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Arts & Culture

Adam McKay talks new doomsday satire movie, 'Don't Look Up'

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Now here's a question that takes concern for the future of the planet to the extreme, the kind of extreme Hollywood loves to imagine. What would you do if you knew the end of the world was coming and only immediate decisive action could stop it from happening? That's the premise of the new movie "Don't Look Up." It stars Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as two astronomers trying to warn whoever will listen that a giant comet is going to destroy the planet but it isn't potentially going to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T LOOK UP")

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Kate Dibiasky) But it is going to happen.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Dr. Randall Mindy) Exactly, 99.78%, to be exact.

PFEIFFER: But no one is taking them seriously, not even the president, played by Meryl Streep.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T LOOK UP")

MERYL STREEP: (As President Orlean) Call it 70%, and let's just - let's move on.

LAWRENCE: (As Kate Dibiasky) But it's not even close to 70%.

STREEP: (As President Orlean) You cannot go around saying to people that there's 100% chance that they're going to die. You know, it's just nuts.

PFEIFFER: "Don't look Up" is a very different kind of disaster movie. It's both a comedy and a not-so-subtle allegory about climate change. The film's director and writer, Adam McKay, joins us to talk about that. Adam, welcome to the program.

ADAM MCKAY: Hey, Sacha. Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: Adam, you have a long and varied body of work. What made you want to write this particular movie?

MCKAY: It really came from, much like Jen and Leo's characters in the movie, their emotional state once they discover a comet is headed directly at Earth, sort of mirrors how I've been feeling the past, you know, five, 10, to some degrees 15 years about the climate crisis as I see it keep getting worse and worse and speeding up. And it used to be it was one hundred years from now, then it was 80, then it was 50, and now we're hearing we may only have 10 years. And it's been quite the experience to live in a society that still bombs along like everything is A-OK while the greatest threat to life and human history is before us. So it's - that's both horrifying, and if you think about it, kind of funny to...

PFEIFFER: I think that would surprise some people. What is funny about that?

MCKAY: It's just very strange to be living during the active collapse of the livable atmosphere and to turn on the TV and see an ad for Taco Bell's new burrito full of smaller burritos. And then, by the way, I'm part of this because I - my response is like, oh, I kind of want to try that. So it's this strange kind of warring consciousness of literally, empirically, without exaggeration, the livable atmosphere is collapsing right now, and I really hope Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are happy.

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: And your movie does a great job of conveying society's strange ability to tune out what seems to certainly to be impending disaster possibly. You co-wrote the movie with David Sirota, a columnist and a former speechwriter for Bernie Sanders. How did that partnership come about?

MCKAY: (Laughter) It's definitely a strange coincidence. I just was - Sirota's someone I've known for a while. I was talking to him about three years ago. We're both incredibly frustrated with the lack of coverage of the climate crisis. You know, it's usually the fourth or fifth story. It's never the right tone, which should be much more urgent. And we were just frustrated. And I was trying to think of a way to kind of tell the story. And Sirota offhandedly just said, yeah, it's like a giant comet's about to hit Earth, and no one cares. And I just - immediately, I was like, that's it. That's the idea.

And what I liked about it is it's a big idea. Like you said, it's not the most heavily disguised analogy for the climate crisis, kind of a Clark Kent-level disguise for the climate. And I like that the idea was big enough that a lot of people could enter it. And then most of all I like that it was - it had some humor to it. Because you think about it, I mean, he's kind of referencing disaster movies when he says it. And we're so used to the rhythm. We've all seen hundreds of these movies, whether they're Marvel movies or disaster movies or whatever they are, where the world's going to end. And it's a very comfortable pattern for us. We know how it goes. And I thought disrupting that pattern could be really funny, and we could really feel it. So that's usually how it works with ideas. It's one little thing just gets stuck, and it won't leave you alone.

PFEIFFER: At one point in the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, which is an astronomer named Dr. Randall Mindy, has quite a breakdown while he's appearing as a guest on an MSNBC-esque morning show whose hosts are played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. Here's a little taste of him losing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T LOOK UP")

DICAPRIO: (As Dr. Randall Mindy) Look. I'm just like all of you. I hope to God, I hope to God that this president knows what she's doing. I hope she's got us all taken care of. But the truth is I think this administration has completely lost their [expletive] mind. And I think we're all going to die.

PFEIFFER: Adam, with the theme of your movie, comments like that instantly became memes. They got ridiculed online. So I read that DiCaprio helped you write that scene, and it involved lots and lots of rewriting and trying to find the right balance between serious and funny. What was that process like?

MCKAY: It was really enjoyable. He is an incredibly rigorous, thoughtful actor. And he just has an amazing ability to look at a scene and a character from hundreds of different perspectives. And when he came in, I had a moment there in the script, and he really thought there was a chance to go much further, to go to a full speech. And we had this back-and-forth about it about, you know, you got to be very careful. Speeches are - you know, I jokingly refer to them as like drum solos, rock drum solos from the '70s. You just don't see, like, traditional full speeches as much in movies anymore.

But what ended up happening with it was we rewrote it 15, 20 times. We worked on it. We did a bunch of takes. And there's an incredible release from the audience when it happens. And what I realized was his instincts were correct that, in a way, we're dying for someone to talk like that because our culture right now is stuck in this format, this kind of professional format that's really like a holdover from the mid-'90s or you could even argue the late '70s. And it doesn't fit our times. Like, our sort of professional timbre that we have this, sort of everything is OK, everything goes in cycles, it doesn't match reality at all. And people are dying for someone to sound like a human being. And the first time we screened it, it just - the crowd exploded. So yeah, it's a great moment, and DiCaprio's instincts were spot on with it.

PFEIFFER: Adam, besides just getting a message about climate change across, is there some call to action you're hoping to inspire?

MCKAY: I think the biggest thing - I mean, once again, this is just a movie, so it can only do so much. But I think the starting point for all of us is just to make the climate crisis the No. 1 priority, to take it with the full weight and gravity that it merits because I think there's a tendency with so much information shooting around us in our culture for us to think it's just one of many issues, and it's not. It's a looming shadow over all issues. As horrible and as terrifying as this pandemic has been, it's a billion times larger. And it needs to be treated as such.

And the other thing I would hope is that we go back to real, empirical, peer-reviewed science. It's the highest burden of proof that mankind has. It's not an absolutely perfect system. There's no such thing as a perfect system. But it is the best we have. And the other thing I might add is it's worked really well for 500 years. And it's what's gotten us to exactly where we are today, able to do this interview, able to hear this interview on our computer. Everything is all from empirical science.

So I would just say the two big things to start with are make - like, really get more information. Make this the issue, because this isn't 80 years from now. This isn't a hundred years from now. It is happening right now, and it deserves that crackling urgency. Otherwise, it is going to get worse. And otherwise, there will be untold damage that we can't even comprehend will happen unless we act right this second. That's how urgent it is.

PFEIFFER: That's Adam McKay, writer and director of "Don't Look Up," which is now in select theaters and we'll be streaming on Netflix December 24. Adam, thank you.

MCKAY: Sacha, thanks. Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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