Adam McKay: ‘Leo sees Meryl as film royalty – he didn’t like seeing her with a lower back tattoo’

After politics in Vice and finance in The Big Short, director McKay is taking on the climate crisis in his star-studded ‘freakout’ satire Don’t Look Up

Adam McKay calls it his “freakout trilogy”. Having tackled the 2008 financial crash and warmongering US vice president Dick Cheney in his previous two movies, The Big Short and Vice, McKay goes even bigger and bleaker with his latest, Don’t Look Up, in which two astronomers (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) discover a giant comet headed for Earth, but struggle to get anyone to listen. It is an absurd but depressingly plausible disaster satire, somewhere between Dr Strangelove, Network, Deep Impact and Idiocracy, with an unbelievably stellar cast; also on board are Meryl Streep (as the US president), Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, Jonah Hill and Ariana Grande. It has been quite the career trajectory for McKay, who started out in live improv and writing for Saturday Night Live, followed by a run of hit Will Ferrell comedies such as Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. “The goal was to capture this moment,” says McKay of Don’t Look Up. “And this moment is a lot.”

(From left) Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up.
(From left) Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Was there a particular event that inspired Don’t Look Up?
Somewhere in between The Big Short and Vice, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] panel and a bunch of other studies came out that just were so stark and so terrifying that I realised: “I have to do something addressing this.” So I wrote five different premises for movies, trying to find the best one. I had one that was a big, epic, kind of dystopian drama. I had another one that was a Twilight Zone/M Night [Shyamalan] sort of twisty thriller. I had a small character piece. And I was just trying to find a way into: how do we communicate how insane this moment is? So finally, I was having a conversation with my friend [journalist and Bernie Sanders adviser] David Sirota, and he offhandedly said something to the effect of: “It’s like the comet’s coming and no one cares.” And I thought: “Oh. I think that’s it.” I loved how simple it was. It’s not some layered, tricky Gordian knot of a premise. It’s a nice, big, wide open door we can all relate to.

Dick Cheney, the financial crash, planetary destruction … these are not subjects most people would consider comedy material.
Yeah! I don’t know how you’ve been experiencing the past five years, but when I talk to my friends the basic thrust of the conversation is: “What the holy F is going on?” And usually we swing between laughing at just how ridiculously over-the-top horrible it is and genuinely being frightened. When we were making the movie, I happened upon a fascinating book called Deep Survival. The author [Laurence Gonzales] studies why people survive insane accidents like getting lost at sea or lost in the woods, and one of the biggest things he found was that a lot of these people kept a dark sense of humour. I think there’s something really – I hate to use a woo-woo word – but, healing about that. So yeah, I think laughter has got to be a part of how we deal with this.

How did you assemble such an incredible cast?
I had a couple of people I wanted right from the jump. Like, I wrote the roles for Jennifer Lawrence and Rob Morgan [as a sympathetic Nasa scientist]. I sort of had Meryl Streep in mind, but you never dare to think that you’re going to get her. When she signed on, it then became just a cascading effect. And then when Leonardo DiCaprio came in, I realised there was this happy accident, where this stellar cast was actually enforcing the point of view of the movie: that we’re constantly distracted by celebrity and bright colours, and low news versus high news, and contrarian points of view. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they all happen to be brilliant actors. So yeah, it got slightly embarrassing. At one point I almost found myself apologising to my director friends.

You do at least manage to make both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence look terrible.
Well, thank you! I take that as a pure compliment. They had to be the opposite of the people that you’d want to chuck on the most popular talkshow in America, so, yeah, we did some hard work on that. And it’s testament to them, as big, giant movie stars, that they were willing to play into that. I even said at one point to Jennifer: “Those bangs could look a little better if you wanted to.” And she was like: “No, I like ’em.” So yeah, they were down for the cause.

Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothée Chalamet in Don’t Look Up.
Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothée Chalamet in Don’t Look Up. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

This is a work of fiction, but how much did you draw on real people for the characters?
All the characters are kind of an amalgam. I’ve been tracking the last five or six years what’s been happening to the scientists in the States who are under political attack, and it’s sometimes kind of funny to watch because some of them aren’t made for giant PR tours. What you’ve seen are these climate scientists having to go front and centre and take on a billion-dollar industry of misinformation from fossil fuel companies and attacks from extremists and having people call for them losing their jobs. And I felt for them. It’s not what they’re built to do.

Politics and big tech are in the firing line, but as with the Anchorman movies, your main target here seems to be the media.
I think what happened, especially in the US, was everything became a sales exchange. Everything became a “customer is always right” interaction. And I think that goes across politics, it goes to broadcast media and, to some degree, print journalism. The only way you can stay alive is to maximise profits. And I’ll date myself, but I remember when that wasn’t entirely the case! I remember when broadcast journalism was about the esteem and doing good journalism. But it became part of the entertainment culture. So now we’re in this very dangerous place where it’s hard to tell people bad news. How does a society function when bad news is not an easy sell, and everything is about selling?

We certainly see, er, a new side of Meryl Streep (no spoilers, but her character appears naked at one point). Was she up for that?
She is fearless. And yes, that is a body double. But you know who had a problem with it? Leo [DiCaprio]. Leo just views Meryl as film royalty … although maybe royalty is not a compliment … but as such a special figure in the history of film. He didn’t like seeing her with the lower back tattoo, walking for a second naked. He said something to me like: “Do you really need to show that?” And I was like: “It’s President Orlean; it’s not Meryl Streep.” But she didn’t even blink. She didn’t even bring it up.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice. Photograph: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna/Kobal/Rex/ Shutterstock

Talking of politicians, did you ever get any reaction from the Cheneys over Vice?
I did. I got two reactions. A friend of Christian Bale was at a party and said to Dick Cheney: “I know Christian Bale.” And Cheney looked up at them and said: “Well, you tell Christian Bale he’s a dick.” And Christian’s friend laughed, and Cheney said: “I’m not kidding.” And then the second reaction, and you’ve got to judge if this is me thinking too much of our movie, but I think it’s pretty odd that Liz Cheney just came out for gay marriage. And I do know, from seeing her timeline on social media, a lot of people gave her a hard time for betraying her sister [Mary, who is a lesbian]. For a Republican candidate in the state of Wyoming to come out publicly in support of gay marriage … there is no political advantage to doing that. I just found that very curious.

You come from an improv and live comedy background. Do you still work like that? It sometimes looks as if nothing was planned in your Will Ferrell comedies.
Oh, it’s definitely not planned. On the day, you just never can fully anticipate what it’s like to see a beautifully designed set and perfect wardrobe and hair. There’s just always something inspiring about that moment. So the actor, whether it’s Will or John C Reilly or Adam Scott or Paul Rudd or Kathryn Hahn, will get inspired by the moment. I get the couple of takes as written, then I’ll say: “OK, let’s start screwing around.” And I’ll throw out an idea, and they’ll take it and go somewhere else, and essentially what happens is we’re all writing together. One of my favourite lines from any movie I’ve ever done happened in Anchorman, when Paul Rudd says of his cologne, Sex Panther: “60% of the time, it works every time.” Jonah Hill is able to improvise a whole monologue. Like in this movie, [when his character is speaking at a political rally] he does a “prayer for stuff”. That was entirely Jonah, entirely improvised.

You and Ferrell ended your professional partnership in 2019 after 13 years. What happened?
I think it was a matter of two things. Part of it was, I really love producing. Will likes producing, but he likes to keep it kind of manageable, and I really just was all for [doing] a lot of different stuff: podcasts, documentaries, series, all different kinds of movies. And I think we got to a point where he was getting a little bit tired of driving past billboards for stuff that we had produced, and he didn’t even know we had produced it. I think also, there was a shift in the kind of comedies that Will and I had been making. They didn’t feel … you know, I wasn’t maybe as excited by those.

Does it feel as if you couldn’t make comedies such as Anchorman or Step Brothers today?
Yeah, I think without a doubt, it felt like that was over. Given what we’re up against. It feels a little ridiculous to make those comedies now. But I still love great comedies. So I’m trying to play with: “What is the language now?” Because the way I’m experiencing the world, it’s a ridiculous farce, but at the same time, it’s also terrifying. When the president of the United States floats the idea of ingesting bleach, and then people in the country actually ingest bleach … well, that’s beyond the biggest slapstick comedy you could ever write. So I feel like in these last three movies, I’m trying to find that blend. Can that blend exist? I’m not entirely sure it can. But that is what we’re going after.

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You still seem to have a lot of irons in the fire as producer, including the show of the moment, Succession. Did you know you were on to a winner with that series?
Sometimes you know. And this was one of those ones where I totally knew. We put it together. We shot it. But when I really knew was when I started watching episodes, two, three, four and five, and I stopped watching them like a producer and started just enjoying them. And that’s when I started telling some people in my circle: “I think we got a good one here.” To the point where Jesse [Armstrong, the show’s creator], who is a much more restrained person than I am, was telling me: “Will you please shush up?”

Getting back to Don’t Look Up and the looming apocalypse. Is there any cause for optimism?
Well, the one big optimism I have is that we have the science. It’s right in front of us, for God’s sakes. We have renewables, they have some interesting carbon-capture technology, we need to be chucking trillions of dollars at this. So I do know that if we got on our horse, science could solve this. We could do it. What’s scaring me is just how scattered and all over the place and chasing-our-tails most of civilisation is right now. So I’m not optimistic in the near future. But I am optimistic in the future.

Don’t Look Up is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 24 December.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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