The Hot Zone was A Hot Commodity when it landed on bookshelves in 1994. Not only did Richard Preston's terrifying non-fiction thriller sound the alarm on the very real threat of a viral pandemic, its original source material, the author's 1992 New Yorker article "Crisis in the Hot Zone" had already sparked an Armageddon vs. Deep Impact-esque race between major movie studios to transform the story into a big-screen scarefest.
Warner Bros. originally enlisted screenwriting team Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool to adapt the article, about a near catastrophic Ebola outbreak in the U.S. via a Beltway military lab. But as the scribes told Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year, they didn't think the story, which culminates with the euthanasia of hundreds of monkeys infected with Ebola, lent itself to major studio storytelling. So instead they wrote the fictional Outbreak (1995), an unnerving medical disaster drama about an Ebola-like virus that wreaks havoc on a small California time and would eventually star Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman.
Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox had its own plans. The studio wound up outbidding Warners for the movie rights to Preston's piece. In late April 1994, Fox announced A-listers Robert Redford and Jodie Foster would be headlining the film, to be adapted by James V. Hart (Hook, Bram Stoker's Dracula) and directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner). Foster was set to play the story's real-life heroine, U.S. Army scientist Nancy Jaxx, while Redford would play veteran virus hunter Dr. Karl Johnson, who discovered and named Ebola. On paper it was a dream pairing of marquee movie stars, but as Preston told us in a recent interview, the actors clashed during the film's development.
"There was a lot of tension between Robert Redford and Jodie Foster over the script," the author recalls (watch above). Redford ordered a rewrite, reportedly tapping previous collaborators Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) and then Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show). And, according to Preston, he wanted Jodie Foster's Jaxx to be more "emotionally dependent" on his character. "And he wanted there to be an affair between the older scientist and Col. Nancy Jaxx.
"When Nancy and her husband Jerry Jaxx [an Army veterinary surgeon] found out about this, they blew sky high. Jaxx didn't want that. She had been fighting her entire career to get the stature and respect that she deserved, and she was not about to put up with a half-assed screenplay that shows her becoming really dependent and having an extramarital affair with a much older man. And as Nancy Jaxx said to me, 'Anyway, Robert Redford is too old for me.'" (Foster, meanwhile, told W Magazine in 2016 that she had a childhood crush on the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Natural actor.)
A representative for Redford did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While internal drama stalled Crisis in the Hot Zone, Warner Bros. had fast-tracked Outbreak.
"There was room at the time for one big virus movie," Preston says. "There couldn't be two. And when the Outbreak project pulled ahead, the Fox project went into a spectacular train-wreck collapse." According to the New York Times, both lead actors also had their own issues with Ridley Scott. Foster soon dropped out of the project, and Redford would follow. The author cites rumors at the time that studio was already facing a deficit of $11 million on the project; according to the Times, it was $8.5 million. Ultimately, the film was scrapped.
Lynda Obst, however, refused to give up. A lead producer on the Fox movie, Obst would check in with Preston "every five or six years" with updates on her attempts to restart it. "Then all of the sudden, she says it's going to happen," recalls Preston, who has also written such novels as The Cobra Event (1998), Micro (2011, in collaboration with the late Michael Crichton) and Crisis in the Red. Zone (2019).
In May 2019, nearly three decades after the original publication of Preston's article, the miniseries The Hot Zone premiered on National Geographic and received a warm reception from critics.
The six-episode series starred Julianna Margulies as Col. Nancy Jaxx and Noah Emmerich as Col. Jerry Jaxx... with no extramarital affair in sight.
—Video produced by Jon San
Watch Richard Preston reflect more on The Hot Zone and talk COVID-19:
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