Deep Impact: E.L.E.

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"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 happen again."

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 very altered."

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."

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