"Live each day," goes a traditional saying, "as if it
were your last." How would you live today, tomorrow, next week, if
you knew the world might end in a year? That is the question faced by a
rising young television reporter; by a pair of teenagers just embarking
on life -- by every person in the world -- in "Deep Impact," when
scientists discover that a comet is on a collision course with the Earth
- a comet so massive that its impact with earth will cause an "E.L.E,"
an Extinction Level Event" - and end life as we know it. It is the
question faced by a team of astronauts on a desperate mission to deflect
the comet, a mission in which they stake their own futures against the future
of the world.
Although "Deep Impact" is science fiction, it is rooted firmly
in fact. The earth has been battered repeatedly over the eons by comets
and asteroids. This phenomenon has given rise to NEAT (Near-Earth Asteroid
Tracking), a cooperative effort between the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration/Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United States Air Force,
designed to complete a comprehensive search of the sky for near-Earth asteroids
and comets. The move was a wise one: Statistically speaking, our chances
of dying as the result of the impact of a comet or asteroid are about the
same as those of dying in a commercial aircraft accident. What would happen
if a large astral object hit the earth? Depending on its size, it could
destroy an area the size of Washington D.C. or it could cause an E.L.E -
mass extinction and long-term global climate change. Were it to hit the
ocean, it could cause tidal waves of unprecedented size and impact, flooding
much of the world's land mass.
In the 1970's, two scientists, Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez and his son
Walter Alvarez, made an unexpected and alarming discovery. All around the
world, a layer of rare elements was found in ancient rocks that formed 65
million years ago - just when the dinosaurs died out, along with hundreds
of other species. The Alvarez team offered a radical explanation: that the
Earth had been struck by an object from space, an object several miles across.
Perhaps a comet (another type of ancient interplanetary debris) might have
caused such an impact. The intruder slammed into Earth with the force of
millions of nuclear bombs, forming a crater more a hundred miles across
-- buried evidence of the crater has since been found in Yucatan, Mexico.
Billions of tons of dust and water vapor were hurled into the atmosphere,
forming a cloud that surrounded the earth and blocked out almost all sunlight
for months or years. Robbed of sunlight, most plant life died; the animals
that fed on the plants then starved to death. By the time the great dust
shroud settled, Earth was very nearly a dead world. Only a relative handful
of creatures survived, including a few small mammals from which the human
race would eventually arise. Many scientists now believe that such celestial
impacts have hammered the earth multiple times in its history, with cataclysmic
results. Although such impacts are incredibly rare -- perhaps one in tens
or hundreds of millions of years -- they are also totally unpredictable.
It might be fifty million years before the earth suffers another such blow
... or a comet might even now be on a deadly collision course with our world.
Producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had always been intrigued by
the idea at the heart of "Deep Impact:" the drama of human beings
facing the end of the world. The veteran producing team's projects have
included such critical and box-office hits as "Jaws," a triple-Oscar®
winner and Best Picture nominee; "Jaws II;" "The Sugarland
Express," Best Screenplay winner at the Cannes Film Festival; "The
Sting," winner of seven Academy Awards® including Best Picture;
and "The Verdict," nominated for five Academy Awards®. Along
with Lili Fini Zanuck, Zanuck/Brown also produced the double-Oscar®
winner "Cocoon," and its sequel, "Cocoon: The Return."
"Like one of our other Steven Spielberg productions, "Jaws,"
explains Zanuck, "this film is based on a great deal of fact. Comets
have been threatening the Earth and there's a great deal of research about
what has happened when the Earth is hammered by these asteroids and comets.
In the 1980's and 1990's, scientists learned far more about comets and made
a discovery with awesome implications: the Earth had suffered shattering
impacts from comets in the distant past, impacts that destroyed most life
on earth, including dinosaurs. It had happened before...therefore, it could
The concepts that Zanuck and Brown were looking for came together in the
screenplay developed by Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin. Through its
three independent story lines, the ultimate cataclysm -- the literal end
of the world -- is brought into a human dimension. Says co-writer Tolkin,
"'Deep Impact' is about the world's reaction to a death sentence. We
follow the lives of a few people who have a vantage point," in order
to bring the vast cataclysm to a personal level. "How do you react
when it's possibly the last year of your life?" asks executive producer
Bradshaw. "Whether you are a young career woman, or whether you are
one of the astronauts who are sent into space to try to deal with this wayward
comet, or teenagers just beginning to see what life can offer?" In
different ways, all are confronted with the ultimate question: what to make
of their lives in the time they have left.
The career woman is played by Téa Leoni, who sees "Deep Impact"
as "a poetic look at the human condition and what we do in the face
of the end. If I knew I had only two days to live, I'd probably jump off
a building and experience flying. But if you had two years, that's kind
of an odd time frame. What do you get done?" Leoni asks. "What's
important? And the issues of disease and child bearing -- these things get
The teenagers in the story are played by Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski.
Wood's character, Leo Beiderman, realizes he's in love with Sarah. As young
as they both are, he decides that he wants to marry her in the little time
they have left. "Everybody sort of panicked," says Wood, "and
they start thinking thoughts that they wouldn't normally think. Emotions
go into overdrive -- it makes you question things. And, "Wood adds
wryly, "it's kind of scary." Leelee Sobieski sees her character
Sarah "as a very smart and strong girl. She knows exactly what she
wants and makes her own decisions based on her beliefs of what would be
the correct thing in a particular situation." The 14-year-old actress
describes the chaos in which Sarah is enveloped as "all these adults
acting like little children -- they don't know what they're doing ... and
then there's two teenagers who have to grow up throughout this situation."
While two of "Deep Impact's plot threads deal with the choices made
by people facing the prospect of the world's end, the third deals with the
astronauts aboard the spacecraft Messiah, an untried experimental craft
sent out on a desperate mission to try and deflect the comet, averting catastrophe.
For them, the key element of their roles was not only their urgent mission
in the film, but getting inside the heads of astronauts. Robert Duvall,
as Spurgeon Tanner, is a retired veteran astronaut -- the last man to walk
on the Moon in the 1970s -- who is brought back to command the spacecraft.
"He's a guy that comes out of retirement," says Duvall, "to
add some expertise to the younger team, and there's a little bit of resentment
there." However, Tanner overcomes it to become the vital center of
the ship's crew. "I think as you get older in any profession you tend
to mellow," Duvall explains, "and I think that's probably the
case here." Ron Eldard, as astronaut Owen Monash, had his own observations
when the production shot at the NASA facility at Edwards Air Force Base
in Palmdale, California. "There's kind of a competitiveness with the
guys here. You've got the best fighter pilots and the best test pilots,
and then there's some astronauts standing around gabbing away like jocks.
But when you get closer, they're jocks talking physics."
The threads of this immense human drama are brought together by director
Mimi Leder. A two-time Emmy winner for her work on television's "ER,"
Leder made her feature film debut with "The Peacemaker." "Deep
Impact" is her second feature film. "What drew me to this story,"
says Leder, "is the choices that we would have to make in our lives
when faced with a death sentence. What would we do?" Would people panic,
she asks; quit their jobs, stay married or renew their vows? What would
they do to try to save their children?" Téa Leoni describes
Leder as "very specific in her direction, and very calm. We're tackling
some pretty heavy duty stuff - there's a lot of movement, a lot of people
going every which direction, and she was very calm. She never tires."
To Mary McCormack, who portrays the Shuttle Messiah's Executive Officer,
Leder was "the most serene, in control woman with a great sense of
humor. I'd get more worked up about being responsible for my little performance,
and she's responsible for everyone's." Robert Duvall noted her ability
at "coordinating the bigness of it all. I would think she'd get more
tired than she does, but she doesn't seem to." Producer Zanuck found
Leder "an exceptional talent. She's as cool and as calm as any director
I've ever worked with. She's intuitive and she's right on the money with
her instincts. She's great with action as well as with personal emotions."
To fellow-producer Brown, Leder excelled as "a collaborator, in the
best sense of the word, not a committee think or a group thinker. Somebody
who's always seeking reactions from people she respects rather than being
a total auteur."
"This movie is not just about special effects and disasters, explains
director Leder. "It is about the people -- about us -- about what we
would do were a comet to hit the Earth. There's a multitude of choices in
the characters' lives," Leder adds, "and hopefully one will walk
out of this movie re-evaluating their lives and the choices they've made."
"I would love it if people would talk after they got out of the film,"
adds Téa Leoni. "I mean if it would just introduce an idea.
If people could come out of the theater and think, well I'd never do that.
I'd do this. If the film could just get people interested in thinking about
what they'd do. It's just a spark." "I think that an audience
will be very surprised by this picture," says producer Richard Zanuck.
"They may go in thinking it's a big spectacular kind of picture. And
while it's epic in size, they'll be surprised to find themselves carried
away by the personal stories. It has quite dramatic effects, but this is
really about people and their reactions to the end of the world as we presently
know it." To fellow producer David Brown, the audience will be going
on "an emotional roller coaster. They will feel a great sense of identification
and a sense of affection for the characters -- and a sense of relief that
it's not happening to them."