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Just What the Doctor Ordered

Laurence Dworet knows his combat zones--especially those combat zones called emergency rooms, where doctors head into battle to save lives with a scalpel and a prayer. And those combat zones called story meetings, where strategy is boiled down to a twist on an idea and experience in another field is the winning edge.

Dworet, 44, is a veteran emergency room physician cum screenwriter tapped by his longtime friend, producer Arnold Kopelson, to co-write Warner Bros.’ “Outbreak"--better known as the “killer virus” movie that won the war of nerves with a similar competing project, Ridley Scott’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone.” “Outbreak,” directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Dustin Hoffman, is set for release this spring.

Dworet (whose co-writer is longtime collaborator Robert Roy Pool) was Kopelson’s first choice after “The Fugitive” producer lost the first lap in the virus movie race to producer Lynda Obst and 20th Century Fox. Dworet has written several screenplays, all of which have yet to be produced.

Fox and Obst had promptly secured rights to Richard Preston’s Oct. 26, 1992, article in the New Yorker about an Army biological strike team’s race to stop a deadly virus from escaping a Frederick, Md., medical lab and spreading to a major city. Preston later expanded his article into a book, “Crisis in the Hot Zone.”

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But even though it was Preston’s book that triggered the movie race, it is Dworet’s “Outbreak” that will make it first to the screen. “Crisis” would have gone into production first, but the stars lined up for the film, Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, bailed from the project just before shooting was to have begun last year. Kopelson, determined to beat Fox and Obst, rushed into production July 24 without a finished script; the $60-million-plus shoot wrapped Dec. 19.

“While both of these screenplays are about viral outbreaks, the similarities pretty much stop there,” says Dworet now.

The killer in “Outbreak” is the fictional Motaba virus, named for the Motaba River in Zaire, scene of the viral outbreak in the film. “Crisis in the Hot Zone’s” virus is the Ebola virus, named for the Ebola River in Africa. Both movie viruses are called filo, or level 4, viruses, meaning that they are so contagious, swift and lethal that they may be transmitted through the air. Their victims experience severe headaches, hemorrhaging and fever.

“They clot and eventually bleed to death from the ears, eyes, mouth, everywhere on the body,” says Dworet. “Filo viruses are the deadliest viruses known to man and they do exist, in places like the rain forests. There is no treatment, no cure. Medical personnel have to wear ‘space suits’ to avoid infection. In ‘Outbreak,’ one drop of blood of the Motaba virus has the power to kill 1 billion people.” It is supposed to be 1,000 times more deadly than the influenza virus of 1918 that killed 20 million people, he said.

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Dworet and Pool’s script now also includes scenes of military corruption and viral warfare and spans three decades and two continents, from the jungles of Africa to a small Oregon town. Script doctoring was provided by Neal Jimenez, Ted Tally, Jeb Stuart and Carrie Fisher; final writing credits are currently being arbitrated before the Writers Guild.

Hoffman apparently also had a hand in some of the rewriting. “Dustin is a perfectionist and all I want to say is that he contributed heavily to the material,” Kopelson said. The film co-stars Renee Russo, Donald Sutherland, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Patrick Dempsey and Kevin Spacey.

But it was Dworet, with his unique background, who provided the film’s medical accuracy. Dworet graduated from the University of California--San Francisco Medical School in 1975 and began practicing in the emergency room at Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills (where he is still on staff). About the same time, he enrolled in UCLA’s film school, and for four years, he was a student by day, a trauma doctor by night. (Though he commands up to $1 million per script now, he still has a way to go to reach the level of his fellow medically trained screenwriter, Michael Crichton, though Dworet points out that while Crichton did serve an internship, he has never actually practiced medicine.)

“The doctors in ‘Outbreak’ are doctors on the front line; emergency rooms are nothing more than a minefield of disease,” he says. “Whenever you have a big medical epidemic, often it’s the medical professionals who usually die, because of the mere fact they are on the front line--there are no buffers for them.

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“And that is where, I would say, these two films probably really differ,” Dworet adds. “The Preston article would make a great animal-rights movie (since it focuses on a virus that begins in monkeys and then spreads to humans). I wanted to write a fictional movie, where doctors face death fighting this battle. I got so into this story that, as a physician, I terrified myself.”

Now that “Outbreak” is behind him, Dworet is tackling a thriller of another sort: writing the screen version of “Young Men and Fire,” the story of smoke jumpers in Montana by Norman Maclean, who also wrote “A River Runs Through It.”

Andy Meyer will produce “Young Men and Fire” for Warner Bros.; Dworet says that his and Pool’s latest draft is actually two stories told simultaneously: Maclean’s investigation of the mysterious deaths of 12 smoke jumpers--firefighters in remote forests who parachute into fire areas--killed in the Mann Gulch, Mont., forest fire of Aug. 5, 1949, and the story of Maclean himself, a former firefighter who feared death, struggled to find himself after his wife died and ultimately found his dream.*


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