Don't Look Up, is a blockbuster Hollywood disaster movie, but it's also a comedy - an allegory about climate change and a biting satire on politics and the media. Its Oscar winning writer-director Adam McKay told the Radio Davos podcast why he felt compelled to make the film.
Don't Look Up - the setup
A massive meteor is about to end all life on Earth. Will the people in charge take the urgent action needed? Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play the scientists that have discovered the threat. Meryl Streep is the US president who, in your standard Hollywood movie would be counted on to save the earth.
In a world where politicians chase short-term ratings, news media are obsessed with celebrity gossip, and parts of the population are in wilful denial of the facts - can anything avert disaster?
Have you read?
An interview with writer-director Adam McKay
Robin Pomeroy: It's my pleasure to welcome to the show an Oscar-winning filmmaker, the writer director of The Big Short of Vice and now of Don't Look Up, an epic disaster movie, a satire, a comedy, a tragedy - Adam McKay. Hi Adam. How are you?
Adam McKay: I'm good, Robin. Thanks for having me.
Robin Pomeroy: It's such a pleasure to have you. Now, for those few people who are listening to this who haven't seen your movie, how would you set it up for people? What is it about?
Adam McKay: I would say it's a big, ridiculous comedy about two scientists trying to warn the world that a death comet is going to hit, and they're trying to warn a world that is much like the world we live in right now in 2022. So, yeah, it's a comedy, and then it's got some dramatic, tragic elements to it as well.
Robin Pomeroy: So your inspiration for this movie, I believe, was climate change. You were reading a book and it suddenly dawned on you what an awful situation humanity's in. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about that, but I'm just curious to know why didn't you make a movie about climate change? Why did you turn into this kind of allegory and turn it into a meteorite strike?
Adam McKay: Yeah, I had read the U.N. climate report about four years ago, I had read David Wallace-Wells's book Uninhabitable Earth, which I highly recommend. And I had this moment where I realised the climate crisis, which I always thought was very serious and something we had to deal with, but I always kind of thought it was 50 years away, 80 years away - for my grandkids. And I started reading this and going, 'Holy God, this is now!'
The models have all been too optimistic, and it's impossible to model a system as complex as planet Earth when you talk about turning the heat up the way we're doing it. And I got very scared very fast and I realised - well, you know, I'm a guy who makes movies, so I got to make a movie. I mean, no matter, you know, if I made sandwiches, - well that doesn't quite work - I was going to say I would have made a 'climate crisis sandwich'. I guess you could.
Robin Pomeroy: You could, I'm sure. Depends where you source your products, doesn't it?
Adam McKay: Yeah, you're right, you're right. So anyway, I started kicking around ideas and I had about five different ideas and some felt overly dramatic, there were some that were kind of thrillers with a twist. And in every case I just kept thinking, I know the audience that will see this, and I don't know if it's enough. I think, you know, we know we can talk to a certain audience. And it was my friend David Sirota, who's a journalist and a former speechwriter for Bernie Sanders, he and I were commiserating about the lack of coverage of the climate crisis on our mainstream media. And he made an offhanded joke about how it's like the movie Armageddon, only the asteroid's going to hit and no one cares. And I laughed and then for like two weeks I couldn't shake the idea, I kept thinking about it. And finally I called him and I was like, 'David, I think that's the idea.' And he kind of laughed at me like, 'Yeah, right!' But that was it.
I liked that it was a comedy. I liked that it was big and ridiculous. I liked that it wasn't doomsday talk, that it wasn't so dark and shadowy. And I also thought, if you look at the last 10 years, there haven't been a lot of comedies made. And I think part of that is because the world is so upside down and twisty-turny. And I thought one thing maybe we can all agree on, regardless of your political beliefs or your religious beliefs or whatever, is that the world is crazy right now. And so it was heartening when we started screening the movie to see, in fact, that was the case, that people across the political divide were laughing at this depiction of the world as a crazy, narcissistic funhouse mirror.
Robin Pomeroy: It's interesting, this idea of the lack of communication and the failure of people to communicate to each other. And I think a big theme in the movie is: 'These are the facts - what are you going to do about it?' And a lot of people just don't accept the facts. And this is what happens with climate change, it's what happens, I guess, with COVID. This is a quote from you in another interview I read with you. You say: 'The film's obviously inspired by the climate crisis, but it's really about how we've just broken and shattered the ways that we talk to each other.' When you're writing it and when you're filming it, that was front and centre in your mind, was it,
Adam McKay: You know what's interesting, it was something we discovered as we were making it. I always thought it was directly about the climate crisis. Then we had to shut down production for COVID. Then for six months we couldn't do anything and we watched as beat after beat in the movie came true. And I remember talking to (Leonardo) DiCaprio and (Meryl) Streep and Tyler Perry, and we were all talking about the fact the movie's not really about what the threat is, it's about how we handle the threat. So that ended up becoming the story. And if you look at the history of the last 20 years, I mean, hasn't been a great track record as far as good information being relayed to people, whether you're talking about the Iraq War or the opioid epidemic in the U.S., predatory lending, the housing collapse, a lot of so-called experts were telling us - free trade - were telling us that these were moves with no downside, clear choices, no-brainers. And every one of them proved to be disastrous. Millions of lives were lost. So now we're in this spot where - surprise, surprise - there's a good chunk of the population that doesn't trust the experts. But of course, the dark irony of it is that we do need to trust the experts when it comes to certain things, especially the climate crisis. So it's very complicated. But I really do think one thing we don't talk about enough is that it's it's after 20, 30, 40 years of fraud from the elites that you're seeing this distrust. And they're not crazy - the people that are not trusting the science, I get why they're doing it. I wish they would because in some cases it's empirical and it's clear, but I'm not surprised by it, but I'm surprised by how little we talk about that cause.
Robin Pomeroy: There's a huge cast, most of them A-list celebrities. One of the interesting characters that comes in quite late in the movie is the Chalamet character - Timothée Chalamet, who plays this kind of street punk skater dude who's cool and to him, he doesn't believe any of it, right? He doesn't believe anyone.
And this is something I've come across. I've been a journalist for decades. I've been going into schools to teach about fake news and kind of media literacy. And of course, the cool kids all say, 'Yeah, they're all thieves, you're all liars. I don't trust any of you.' And that's the kind of cool reset button. I mean, that's a problem, isn't it? Taking any of these issues seriously, we can all have a laugh, but if you want to get that message through to someone who's just cool and doesn't believe anything. Tell us something about that character and that archetype.
Adam McKay: Yeah, it's really dangerous. I mean, you know, there used to be a common trust with the way we received information, but that common trust has been violated time and time again. And the shame of it is there are people like yourself - there are real scientists, there are real journalists who are trying to convey the truth, but it's all so muddied at this point. And you know, you would talk about media literacy 40 years ago. I mean, media literacy now? You'd have to do a Master's degree and you have to get your Ph.D. to really see through the layer and layer and layer of misinformation and B.S. and misdirection. And then you throw advertising into the mix. I mean, good lord, it is the trickiest time to disseminate what's real and what's not. It's got to be. I'm trying to think of another time in history. I guess in the early 19th century, snake oil was selling pretty well, so probably wasn't the greatest flow of information then, either. But yeah, Timothée Chalamet's character represents that, and it's... I have friends who are like that who just, you know, they call it 'taking the black pill'. You know, you can take the red or the blue pill in The Matrix. Well, some people just take the black pill, which is 'everything is cynical, everything's a lie'. And that may be the most destructive road we could ever go down.
Robin Pomeroy: Tell us about the role of comedy, I mean, you've made lots of silly, funny films in your career. I mean that in the best possible way. Fun, laugh-out-loud movies. And I think this is one, too. I watched it for the second time, by the way, last night, and it looks a lot more serious the second time because you know, the gags are coming and I think you concentrate more on the darkness. So I felt like I'd been wrung out - in a good way - I love the film. But what is the role of comedy, because you opted to make - this is an outrageous satire. Does that help the message, do you think? I mean, one of the characters in the movie, the host of the daytime news show, is like they're annoying the scientists by just making a bit of a joke so well, it helps the medicine go down. You know, we'll keep it like, we keep it fun. Is there a danger? You're keeping it like keeping it fun? Or is actually this a way to help the medicine go down? Is there a danger you're keeping it light and keeping it fun? Or is actually this a way to help the medicine go down?
Adam McKay: Yeah, I think, you know, there's two different or there's many, different types of laughter, entertainment, humour. When Cate Blanchett says, 'Hey, we just keep it light - it helps the medicine go down,' she's talking more about sort of a novocaine. She's talking about a numbing of perception and real feelings. I just think when people really laugh, when you see groups of people laugh, it is a great thing. I think good things can can happen. And I'm not talking about like a wry knowing smile or a nodding like, 'Oh, I see what you're doing.' I'm not talking about a snicker, a sort of superior snicker. I'm talking about, like full abandoned laughter. I've just never seen it be a bad thing. And and I think it also immediately requires community. It immediately requires that, you know, you be in a group that has some common ground. And yeah, it's just weird, the last five or 10 years that there's just not that many comedies made, there's not that many kind of giant stand-up comics out there. You know, there used to always be for 20, 30 years when I was growing up, there was always like five big stand-up comics, and it's just not the case now. Everything has become very niche. And I think in some ways populism became like a dirty word because we've seen populism bent and twisted to the extreme right. It can become fascistic pretty quickly. But at its root, populism is really wonderful and powerful. Populism is like, you know, how we won World War Two. Populism is how we created the highway system - although maybe that's not so good now. But it's how we created hospitals or, you guys, the NHS. That's populism. So I think it's very hard for darker forces to fake comedy. It just doesn't work. I've seen them try. And I do think comedy is an important part of any kind of positive populist movement that's going to start. And that's what we tried to do with this movie.
Media superficiality - a clip from Don't Look Up
Daytime TV host Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry): How big is this thing? Can it, like, destroy someone's house? Is that possible?
Astronomer Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio): Well, Comet Dibiasky, which is what will officially be named...
Jack Bremmer: After her?
Randall Mindy: Yeah.
Daytime TV host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett): Oh, congratulations.
Jack Bremmer: What an honour, yeah, right? Congratulations.
Randall Mindy: It's somewhere between six and nine kilometres across, so...
Brie Evantee: It's big!
Randall Mindy: It would damage the the entire planet, not just a house. You know...
Jack Bremmer: The entire planet. OK, well, as it's damaging, will it hit this one house in particular that's right on the coast of New Jersey, it's my ex-wife's house, I need it to be hit. Can we make that happen?
Brie Evantee: (Laughing) Come on. You and Jilly have a great relationship, you know, you stop! You need to stop!
Jack Bremmer: I will. But in all fairness, I actually paid for the house...
Astronomer Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence): I'm sorry, are we not being clear? We're trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed.
Jack Bremmer: OK.
Brie Evantee: OK, well, it's just something we do around here. You know, we just keep the bad news light.
Jack Bremmer: Right. It helps the medicine go down.
Robin Pomeroy: So you've had enough time now to get some reaction from this film. It's been out for several months on Netflix. Still watch now. You say it's crossed the political divide. I'm just wondering, do audiences understand that it's about climate change? Is it inspiring people to do anything about it? What kind of reaction have you had?
Adam McKay: It was really something. Yeah, I've never experienced anything like it. Netflix is a really unique platform in that they basically push a button and the movie just goes out to hundreds of millions of people. And so, you know, we made a comedy, and I'm seeing that it's number one on Netflix in Nigeria, Pakistan, Cambodia, Canada, Uruguay - just all across the world. And the cool thing was reading on social media - because you can just see, it just ticks in every-second responses - and you can see it in all these different languages coming up and there's a translation app you can use for that. And it was really cool because it was just a level of common sort of reaction that I did not expect it to go to that degree. And people really feeling like they were being seen and heard - the climate scientists, oh my God. I mean, some of the reactions we got from them, they were just like, 'At last, someone gets what we've been going through!' And not just the climate scientists, the epidemiologists, scientists in general. It was really wonderful. I've never had an experience like it
Robin Pomeroy: Because it crosses well beyond climate change, into all these global risks and global science that we have to listen to and do something about. This is a question my wife's asked me to ask you: Why is the president, who's a pretty bad president, a woman?
Adam McKay: (Laughs) You know what? That just came simply from this. A lot of the best characters you can play are are crappy, evil, dastardly, ridiculous characters. And in the past I think there's been a tendency to go, 'Well, I'm not going to cast a woman in this because I don't want to say women are awful.' And in this case, I was just like, It's a great role - let's give it to Meryl Streep. Cate Blanchett, same thing. It's like, I think, you know, women can play virtuous characters, they can play horrible characters. More and more nowadays I just think that line is blurring. But but your wife isn't wrong: President Orlean is a disaster. Meryl Streep was so funny. She told me, 'I've never played the president in my life.' And I was like, 'Really?' And she's like, 'Yeah. And I'm a terrible president!' So all I can say, and you can tell your wife, is Meryl Streep loved it and just had a blast playing that role. And to me, that's the the best.
The weakness of politicians - a clip from Don't Look Up
President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep): You cannot go around saying to people that there's 100% chance that they're going to die. (Laughs) You know, it's - nuts. And we should get some of our scientists on this, you know? No offence, but you're just two people that walked in here with...
Teddy Oglethorpe, head of planetary defence at NASA (Rob Morgan): Dr Oglethorpe.
President Orlean: Dr Ogilvy, yeah.
Robin Pomeroy: You were kept up at night with worry about climate change, climate change angst. You did what you do, which is not making sandwiches, making movies, you made a movie about climate change or, metaphorically, I guess, about climate change. Is that it now, is your job done? And have you exorcised your climate angst or are you still kept awake at night, what else could you possibly do about it?
Adam McKay: Yeah, I think I'm done. I think I've done everything I could do. I've built, I guess, for lack of a better term. I built a mountain fortress in the Andes with multiple tennis courts, squash courts, basketball courts. I'm going to go up there with my 14 children, my seven grandkids, my progeny, as I call them. And it's going to go, you know, grill steaks. (Laughs). No, no. Definitely not done. It's going to be a long, you know, it's going to require everyone doing little parts. You know, I just read this thing the other day that was from a group called Climate Analytics that does modelling for temperature change. And they said by the year 2030, in eight years, half of our days will be one-every-100-year heat events. [The report says: 'annual mean temperatures that would only be experienced once every 100 years in preindustrial times happening every second year].
And this is one of those stories I read that I did not see in the mainstream media. I kept checking it. Is this credible? I talked to some of the scientists we know, and they were like, 'Yeah, it's credible.' It's like, oh my God. Do we understand what that will do to the power grid with, you know, wet bulb events? Unfathomable. So it's going to get bigger and bigger. I still think there's a lot of people that think it's 'an issue' as opposed to the overwhelming shadow that covers every other issue, but that's going to melt away in the next couple of years.
Robin Pomeroy: Could I just ask you - I'm interested in podcasting, I know you've had some experience in it. Are there any podcasts that you love and you recommend? I've just listen to actually the podcast about the making of the film called The Last Movie Ever Made, which is a lot of fun because it talks about how on Earth you made this massive film in lockdown. But are there any podcasts that you listen to, that you love and you would recommend?
Adam McKay: I am such a podcast junkie. My wife makes fun of me because every night I go to sleep listening to a podcast. I made a podcast during the pandemic. I did one called Death at the Wing. It's really interesting, there's this weird thing in the NBA where all these young players died in the 80s and 90s and it intersected with a political shift in our country. So it's almost like an Adam Curtis story, but it's about basketball. But I'm really proud of it. I really love it. So that that's a plug for something I've done.
But the one I love is called Fall of Civilisations. Have you heard of this? A historian, I think from from the UK, I think his last name is Cooper. It's incredible. He goes through these amazing civilisations like the Khmer Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and he tracks them. He starts with finding their ruins, and then he tells the whole story of how they came about and then why they fell apart. And I cannot get enough of that. I was talking to the filmmaker Barry Jenkins at a screening we did and I offhandedly mentioned it, and Barry was like, 'Are you kidding me? That is the greatest podcast ever.' So I love that. And then I listen to, I think it's one of the best shows in the States. It's called The Dan Le Batard Show, and it's ostensibly a sport show, but he talks about race and politics and history. And then it's goofy and silly. There's no show like it. So those are two that are on my front burner. But I love podcasts.
Robin Pomeroy: I'll check them out. Final silliest question of all. And I don't know if you'll even know what I'm talking about. Bob Monkhouse? At the start of the film, there's a joke by a comedian I'm guessing most viewers of Netflix have never heard of. English or British. people of my generation will know that name very well. But it's the last comedian I expected to see quoted in a Hollywood movie. How did how did Bob Monkhouse make his way to Don't Look Up?
Adam McKay: You know, it was funny. I found that quote. And it was attributed to a friend of mine, Jack Handey, who's one of the great comedy writers of all time. He wrote Deep Thoughts, Toonces the Driving Cat, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Just literally one of the great comedy writers ever and a lovely, lovely person. And it was attributed to him everywhere on the internet. I saw the quote 40 different places and I thought, well, this is great because I thought the quote was perfect to open the movie. Do you remember the joke?
Robin Pomeroy: Can you remember the joke? Could you tell us?
Adam McKay: Oh, yeah, of course. 'I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather ... and not screaming in terror like his passengers.' That was the joke. And I just thought, well that's the whole movie. And so I thought, how cool. And then I got a letter from Jack Handey and he's like, 'I didn't write that'. So we had to go on this big search and Kevin Messick, our producer, led it. And it came down to twocomics. There was a guy named Mike Lee in the States, and then it was Monkhouse here in the UK. So we had to dig in and dig in, and Netflix was like, 'It seems like it's Monkhouse. The odds are it's Monkhouse'. So I was like, 'All right, credit it to him'. But we actually switched that credit. The movie opened with Jack Handey as the attributed writer, and the one nice thing with streaming is we were able to just flip it. Jack Handey was happy, and hopefully the Monkhouse estate is proud.
Robin Pomeroy: I'm sure they are. I mean, there's just so much in the movie. That's just one curiosity there. It's been an absolute joy and a privilege to meet you. Thanks for joining us on Radio Davos. Adam McKay,
Adam McKay: Thank you so much for having me. My pleasure.
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