Kevin Messick is everywhere. The producer was at the SAG Awards with his daughter; at the March 2 premiere of “Winning Time,” the HBO limited series that debuted March 6; at the Los Angeles premiere of his Sundance breakout horror flick “Fresh,” which hit Hulu March 4 via Searchlight; at last weekend’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival Producers panel, representing producing partner Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated end-of-the-world satire “Don’t Look Up;” and at Monday’s Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel in Century City. On Friday, he’ll be at the AFI Awards annual lunch on behalf of Season 3 of HBO’s Emmy-winning “Succession.”
This frenetic pace stems from a 13-year partnership with McKay, first as a producer through McKay and Will Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez Productions and now through Hyperobject Industries, McKay’s three-year-old company in which Messick is a partner.
McKay’s latest film, comedy/crisis allegory “Don’t Look Up,” landed four nominations for Picture, Original Screenplay (McKay), Original Score (Nicholas Britell), and Editing (Hank Corwin). Oscars often ignore comedies, but as evidenced by “Broadcast News,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “Birdman,” it helps when the subject matter is more serious, as McKay seems to enjoy crafting.
“Don’t Look Up” was shot also during the pandemic, a feat that left Messick, 55, with a few more worry lines. After McKay finished writing “Don’t Look Up” in December 2019, the pair swiftly sold the script to Netflix and were scouting within three months. “Don’t Look Up” and “Succession” Season 3 were scheduled to shoot in Boston and New York, respectively, in spring 2020 — until the world shut down that March.
Saving “Don’t Look Up”
“And then we all came home, like the rest of the world,” said Messick during a recent Zoom interview. “The virus had different pockets in different timelines. So at a certain point, it felt crazy to shoot in winter in Boston, and LA was safe. And then by the time we got to the summertime, LA spiked, and that’s why ‘Winning Time’ got pushed off until the following spring. It was like one of those ‘Star Wars’ chess boards that are on six levels.”
There were no guarantees that “Don’t Look Up” would start again. Everyone went home. McKay put away the script. He did a podcast. Then Missick asked McKay, “Do you still want to make the film?” McKay decided that he did.
“He saw that it wasn’t just about a climate-change analogy anymore,” said Messick. “This idea of not believing the facts that are in front of you, when it could be the matter of life and death, was happening in real time with the response to the pandemic. Because of that, not one cast member wavered when we were able to come back. We did big Zooms with each cast member walking through the safety protocols. The current Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was, at the time, a consultant to Netflix. So he was on all of our calls with our cast helping us answer all the questions that everybody had about what you can and can’t do.”
It helped that the stellar cast was handsomely paid. Netflix paid Oscar-winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence alone $55 million. “It’s like an old-fashioned Hollywood all-star disaster movie,” said Messick.
While the cast enjoyed improvising — especially Meryl Streep as the president and Jonah Hill as her son — it was a tight production as McKay, from a safe distance, threw orders and one-liners at them with his Voice of God mic.
“Having a writer-director at the helm is a blessing,” said Messick. “He knows exactly where he is at any time. Any minute of the day in terms of the scene, he always gets it the way that he wrote it. And then he always loves to get ideas that are either inspiration for him or from the actors on the day. That’s the freedom that the actors talk about. But there’s nothing messy about it. It’s more joyful. He always makes his days. We’ve never been over budget.”
Messick got “Don’t Look Up” running in Boston in November 2020 at the same time that he and McKay were executive producing 10 episodes of “Succession,” filming in New York. Luckily, Season 3 was a smooth operation that they could manage from afar.
“How Do You Do It Safely?”
“Usually, we would be more involved,” said Messick. “But Adam and I read scripts and watch cuts and give notes. We like to usually have a presence there, but it just wasn’t possible. You couldn’t bounce back and forth between cities or productions. The biggest challenge: We made those shows before vaccines were invented. Which seems crazy.”
As a single parent with two teenagers who, like the rest of the world, were unhappy with lockdown, Messick juggled madly. “Mounting these movies were like newly complicated puzzles,” he said, “Where you want to be safe, and not just regular-safe, but like not-die safe. There was that level of anxiety: How do you do it safely? And is it worth doing? And can you afford to do it that way?”
Luckily, with HBO on “Succession” and Netflix on “Don’t Look Up,” he had the resources. “It was not just PPE, but the way that you have to schedule things, scenes that you can’t shoot with extras, locations, everything has capacity limits,” said Messick. “It was winter in Boston, during flu season, before vaccines. You can’t go out on the weekends. You can’t do anything: You’re in lockdown, which was another mental challenge both for cast and crew.”
The New Gold Standard
The cast and crew stayed within its production bubble, putting up with eight-day quarantines and constant testing. Messick’s team worked with a mobile-lab testing company that could perform “gatekeeper tests” rather than wait 24 hours for PCR lab results.
“It became a gold standard for us, and for other productions,” said Messick. “I brought them to LA to do ‘Winning Time.’ We would test 600-700 people in the morning, and you’d wait in your car and the tests would come back within an hour and a half. We caught many things at the door and on the fringes on a normal day. It made all the difference. It’s more expensive for these tests, but it’s [even] more expensive shutting down. That was always the the deal that I would make with with Netflix or HBO. It’s going to cost you more for these tests, but it’s going to cost you triple if you shut down for a week. I was probably safer on the sets than I was at the grocery store.”
A convention-center location with loads of extras had to become a field hospital the next day “because things were spiking in Boston,” said Messick. Another issue was the riot they filmed January 7 — the day after the insurrection, with reports of similar occurrences planned in major cities. The city of Boston did not want the movie’s fake uprising to incite “other people to start going crazy. So it was a weird life-and-art mixture that was happening.” Here the pandemic worked in the production’s favor: With fewer people on the street, everything went smoothly.
Meanwhile, Messick was in Vancouver shooting “Fresh,” a romantic-comedy-turned-cannibal horror and the first feature from Mimi Cave. “Her shorts were incredible,” he said. “She had the vision for a film; there were so many wrong ways you could make a film like that. We loved everything she had to say: she was smart, intuitive, and funny. Both Adam and I felt strongly: ‘This is somebody that we want to back.'”
They landed a strong cast with Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones as well as Pawel Pogorzelski, Ari Aster’s star cinematographer from “Midsommar” and “Hereditary.” The film was intended for theatrical release; the producers previewed the film before Omicron shut things down again.
Pivoting, and Pivoting Again
“We were able to go down to Long Beach and sit there with 300 people having a blast,” said Messick, “yelling and screaming and having fun. That was a Friday-night date movie. It was a bummer when the theatrical marketplace — as great as Daisy and Sebastian are — became a calculated risk. There just weren’t a lot of opportunities for a theatrical release. I said, ‘Let’s just submit to Sundance and if nothing happens, we’ll debut it there. And we’ll be at the Eccles Theatre with 600 people and it will be really fun.'”
Sundance programmed “Fresh” for opening night — and then Sundance closed down. “The idea of doing a digital premiere just sucked,” said Messick. Searchlight came calling around Christmas, offering a release on Hulu. “So do you wait for the world to change in favor of the theatrical marketplace?” he said. “Or do you bring the movie out into the world, with a distributor that is perfect for it? It felt like we had the right partner. But the world had changed. So we just had to adapt.”
The 2021 holiday Omicron surge was a headache for the “Winning Time” production. “That’s when we were shooting with basketball and stadiums and Forum crowds,” said Messick. “I brought our Boston testers; we never shut down. None of our shows shut down.”
Next up: McKay is adapting a series from the non-fiction book “Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells as a “Black Mirror”-type anthology for HBO Max. McKay will function as the series’ Charlie Brooker, supplying the pilot and bringing in writers and directors for “climate-themed stories that are unique and surprising and inventive,” he said. “And he’s got a million ideas, so he’ll write and direct one or two of these cool little twisted movies.”
McKay also has an Elizabeth Holmes movie in development, with Lawrence attached. “We moved it to Apple under our new first-look there,” said Messick. “The story obviously has changed since the court case. Adam hasn’t touched that script; Vanessa Taylor had written an early draft and then we made ‘Vice’ and he decided to do ‘Don’t Look Up.’ The Elizabeth Holmes story gets more interesting as more time passes. So it has a home; he needs to put some attention to the script at some point.”