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.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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