You couldn’t hope for a starrier cast than the one that populates Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” which is packed with Oscar-winners, from pricey leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence (Netflix paid them $55 million) to supporting players Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. No wonder the cast and crew was all too happy to turn up on the late-breaking awards campaign trail, care of several early Q&As crammed with SAG and Academy actors in New York and Los Angeles.
Last week’s reaction at the Bruin in Westwood was raucous as befits a laugh-out-loud comedy about the end of the world (a similar tone swept Monday’s NYC screening at the Paris). But critics and awards voters look forward to movies from McKay because his dense comedies have political underpinnings, whether it’s Michael Lewis’ true characters from the world of finance (“The Big Short”) or the saga of real-life vice president Dick Cheney (“Vice”).
Both “The Big Short” and “Vice” landed Best Picture, Director, and Editing nominations: Out of five nods, “The Big Short” took home Best Adapted Screenplay for McKay and Charles Randolph, while “Vice” landed a win for Hair & Makeup out of eight nods, including for stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Sam Rockwell.
We can expect the hilarious and fictional “Don’t Look Up” to follow suit, even if this time the producer is Netflix. Here’s why. (New York and Los Angeles Q&As are edited for clarity.)
It’s really about climate change.
The Academy goes for comedy when the movie’s content itself is serious (“Broadcast News,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Birdman”). McKay’s latest was conceived and written as an allegory for the climate crisis. “I’ve written a bunch of different ideas of how to enter the idea of the greatest, most important story in the history of mankind: the climate crisis,” said McKay. “I wrote one-page treatments that were dramatic. I wrote some that were thrillers. And all credit to David Sirota, who’s a brilliant journalist who also shares my frustration for the lack of urgency about this issue and offhandedly, three years ago, said to me, ‘It’s like the asteroid is going to hit Earth and no one cares.’ And I was like, ‘That’s it! I’m going to write that. I wrote the outline off that, before COVID.”
“Don’t Look Up” equally pillories the left and the right (which are both run by corporate interests, repped by a Facebook-style magnate played by toothy, CGI-smoothed Mark Rylance) and the ad-driven media, personified by a manipulative anchorwoman (Blanchett). As McKay was writing, he didn’t know the pandemic was coming.
“But we all knew things were teetering,” he said. “If you see someone lean against a pyramid of champagne glasses, and they start to teeter, you know what’s going to happen. So it was surprising but not that surprising. And the whole movie, from the very beginning, was trying to capture a moment that we’ve been living through for the past decade, which is somewhere in between the Jonestown Flood and the final ‘Price is Right’ showdown. It’s this strange mixture of irrational exuberance and total stark fear.”
Which is why DiCaprio got on board.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a passionate environmental activist who attends climate talks and had been looking for a project to advance his cause. McKay actually applauded his “The Revenant” Oscar acceptance speech that night. “It was our first interaction,” said DiCaprio. “And then this movie just came at the perfect time. How do you create a sense of urgency and tension with an issue that evolves over a century? I’ve been looking for a film about the climate crisis, but from a narrative perspective, it’s next to impossible. You either do some existential journey through a person’s lifetime or you make it a catastrophe movie where New York freezes over, and people are dealing with the apocalypse, which this movie is, but the brilliant stroke that Adam had was creating a comet that was going to make impact within a year’s time. How do we as a species, how does society as a culture, politically deal with imminent Armageddon? I looked at this opportunity as once in a lifetime. He had cracked the code on how to bring all the insanity that the human race is responding to in a two-hour format.”
DiCaprio transforms from a geekily bearded Michigan family man and astronomer into a well-groomed media pundit having an affair with a telegenic anchorwoman (Blanchett). The actor loved “the idea of putting these two scientists at the helm of having to articulate the end of the world to the general public, and simultaneously not being media savvy, or slick, or sexy. My character was a complete catastrophe. Adam put these two characters in this incredibly stressful environment.”
DiCaprio was reminded of the frustration he felt from having spoken to numerous climate scientists: “How do I articulate this message of urgency to the general public? How do I not become a soundbite? How am I not the last page and how is this not front page news? How does my story get pushed to the side?”
McKay unleashes Jennifer Lawrence.
The director wrote the character of Kate, an astronomy Ph.D. candidate who discovers the deadly comet hurtling toward the earth, expressly for Jennifer Lawrence. She is incapable of guile or fashion-savvy mediagenics. She sports a red mullet, nose piercings, and expresses her sky-is-falling fears to interviewers and presidents alike.
McKay’s plan was to set free Lawrence’s rage. “She is more of a Greta Thunberg scream-at-the-world, cut-through-the-bullshit type of progressive leader,” said DiCaprio. “I try to play within the political system and play ball with the current completely twisted administration and get a positive result. Here we have this very dark satire, this comedy, but everything takes a completely different tone towards the end of this film.”
The cast adds credibility and awareness.
The whole cast embraced the message. Streep loved playing her first president. “And this particular kind of president was delicious to play,” she said. “I got my rocks off, I have to say, about certain tropes of how women are supposed to be in public life and in the media and all those bright primary colors that everybody wears.”
The actors improvised the hell out of it.
DiCaprio and Jonah Hill were already friends and frequent co-stars, while Streep played DiCaprio’s mother in “Marvin’s Room” in 1996. Hill was the master of improv who enjoyed making his costars crack up, said Streep. “I have a problem with corpsing — laughing when people try and make you laugh in a scene — and I don’t have any control. So it’s really hard for me.”
During one day with Hill, “he was improv-ing insults and that was the best day of my life,” said Lawrence. “And I was watching Meryl improv, so many of the amazing things that you see, but obviously there’s like 30 more takes of things that you don’t see. And she was like this comedic genius. I was like, ‘Bitch, you don’t have do this! You don’t have to also be funny, also writing your own dialogue, improv-ing.'”
McKay spared Lawrence on the day they filmed Streep’s rah-rah speech at a battleship. Lawrence checked with him to make sure she didn’t have any lines and decided to get high like the character (well before her pregnancy). “I picked up some things from Mark Rylance, too!” she said. Tempted as he was to throw her a monologue, McKay left her alone.
Never underestimate Oscar-winner Mark Rylance.
DiCaprio and Streep were like schoolchildren, jumping up and down over Rylance when he arrived just before his scenes. “Just to witness his creation of the character, to see it bloom right before our eyes, like, ‘holy shit!'” said DiCaprio. “Because we walked on set that first day and he had keyed into this character that was somewhat aloof, obviously very antisocial. But we walked up to him and he wasn’t looking at either of us. He was just looking at the ground.”
“He was a hovercraft of a character,” said Streep, “just kind of levitating through the film.”
“And then watch him do this monologue and then bring all these different colors into it and then have to be angry and sinister, innocent,” said DiCaprio, “he was so in command of his craft. It was just insane to witness. It was an awesome experience.”
The movie almost didn’t get made because of COVID.
McKay finished the script in December 2019. “We were ready to go and shut down, everyone was there ready to go,” said producer Kevin J. Messick. So everyone went home for 5-6 months. McKay put the script away. He did a podcast. “Kevin asked, ‘Do you still want to make this?'” said McKay. “‘I don’t know.’ Finally I picked it up and realized the story was not about climate change or COVID. We have broken the way that we talk to each other. We profitized, manipulated, algorithimated the very way we communicate. That was the problem. ‘Oh, yeah, we got to make this.'”
It was not easy to shoot on the East coast in the middle of winter with no vaccines. They created a bubble of 600 people using strict safety protocols. “We got this shit done,” said McKay. “Everyone signed up from the beginning; everyone was hungry for some way to process the craziness of last 5-10-20 years, that was the reason they came.”
Netflix will release “Don’t Look Up” in select theaters on Friday, December 10, with a streaming release to follow on Friday, December 24.
Additional reporting by Kate Erbland.