined by the U.S. Army and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The film, which was directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starred Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr., was released just months before a real-life Ebola breakout in Zaire.

"The CDC is able to identify and quarantine people in this country," Dworet says of the coronavirus. "But you're spreading it to other countries where they don't have a sophisticated medical system at all." Dworet points to a recent COVID-19 outbreak on a cruise ship in Japan that infected 135 passengers. Japan is a nation that does not have an equivalent of the CDC.

"These things don't spread overnight," he adds. "They spread slowly. Because it pops up in Africa, and then it moves and it moves and it moves, because people get on planes. It's just like in [Outbreak]. You get on a plane and you have this problem. Look at all the people on the cruise ship who got ill. The numbers are staggering."

If you're looking for some small slice of comfort, though, there's this: Pool was also one of the writers on Armageddon, the 1998 box-office hit starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck that imagined a massive asteroid on course to obliterate the planet. And while there have been reports of asteroids barreling a little too close past us in recent months, Pool is not as concerned with that threat after recently speaking alongside Mark Hammergren, an astronomer who specialized in asteroid surveillance.

"He assured me that there were no asteroids larger than 500 meters that we had not already found," Pool says. "The only known asteroids at this point are small enough to where they couldn't really destroy a civilization. They could destroy a city, which would be terrible, but that would be very unlucky, also. Viruses are a bigger threat, in the long run."


Look for our full 25th anniversary interview with Outbreak screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool in March.

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