Ebola and me

The current horror stories about Ebola take me back to a project I was asked to write in the days when David Puttman was running Columbia Pictures. Glenn Close, then a big star on the back of ‘Fatal Attraction’, wanted to make a movie set in the Congo, where her father had been a physician. The story Glenn had found was about an outbreak of Ebola that occurred in 1976, deep in the remote heart of the Congo. A group of Belgian missionary nuns refused to evacuate the area, and tended to the sick as best as they could. In the end all were infected and died. A team of scientists from CDC Atlanta flew out to trace the source of the outbreak, in order to stop it spreading. The twist to the true story was that the CDC team discovered the outbreak had been caused by the nuns themselves. They had been running ante-natal clinics, in which they inoculated pregnant mothers; but their sterilisation techniques were faulty, and the needles spread the infection. The nuns, unaware of this, paid with their lives. The outbreak ran its limited course. And everyone relaxed.

The plan was that Glenn would act the lead scientist. I travelled with her on a research trip to CDC Atlanta, to Kinshasa, and to the village where the outbreak had started. Glenn was magnificent: much more than a fine actor, a fine human being. Back home I wrote a draft as planned, with Glenn as the lead scientist. Then Dickie Attenborough’s film about Donald Woods and Steve Biko, ‘Cry Freedom’, came out, and was criticised for telling an African story through the eyes of a white man. The execs at Columbia took fright at making another African-set movie with Americans as heroes, so the decision was made to re-cast Glenn as one of the tragic Belgian nuns. I re-wrote the screenplay accordingly. Then David Puttman’s reign at Columbia came to an end, and as is usual in Hollywood his successors had no interest in promoting a project they had not initiated. Our movie was shelved.

I’ve often told the story as a Hollywood joke: how I had to turn my heroine from a scientist into a nun. It’s not a joke any more.