EXCLUSIVE: Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam McKay has evolved from his broad comedy origins on Saturday Night Live and films like Step Brothers, Talladega Nights and Anchorman to more socially relevant films like The Big Short and Vice. He has fused both of these elements into Don’t Look Up, a Netflix movie that features some of the biggest stars in the movie business constellation, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Mark Rylance, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry and more. The film will be an unusual awards-season entry, its closest comp being spirited satires like Dr. Strangelove and Network. Don’t Look Up is more broad comedy than those, exploring the current polarization and apathy toward issues like climate change and Covid vaccines, fueled by a threat with even more urgency: What if a giant comet was on a collision course toward earth and, in the struggle between polarized politics, social media messaging, the private interests of tech billionaires and apathy, it becomes an open question if anybody will do anything to save the planet? Even when the astronomers sound the alarm on a popular talk show, they become memes more than anything.
The movie, which dropped its official trailer today (see it above), gets its title from a denialist slogan reminiscent of that classic Road Runner cartoon scene where Wile E. Coyote sits in the engineer compartment of a train stalled on the tracks. Staring out the window and watching another train speed directly towards him, he simply pulls down the window shade.
Don’t Look Up will be released in theaters December 10, and bows on the streaming service December 24 and here, McKay explains why he made the film.
DEADLINE: Last time a giant space projectile was headed to earth in a movie, they sent Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck up to nuke it. In your new film Don’t Look Up, the polarizing factors that have kept the world from achieving herd immunity from Covid alters the genre from action to satire. You actually wrote this before the pandemic?
ADAM McKAY: When we were filming Vice, the UN put out a report about climate change that was so jarring I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights. I thought, I got to do something about this. We had some climate stuff in Vice because Dick Cheney was instrumental in halting governmental progress on it, but I kept thinking, how do you do this story? It’s easy to do the giant, epic, dystopic drama, but I wanted an M. Night Shyamalan-, Twilight Zone-type twist. I really wanted this to play as a movie. One of my favorites of the past 20 years is Death of Stalin, but only a certain niche audience saw that, and I really wanted to make something that was big and epic and that could really hit and engage a large audience. I was speaking about what was going on, with my firebrand journalist buddy David Sirota. Why does no one care that the livable atmosphere is on an ever-increasing rate of collapse? He offhandedly said, it’s like a comet is headed towards earth and no one cares. And I said, that’s the movie, an idea that’s big enough and something we all know.
DEADLINE: It was easier to create a sense of urgency if your crisis has a six-month ticking clock on it?
McKAY: We’ve all seen movies where the world’s going to end and everyone gets their act together and they save the world, whether it’s a Marvel movie, Armageddon, Deep Impact, dozens of others. I thought, we need to laugh. We’re so pulverized and overwhelmed by these times. That didn’t mean that the movie also wouldn’t have sadness in it and terror. Those feelings can be in there too, but I just really felt like I wanted to laugh.
DEADLINE: And when Covid shut down the world and responses from some global political leaders mirrored events in your comet comedy?
McKAY: I was as shocked as anyone when the pandemic hit, though some climate scientists predicted an increasing rate of pandemics from changing weather, and animals moving into different areas. They don’t entirely know that this pandemic isn’t disconnected from the climate crisis. I never saw this coming, and then, when it happened, to have actual beats from our movie play out in front of us? It was both strange, incredible, and scary and at the same time. But not that unexpected. It’s definitely one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had working on a project as far as how it connected to reality. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
DEADLINE: How do you get so many big movie stars?
McKAY: First in the door was Jen Lawrence. I wrote the role of [astronomer] Kate Dibiasky for her. Without giving anything away, hers was the hardest road, which is to just tell the truth. Who’s better at spitting fiery truth than Jen Lawrence? I love when she does it, in films like Silver Linings Playbook and when you hang out with her, she’s got that vibe. That role was written for her.
I wrote Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe for Rob Morgan. I had worked with him on the Lakers series that we’re doing for HBO and I just loved him. So, there were a couple people I knew that I wanted, and thank God, they got what I was trying to do, and they were in. And then, as every director imagines, you have the President in your movie, and you have to go to Meryl Streep. I just never imagined she would say yes, once you get Meryl Streep, everyone else is more likely to be interested. We got great reads on the script from a lot of actors who said they’d been waiting for a project like this, with how crazy the world has been. They were excited to collaborate on something that tries to process the insanity of our modern world. They were excited it was a comedy, after how much we’ve all been pummeled year after year, to be able to laugh a little bit about this craziness, to try and find that distance to laugh.
Meryl was in, then Cate Blanchett. Himesh Patel, Tyler Perry. Then Jonah Hill, I had to have him play Jason…
DEADLINE: The dunderheaded White House chief of staff, who is the son of Streep’s president character…
McKAY: No one else could have played that role. All along, I was having conversations with Leo, who’s very rigorous about the movies that he chooses. He’s so smart about film, about story and character. We had several really long meetings where we talked about the characters, the tone. He put me through my paces, and it really made the script better. I guess it makes sense that you have an actor that’s going to work with Martin Scorsese numerous times and Tarantino and other great directors, that they’re going to know a thing or two about movies. He really impressed me and the other trick Leo has is, he’s legitimately funny. We know it from Wolf of Wall Street and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He’s really got a great wry comic sense. He hadn’t officially said yes when Covid hit and everything went on pause. We were scouting in Boston and suddenly everyone raced home and we went through what we all went through. We were inside our house for five or six straight months, making the best of it and trying not to go insane.
DEADLINE: How did the polarizing response to Covid by Donald Trump and the conservative political community influence your script?
McKAY: I put the script aside because things were so chaotic. But then it felt like things were even a little crazier than what I wrote. After five months, our producer Kevin Messick said, are we still going to do this? I said, let me read the script, and it read like a different script. Suddenly what was highlighted was our broken discourse, our broken mechanisms of communication. That’s really what the script was about. Granted, when I wrote it, I knew that was part of it, but after going through Covid and the quarantine, I realized that was entirely what it was about. Reality had gotten so crazy with the President floating the idea of ingesting bleach, with these conspiracies that Covid doesn’t exist, with grown adults stamping and screaming like babies because they had to wear a mask. So many things that were so insane that I did have to go tweak some of the script, to be a little crazier. There were certain sections where I made sure we had some stuff that was a little more extreme. For the most part, the majority of the script stayed intact. Those changes amounted to four or five percent. The basic conceit of the movie held. I talked to the cast; we Zoomed, emailed and texted, and everyone had the same reaction I had. We’ve got to make this now more than ever.
DEADLINE: After Trump got elected president with no political experience, we’d hear, Oprah Winfrey should run against him! I thought Meryl Streep might make a good president. Watching her turn as the incompetent President Orlean, I take it back. Who were your touchstones for her character?
McKAY: Meryl Streep, it turns out, did not make a very good President. When we discussed the idea, we stepped back and looked at the last 40, 45 years if you wanted to include Jimmy Carter. You had Ronald Reagan; Bush Senior was sort of not great but not a disaster. Bill Clinton, his policies have not aged well. George W. Bush and Cheney, we know what a disaster that was. We know what a disappointment Obama turned out to be. He didn’t get it done. He didn’t rise to the moment. A little too polished. A little too aloof. And then, the Orange Troll was off the charts.
We wanted President Orlean to be a little bit of all of those leaders and the way they uniquely failed us. The polish and used-car salesman quality of Bill Clinton. The empty suit performative nature of Reagan. The dangerously underqualified qualities of W. Bush. The raw flowing narcissism of Trump. And then, the aloof sort of removed quality of Obama and his coziness with big money. All of their coziness with big money. So, that was the idea, and then, I said to Meryl, I was sort of thinking of Suze Orman’s fashion statement hair. I don’t know Suze Orman, I’m sure she’s a delightful person but she’s got the fashion statement hair, and she’s got that tough kind of New Yorker plain talk financial advice thing. Meryl took that prompt and filtered it in her own way, and I think she really had the breakthrough idea, which was the hair. The idea that this woman is going to wear her hair like she’s 28 years old…I was a little afraid of the idea at first but I had to remind myself never to doubt the great Meryl Streep because the second I saw her hair I was like, it’s genius.
DEADLINE: Then you got Timothée Chalamet, Ariana Grande and Mark Rylance, who plays tech billionaire Peter Isherwell who comes off as otherworldly as Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk…
McKAY: Once we realized Netflix had a pathway for us to make this movie in a safe manner, they officially signed up. The last but certainly not least person in the door was Mark Rylance. One of the hardest characters in this movie is the tech billionaire Peter Isherwell only because, once again, the real tech billionaires are so extreme and bizarre. In the case of such overt super villains like Mark Zuckerberg, it was really hard to fictionalize these people without it just looking like a 1960s DC comic book. The biggest cheat any director can do is go get one of the greatest actors on the planet and that’s what we did with Mark Rylance. I’ll never forget the day we officially knew Mark Rylance was in. Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio were both near me when I said, oh, Rylance is in, Meryl Streep went, yes! And pumped her fist. Leo said oh, I can’t believe it. So, if you want to find out who the actor is that gets two of the greatest actors on the planet excited, it’s Mark Rylance.
One of the big breakthroughs was this guy, you think he’s shy and retreating, but actually, he’s so disdainful of most people that he won’t even make eye contact with them. You think it’s a nervous thing but it’s actually a high-status thing.
DEADLINE: You wrote the character of the tech billionaire who says he’ll handle the crisis, before all these guys started flying into space. What’s your assessment of those uber-tech zillionaires who informed Rylance’s character?
McKAY: No human being is meant to have that much power and money. These individuals that are worth as much as many small countries and some mid-size countries, and run these massive corporations that have overrun our culture and our government…I don’t know if I would behave much better if you gave me 80 billion dollars. I think it just immediately turns you into an insane person, and whenever I see someone who’s worth those billions and billions who’s not an insane person, I’m astounded. They remind me of the kings from the 14th and 15th and 16th century, those inbred megalomaniacs who claim to be God. So, yeah, they’re a disaster, each a walking failure emblematic of our society’s inability to function properly. Their space race is embarrassing. They look like giant children. I honestly have compassion for every person, and I’m not sure anyone could handle that kind of wealth and power. But I truly can’t say enough bad stuff about them.
DEADLINE: Rylance’s character lives up to your assessment. Now, your last film Vice did fine, but a Red Stater probably said, it’s not for me. How much did the film suffer from the polarization?
McKAY: We kind of knew walking in that was not going to be an easy one. That’s why I made it when I did because the time was right. The Big Short had a pretty good run of movies leading up it; we really tried very hard to show how the revolution of the ’70s, the big money revolution, you could call it the Republican revolution, how it affected all of America, not just the right wing. But the way our society is constituted right now, I knew I would get those attacks. I also knew that ending that I did that I would get a certain degree of the eye-rolling because basically I was saying that America is undone. We’re in the midst of the collapse of America, and that’s a very large way to end a movie. I think there were a lot of people who didn’t feel that way or maybe felt like that was a little over the top. I personally felt like it wasn’t, that we are experiencing the undoing of America. So, I kind of knew what I was in for with that movie going into it.
Considering how hostile and how divided our country can be, I actually was pretty happy with how it did. It did make a little chunk of money in the box office. It got a bunch of awards nominations and it got attention, so I knew the lumps I was in for with that movie. I still stand by it, still feel like it was important that that story be told given what we had lived through.
I think The Big Short and Don’t Look Up are more about a collective experience, and I tried very hard not to fall into the red and blue thing. It’s unavoidable in some ways, especially with what we saw in reaction to Covid. I think we tried to make fun of what some people would call liberal media with The Daily Rip [the happy talk morning TV show whose hosts are played by Perry and Blanchett]. We tried to make fun of right-wing media with Michael Chiklis’ character. We tried to make fun of the neo-liberal incrementalists, which is I think what Leo’s character is for a lot of the movie. At the same time, there’s no way we’re not going to make fun of the reactionary right with the Don’t Look Up movement.
Hopefully, we poked fun at the whole system in this movie and tried to ask a bigger question, which isn’t really about right versus left. It’s about the fact that the way we communicate has been broken.
DEADLINE: There’s a fun early scene where the astronomers make it to the Oval Office to reveal this dangerous comet to the President and her advisors so they can solve this imminent crisis. And it’s clear the President, her chief of staff son either don’t believe them, or maybe don’t really care. You’ve got Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, DiCaprio, Lawrence, Rob Morgan. It’s a madcap, surreal back and forth that sets the tone of what is to come. How much of that was improvised?
McKAY: Tons. That group of people could not have been happier to be in that fake Oval Office, doing that scene. Laughing, improvising. They almost were a little intimidated by Meryl Streep because she’s arguably the greatest film actor ever, and we discover she’s just a delight with this big generous laugh, who can improvise all day long. Jonah Hill is one of the great film improvisers, and that was inspiring to Jen and Leo to throw stuff in, and Rob Morgan too. We shot that scene for two days and the first cut was 16 minutes long and I never got tired of watching it. The problem was, you can’t have a scene start off a movie that’s 16 minutes long, where basically nothing happens. Hank Corwin is one of the great film editors, and he turned it into a Fred Astaire dance piece. I showed the first cut to people, that 16 minutes of the greatest actors, edited by one of the great editors and everyone felt you could have watched it for another five minutes, but we had to whittle it down for the final cut.
DEADLINE: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is an exception, but why are we not seeing flat-out funny comedies anymore like Step Brothers or Talladega Nights? Are funny people keeping their powder dry because of this hypersensitive moment where people are so easily offended?
McKAY: I really don’t think that’s it. You’ll hear some comics say the cancel culture thing is the reason why we haven’t seen a lot of good comedy. I think it’s a much bigger thing. We’re in a historic, seismic moment of change. Everything is changing. It’s becoming very clear that the world economy, the way it’s constructed, does not work. Where the way we’re living in relation to the earth, scientifically speaking, does not work. We’re seeing that the way we’re relating to each other based on gender or race, religion, it has not worked. It’s very hard to orient yourself for comedy because comedy relies on a certain shared experience. That’s the way a crowd of people laughs together. What is the shared experience right now? The only reason I think that hopefully people will like this movie is because the shared experience is one of complete chaos and fractures, and that’s really the premise of our movie. The shared experience of the movie is that we’re not having a shared experience right now.
One of the best jokes I’ve heard about the time we’re living through, was from John Mulaney, who said trying to describe Trump as President is like trying to describe a horse turned loose in a hospital. You have no frame of reference for that chaos. I don’t think it’s about cancel culture. Yeah. You’ve got to be a little more sensitive. You’ve got to think twice maybe even sometimes three times, which by the way is fair enough after hundreds of years of shitty behavior from white men like myself. I think the far bigger issue is, just how do you make jokes about a time when we’re not even entirely sure of what’s going on?
DEADLINE: You made this for Netflix, where there was recent fallout after a Dave Chappelle standup special that offended the LGBTQ+ community, with Ted Sarandos digging the hole deeper by trying to explain the company’s need to support the artist. Chappelle is following in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, all of whom offended many with ferocious routines. In Chappelle’s case, do you fall on the side of complete artistic freedom, even in this sensitive time?
McKAY: Chappelle is a legendary standup. His TV show is one of the great comedy shows of all time. When comics are at the top of their game, they’re calling out power, questioning power structures. My problem with the bit Chappelle took the flack for was, he wasn’t going at power. He was going at another marginalized community, and I just think that’s not one of his greatest moments. I know he can do better than that. If you’re going to a truth-spitting comic who’s going to elevate and push people into new levels of thought and perception, you got to go after power, man. We live in a time where power is unchecked. So, when I heard that routine, I knew the people who also liked that routine would include CEOs, billionaires, Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch. They love it when marginalized people attack marginalized people. He’s a legendary comic, he can handle himself, but I just think he can do better.
DEADLINE: Had Vice been made for a streamer, millions more might have seen it. Here, you made Don’t Look Up for Netflix, with cast that became big stars from theatrical films. What assurances did you get from Netflix that kept those stars feeling they’d be covered in awards season, and in theaters, while still allowing Netflix to monetize a pricey picture on their streaming service? I don’t think they’ve ever had this many big movie stars in one film.
McKAY: I told all the actors, we’re making this movie to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s a comedy. It’s got some terror in it, some sadness but it’s a big, large movie. Netflix was built to do that. This is our movie about the climate crisis. It’s the biggest story in the history of mankind without any exaggeration, and Netflix is perfectly built to get a movie like this out on a worldwide basis. However, I also love the movie theatre experience. The good news was, by the time we were setting this up, it was becoming apparent that both were going to coexist, and I’ve always believed that movie theaters aren’t going anywhere. I’m old enough that I’ve lived through VHS, VCR, Blu-ray. I’ve lived through people saying movie theatres are going to go away. Guess what? There’s nothing more awesome than going to a packed movie theater and having the collective experience. Some of the great memories of my life are being in packed movie theaters seeing movies like Sixth Sense, Wedding Crashers, Kung Fu Hustle. I remember seeing Election in a packed theatre in Manhattan. It’s the greatest thing in the world.
Streaming’s reach is awesome too. I felt like at that moment when we were setting this up, it was starting to become clear that they were going to coexist. Netflix made a commitment to a theatrical release. I trusted them and sure enough they’re living up to their word. But yeah, we took a plunge on this one and it turns out it has worked out really well. The other thing that was great was that Netflix was in a position where they can guarantee that we could make this movie in a safe way [during the pandemic]. I think some other studios might not have had the resources to be able to do what Netflix did. They spent a lot of money to make sure this movie was safe. I never would have shown up on set unless I had seen those guarantees and seen their system in place. Make no mistake about it, in the future I will also be doing films for straight theatrical, working at studios and streamers. I’ll sort of treat each project on a case-by-case basis depending on what the project needs.
DEADLINE: You made a very funny film inspired by the climate crisis, but about a meteor headed to earth. What will make this film a success for you and your environmentally conscious star cast that signed on?
McKAY: That’s such an interesting question that it begs a second question. Is the age of the consensus film over? Are the days over where a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey just captivated everyone or more recently when The Matrix and Get Out came out? Where, it didn’t matter who you were, everyone was talking about it. Squid Games sort of broke through in some ways that I found really promising. But what we’re trying to do with this movie is to get a conversation going, while giving some distance and some relief where you laugh and get a bit of perspective. I think that feels really good for me when I watch the movie, because Lord knows that the last five, 10, 15 years has felt like you’re being attacked and pecked by a rooster.
To have a little distance for a second feels nice, and the second thing is very simple. We’ve watched thousands and thousands of movies. We’re used to happy endings. We’re used to these nifty little bows at the end of the movie, and without giving anything away, this movie doesn’t have a nifty bow at the end of it.
MCKAY: I think it’s important for people to experience that and to remember that to get that nifty bow, you have to actually do shit. I hope that some people, it won’t be all of them, but I hope some people are moved enough to look into what’s actually going on in our climate and our world. They’ll find there’s some good news, which is, we have the science to actually do something about this. The only thing that we’re facing right now, the greatest threat we’re facing, is inaction. If a couple percentage points of the audience are so moved to have that kind of reaction, I’m doing a victory parade down the center of Atlanta. I guess they just had the crowd there with the Braves, so I don’t know where I’m doing it but I’m feeling awfully good if we get that kind of response even from a small percentage of the audience.