It began almost as a joke. Journalist David Sirota floated the idea of his friend Adam McKay (an Oscar winner for The Big Short) directing a film about the climate crisis and made an offhanded comment about how the situation feels like an asteroid is headed toward Earth and nobody cares. It struck a chord with McKay, who spent three weeks penning a first draft of Don’t Look Up. A whirlwind few years later, Sirota now shares an original screenplay Oscar nomination with McKay, one of four noms for the film that features an all-star cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. McKay and Sirota always hoped their film would reach the widest audience possible, and it appears to have done just that, with Netflix touting Don’t Look Up as its second-most-viewed original film (after Red Notice) in its first 28 days.
McKay and Sirota spoke with THR about how the idea came to fruition, the film’s stellar cast and that ending maybe you didn’t see coming.
David, you had the idea of an asteroid hitting Earth. Then Adam goes off and writes the draft in three weeks. What happens next?
DAVID SIROTA When he comes back with this script, that was just incredible. I gave some notes. We got into one of my favorite little parts, which was the movie inside the movie, total devastation. I actually asked to be named the director of total devastation [on the poster].
Adam, when you sat down to write this, who were the characters you came up with first as your touchstones?
ADAM MCKAY Any time you write something, whether it’s a script or a book, you become all of the characters. Part of me is a Kate Dibiasky [Lawrence], who just wants to go into interviews and scream. Like, “We’re all gonna die!” And then another part of me is Dr. Randall Mindy, Leo’s character, who’s like, “No, no, you got to be cool and you got to stay in the room, work within the system.” There’s even part of us that’s The Daily Rip, where it’s like, “Hey, keep people entertained, you got to keep it light because if you turn them off, what are you really doing?” And even the movie within the movie [Total Devastation] is directly a shot at ourselves. So all of the characters represent different sides of ourselves. What was so satisfying about writing the script was that I got to express all those different points of view — from freaking out, from trying to stay constructive, from trying to stay light.
David, as a journalist, were there moments when the portrayal of the media hit close to home?
SIROTA When Dr Oglethorpe [Rob Morgan] is nervous about Kate being on The Daily Rip, but then there’s that little shot where you see him cheering on Kid Cudi. Even the guy who’s trying to take it seriously is caught in this world. And then the line when the producer comes in and tells [DiCaprio’s character] to keep it light. There’s such an efficiency to it. One little line that just says so much all at once.
MCKAY I start talking to David about the idea that a character in the movie wants to mine the asteroid. And we’re laughing about that. When I start working with our science adviser, Dr. Amy Mainzer, she tells me that in fact there are five companies out there that are trying to mine asteroids, and then we start seeing articles [about them]. So, it was one of those projects that, from his initial joke, seemed absurd. And then from the moment we started pursuing it, it got more and more real.
A lot of the attention rightfully goes to Meryl Streep and DiCaprio, but Mark Rylance’s tech mogul Peter has some standout moments. He even speaks some truth in the scene in which he shuts down Dr. Shelby. How did you crack him?
MCKAY That moment where he calls him a lifestyle idealist, I’m calling myself out. We know empirically that the livable climate is being destroyed. We now know empirically that it’s not 50 years away or 80 years away, that we’re really living within a 10-year threshold with the quakes and ice shelves about to collapse. I know this, yet I watched the Super Bowl, drove around. So I’m a lifestyle idealist. I’m full of it because I know that we really are careening toward this horrific catastrophe, yet I’m still laughing at the funny joke on The Daily Rip.
SIROTA It’s not a Dr. Evil character, right? The part of his character that rings particularly authentic is the story that he clearly tells himself. “You think I’m a businessman?” The people in those positions often can’t even conceive of how they could be seen as villains, that if you’re a journalist covering them and you ask them a tough question, or you cover them in a way where you show their greed or their corruption, they actually genuinely can’t believe that they could be seen that way, both because they’ve created a sort of self-mythology and because they’re surrounded in a bubble of essentially sycophants. To me, as a journalist, that character ranges so authentic in not making it a guy who clearly sees himself as evil. It’s the opposite. A lot of people who are in that position sort of see themselves as messianic.
There are great flourishes with him, like when he ignores the little girl who says, “I love you, Peter.”
MCKAY That was my favourite. It’s so great. That was improvised, too. That was on the spur of the moment. I said, “Blow her off.”
Did any of this film’s stakeholders object to the comet hitting the Earth at the end?
MCKAY I told David from the very beginning, “It’s got to hit.” David immediately agreed. There’s this contract with the audience that everything’s going to work out. Breaking that contract could have a power to it. The first time we tested screened the movie, we went to Orange County, and I was so nervous because you’re breaking the fundamental contract of a moviegoing experience. And I’ll never forget seeing the audience. It was their favorite part of the movie.
SIROTA I love the ending of the sopranos when everyone thought their TV went out. We don’t actually know what happened at the end of The Sopranos, but I actually liked that it was dark. I will confess to not really believing that it would be allowed. Not, “Can the audience handle it?” But, “Will the people who put the movie out be willing to essentially gamble on a movie that ends with that?” We were both a little nervous and then [Netflix] came back and they were like, “It’s great. We love it.”
MCKAY I told [Scott] Stuber and Kira [Goldberg] over at Netflix, “Look, I don’t want the audience to be so devastated that they can’t function. We’re not looking to traumatize an audience, but we are looking to have the audience have big, big feelings.” The whole movie was supposed to break genre with being a comedy and also a tragedy. I knew I had a dial as far as how much it could go in one direction or the other without changing the ending. But every one of the actors signed up because of that ending.
The post-credits scene with Meryl Streep certainly helps with the dial.
MCKAY That’s clearly just a big fat after-dinner mint of a laugh. And we tried screening it without that one time. I always wanted it. I always felt like we can have an ending where we are emotional and then you can still have a big, fat laugh. We tried one screening without it, and it was like, “No. No way.” For me personally and for the audience. I was sending David and Ron Suskind, our other co-producer, all of these cuts, and we kept checking in. The first cut was much more radical where it was less of a comedy and more blended [with tragedy] right from the beginning. And once we really discovered, “No, no, you got to let your hands go and just be a ridiculous comedy for the first 60 percent.” We were like, “Critics don’t love comedies. We’re making a choice [to target audiences, not critics].” And we just said, “To hell with it,” and we just went with it.
SIROTA You can err on the side of being as funny as you can be up until that ending.
MCKAY After the first cut, I was still kind of figuring out that tone balance. It was the second cut where I said, “You know what, I’m going to go for the comedy.” By the fourth cut, you were like, “This is getting really funny.” And it was like, “Oh yeah, we got some moves in our bag.” … Comedy’s all about timing and tone. It just took a long time [to find].
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.