10 Starry Facts About Contact

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

“Are we alone in the universe?” Countless movies have asked that question, but few have given it more thought than this 1997 adaptation of Carl Sagan’s bestselling novel. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Contact.

1. ITS OPENING SHOT SET AN INDUSTRY RECORD. 

Contact begins with a close-up of our home planet. At first, a babel of '90s radio broadcasts nearly deafens the audience. But as the camera pulls back and Earth grows smaller, iconic audio clips that were recorded 20, 30, and even 100 years ago greet our ears—only to fade seconds later. By the time our galaxy recedes into an endless cosmic backdrop, there’s nothing left but silence.

This is one of the most ambitious sequences in cinema history. The completely digital intro lasted for 4170 uninterrupted frames, making it the longest computer-generated shot that had ever appeared in a live-action film at the time. Great pains were taken to capture the look of deep space. On the special edition DVD commentary, visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum recalls getting started by gathering “absolutely incredible” Hubble snapshots of “distant galaxies and stars and other interstellar phenomenon ... We laid out what we liked and said, 'Okay, how can we pass through some of this? How can we combine it together into something [that’s] visually stunning?’”

Brilliant as it is, however, the moment ignores physical law. Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson. If one could really overtake the radio signals, he argued, “you would hear them in reverse.” Still, the good doctor acknowledges that—for artistry’s sake—everything needed to sound intelligible. “[They] couldn’t have gotten it right and still had the scene work,” deGrasse Tyson conceded, “so they had to do it the way they did.” 

2. THE NOVEL MADE CARL SAGAN $2 MILLION RICHER BEFORE HE'D WRITTEN A WORD OF IT. 

Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, originally envisioned Contact as a feature film. In 1980, they co-wrote the project’s first treatment. Frustrated with Hollywood’s glacial development process, the couple eventually chose to turn their story into a novel. Sagan hadn’t even begun working on the book when Simon & Schuster gave him a whopping $2 million advance for it. An instant hit, Contact sold almost 1.75 million copies within two years of its 1985 release. Sadly, we’ll never know what Sagan thought of Warner Bros.’ subsequent movie adaptation as he passed away several months before its release.

3. IN THE BOOK, AMERICA HAS A FEMALE PRESIDENT. 

Much to the White House’s annoyance, director Robert Zemeckis used footage of then-President Bill Clinton during key political scenes. He could’ve avoided the resultant controversy by following his source material a little more closely. In both the novel and an early screenplay, the Oval Office is occupied by Helen Lasker: a fictitious two-term commander-in-chief.

4. ASTRONOMER CAROLYN PORCO WAS ASKED TO HELP DEVELOP THE MAIN CHARACTER. 

Ellie Arroway, the film's star-gazing heroine, battles occupational sexism throughout the movie. Sagan knew that filming his tenacious, whip-smart protagonist wouldn’t be easy, so he recruited some help. “Carl called me up and said [that] out of all the female scientists he knew, I came closest to being like the character he wanted portrayed on the screen,” recalled planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, who collaborated with him on several occasions.

Decades later, the scientist still warmly remembers meeting with Sagan, Druyan, executive producer Linda Obst, and filmmaker George Miller—from whom Zemeckis would later take the director’s chair. “We spent a day sitting around a table in Santa Monica putting together the character of Ellie," said Porco. "They would ask me, ‘What kind of experiences have you had?’ ‘Why do you feel you’ve done well in a field dominated with men?’ I said ‘Well, I grew up with four brothers for god’s sakes. I’ve been fighting and spitting and kicking ever since I was a kid.’”

In her own words, Poroco was “brought on to lend authenticity to Ellie’s experiences in the movie.” Naturally, when Jodie Foster became Contact’s leading lady, Warner Bros. wanted the pair to meet. Though this never happened, Foster did touch base with Jill Tarter, an astronomer who—like Arroway—has spent her career scouring the universe for traces of intelligent life.

5. GEORGE MILLER WAS SET TO DIRECT THE FILM. 

The man who brought you Babe and Mad Max spent a year working with Sagan on Contact. He ultimately left the production when Warner Bros. decided to take the film in a “safer” new direction. “It was clear that [they] weren’t prepared to do the movie that I was interested in making,” Miller said.

What did he have in mind? In 2015, Miller told Collider that while he’s never actually seen Zemeckis’s version of the movie, he has read the script and feels like it needed “much, much less force-feeding exposition.” The filmmaker likened his own interpretation to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

6. SAGAN'S WIDOW MAKES A BRIEF APPEARANCE. 

Skip ahead to 0:22 in this clip and look at the upper left-hand corner. You’ll see Druyan duking it out with a conservative politician (played by Rob Lowe) on CNN’s Crossfire

7. THE MOVIE PUT CNN IN AN AWKWARD POSITION. 

The cable news giant allowed 13 of its best-known reporters and anchors to play themselves in Contact. For then-CEO Tom Johnson, that was 13 cameos too many. “I don’t think having correspondents in the movies is a good idea,” he said in retrospect, arguing that the movie gave “the impression that we’re manipulated by Time Warner, and it blurs the line.” Today, CNN staffers need to clear potential off-network appearances with an ethics group. 

8. MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY REFUSED TO DELIVER A CERTAIN LINE. 

Late in the final script, McConaughey's character—a self-described “man of the cloth without the cloth” named Palmer Joss—says “My God was too small.” Though Druyan really liked this line, McConaughey called it sacrilegious and wouldn't say it. Later on, the two talked at length about faith and became good friends (despite differences of opinion).

9. NASA FLATLY DENIES ONE OF THE FILM'S INSINUATIONS. 

In the movie's third act, a stunned Arroway receives a cyanide pill before entering the pod. According to Zemeckis, Sagan swore that this just-in-case practice was observed “on every single [NASA] mission.” However, Apollo 13 veteran James Lovell has dismissed the idea, writing “many people have asked me ‘Did you have suicide pills on board?’ We didn’t, and I never heard of such a thing in the 11 years I spent as an astronaut and a NASA executive.”

10. ELLIE CONDUCTS RESEARCH AT A FACILITY THAT'S ACTUALLY BEEN USED TO INITIATE CONTACT WITH ALIENS. 

Ellie and Palmer first meet near Puerto Rico’s world-famous Arecibo Observatory. In 1974, the site’s radio telescope aimed a Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) message at a star cluster that resides some 21,000 light-years away. Using binary code, this powerful broadcast described DNA, the human body, and our solar system. Don’t expect a reply anytime soon, though—it won’t reach those heavenly bodies for another 25 millennia.

15 Facts About Rushmore On Its 20th Anniversary

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

On December 11, 1998, Wes Anderson introduced the world to his unique brand of whimsical comedy with Rushmore. Though it wasn't his feature directorial debut—he had released Bottle Rocket, which he adapted from a short, in 1996—it was his first major Hollywood movie. And kicked off his still-ongoing collaborations with a stable of talented actors that includes Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. It was also the second film Anderson co-wrote with Owen Wilson.

To celebrate the quirky comedy's 20th anniversary, here are some things you might not know about Rushmore.

1. Rushmore Academy was the director's Alma Mater.

Wes Anderson sent location scouts across the United States and Canada to find the perfect high school to shoot the movie. He was having a tough time trying to find the school, until his mother sent him a picture of his old high school in Houston, Texas: St. John's School. Anderson thought it was the perfect location to make the movie.

2. Bill Murray wanted to make Rushmore for free.

Bill Murray in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Once Bill Murray read the screenplay, he wanted to be in the movie so badly that he considered appearing in it for free. Murray ended up working on Rushmore at scale with the Screen Actors Guild day rate minimum for smaller indie film projects. Anderson estimated that Murray made about $9000 for his work on the film.

3. Film critic Pauline Kael had a private screening.

Pauline Kael’s film criticism was a major influence on Anderson’s view of cinema. “Your thoughts and writing about the movies [have] been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that," he once wrote to her.

Kael retired from The New Yorker in 1991, so Anderson arranged for her to have a private screening of Rushmore before the film came out in 1998. He wrote about the screening in the introduction to the published version of the screenplay, and shared what Kael told him about the film: "I genuinely don't know what to make of this movie."

4. It was Jason Schwartzman’s first film role.

Casting directors searched throughout the United States, Canada, and England to find a young actor to play the lead role of Max Fischer. Australian actor Noah Taylor was the frontrunner for the part when, on the last day of casting in Los Angeles, Jason Schwartzman auditioned. He was wearing a prep school blazer with a Rushmore Academy patch that he made himself.

5. Owen Wilson's private school experiences inspired some of the movie's plot points.

As a sophomore at St. Mark High School in Dallas, Texas, Rushmore co-writer Owen Wilson was expelled for stealing his geometry teacher's textbook (the one that contained all the answers); he went to Thomas Jefferson High School to complete 10th grade. This was the inspiration for when Max is expelled from Rushmore Academy and is forced to attend Grover Cleveland High School.

Although Wilson doesn’t have a credited role in Rushmore, he does appear as Ms. Cross’s deceased husband, Edward Appleby, in a photo in Appleby’s childhood bedroom.

6. Wilson's Dad Inspired a Moment in the Movie.

Wilson’s father, Robert Wilson, was the inspiration for Herman Blume’s speech about privilege at the beginning of Rushmore.

7. Alexis Bledel was an extra in the film.


Getty Images

Before she starred as Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, actress Alexis Bledel was an uncredited extra—she played a Grover Cleveland High School student—in Rushmore. You can see her in the background in various scenes, including dancing with the character Magnus Buchan (Stephen McCole) at the end of the film.

8. Both Anderson and Wilson's brothers had parts in the movie.

Owen and Luke Wilson’s older brother Andrew plays Rushmore Academy’s baseball coach, Coach Beck. He also appeared in Anderson’s directorial debut, Bottle Rocket, playing the bully John Mapplethorpe.

Eric Chase Anderson, Wes's brother, plays the architect who designs Max’s aquarium.

9. The Movie's Editor Made a Cameo.

Rushmore editor David Moritz plays the Dynamite Salesman; he sells Max the dynamite and explosives for his stage play Heaven and Hell at the end of the film.

10. Producers Made a Deal to get a Bentley.

Producers needed a Bentley for Murray's character, Herman Blume, but Rushmore’s production budget was only $20 million and they couldn’t afford to rent one. A Houston resident was willing to lend them his Bentley if they gave his daughter a role in the film. Producers agreed; the man's daughter plays an usher who seats Miss Cross at Max’s play at the end of the movie.

11. Mason Gamble's role in Dennis the Menace almost cost him the part of Dirk Calloway in Rushmore.

Mason Gamble in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Wilson referred to the character of Dirk Calloway, played by Mason Gamble, as the conscience of the film. Originally, Anderson didn’t want to cast Gamble in the part because of the actor’s previous—and very recognizable—role as Dennis Mitchell in the 1993 live-action movie Dennis the Menace.

12. Rushmore Upset Francis Ford Coppola.

Director Francis Ford Coppola owns a winery, and when he first saw Rushmore, he was upset with Anderson because he used Coppola’s chief Napa Valley wine rival during Max's post-play celebration. (It probably didn't help matters that Coppola is Schwartzman's uncle.)

13. Anderson's Brother Did the Movie's Criterion Collection Artwork.

The Criterion Collection edition of 'Rushmore' (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Eric Chase Anderson did the artwork for the Criterion Collection DVD cover, an interoperation of a shot from the montage of Max’s extracurricular activities at the beginning of the movie. The Yankee Racer shot is itself a recreation of a photo from French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, taken in 1909 when he was only 15.

14. Schwartzman waxed his chest to play Max.

Although Max only shows his chest once in the film (during the high school wrestling match), Anderson made Schwartzman wax his chest for the duration of Rushmore's filming.

15. The Max Fischer Players Appeared on MTV.

During the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, the Max Fischer Players recreated the year's hit movies—The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight—as stage plays.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliffe Says Broadway Made Him a Better Actor

Dominik Bindl, Getty Images
Dominik Bindl, Getty Images

For 10 years, moviegoers watched as Daniel Radcliffe matured on film throughout eight Harry Potter films. But the 29-year-old recently revealed that he believes the bulk of his professional growth has occurred as a result of his Broadway stage work.

“It gives me a lot of confidence as an actor, which is not always something that I’ve felt,” Radcliffe told Variety. “I feel like doing theater ... it was really very important for me psychologically.”

Radcliffe starred in a number of films after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final film in the franchise, including The Woman in Black, Now You See Me 2, and Lost in London. His Broadway credits include Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The Cripple of Inishmaan.

“There’s something about doing it without an editor to save you, or a myriad of things in post-production that can help you out, something that made me go: ‘OK, I can act,’" Radcliffe continued. "I’ve grown a little bit as an actor every time I’ve gone back to the theater."

Radcliffe crediting his professional growth to working in theater may leave some Potterheads wondering if he thinks playing Harry Potter for so long held him back.

“Not professionally, at all,” he said. “There were moments when probably I coped with the personal effects of Harry Potter not as well as I could have. But professionally, no.”

According to Radcliffe, "There are directors that were, I think, excited to—I am quoting one of them here and I won’t say who—'reinvent' me.”

Radcliffe fans can gauge that reinvention for themselves with The Lifespan of a Fact, the new Broadway play starring Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones. It is running at New York City's Studio 54 through January 13, 2019.

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