“Don’t Look Up” writer-director Adam McKay has a lot to be happy about right now. His satirical dark comedy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as astronomers who try to warn the world that a giant comet will destroy Earth, is not only one of the most-watched Netflix originals of all time but is also gaining Oscar buzz.
But McKay’s sharply written examination of how our country can distort anything through media, politics, and technology has ironically reiterated itself through the coverage of the movie itself.
Since doing press for the movie late last year, everything from his breakup with longtime collaborator Will Ferrell to Meryl Streep, who also stars in the movie as the president, not understanding what G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) means, has become global news while one of the messages of the movie — that the world is in trouble due to climate change — has been lost.
“Man, we are a crazy-ass country,” McKay told Insider during our chat on Thursday about the whirlwind last few months.
Here McKay looks back on promoting “Don’t Look Up,” and explains certain aspects of the movie: like how Leonardo DiCaprio’s notes in the editing room led to the movie’s powerful ending, how his daughter helped with a salty line by Ariana Grande, and why that FEMA 1-800 number goes to a sex hotline (Spoiler: he had no idea).
McKay understands why his beef with Will Ferrell made news
Insider: You really nailed the media; to the point that the press for this movie mirrors what happens to Randall (DiCaprio) and Kate (Lawrence) when they go through their media tour to warn the world of the catastrophic comet. Has that dawned on you?
Adam McKay: [Sighs] Every waking second of the media tour. And let me clarify, I understand people have jobs to do. I’m not pointing the finger at any individual. It’s more of a systemic criticism. But the whole experience from getting aggregated on the Ferrell stuff, the G.O.A.T. thing, I even tweeted about the movie and how people who like it are freaked out about the world and that got flipped into “if you don’t like the movie you don’t care about climate.” And it’s like, good Lord!
The irony of art imitating life and vice versa was quite remarkable to observe.
It was like a couple of days ago a story comes out that recent computer modeling on the climate shows that in eight years, half of our days for 92% of countries will experience one in 1000-year heat events. So I read this story and I’m like, how are we not talking about this? This is crazy! This is when civilization could teeter. I don’t see any of that coverage. But meanwhile, there’s stories about my tweet and it’s really strange. So we wrote it that way cause it’s true.
But let me be clear, though I didn’t think it was very funny at first that we’re going to talk about one detail from my breakup with Ferrell for a month straight, I get it. If there was an article about two of my favorite people, like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were to break up and it was ugly, I probably would click on it.
I’m only laughing at it from the perspective of, man, we are a crazy-ass country where the story that in eight years, half our days are a dangerous heat event and nobody wants to talk about it at all.
DiCaprio pushed for his ‘we really did have everything’ line to be put in the movie
You had so many stars in this movie. How do you navigate filming so your voice, being the writer-director, stays intact? For instance, you worked on the script with Leonardo DiCaprio for five months leading up to shooting. Was there a point where you had to put your foot down?
It’s actually not that tricky. You can always tell when it’s productive and when it’s not. With Leo, it was always productive. He was respectful. He’s really smart. He understands tone and character and narrative at a high level. In those five months, we probably only met four times for a couple of hours each time.
I have had the opposite happen. I have had it where an actor starts tearing at it and has questions and you can feel it going in the wrong direction. But that’s easy, too. You just say, “I think we’re seeing different things.” But in this case, it didn’t happen.
Maybe a few lines Leo would question, but he was always respectful about it and I would just say, “Let’s get it on camera and if it sucks I’m not going to use it.” He even came into the edit room and looked at cuts of the film and really gave us some incredibly valuable notes.
Do you recall something in the movie where Leo gave some great notes in the edit?
I’ll give him a giant hunk of credit: Believe it or not, that line at the end of the movie where he says, “We really did have it all,” that wasn’t in the script. He came with that the day we were filming.
Yes, I remember you saying this in an interview.
But in the edit, it was Leo who pushed us to put the line in. The line was so devastating. We were trying to get the balance of that ending just right. You don’t want to traumatize the audience but you want it to hit them. So we didn’t have that line in, and this is nearing final cut. We don’t have much time left.
And Leo was there and said, “Don’t you have to try that line? It really felt powerful when we did it.” I was afraid to use it and we put it just before a test screening and it just landed. So I thanked Leo for pushing me on that. That’s really the line of the movie.
Originally the line was Jen saying “Well, we tried.” And it was Leo who was like, “No, it feels like it needs to be something else.” So he didn’t just come up with it, he came into the edit and told us to try it.
McKay says DiCaprio’s character wasn’t supposed to have a pain in his side. He just started doing it in the middle of filming.
Randall having the chest pains through the movie, was that based at all on your own health scare while making “Vice”?
It was less chest pains and more of him tensing up…and I loved what he came up with. I have to ask him where he got that from. That weird pain on his side.
Oh, so he just started doing that during filming?
Yeah, he never said anything to me. He just started doing it and I just loved it. But next time I talk to him, I’ll have to ask him where he came up with that.
McKay’s daughter came up with the ‘old fuck’ line Ariana Grande says in the movie
Was Ariana Grande always your choice for the pop star role?
Yes, she was. I give a lot of credit to my producer Kevin Messick, who is really great at getting answers from these amazing actors. I said to him the role would be a pop star like Ariana Grande, and right away he was like, “Why don’t we try Ariana Grande?” My daughter worships her. I always knew she had an incredible voice but the more I learned about her I learned she’s got some acting under her belt.
Was the “you old fuck” line she says to Leo in the script?
Yeah, but it’s funny where that came from. I originally had a different line there. It was “mind your own business, you boomer fuck.” And my daughter, Pearl, and her friend, Ava, were both like, “No one says boomer anymore.” They were like, “You can’t have her say that.” So I was like, “Well, what would she say to him?” And they were both like, “She would just call him an old fuck.” [Laughs] So because of their note, I changed the line. I give them all the credit.
McKay says the FEMA 1-800 number going to a sex hotline was accidental
I went and called the FEMA 1-800 number that shows up during the PSA in the movie. Why did you make it a sex hotline?
We were going to set up a line for that. But we didn’t think of doing it until the end and we didn’t have enough time to get our own phone number so that’s just a random phone number. We in no way planned it being a sex hotline. Pure accident.
Hold on, Adam. Hold on. You’re telling me the number you put in your movie is a random phone number and you had no idea where it went to?
Hand to Bible, Jason. Unless someone at Netflix or our graphics house picked it and I didn’t know about it, I have no idea. In fact, no way. They wouldn’t have done that on purpose.
McKay says the movie’s unique editing is to capture the ‘informational wind tunnel’ the world is today
You and your editor Hank Corwin (“Natural Born Killers”) really hit your groove with this movie. You two have worked together since “The Big Short,” but in this one his unique style really matches the insanity of the story. How has working with him elevated your storytelling?
Without exaggeration, Hank is one of the greatest editors of all time. What he’s been able to do, and it’s what we’ve been trying to do with all these movies, is capture the feeling of what it’s like to be alive now with the amount of information we’re hit with.
We’ve done it the most with this movie, showing off social media, television, streaming, clips, quotes. It’s very unconventional and some people are really thrown by it.
When we test screened the movie, there were always a few people who thought the editing was sloppy. Like, “You cut in the middle of a line.” And I would just laugh. This guy has a style like no one else and I love it. He’s ahead of his time. He gets the rhythm of how we really live. So I just set him loose.
McKay says Jennifer Lawrence is currently working on her Elizabeth Holmes voice in preparation for their next movie together on the Theranos founder
Will adapting “Bad Blood,” the book on the rise and fall of blood test startup Theranos, and how its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was found guilty of wire fraud, be the next movie for you?
Likely, though I have another project I’m thinking about. So I don’t want to 100% commit.
Has Jennifer Lawrence nailed the voice yet of Holmes?
You know, I haven’t made her do it for me yet. She said she’s been working on it. She’s about to have a baby so I’m not going to bug her right now but she’s born to play that role. With the voice, she said she’s feeling it. She’s excited.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.