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Adam McKay Is Tired of Our Climate-Politics Garbage Fire

“It’s quite the experience living in the U.S.,” the “Don’t Look Up” director says. “I think all of that filtered into the movie.”

Courtesy of Netflix
In "Don't Look Up," Leonardo di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence play scientists trying to convince policymakers to avoid catastrophe

The plot of Oscar-winning writer and director Adam McKay’s new star-studded feature, Don’t Look Up, is pretty straightforward: There’s an asteroid careening toward earth, and nobody gives a shit. The movie follows astrophysicists Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) as they try to change that, with mixed results. The story was conceived by McKay and veteran journalist David Sirota as a not-so-subtle allegory for the climate crisis, a subject each has been grappling with for years but that goes mostly unmentioned in the movie itself.

Ostensibly a comedy, Don’t Look Up—out now in select theaters and out on Netflix December 24—dissects the various parties pushing climate to the sidelines: from media driving a culture of distraction to corporations pursuing profits above all else to the sycophantic politicians they bankroll. It’s not a nihilistic film but not exactly a cheery one, either. Past the halfway mark, Dibiasky sits in a parking lot as lovable dirtbag townies, including Timothée Chalamet, swap theories as to why the planet-killer is still hurtling toward them. “They’re not smart enough,” she corrects them, referring to the government and its favorite companies, “to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.” 

I spoke with McKay about developing the film through the pandemic, capturing carbon, the Biden administration, and how hopeful he’s feeling about steering the asteroid off course in this reality.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you decide to make a climate movie that doesn’t mention the climate? Why tell a story about an asteroid rather than looking at the climate crisis as such?

Three or four years back, I was just searching for a way to tell this story. I still thought this was 40 or 50 years away, but of course we need to take drastic, major action now: I was becoming just more and more surprised as I saw that this is happening right this moment. So I wrote a bunch of different ideas for movies. Some are dramatic or dystopic or thrillers or small character pieces. But I didn’t want it to be just an art film or an awards movie or for people who already agree with the environmental movement. 

My friend David Sirota and I were commiserating about the lack of coverage in the mainstream media. Sirota just offhandedly said, “It’s like an asteroid is going to hit Earth and destroy all life and no one cares.” And that idea stuck with me. I really liked it because it was a big, wide-open door. And I liked that it allowed us to be kind of funny, as well. If you could have audiences genuinely laugh, not do the rising smile thing but laugh out loud, that could be a really powerful thing, with this story, to bring people together.

You started working on this before the pandemic, right? 

Yeah, I had written the script in December 2019, right before the March when the pandemic hit. We were scouting in Boston and had to shut everything down. I had a moment when I wasn’t sure I was going to make the movie. We saw so much of the movie actually play out, but then when I reread the script, I thought, this story is really about how we’ve broken the way that we talk to each other: We’ve profitized so many of our exchanges that even simple, critical information always has to have a spin to it, or some little charming detail. It was always clearly inspired by the climate crisis, but the things we had seen play out with the pandemic applied to the same problems that were creating this inaction on the biggest story in human history: the collapse of the livable atmosphere. 

The pandemic ramping up coincided with the end of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which you endorsed in 2020. Did that have an impact on the film, too?

It was a really strange experience to be supporting a candidate who quite simply just wants universal health care, basic gun safety laws, a fair wage for people.… These are all really moderate ideas, by global standards, and the twisted lens of the Unitd States bends you into an extreme leftist. The experience of seeing what happened with Bernie, the way he was positioned by our media, is all part of a larger experience of the funhouse-mirror existence we have here in the United States. It’s both a bit unsettling but also quite funny to hear people scream at other people that they’re Communists because they want universal health care, which every single other wealthy country has.

It’s quite the experience living in the U.S. I think all of that filtered into the movie. What would distract us from taking direct action on a comet that’s going to destroy most life on earth? 

Dr. Mindy ends up playing a sort of Anthony Fauci–like role, an expert charged with explaining a catastrophe to the public. I got the sense from watching this that you see scientific truth-telling as necessary but not sufficient. Is that right? And what do you make of the role of experts in the climate space?

I had no idea who Fauci was when I wrote the character. I wrote Dr. Mindy because I was playing with the idea of these scientists who do this hard work but are not made to do talk show circuits for weeks and weeks. Sometimes they have to, but that’s not what they do. It was very strange to see Fauci then materialize and become this voice that was attacked. These scientists step up and give you their empirical truth and then get hatcheted and attacked. 

As far as the solution to it, it’s a hard one. Experts are then supposed to tell our leaders about these problems, and the leaders are supposed to at least somewhat have our best interest in mind. But that disconnect is just getting wider and wider, where our leaders are so self-interested and so driven by donor money. The amount of time they spend thinking about our best interest is almost hard to measure, even with the world’s most sensitive devices. So what do you do when that compact is completely shattered? Until you sweep all the dirty money out of politics, I don’t know what you do about that.

What do you make of the balance between that role—experts going out and telling the truth—and organizing? 

I think it’s good to work the institutions, to try to clean them out. It’s good to try to find our own lines of communication to convey information. But we’re at the point now where we’re going to have to start chaining ourselves to some refinery gates, chaining ourselves to the front doors of the corporate headquarters of Chevron. It’s time for some really rigorous nonviolent resistance. 

And I know that’s going on. There’s been amazing work done shutting down these horrible pipelines. There’s a bunch of stories with Extinction Rebellion. Sunrise Movement has started doing this stuff. There’s been hunger strikes. Honestly, I think it’s going to have to be like what happened with civil rights, where you’re going to see mothers and fathers and grandparents and priests, and people like that are going to have to start joining it. The system is too broken. I don’t know if the system is capable of hearing us, especially here in the U.S. And I think we’re going to have to do some serious, serious, serious nonviolent protesting.

In interviews you’ve mentioned looking into carbon dioxide removal as an exciting solution, and there’s a whole plotline in the film around proprietary magic technology offering a win-win for survival and profits. Were you thinking about carbon capture when you wrote that?

It’s referencing that moment in the late ’70s when the oil companies were aware of the climate crisis. It looked like, for a second, they were going to take action. Amy Westervelt did that great podcast limited series called Drilled about it that’s really heartbreaking. That story might be one of the greatest crimes in human history: We had a moment. We had a mission. We could have done it. But the profit motive had to rear its head, and it stops the mission, and it completely changes the course of the narrative, putting us in even deeper peril. 

With carbon removal and capture it’s tricky because there’s two conversations happening. There’s one conversation between sincere people who really do want to solve the climate crisis. Then there’s always this insincere voice coming in representing big fossil fuel companies, trying to twist the conversation and take advantage of it and slow it down. And the shame is, they’re using things like carbon capture and carbon removal in this distorted way to say, “We don’t really need to do that much, we can do this instead.” But I think if you eliminate the insincere parties in the conversation, it is going to have to be part of the solution. There is going to have to be a Manhattan Project times a million version of carbon removal. It’s a very tricky thing to float because, boy, those oil companies just jump on it right away and distort it. 

What’s your appraisal of the Biden administration and where we are on climate in the U.S.? 

It’s not great. They keep saying they care, and then on the other side they allow drilling to go forward. It’s happening in California, too, with Governor Gavin Newsom: All the right things are said, and you find out they’re doing more fracking. In any other story these would be the villains, but in this case there’s an even more extreme version, our extreme right-wing parties. And these guys kind of get off free because of it. It’s really not good. 

They don’t really understand the urgency. You can tell by the way Pelosi and Schumer and most of the Democrats talk about it. If you really understood how urgent it was, and how breathtakingly catastrophic it is, you would not use that tone of voice. You wouldn’t use those words. So yeah, I think we’ve got a problem. And I think that problem mirrors what we tried to address in the movie. It’s the difference between straight-up denial and the people that kind of get it but kind of don’t. And there’s an argument to be made that each are equally lethal. 

How are you feeling about the U.S.? Around the edges of the film we hear about other countries. There’s this plea at the end for international action. Do you see a path toward the U.S. doing something meaningful on climate? 

It may not be the U.S. that does something meaningful. Like an engine with no oil in it, we may have just seized up. I don’t see our government really solving any problems right now, and I don’t see any hope in the future. 

It’s not like something’s going to be passed in a year that’s going to clean things up. We just don’t solve problems. I hope they get some of that stuff passed with the reconciliation bill. But it’s not even a thousandth as much as we need.

I’m not a flag-waving guy who needs America to be the leader on this. I wish we would be, because we’re one of the biggest polluters—China’s the most, but we’re higher per capita. And so I would love for us to take more responsibility. I think there’s going to be great individual and group efforts and movements coming from the U.S., and hopefully some cultural contributions. And I think you’re going to see millions of Americans who do care, and it is going to make a difference. But when it comes to our government proper and a lot of our giant corporations, I don’t have the highest hopes.

There’s been a tendency over the last few years for climate activists to go into rooms of powerful people, castigate them for not doing enough, make headlines, and then be invited back to do it all again without much having changed. Do you worry about that dynamic with this film? 

I know it’s a movie, so it can only do so much. A lot of why we made it was to release a lot of these emotions. I really felt like after five, 10 years of just being pummeled, we needed to laugh at how insane the world is. I also felt like it was good to feel some grieving in the end—to feel some sadness, a little bit of beauty. 

That’s one thing that’s lost when it comes to the climate crisis and a lot of the traumas of modern life, especially in the U.S. We just don’t have a lot of room to react and feel. 

I thought there was a power to seeing a movie that doesn’t end with a perfect, nifty bow.  Maybe there would just be an inherent power to seeing a movie that doesn’t end perfectly because no one ever takes action. If we don’t do anything, we don’t get that third act that we’re all used to getting over and over again with every movie.