Originally created 07/13/97

Carl Sagan's widow: Movie reaffirms his life, beliefs



CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - She made him promise, again and again, that she wouldn't have to go alone to the premiere of "Contact," that he'd live long enough to see his science fiction novel portrayed on the big screen.

Celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan died in December after a two-year battle with bone marrow disease. And now his widow, Ann Druyan, is making the movie rounds alone.

"This is really painful," she said softly in an interview late last month. "But also, in a way, when you love somebody with all of your heart and they die, part of you is walking around thinking, `I want the whole world to remember this person and feel what I feel.' "

The film about humanity's first contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, which opened Friday and stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, is "the most beautiful possible expression of the things that were most important to him," Druyan said.

"Because I don't believe in an actual afterlife, it means a lot to me that Carl's ideas and what we stood for are given a kind of dramatic expression in this movie," she added.

"Contact," filmed in part at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, is based on Sagan's 1985 novel of the same name. He'd put together a shortened screenplay version five years earlier with help from his wife, also a writer.

"I really wanted him to see this movie," said Foster, sighing. "He was so much a part of it, and it was such a long haul ... it just really breaks my heart."

In "Contact," Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a searching, agnostic, astronomer who receives a radio message from the distant star Vega, 26 light-years away. It turns out to be the blueprints for a spaceship to transport someone to Vega - or beyond. And Ellie Arroway ends up being that someone.

Druyan considers Foster "a brilliant Ellie."

"One thing that struck me watching the movie, one of the many things, was I kept looking at her and thinking, `You know, she really reminds me of someone and I can't think of whom it is,' " Druyan said. "And then, about two-thirds of the way through, I realized it was Carl, that it was Carl, that she captured something of that kind of fearless curiosity and that kind of passionate need to know."

Like Ellie in the movie, Sagan devoted his life to science, contributing greatly to the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Unlike Ellie, he never got the evidence he was seeking.

"He really wanted to live to get the answer to this question, and that's one of the many reasons he fought so hard" when he became ill, Druyan said. He underwent a bone marrow transplant in 1995 and died of pneumonia on Dec. 20, 1996. He was only 62.

Sagan, who along with his wife served as co-producer, met several times with Foster during the production of "Contact." All the actress knew about him was what she'd seen on his 1980 PBS series "Cosmos" and what she'd heard way back when from college roommates who were science majors.

Foster said she'll never forget their last real exchange, just a month before he died. The scientist gave her and a few other actors one of his usual lectures, complete with slides.

They talked not so much about science as about humanity and "the god of the gaps."

Here's her take on what she learned that day:

"For centuries, when we've had gaps in our knowledge or our consciousness, we've filled that gap with the word `God.' Why do birds fly? We don't know, God must be there. Then science has, continually in the evolution of our consciousness, started filling these gaps. The big question is, is where does God go?"

"I think that was such an interesting question, and I see that every day - now - in this kind of new Zeitgeist, this millennium Zeitgeist, of people who are kind of going back to the basics of having questions about heaven."

Foster said it would be "insane" not to believe in the possibility of intelligent life outside the solar system. But no way would she fly off to meet them, as Ellie does, unless she had a guaranteed return ticket.

Sagan almost certainly would have gone, return ticket or no, but not without his wife of 17 years.

"He was repeatedly asked if he'd go to Mars. He'd always say, `Not without Annie,' which meant so much to me," Druyan said. "I don't think either of us would have left each other for anything, but death."