Tired of feeling hot and sticky this weekend? Well, there are big chills guaranteed if you tune into A&E’s four-hour “Coma” tomorrow and Tuesday nights (Sept. 3 and 4).
You may remember the 1978 medical thriller starring Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas, directed by Michael Crichton. This time around, an acting A Team including Geena Davis, Richard Dreyfuss, James Woods and Ellen Burstyn surrounds sleuthing med student Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”) and her teaching doctor/love interest, Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”). Really, it’s a treat to see them having such a grand time emoting the living daylights out of their roles in this two-night popcorn movie — Davis as a sexual predator and a chief psychiatrist; Dreyfuss as an amiable medical professor; Woods as a revered and feared chief of staff; and Burstyn as the unhinged gatekeeper at a facility for long-term coma patients. You just know someone knows more than they’re saying about the healthy young patients that go into OR No. 8 for routine surgeries and come out comatose. Burstyn alone could induce nightmares.
Gone are creaky vestiges of the ’70′s — including the treatment of a woman doctor as a novelty — replaced by up-to-date references to stem cell research and medical innovations outpacing ethical considerations. The theme of just how far medical establishments will go when they’re hungry for dollars has never been more timely. In this “Coma,” surprises are in store even for those who do remember the ’78 adaptation of Dr. Robin Cook’s bestseller.
“We definitely tried to throw people off the scent, because, you know, the audience is always way ahead of you. They’re so smart,” said director and executive producer Mikael Salomon (“Band of Brothers,” “Andromeda Strain”). “You really have to do something extraordinary for them not to guess what’s coming next.”
According to him, he and executive producer David W. Zucker and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”) worked over the script for about a year before shooting began on the event presentation from Ridley and the late Tony Scott.
As far as the cast, Salomon told AARP.org, “I had worked with Richard before. I was the cinematographer on ‘Always,’ that Steven Spielberg directed, and he played the lead with Holly Hunter. It was great to see him again. I had heard stories — ‘Oh, he can be difficult,’ ‘Oh, he can be hard, so demanding.’ But we had a blast. Same with Jimmy Woods. He’s a force of nature. You have to let him loose, you have to let him go.
“The scene between Richard and James Woods is a scene we wrote later on, to create more action between the two of them,” Salomon said. “They both came in, we started rehearsing, and suddenly Jim says, ‘You know, Richard, we’ve known each other for so many years.’ And Richard said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘Do you realize, we’ve never worked together before?’”
Added Salomon with a laugh, “I said to myself, I’m just going to stand back with the camera and let them do what they want to do.”
The filmmaker revealed one unexpected challenge: wardrobe, or lack of it. A key visual of 1978′s “Coma” was a room full of naked coma patients, suspended from the ceiling. “I called A&E and said, ‘I think I already know the answer, but what about this,’ and they said, ‘No, no. We can’t have nudity; this is basic cable.’” So he and his costume designer came up with the chrome catsuits seen on their patients. The fabric is referred to as “artificial skin.” Maybe they’ll give real medicos ideas.