SACHA PFEIFFER, HTE:
Now here’s a question that takes concern for the future of the planet to its extreme, the kind of extreme Hollywood likes to imagine. What would you do if you knew the end of the world was approaching and only immediate decisive action could stop it from happening? This is the premise of the new movie “Don’t Look Up”. It stars Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as two astronomers trying to warn anyone who hears that a giant comet is going to destroy the planet, but that it will not potentially happen.
(EXCERPT FROM THE FILM, “DON’T SEARCH”)
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (as Kate Dibiasky) But it’s going to happen.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (Like Dr. Randall Mindy) Exactly, 99.78%, to be exact.
PFEIFFER: But nobody takes them seriously, not even the president, played by Meryl Streep.
(EXCERPT FROM THE FILM, “DON’T SEARCH”)
MERYL STREEP: (As President OrlÃ©ans) Let’s call it 70%, and move on.
LAWRENCE: (like Kate Dibiasky) But it’s not even close to 70%.
STREEP: (As President OrlÃ©ans) You can’t tell people there’s a 100% chance they’ll die. You know, it’s just crazy.
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 screenwriter, Adam McKay, is joining us to talk about it. Adam, welcome to the program.
ADAM MCKAY: Hi, Sacha. Thank you for hosting me.
PFEIFFER: Adam, you have a long and varied work. What made you want to write this particular film?
MCKAY: It really comes from, much like the characters Jen and Leo in the movie, their emotional state once they find out that a comet is heading straight for Earth, sort of reflects how I felt. in the past, you know, five, 10, to some degree 15 years on the climate crisis as I see it getting worse and faster. And it was once in a hundred years, then it was 80 years, then it was 50 years, and now we hear we might only be 10 years old. And it’s been quite an experience living in a society that continues to bombard as if all is well when the greatest threat to life and human history is before us. So it’s – it’s both horrible, and if you think about it, it’s kinda funny to …
PFEIFFER: I think that would surprise some people. What’s so funny about that?
MCKAY: It’s just very weird to live during the active collapse of the liveable atmosphere and turn on the TV and see an ad for Taco Bell’s new burrito full of little burritos. And then, by the way, I’m a part of that because I – my answer is like, oh, I kinda wanna try that. So it’s this weird sort of belligerent consciousness of literally, empirically, without exaggeration, the livable atmosphere is crumbling right now, and I really hope Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are happy.
PFEIFFER: And your film does a great job of conveying the bizarre ability of society to wipe out what sure looks like impending disaster. You co-wrote the film with David Sirota, columnist and former speechwriter for Bernie Sanders. How did this partnership come about?
MCKAY: (Laughs) It’s definitely a weird coincidence. I was just – Sirota has been someone I’ve known for a while. I was talking to him about three years ago. We are both incredibly frustrated with the lack of coverage of the climate crisis. You know, it’s usually the fourth or the 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 tell the story. And Sirota just casually said, yeah, it’s like a giant comet is about to hit Earth, and nobody cares. And I just – immediately I was like, that’s it. This is the idea.
And what I liked is that it’s a great idea. As you said, this is not the most disguised analogy for the climate crisis, some Clark Kent-level disguise for the climate. And I like that the idea is big enough that a lot of people can fit into it. And then most of all, I love that it was – there was a little bit of humor. Because you think about it, I mean he’s kind of referring to disaster movies when he says it. And we’re so used to the beat. We’ve all seen hundreds of these movies, whether it’s Marvel movies or disaster movies or whatever, where the world is going to end. And it’s a very comfortable model for us. We know how it goes. And I thought disrupting that pattern could be really funny, and we could really feel it. This is generally how it works with ideas. It’s a little thing that gets stuck and won’t leave you alone.
PFEIFFER: At one point in the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, who is an astronomer named Dr Randall Mindy, has a seizure as he appears as a guest on an MSNBC-like morning show whose hosts are played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. Here is a little taste of his loss.
(EXCERPT FROM THE FILM, “DON’T SEARCH”)
DICAPRIO: (As Dr Randall Mindy) Look. I am like all of you. Hope to God, I hope to God that this president knows what she’s doing. I hope she will take care of all of us. But the truth is that I think this administration has completely lost its [expletive] to listen. And I think we’re all going to die.
PFEIFFER: Adam, with the theme of your movie, comments like this instantly became memes. They’ve been ridiculed online. So I read that DiCaprio helped you write that scene, and it involved a lot, a lot of rewriting and trying to strike the right balance between serious and funny. How did this process go?
MCKAY: It was really nice. He’s an incredibly rigorous and 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 a lot further, to go to a full speech. And we’ve had this back and forth about it, you know, you’ve got to be real careful. The speeches are – you know, I jokingly call them like drum solos, 70s rock drum solos. You don’t get to see traditional full speech so much in movies anymore.
But what happened with it was we rewrote it 15, 20 times. We worked on it. We did a bunch of takes. And there is an incredible public release when that happens. And what I realized was his instincts were correct that somehow 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 is really like a holdover from the middle. ’90s or you might even be discussing the late’ 70s. And that doesn’t fit our time. Like, our kind of professional stamp that we have, sort of just fine, it’s all in cycles, it just doesn’t correspond to reality at all. And people are dying for someone to sound like a human being. And the first time we screened it, that’s right – the crowd exploded. So yeah, it’s a big moment, and DiCaprio’s instinct was perfect.
PFEIFFER: Adam, besides getting a message on climate change, is there a call to action that you hope to inspire?
MCKAY: I think the most important thing – I mean, again, it’s just a movie, so there isn’t much that it can do. But I think the starting point for all of us is just to make the climate crisis the # 1 priority, take it with all the weight and gravity it deserves because I think there is a trend with so much information surrounding us in our culture for us to think that this is just one problem among many, and it is not. It is a shadow that hangs over all problems. As horrific and terrifying as this pandemic has been, it is a billion times the size. And it should be treated as such.
And the other thing that I hope is that we come back to real, empirical, peer-reviewed science. This is the greatest burden of proof humanity has. It is not an absolutely perfect system. There is no such thing as a perfect system. But it’s the best we have. And the other thing I might add is that it has worked really well for 500 years. And that’s what got us exactly where we are today, able to do this interview, able to hear this interview on our computer. Everything comes from empirical science.
So I would just say that the two big things to start with are to do – like, really get more information. Make it the problem, because it’s not 80 years from now. It’s not a hundred years from now. It’s happening right now, and it deserves this crackling urgency. Otherwise, it will get worse. And if not, there will be untold damage that we cannot even understand will happen if we do not act right in the moment. It’s so urgent.
PFEIFFER: It’s Adam McKay, Writer and Director of âDon’t Look Up,â which is in select theaters now and we’ll air on Netflix on December 24th. Adam, thank you.
MCKAY: Sacha, thank you. Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.