Academy Award winning writer and director Adam McKay started out writing for Saturday Night Live, co-founded pioneering humour website Funny Or Die, and directed outrageously funny films Anchorman, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and my absolute favourite, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, where race-car drivers have sponsor logos plastered across windshields and product placements inserted into prayers.
McKay’s 2015 masterpiece The Big Short flashily educated a theatregoing audience about the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, and his next, Vice, was a darkly comic take on Dick Cheney. He also executive produced — and directed the first episode of — an HBO series you may have heard of, called Succession.
His latest film Don’t Look Up — out on Netflix December 24 — is a star-studded analogy about climate change, where two astronomers (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) discover a massive comet hurtling directly towards Earth, but the US President (Meryl Streep) suggests they “sit tight and assess,” while the media prefers less gloomy news. The world is about to be destroyed but it doesn’t want to believe that. It is a crazy but frighteningly plausible scenario, with actors that bask in the lunacy of the material. One perfect gag involves a highly decorated General taking free snacks from the White House and selling them to visitors. It’s the sort of bizarreness that shines through McKay’s work. I spoke to the director after watching the film.
To begin with, I’m a massive fan of Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby. After making uproarious comedies like that and Anchorman and Step Brothers, you pivoted towards more dramatic and political material. Do you miss being goofy for the sake of being goofy?
Well, I think there’s some awfully goofy stuff in this movie. Part of the reason I was excited about this movie was that I did get to return to laughing hard, being silly. I think it’s a really important part of how we interact with this crazy, insane world that we’re living in currently, and that was a little bit what I missed from my last movie. Vice was definitely the darkest movie I made and I really was like, you know, I think we gotta be laughing as well as feeling all those other feelings.
‘Don’t Look Up’ features impending doom as just another point of view. Do you look at misinformation as our biggest enemy now?
Yeah, I think misinformation — which of course is created by greed, careerism, a certain degree of tribalism, Big Tech, social media. I think what we did was we took the very means with which we communicate with each other and we profitized it. So its no longer communication, it’s become a sales pitch. And I think what’s created a lot of this misinformation ,and these dangerous interactions, is we’re telling people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. So, I do, I do. Right now that might be the biggest danger we’re facing. That, and I would say entrenched extreme wealth and big money taking over our governments. I would say those are the number one roadblocks to action on the climate, and in some ways, how we’re dealing with the pandemic.
Speaking of Big Tech, Mark Rylance plays this wonderfully creepy tech tycoon. We used to look at tech icons as messianic figures, but in a post Steve Jobs world we distrust the people who make our devices and control our data. Painting them as villains seems like less of a stretch.
Well I think in some cases they are villains, like Mark Zuckerburg is definitely not a good guy, who doesn’t care about the world he lives in, and is doing a lot of damage to it. Some of the other characters are a little harder to define, you know, someone like Elon Musk certainly seems not a guy I’d really want to have dinner with, but at the same time his technology, these electric cars are doing some good.
So it gets a little more ambiguous when you go into other realms, but some of these big tech social media people are straight up doing harm. These are outlets that I really think should be considered utilities, and shouldn’t be controlled by one sociopathic guy worth a hundred billion dollars. Its just not healthy for society. Governments should take over some of these social media platforms, I think it would be more constructive and healthier. They would have to be heavily regulated.
You wrote this film before the pandemic, and did the pandemic shape the way the film finally turned out?
It did, yeah. I wrote it months before the pandemic, and it was very strange to see the world get even crazier than the script I had written which was pretty crazy to begin with. So I had to go back and tweak some of the dialogue and some of the beats and make it a little bit more extreme, a little bit crazier, a little bit more polarised. I tweaked it to make it about fifteen percent crazier.
Tell me something. I loved The Big Short, and how brilliantly it explained financial skullduggery using cameos — Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining mortgage-backed securities — but did that film reach beyond the target audience?
I’ve noticed, now doing this for a decent amount of time, that I really don’t know how a movie has landed till about 3-4 years after. And I was very pleasantly surprised to see that The Big Short has landed pretty nicely with a much larger audience than I thought it would. It tends to get rewatched, and people talk about it when there are financial crises…
A film about climate change will resonate with people who are already worried. Do you think it can cross over across the aisles to people who, well, refuse to “look up?”
I like to test-screen movies. And I’ll tell you there’s something very powerful about laughter. When crowds get together, it doesn’t matter if you’re Right-wing, Left-wing, progressive, Communist, whatever. Laughter is laughter, and you can’t fake it. And these audiences would be very mixed. And yeah, if they were hard right-wing they might be a little less into it, but for the most part, they were laughing. If they laughed at it, they understood that we were making fun of a lot of different targets, not just the right-wing. So I do think that comedy is one of the better ways to bridge us together.
Absolutely. And as our news media now appears less and less credible, do you think it is an increased responsibility of the comedian to double up as the town crier?
I think, hopefully, anyone in the arts — musicians, writers, critics — everyone should be pushing right now, because you’re right, big money has claimed a lot of our news sources, and if it’s not big money, it’s fringe-conspiracy news sources. So it’s a very hard time to get information that talks truth to power. So yeah, I do feel like when we’re making stuff, we should definitely be pushing it, and trying to create waves and trying to create a conversation around what we’re doing.
Your cast is an absolute wishlist. My favourite might be Cate Blanchett as the incredibly accomplished newswoman who has the ultimate wish for the end of the world. (“Honestly, I’d just rather drink and talk shit about people.”)
That’s one of my favourite lines, I love that line! You never imagine getting this many wildly talented actors and performers.The tipping point was I wrote the Kate Dibiasky role for Jen Lawrence, and I wrote Oglethorpe for Rob Morgan and those two said yes, thank god, and then we got Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. When you get actors like that, other actors get very excited. Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill, Himesh Patel, all these other great actors started rolling in. And this felt like the one movie you could do that with, the movie where you could have a lot of really talented, known actors, because we wanted it to feel like a worldwide movie, because obviously it’s about a worldwide subject. Even though its centred in America, it’s really supposed to feel like the whole world.
Leonardo DiCaprio — who has been cast here as “America’s sexiest scientist” — has never done this kind of comedy. What made you think of him, and was the subject a big part of why it had to be DiCaprio?
Leo is passionate about the climate, and he was drawn to the script: clearly it’s a fairly thinly-disguised allegory for the climate crisis. Leo is a killer actor, and he’s been very funny in a bunch of movies. The Wolf Of Wall Street is one of my favourite comedies, and he was incredible in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, so I had no doubt he could pull something like this off, he’s just so skilled. And he works about as hard as anyone out there. So yeah, that was a real gift to this movie. What a treat to work with him.