When Contact, the book by the late Carl Sagan, became a
bestseller following its publication in 1985, the world was
presented with a startling view of what contact with an
intelligent extraterrestrial culture might be like. The renowned
humanist and scientist created a story based in scientific
possibility about the human race's first experience with
intelligent life from another planet - a story that focused on
the possibility that somewhere in a distant universe there may be
intelligent life yearning to make contact with us.
"It would have the
tension inherent between religion and science," Ann Druyan
Recalls Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, "Carl's and my dream
was to write something that would be a fictional representation
of what contact would actually be like, that would convey
something of the true grandeur of the universe. But it would also
have the tension inherent between religion and science, which was
an area of philosophical and intellectual interest that both of
us were riveted by."
Sagan believed that while the exciting possibilities opened up
by space travel and actual communication with beings beyond our
galaxy were fascinating, the most intriguing issues lie closer to
home. How would the human experience be affected by such
knowledge - that we, in fact, are not alone in the universe?
"In my view, you
believe only on the basis of compelling evidence." Carl Sagan
When the author himself was questioned whether he believed in
the existence of highly evolved life elsewhere in the universe,
he replied, "The key word in that question is 'believe.' And
in my view, you believe only on the basis of compelling evidence.
But I think it would be fantastic, not just a major scientific
discovery, but a transforming experience in human history."
Sagan created a humanist's
view of a scientist's dream.
Sagan's saga was vast in scope, covering multiple characters
in different countries and beyond, to the planets at the edges of
the universe. Although based in science, the epic story itself
champions the ultimate merits of mankind's natural curiosity and
potential for goodness and the value of the human soul. Sagan
created a humanist's view of a scientist's dream.
Interest in realising Sagan's vision on the motion-picture
screen was immediate, but it was not until 1995 that the match
between scientific and cinematic visionaries would result in
"This movie is a
personal story as much as it is a story about the great
universe and our little place within it." Ann Druyan
Ann Druyan comments, "It was a long and winding road,
which all seemed to make its way into the best of all possible
worlds when, two years ago, Robert Zemeckis became involved. Out
of all the people who have thought about making this movie, no
one has understood it as deeply as Bob does - that this movie is
a personal story as much as it is a story about the great
universe and our little place within it."
"It's not about
aliens, it's about us and what happens to us.." Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis had definite ideas about the import of Sagan's
work from the beginning. He comments, "'Contact' is about
human nature in response to 'the message.' It's not about aliens,
it's about us and what happens to us when the very foundation of
what we believe about our existence is shaken. I've always
believed one of the reasons for supporting space explorations is
what we learn about ourselves, as much as what we may find out
there. 'Contact' goes to the heart of that issue."
The director/producer knew something about telling personal
stories amidst the sweep of history. His spectacular motion
picture career had also shown him to be a filmmaker expert at
handling the demands of blending dazzling on-screen special
effects with quiet and tender moments of human drama. But even to
Zemeckis, the task of transforming Sagan's story into film was
"If you read the novel," says Zemeckis, "it
spans years and countries, vast distances with hundreds of
characters. The biggest challenge to me was to condense all of
that into a clear and compelling story."
Zemeckis worked with Sagan on striking the balance between
human interest and science. Even though the filmmaker and
scientist did not always see eye to eye, the mix proved effective
- just the right chemical equilibrium.
"He (Carl) was
protecting the science...I was protecting the drama," Robert Zemeckis
Zemeckis recalls, "I had a great relationship with Carl
through the whole project. When we started collaborating on the
screenplay, he was protecting the science, making sure that it
was all feasible, and I was protecting the drama, making sure
that the story moved along without getting too technical. I would
try to make the science as interesting as possible and he would
try to simplify it as much as possible to accommodate the
dramatic story. At one point, we actually debated for two hours
on a line that two characters repeat. It ended up staying in the
Producer Steve Starkey comments, "Carl had a passion for
science and thought it very similar to our passion for filmmaking
and storytelling. Although he sometimes went down different paths
of theory and ideas to tell a story, his passion was exactly the
same. That's what we wanted to bring to the core of our
The goal for Sagan and Zemeckis was to maintain the vastness
and power of Sagan's vision while concentrating on a core of
characters who represent the differing viewpoints on the
significance of the extraterrestrial message received by Dr.
This is an edited extract from the production notes to the