Jan 12 • 1HR 25M

Volts podcast: "Don't Look Up" director Adam McKay on the challenges of making movies about climate change

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David Roberts
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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In this episode, writer and director Adam McKay reflects on the critical and audience reaction to his movie Don’t Look Up. We also talk about making an emotional connection to climate change, some of the other climate-related projects he’s working on (or at least thinking about), and why he ended the movie the way he did.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Adam McKay, January 12, 2022

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

The film Don’t Look Up, available on Netflix as of late last month, has become something of a phenomenon. It has drawn wildly varying, often quite personal and intense, critical responses. Its critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes is just 55 percent.

But climate scientists loved it. I loved it. And the public loved it. Its audience score is 78 percent. In the week of December 27, it broke a Netflix record, with more than 152 million hours of streaming. As of this week, it the second biggest movie ever on the streaming service (just behind Red Notice, just ahead of Bird Box).

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Audiences have ignored critics and embraced the film, which is not something you’d necessarily predict for a thinly veiled climate change allegory about the difficulty of grappling with bad news in today’s information environment, especially one with such a (spoiler alert) bleak ending.

Adam McKay, directing Jennifer Lawrence. (Netflix)
Adam McKay, directing Jennifer Lawrence. (Netflix)

It’s not the first successful curveball thrown by its writer and director, Adam McKay. McKay first made a name for himself as head writer on Saturday Night Live. In the early 2000s, he formed a production company with partner Will Ferrell and wrote and directed a string of beloved comedies, from 2004’s Anchorman through 2010’s The Other Guys.

But in 2015, he took a turn, writing and directing an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, about the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. It, too, was an unexpected hit, scoring McKay an Academy Award for adapted screenplay. His 2018 film Vice, about Dick Cheney, scored Oscar nominations for picture, director, and original screenplay.

He has demonstrated that, despite what the chattering class often seems to believe, audiences are hungry to confront real issues. All along, he has wanted to find a way to make a movie about climate change. With Don’t Look Up, he finally figured out how.

I’m delighted to get a chance to talk to him, to hear about what he makes of the movie’s critical reception, what his other ideas for climate movies are, and how he navigates the politics of speaking out on serious issues from inside Hollywood.

Welcome, Adam McKay, to Volts.

Adam McKay:  

Thank you, Mr. Roberts, for having me. I've been an admirer of your work for a long time, an avid reader of your writing, and it is a pleasure to be here.

David Roberts:   

Thanks, I'm an avid watcher of your movies. So we have a mutual fan club here.

[Don’t Look Up] has been out on Netflix for a couple of weeks, so we've had enough time now for you to gather some feedback. Let's start with the fact that this movie has gotten more streams than anything in Netflix history. Did I read that right? 

Adam McKay:  

It's a bit crazy. I was shocked by the response from audiences. Netflix uses viewing hours now as their metric — they used to use accounts that signed on, but viewing hours is a more accurate number — and we had the most amount of viewing hours in any single week of any release Netflix has ever put out. 

I understand we're about to pass Bird Box as the number two all-time movie [on Netflix], and we've got a chance to be number one, who knows. 

David Roberts:

Who's number one?

Adam McKay:

It's a movie called Red Notice that just came out. It stars The Rock, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. If you had told me that our ridiculous-slash-dark climate satire would be contending with Ryan Reynolds, The Rock, and Gal Gadot in an action film, I would have said, “you're nuts.” So it's pretty fantastic. 

More importantly, the moment-to-moment online responses have been incredible — just seeing people excited by it, laughing, a lot of people moved by the ending of the movie, talking about crying, having emotional moments with it. So that's the thing that's been really exciting is seeing this worldwide response to this movie, and a lot of people having the response of, “oh my god, I'm not crazy.” Really cool.

David Roberts:   

Or at least, “we're crazy together.”

On the other hand, there's the critical response, which has been … all over the place. I don't know what I expected, but it's been such a bizarre range. What do you make so far of the critical response?

Adam McKay:  

I've never experienced anything like it. We test these movies, we screen them for audiences, and the last three screenings we had played great — people were laughing the whole way through, at the end there was great discussion. 

Then I saw those critical responses … and in fairness to the critics, I don't expect them to mirror a test audience. They look at it with different eyes. So with all due respect, but some of the reviews were so extreme and angry, and I was like, “whoa, what's going on here?”

But once again, they're critics; they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. But it really took me back. I just didn't see it coming. You make movies, you get hit with bad reviews, so we were just like, “all right, I guess that's that.” 

Then when the movie came out, the responses were more like what we had experienced. We were like, “oh, good, we're not crazy.”

So it was strange. I've never experienced that kind of disconnect from the screening, watching the movie with people, to the critical response. It definitely was the most surprising I've seen. Once again, nothing but respect for critics. But yeah, it was very surprising and unusual, no question about it.

David Roberts:   

I'm sure you're a self-aware, neurotic guy; you probably have some self-criticisms about the movie. Did any of the criticisms strike home? 

Adam McKay:  

When you make a comedy, right away you subtract 20 points. It's just the way it goes with comedy. So I wasn't expecting us to be lifted on the critics’ shoulders and ticker tape to come down, because I've made plenty of comedies and that's just the way it goes. Which was fine, because we made a direct choice to have this be a comedy. 

I think the ones that surprised me — there weren't a lot, but there were about a dozen that were really angry, and accused the movie of being smug, and said, definitively, “this movie will not relate to people.” “It's too smug, it's too liberal.” “It's not liberal enough.” “It's playing to a small crowd.” Those were odd, because we hadn't experienced that at all with this movie, in any of the screenings we had done — that was never the slightest response we ever had. 

With something like our previous movie, Vice, we knew that was tricky. We knew that was not a fun story. So you know, I read reviews, and some of them were like, “yeah, you're not wrong.” But in this case, I was surprised by the timbre of the reviews, the anger of some of them — once again: not all, some. I have to say that over and over again. 

David Roberts:   

Some of them seemed like, “you think you're so smart. You're not so smart.” A lot of critical reviews struck me as, “here are the ways that I am smarter than this guy who tried to make this movie.” It was a weird critical response.

Adam McKay:  

It was strange, but I think what it points to, now that I've had some time to digest it, is a couple of basic things. Regardless if someone didn't like the movie or liked the movie, there's no question we're living in an incredibly strange time right now. We're looking at a straight shot to American democracy collapsing. The Democrats have face-planted and I don't see much standing in the way of a takeover from the extreme right. 

So that's going on, while this absolutely catastrophic, giant story of the collapse of the livable atmosphere, that is so mammoth it’s hard for even some scientists to fully get their head around, is happening at exactly the same time. It doesn't surprise me that people would be …

David Roberts:   

Don't forget the global pandemic. Toss that in there too.

Adam McKay:  

Oh my god. And by the way, towering, epic income inequality mixed right in.

So we have all this stuff going on, and the idea that people would have passionate responses to “how do you tell these stories?” makes sense. The idea that a lot of people would be on different wavelengths of awareness, or no awareness, or somewhat awareness on those stories we're talking about makes sense. 

By the way, once again, I respect that. I'm not saying that if someone didn't like the movie, it means they don't believe in climate change. Somehow, through the social media lens, it became that I somehow had said that, whereas I never said that. People were piling on — which by the way seems like something directly out of the movie, of course. So I think it makes sense. 

The reason we made the movie is there are varying degrees of relationships with the idea of the climate crisis, and that's one of the problems we're confronting. So now that I have a little distance from it, part of me is like, “why did I think our movie would be any different?” 

David Roberts:   

I could have told you what would happen. From my perspective, as somebody who's been in this game for a long time: you have this huge problem on your mind, you’re yelling and yelling, and no one else is paying attention but other climate people. So you just end up talking to other climate people. You end up arguing with other climate people, and forming teams and factions within the climate movement, because no one else is paying attention. I think that's become part of the culture of the climate movement: your number one priority is to shoot down this new climate advocate who thinks he's smart. I don't fully get it.

Adam McKay:  

When you see Chuck Schumer or some politician talk about the climate crisis, you can just tell from the way they're talking about it: oh, they don't get it. They don't really feel it in their bones. Someone hasn't communicated to them the depth and the urgency of this. 

Even when something happens like those crazy fires in Colorado, where there weren't even trees nearby, the wind blew the embers into the neighborhoods, and the videos are so upsetting; or Kentucky, where it looked like the devil had landed on earth with that massive tornado; Alaska breaking a heat record by 20 degrees; and on and on and on. You see these stories, and then you hear certain people in charge, or even in the media, talk about it, and you're like, “you're not feeling that in your bones.” 

But when you have a movie, you can't say that, because it sounds like you're saying, “you don't get the movie, so you don't care enough about the cause.” I'm like, “hey, I don't fucking care about the movie. Hate the movie. I don't give a shit.” We're not posturing like, “Oh, look how important we are.” We actually think this is a giant thing! All these actors came together — there are easier projects we could have done. You think when we're saying this is a big deal we're positioning ourselves for awards season? 

David Roberts:   

If you're pulling a money grab, maybe climate change is not your go-to. 

Adam McKay:  

I think that's me splitting hairs, though, because the bigger picture here is the crazy appetite of literally hundreds of millions of people, having this very visceral response, and it's fantastic. 

The other joy of the movie was seeing a lot of climate scientists say, “oh my god, I feel seen.” Peter Kalmus wrote a great piece where he's like, “oh, that's it. That's what I've been going through.” George Monbiot wrote a beautiful piece about the emotions he's been carrying.

So the overwhelming story here is, we're overjoyed with the response. We're overjoyed with the release.

At the same time … I already had sympathy for people like yourself, but now I think I get it in a much more personal way.

David Roberts:   

Also, sympathy for politicians trying to broach this. You get all these weird, intense, super-specific responses, I'm sure any politician who says these words publicly gets that same weird range of blowback. So I have some sympathy for them, too … though less.

Adam McKay:  

A little bit less. We did it in the movie. For years I've been like, “why isn't a senator or congressman going to a podium and crying or yelling?” George Monbiot did that, he cried on a show — there's clips all over the place of climate people getting emotional on shows. 

It's funny, because we wrote that in the movie, you’d think I would know that, but the response taught me how deep it is. The challenge of the communication of this is so titanic. How you break through the people framing it as self-interest. “Well, of course, Dave, you have a podcast you do, and you have your own news source, Volts, so of course you think it's a big deal.” It's like, no.

David Roberts:   

Let's go back in time a little bit. You've said in previous interviews that it was an IPCC report that originally grabbed you and shook you by the lapels and got you freaked out about this. That was 2015 or 2016? 

Adam McKay:  

It's a longer road than that. The Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth was the first time where I was like, “oh, wait a minute, that's no joke.” The famous moment where he shows the graph skyrocketing definitely hit me. I started talking about it, wondering what was going on. 

But, in those polling categories they use, where I went from the “somewhat concerned” range to the “very, very concerned” range was the IPCC report and several other reports that came out, culminating in me eventually not being able to sleep and my wife being like, “what's going on?” I'm like, ”this is bad. This is really, really, really bad.” 

I went through a little period where people around me were like, “hey, relax.” I was like, “no, it's really, really bad.” I was late to this incredibly un-fun party. I think you showed up with some onion dip around 2004, but I came in around there, and then every year since it's just been escalating.

Reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth — that's definitely what led me to the onramp of, “I’ve got to do a movie about this.”

David Roberts:   

One of the things I'm fascinated by, and one of the things I wrote about in my review, is the difficulty of making art about climate change, the difficulty of telling compelling stories about it in a way that will appeal to a mass audience. Presumably, once you got freaked out about it, you being a movie maker, you started thinking, “how can I get this into a movie?” You've talked about this a little bit, that you had a few ideas or premises come and go. I'm curious what some of your early thoughts were for how you could cram climate into a movie. Did you have other ideas that were developed at all? 

Adam McKay:  

Well, some of them I'm still going to do. I'm actually working on a show with HBO Max called Uninhabitable Earth. It's a Black Mirror-style show, anthology, hour-long episodes, dealing with the climate crisis.

David Roberts:   

But fictional, like Black Mirror

Adam McKay:  

A hundred percent, yeah. Each one will be an hour long, we'll have different directors and writers come in. I already have the first episode outlined. I'm behind — I was supposed to have the script written a month ago. So we're doing that. 

But I can tell you a couple of the ideas. The first idea I had — and who knows, I may still do it — was inspired by the movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes that came out in the 80s. I had read that Robert Towne’s initial draft of that script didn't have one single word spoken in it; it was all Tarzan with the apes. Then, of course, the studio made him add all this stuff where he went to England. I actually met Robert Towne about four years ago and I brought that up right away, because I found it really intriguing. 

The idea I had was that it’s 300, 400 years from now, and it's an area on Earth where the climate crisis has fully blossomed — we've gone to 3.5 to 4, sea increase, most of civilization is gone, but there are little outcroppings of people that have hung on.

We focus on one group that lives between a storm and a desert zone. They're in between an area where there's constant tornadoes and hurricanes and another area that's completely arid — let's say it used to be Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada. They're on a runoff area from the storm zone where water flows, and it's created a deep crevasse, and they live in little Anasazi-style cliff dwellings on the side of the crevasse. Because of the water, they have a little civilization of 600 or 700 people. You see the detritus from the former civilization: pieces, scraps of our old civilization that they've used in different ways. 

Then one day the water stops. We don't say it, but you see from the drawings and the songs that this happens occasionally. They’ve discovered that the person who can handle going through the river of water to find what clogged it, it's best if it's a 17-year-old boy, because they're a little more fearless, they're at peak physical health.

So they pick their 17-year-old boy, but there’s a girl who’s in love with him. He leaves to go on the mission, they give him a couple of tools, and she secrets away and follows him. 

We basically follow these two teenagers as they go through the storm zone, and we have different encounters with different pieces of our old civilization. One scene was where they have to get across this massive lake, and in the middle of the lake — I thought it was a cool image — you see a giant white pole sticking out. The boy goes under the water and you just see the city of Chicago there. It's the Sears Tower antenna sticking up. And they have to swim across this lake. 

So it's a lot of different episodic encounters. I don't want to give them away in case I ever do this … which, now that I'm telling you, it was pretty cool actually. It was a big 2 hour 40 minute, no-spoken-dialogue, epic film. That was the one I was going to go after.

Then I started doing the thing, which I know you probably think about a lot, where I'm like, “well, how is this going to play? How are people going to relate to this?” I kept thinking, “it's a little bit like a lot of dystopic sci-fi movies; there have been a lot of those made. Is it too easy to categorize it as that? Is the impact of it lost because it doesn't relate to our world now?”

David Roberts:   

In all those movies, the apocalypse has already happened, so you frequently don't learn much about it. They're rarely about the apocalypse itself.

Adam McKay:  

I had another idea that was about the carbon wars. Twenty years from now, most of the planet knows we have to shut down the carbon release, but there are holdouts. There are rogue nations, and corporations that are basically like nations, that are like, no. So there's a full-on war going on. I had a bunch of cool stuff for that. 

Then I had another idea that was more like a Twilight Zone episode about submarines from different nations fighting over claiming new land underneath the Arctic Circle that they can drill for oil in. One of the subs gets sunk and then frozen in the deep bottom underneath the Arctic. We go to 200 years later, and it's rescued, and some of the people are able to be defrosted using advanced tech. It's about them living in the future utopia that has solved these problems, which I thought was kind of cool. 

Yeah, I may still do that. These are all ideas that are still on the table. I don't think I'm giving away too much. But with each one, I just felt like, man, I don't know. 

When I talked to David Sirota, and he made the joke about how it's like a movie where an asteroid’s going to hit, like an Armageddon, except no one gives a shit, I just laughed, and I like that. I thought: laughter, it’s the best. It does a couple of things. It lets people have a common experience. In order to get a crowd laughing, you have to have a shared, agreed-upon reality. You can't really get 300, 400 people laughing without that agreed-upon reality. 

So I just thought, even my family members who are very right wing and friends of mine who are very progressive, everyone can agree we are living in absolutely unhinged times right now. I thought, maybe that's a good purchase point with this idea. So I ended up doing Don’t Look Up.

David Roberts:   

Did you just hear this joke, or this idea, of Sirota’s and go off completely on that? How much was he involved in the story writing? Or was he just the political consultant guy?

Adam McKay:  

With any idea, you like the idea to not leave you alone. So he said that, I was like, “oh my god, that's perfect, that's exactly what's going on,” and we laughed, and we kicked it around for a second and then I just moved on. I wasn't going to write it. It was a couple weeks later that I was like, wow, that idea keeps coming back to me – why? So I called Sirota and I was like, “Sirota, I think that's the idea.” 

I liked that it was simple. I liked that it wasn't too-clever clever, that it was a big enough entryway for a lot of people to get into it. I've described it as a Clark Kent-level disguise for climate; it's not really trying that hard, and I like that about it. It was big, and I'm a big fan of execution-based ideas. I don't always love big, clever premises. I like where they're kind of simple. 

So then I started banging it out, and I would check in with David. He was involved. I would run it by him, what the outline was. He came up with the idea for the movie within the movie, Total Devastation. He and I kicked around the idea of profitizing the comet and aborting the mission; that's when I knew we had a movie. I would show him each draft. David's a very funny, creative guy. He's a firebrand, but he also has a good pop sense, and he's written some scripts in the past. So he was pretty involved, actually, from the get-go.

David Roberts:   

Is it obvious it’s about climate change? Have you gotten a sense from the viewing public? Because I genuinely don't know. I'm so immersed in climate that of course I see everything through that lens. But if you just walk in as a normie with no background information on the movie, are people thinking “climate change” from this? Do you have any way of knowing?

Adam McKay:  

One thing I love to do is go on Twitter when the movie opens. You see the second-by-second tweeting. Granted, that's a skewed lens, because it's Twitter, it’s social media. But that, coupled with the testing process we do, the screening process, gives me a pretty good idea of how people are seeing it.

What I'm seeing, and what we learned in the screening process, is about 60 to 65 percent right away think climate crisis. Another 25, 35 percent — there's crossover between the two — think Covid, even though the script was written before Covid. 

But the great news is, everyone gets the idea of a society that's broken, corrupted, careerist, distracted, self-interested, all the different layers. I always say it’s David Simon's The Wire grab bag of societal dysfunctions. We tried to touch all those bases.

Everyone gets that. The way we did the movie was, we tried to find the universal dysfunctions across the political spectrum and not dial into the red vs. blue too much, although you can't avoid it. When you talk about the comet denial in the movie, clearly that's hitting the right wing. 

Overall, the people responding to it as a climate crisis allegory, I've been very happy. Someone tweeted the other day that she started watching it with her kids and within 10 minutes the kids were, “oh, this is like the climate.” I have a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old daughter, all of their friends — none of those people read interviews with me, none of those people read the reviews, and they all immediately were like, oh, climate, Covid, science being run over by capitalism and power.

I've been very, very happy with the way that's translated.

David Roberts:   

I think that’s part of the power of it: if you don't watch it through the climate lens, it works broadly as well. I was thinking yesterday that someone looking back 20 years from now at this movie might think, oh, this was about the coup. This was about the authoritarian takeover of America, which people were yelling about, and other people were ignoring them. It works eerily well for that as well. 

Adam McKay:  

To me, there are three giant, hard-to-emotionally-comprehend realities. (Intellectually, we get it.) The climate crisis is the big one. Then you have the coup, the impending collapse of American democracy. Then the third one, for me, is income inequality at a scale we just never talk about, that is breathtaking, worldwide. 

As far as size goes, income inequality is like Venus and the impending collapse of American democracy is like Mars. Then the climate crisis is like Jupiter plus Saturn plus maybe the Sun. There are five or six other ones too. There's the opioid epidemic, which we do nothing about. There's the gun death epidemic, which we do nothing about. 

Someone had said, “hey, relax on calling it a climate crisis, it's really just a snapshot of this time.” I thought, that's a fair point, because the movie is about our reaction to these very fixable crises. As complicated as the climate crisis is, we could deal with it if we wanted to. That's what's so incredibly frustrating. What makes the climate crisis so horrifying is that we do have technologies, we do have strategies that could seriously curb the horror show we're headed toward. 

So I think it's fair to say that the movie is more about this particular screwed-up moment that we're living in.

David Roberts:   

I've seen a lot of climate change documentaries and shows and art, and they're generally pretty bad. I went into this with very low expectations, terrified that you were going to get into albedo effect and biodiversity. I was braced. But it's much more about trying to communicate than it is about the details of the crisis itself. I thought the best part of the movie is the way it shows how the newsertainment blob has this capacity to digest everything and let nothing change it. No matter how loud you yell, it just absorbs it. 

You see it absorb Dr. Mindy, as he becomes unwittingly caught up in it. It just rejects Kate entirely. It has this ability to adapt and absorb and neuter everything. That's to me the most maddening, not just about the climate crisis, but about everything these days: everything is at the same pitch; everything is at the same volume. Everything is the same blur. It's impossible to make anything stick out, to stop or pause on anything or think about anything.

Adam McKay:  

The moment where DiCaprio as Dr. Mindy says on the TV show, “why does everything have to be so clever or likable? Sometimes we just need to be able to say things to each other.” That's it. It's an emotional movie. It's not a narratively complex movie, it's just the emotion of that.

That's exactly it: these formats, these shows, will not let you just say things. It always gets twisted and given a certain color or shading. 

David Roberts:   

It's sitting right there alongside the celebrity love affair — the same tone and same visuals — and the two blur together. I thought another clever part of the movie was that, it's not like Dr. Mindy or any of the protagonists are innocent of this.

One of my favorite moments is when Oglethorpe, the head of NASA — who, by the way, Rob Morgan is amazing; he's such an ace up your sleeve in this movie — is talking about Sting. It had nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but I loved that moment so much.

But at one point, the head of NASA sitting there watching and getting caught up in this celebrity relationship. He finds himself really hoping they'll stay together. He's not immune to it either. It absorbs you no matter what disposition you come to it with.

Adam McKay:  

It's impossible to resist. This is the one thing I've been saying throughout a lot of the press: the movie is not over anyone. I'm in the movie. I eat Taco Bell. I was way into Kyrie Irving returning to the Nets the other day. I'm rooting for Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck to an unhealthy level.

I mean, this stuff is all focus-grouped. It's algorithmically structured. It's like they took the science of slot machines and they've applied it to social media, advertising, the way we consume information. It's irresistible, and we're all part of it. 

But I think it's important to give ourselves a break to some degree on it. It’s going to get us. Life doesn't operate like an action movie where every waking second you're pointed toward the climate crisis, or gun violence, or income inequality, or the collapse of American democracy. There are moments where you're going to obsess about, why did the general charge you for snacks? That's why we have it in there.

David Roberts:   

I loved that bit too, by the way. It spoke to me.

Adam McKay:  

I love the reaction to it. People are trying to figure out why he did charge for the snacks. There are these theories that he represents the military industrial complex, he represents government. So people ask me, and I'm like, “I don't know.” They’re like, “yeah, but you wrote it.” I'm like, “no, I wrote it as that thing that sticks in your head that distracts you.” 

Comedy — the idea that we can laugh, we can be a little silly — took a lot of the edge off of it and opened it up. It's been cool. Once again, not everyone's going to laugh at the same thing. The funny thing with comedy is, everyone thinks their sense of humor is the gold standard. Which, by the way, I wouldn't change that. That's what's incredible about comedy. But it's funny when, some people love the comedy, some people are like “it's dumb,” and they're definitive about it. 

That's fine. That's how comedy goes. But it's been really cool: at Netflix, they do crazy amounts of data — pretty sure they know, statistically, within 96 percent, how I'm going to die — and they said that they've never seen a comedy play across this many countries. I think the movie was number one in 87 countries and top 10 in 90. For people that care about the climate and care about the state of the world, I think that's a very hopeful thing, that this current moment in the world is that universal. I've never experienced that before.

David Roberts:   

Some of the stuff in the movie seems pretty US-specific. The media stuff, at least; I guess I don't really know what media is like in Turkey or whatever, but it felt very America-specific. 

Adam McKay:  

Turns out, it's a lot like it is here. We're doing an adaptation of Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite as a miniseries, and he was saying that to me. He said, “I think you're going to be surprised by how well this plays around the world.” I was like, “really? You think so?” and he was like, “oh, yeah. The problems you have in the movie are everywhere.” And he was right. It's landed in a global way that I'd never anticipated.

David Roberts:   

For me as a moviegoer, this is the first time I've seen these particular dysfunctions put to fiction. They're very specific to our present moment and I've never seen anybody else take them on. I think that's why you're getting these moments of people saying, “oh my god, I feel seen,” because a lot of people are experiencing this. I just haven't seen it portrayed in another movie in quite the same way. 

Adam McKay:  

The models I used for this movie tend to be pretty small. One of my favorite movies of the last 20 years is The Death of Stalin, which I've seen seven times, but that played to a very particular crowd. It's brilliant. We weren't trying to emulate that; our movie is made for a much bigger audience, very consciously. But there's that. There's Thank You for Smoking, which once again, very small audience, brilliant movie, love it. Then you have to really go back to the 60s and 70s, back when movies like this would play big.

David Roberts:   

Network is the obvious predecessor, right? Network is all over this movie.

Adam McKay:  

That's probably my all-time favorite movie. There's movies to die for: the Buck Henry movie, which I love; Wag the Dog; Ace in the Hole; Dr. Strangelove is another obvious one. For anyone who wants to jump all over me, I'm not saying our movie’s as good as Dr. Strangelove, but as far as the style and sensibility of it, people forget how slapstick-y Dr. Strangelove was. So I think that's one to look at. 

But we haven't lived in a time where … I guess Mike Judge would be the guy: Office Space I worship, Idiocracy is brilliant. But neither one of those movies were even remotely commercially successful. They were found after they bombed in their release.

So it was definitely something we were going for on this larger scale. With all these actors, we were hoping to bring in a larger audience. It's been very cool seeing Ariana Grande fans watch this movie and respond to it.

David Roberts:   

I want to ask about the casting and about the crew. It’s A-listers all over the screen, constantly. To what extent did you present this to people as “hey, we want to make a socially conscious climate movie?” Was that part of the motivation of the actors joining up? 

Adam McKay:  

I never framed it like that. I always described the world we're living in right now — it's fun, every time I say it I try and use a different analogy, so what I've been saying lately is, “it's like a bouncy castle full of hyenas and long stem wine glasses.” That's what it's like to be alive right now.

So my pitch to all the actors was, “we're going to try and make a movie that's about this time that's never existed, that's crazy, and we want to try and make it funny, but we also want to make it emotionally moving as well. And yeah, it's about the climate crisis” — everyone knew that, they got that — “but hopefully it's going to have a big feeling to it for people.”

With our casting director, Francine Maisler, we hit a point where we had a bunch of big-name actors, and I remember Francine and I talked about it and she said, “isn't the point of this movie that you kind of go all the way? That the movie is a comment on what's going on, and the movie should have a breadth?” I said, “Yeah, I totally agree.” So usually we would have stopped, because you don't want the movie to be overwhelmed with stars and be distracting, but in this case, we felt like oh, no, that's kind of the point of the movie. 

That's when we got Timothée Chalamet to play the part of Yule, and Ariana Grande came in, and, I'm trying to remember the order, Cate Blanchett, Kid Cudi came on at that point. Normally we wouldn't have filled those roles with recognizable actors, but in this case we just said, let's drive straight through the locked gates.

David Roberts:   

The density of A-listers is so high that it does feel almost like a comment in and of itself. It feels like you're making a point. 

Adam McKay:  

We were joking in the edit, with my editor Hank Corwin, I was saying, “this movie is like a combination of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Lars von Trier's Melancholia.” That was another part of the movie, too, was the style of how we cut it and put it together. We wanted it to feel kind of jumpy and assaultive, keeping you off balance — sort of like the world feels now, too. 

David Roberts:   

I love the editing. To me, most of the big laughs were from the editing. 

Adam McKay:  

Hank Corwin is one of the great editors of all time. He edited on JFK, he's edited Terrence Malick movies. The guy is a legend. It came from Big Short and Vice: even though those movies had funny things in them, they weren't full-on comedies. I kept telling Hank, “I think your style would work. I think this cut-in-the-middle-of-the-line, this breaking the rhythm of traditional editing, would work really well for comedy.” He's a funny, kind of sheepish, neurotic guy, and he's like, “I don't know. I've never cut a comedy,” and I'm like, “no, Hank, I think it's going to work.” But it's another element of the movie. For some people, they are thrown off by the style. I've seen people complain about it. Some people think it's sloppy unintentionally. 

David Roberts:   

No, every one of them is absolutely perfectly timed. It really gets at the feeling too — you get swept up in these super-intense, crazy moments and then it cuts to this quiet moment where they're trying to digest it afterwards, and you feel the same thing. You're like, “whoa, what was that? Why was I just so worked up?” It's that same whipsaw feeling of modern media.

Adam McKay:  

That was what we were going for, those montages and slices and images. Hank had the brilliant idea to play the natural world as a character in the movie. It's funny how in the process of making a movie you can actually learn things about the climate. That was something; like, oh, yeah, the natural world is a character in the story of the climate right now. It was amazing how well it fit with the movie, and that was all credit to Hank Corwin. That was his breakthrough idea.

David Roberts:   

There are these cuts of nature scenes, but they're not the conventional climate-documentary nature scenes of pastoral beauty; some of them are just weird. It's not necessarily natural beauty, it's “look at this weird fucked-up natural world.”

Adam McKay:  

The one that got me — he just cut this in, I didn't have it in the script — was the shot toward the end of the movie of the bee. Every time we would screen the movie, I would see that bee, I would get teary-eyed. It was like a punch in the gut to me, because the bee is so beautiful-looking, and perfectly constructed, and delicate. Frickin Hank, man, you got me with that bee shot.

David Roberts:   

Let's talk about the ending because this, I'm sure, is controversial. I guess we're doing spoilers. 

Adam McKay:  

Yeah, we should warn people, if you haven't seen it. Part of the impact of the movie is, most people do not know that ending is coming. Some people do, but most people don't imagine that we would ever end that way. So yep, big spoiler alert.

SPOILER ALERT

David Roberts:   

You watch a Hollywood movie, especially a big Hollywood movie with a bunch of stars, you are trained by a lifetime of movie viewing to expect the white horse at the end, to expect the good guys to pull it off. It inches right up to the ending and you're like, oh, well, I guess not!

This might be perverse, but I was delighted when I finally realized, “oh, he's not going to do it. Sweet. He's just going to let it play out.” How much did you think about that ending? How early did that come in? What do you think is the larger significance of the ending? What are you trying to say?

Adam McKay:  

I was just kicking around this idea — and part of it came from reading Sapiens by Yuval Harari — I thought the big idea of that book was when he posed that our ability to create myths and story is what separated Homo sapiens from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. It’s a legitimately big idea. I know some people knock Yuval Harari, but that is a heavyweight idea. 

That got me thinking about what that means, that stories are that important. Obviously, we've talked about stories, and what they mean, and narratives, for years and years and years. The idea was, we've watched 10,000 movies — whether it's Marvel, James Bond, an action movie, Fast and The Furious, the comedies, the stuff I've done — and it's always a happy ending. You just know it's coming. You know Hollywood's going to give it to you. In some ways I started wondering, are we sitting back and watching the climate and expecting a happy ending? 

David Roberts:   

I really think that’s part of it. “Someone, somewhere, has got this. That's how things work, right?”

Adam McKay:  

DiCaprio told me a story where Elon Musk was at some conference and DiCaprio implored him, “dude, come on, you've got news sources” and Elon Musk is like, “the technology will solve it.” That is terrifying. I hear this from a lot of people: “They're going to figure it out. Don’t worry. They'll get it.” No, we're not. We're now at the point where we're definitively not. So I thought, there's a simple power to going straight down the chute with this ending and not having the white horse ride over the horizon line. 

I have never been more nervous for a screening in my entire life than the first time I screened this movie. There was a break in the pandemic, it was after the vaccine, and they said if everyone's vaccinated and they wear masks, we safely could do a screening. You have to remember, this is a big movie. It's Netflix, they're a big company, you have these big stars in the movie, and we're going to go to Orange County and we're going to test screen this movie that ends with — once again, spoiler alert — the entire planet dying. I was telling my wife and Hank, my editor, who during the period of putting the movie together I spent equal amounts of time with: “I've never been this nervous for a screening. This feels like we may have screwed up in a profound way.” 

They test it from zero to 100. The test is not a sciencep you use it as a loose guide rail. But in general, if you get like a 35, that's really bad. You want to be in the zone of high 50s to low 80s. Mike Judge actually told me that Idiocracy, the first time he screened it, he got a 20. A 20! I've never heard of that in my life. He told me how then the studio felt like they were protecting Judge and that's why they buried the movie. I was like, “oh really, that's what happened.” Maybe Spielberg and Scorsese are two people that could score a 20 on a movie and say, “I don't care, put it in 3,000 theaters anyway.” No one else on the planet has the clout to tell a studio, “I know we got a 20 but go with it.” There's just no one. 

So I'm driving to the screening and I'm like, “oh, shit, oh, shit.” But I love the ending. We've been watching it, we've screened it for ourselves, I think it's beautiful. We screen it … and it's the audience's favorite part of the movie. Universally. Unequivocally.

David Roberts:   

How does the whole test screening thing work? Do people write responses? 

Adam McKay:  

Everyone fills out a card. There's the 1-10 stuff, but then there's handwritten stuff. You do a focus group with 20 people afterward, they ask in-depth questions. Universally, no question about it, favorite part of the movie: the ending.

David Roberts:   

Did people say why it was so satisfying to them? Could they articulate it?

Adam McKay:  

Oh, yeah. The person who leads the focus group is an incredible woman who ran the focus group in Vice. (True story: they ran focus groups on the Iraq War.) She actually runs our focus groups, and she asked them, and they were very clear about it. They said, “we're sick of the bullshit endings.” It was an incredible moment where you realize, oh, of course, the audience is way smarter than we give them credit for. They're totally tuned in to what's going on in the world. They all expressed it. They talked about the climate crisis, about Covid, about all the shit going on in the world. They're fully in line with it. They're sick of constantly getting served fake happy endings.

Even though I've done silly comedies, I'm a big fan of never underestimating your audience. The Simpsons is an example of how you can be brilliantly stupid. Even when you're doing silly stuff, try and be top-of-your-intelligence silly. So I've always believed audiences (and voting blocs, and the population at large) can go way further than people think. They're way smarter than they get credit from the media, from the savvy crowd, the gatekeepers. But this even surprised me. Number one part of the movie, unequivocally, no doubt about it.

David Roberts:   

The whole movie is about us bullshitting each other. It would have been a unique sort of betrayal to have a happy ending to this particular movie.

Adam McKay:  

There was never one moment where I was going to do it. I just wanted to make sure to balance at the end — that it is a comedy, even though it's this very emotional ending — so I did shoot the joke that we have in the movie that's in the middle of the credits, and then we have a joke at the very end of the credits. I did think that was important too, because some people were really in tears. We had some very emotional responses to the ending. My wife went into her car and cried for 10 minutes after she saw it. Another agent saw the movie when we were first screening it and she was so emotional, she backed her car into a pole when she was leaving the screening. We've seen it in the online responses, a lot of people moved to serious tears. 

So I did think it was important that you don't want to be traumatized. You want to still be able to laugh, yet have those feelings. That was more the alchemy of the ending, how we were going to balance that. But there was never any chance that was ending any other way.

David Roberts:   

It’s sad in the context of the movie itself, but I also think part of what's hitting people is that it gives them permission to imagine that in the real world, there's no white horse. Sad endings are perfectly possible in the real world, and once you really start to think about that in the climate context … it's big. It's overwhelming. 

Adam McKay:  

I think it's essential to understanding the climate right now. I think you have to realize this could end poorly and in fact is on track right now to end poorly. That's hard for some people, and that's okay. I'm not saying they're wrong or their reaction to the movie is wrong. But I do think it's hard, and I think you have to realize that what we're seeing right now, it's not going well. It’s not going well at all.

David Roberts:   

Can you talk about the other ending, the mid-credits scene? Since we're spoiling things: the rich people escape the disaster on a spaceship, find another planet, and then are immediately consumed by the planet's denizens. I couldn't fully tell whether that was just a gag to prevent people from going home and hanging themselves, or if there was more significance, a point freighted in there. What's your take on that? 

Adam McKay:  

It started as the rich people just get away. The original scripted ending was that they land on that planet, and it's beautiful, and they're like, this is going to work out great. And I just ended it.

David Roberts:   

That's kind of what I hoped it would be. That's what I was rooting for, to be honest. 

Adam McKay:  

Well, we ended up improvising this beat. Meryl’s a great improviser, and she kept saying, “I want to know how I'm going to die.” So she put it in the scene. Then Mark Rylance and I said, well, maybe she gets eaten by a creature on a planet, and he's like, “oh, yeah, we don't know what it means.” We did it, and then it started making us laugh, that maybe we do see her get eaten by a Brontaroc, which was just a name we made up on the day. 

I was hoping it did both, because you see the pods of the rich people, and they're from oil companies and lobbying firms, and it's got this sting. They walk out and there's this beautiful planet, and then we have this joke, which some people are going to like, some people aren't. Judd Apatow was like, “oh my god, that's my favorite joke ever.” DiCaprio was a little bit like, “I don't know if I love that joke.” So once again, it's comedy. My wife was like, “can’t you just end with the world ending?” and I was like, “we actually tried it one time, and it was tough.” 

I like the idea of, you get the ending of the world ending, you get that beautiful Bon Iver song, you get to see the Earth undone, and that's an ending. Then we go for a little while longer and there's another little thing that happens, where the rich people get away with it, but then there's the big joke. I actually am a big fan of, you can have an ending and then have another ending, and whichever one you need, you can choose to lean into. Apatow was telling me he leaned in heavily to the president being eaten by the Brontaroc, he needed that. You didn't as much. My wife didn't, DiCaprio didn't.

David Roberts:   

The whole world ending has one sort of emotional tone; the world ending but all the rich fuckers who made it happen escaping untouched has a very different emotional complexion. I just thought that was an interesting move. If you find out the rich people die, then …

Adam McKay:  

… it’s a little happy. Yeah. There was another ending I had where the rich people then started saying, “let's get my house built,” and someone's like, “no, the pod with all the workers in it crashed, they're all dead,” and then the rich people started going, “I'll pay anyone a billion dollars who’ll build me a house,” and then another guy went, “I'll pay 5 billion,” someone else goes, “10 billion,” and we just pulled out on that. My friend Tom Scharpling liked that ending. 

As I'm talking to you I realize, you know what we could have done on Netflix, we could have done three different endings. Some cuts could have had the rich people with no one to work for them, another one could have had the Brontaroc, another one could have just had the rich people get away with it and that’s it. I wish I had thought of this: we could have told Netflix, “every third screening has this ending.” That would have been really cool, actually.

David Roberts:   

It makes a difference in the context of the movie, but it also makes a big difference in how you think climate change is going to play out, if rich people can survive it.

Adam McKay:  

They're not going to get away. No way. This idea that they're going to go in bunkers or go to another planet, it’s ludicrous. You saw it when we had the fires here in LA, I think one of Murdoch's homes partially burnt down. They aren’t getting away from this. If we imagine the climate crisis going to its worst degree, maybe you could see some people clinging to the poles to survive. It's debatable if it's an extinction-level event, but it is possible that it’s an extinction-level event. But if people do survive, it's going to be grim. I think the money can help for the first couple of waves.

This is me, by the way, just completely theorizing. There's no basis to what I'm saying, let me be very clear about that. I don’t know. But we can kind of guess, right? We know that the whole center of the earth becomes totally uninhabitable from extreme heat and wet bulb events. We know that there'll probably be perpetual giant fires where hundreds of thousands of people die from smoke inhalation, drought, famine, mass migrations, wars, even the poles are going to be nasty. They'll just have to come up with different categories for hurricanes. There'll be Category 10 hurricanes. I was talking to someone online who was saying it is possible we could have a perpetual storm on Earth if this thing really does hit 3-4 degrees Celsius increase.

David Roberts:   

My even more dystopic possibility is that we half solve it, so it gets bad but not apocalyptic, and bad-but-not-apocalyptic will probably just mean exacerbating existing inequalities. It'll mean an exaggerated, even more grim version of global oligarchy.

Adam McKay:  

Oh, that's bad. You might be right. We talk about this nonstop, my group of friends who are equally as freaked out as I am and that can talk about it, and one of the things I always say is, the saving grace may be that our civilization collapses, meaning we don't produce more carbon dioxide; that actually, civilization collapsing stops a lot of the emissions. 

That's a hellish proposition, because that's closer to what you're talking about; we’re at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius increase, and we start to see systemic collapse around the planet, wars, refugees, fire, all that kind of stuff, but a billion people have survived and the inequality is more like The Road Warrior. I'm not being flip with that comparison. Literally, that could happen.

David Roberts:   

Related to this point, one of the critical responses to the movie has been that it’s not an accurate analogy for climate change. Climate’s not a succeed or fail, one or the other proposition: there are all these degrees in between, we're going to land somewhere in the middle. There's an emotional satisfaction to a comet, that either hits or doesn't, that we're never going to get out of climate change. A) Do you agree with that, and b) do you think that's relevant to the quality of the movie? Did you feel like you were trying to do an exact analogy to climate change? 

Adam McKay:  

God, no. Allegories are a sleight of hand. The prodigal son coming back doesn't exactly match the massive emotional bandwidth of loving forgiveness. “Well, the brother was kind of a dick, whereas loving forgiveness knows no bounds and judgment, so I don't know if the prodigal son was the exact allegory.” No allegory is a perfect fit. 

So yeah, there's a little cheat that we did: we took away the hyper-object of global warming, which is so vast and timeless and slow-moving, and we put in a very concrete event, a comet. So no, it's not a precise match at all. The real story of the movie is that the hyper-object, the hard-to-categorize force, is our reaction to the comet. I would say that's the important story when it comes to the climate crisis. It's about our reaction to the climate crisis, which is pretty horrific to this point, and kind of a disaster.

David Roberts:   

You’ve said in previous interviews that lately you've gotten a little bit more optimistic about the science and tech side of this, and I think that's for good reason. I feel the same way. The leaps and bounds being made now in clean technologies are amazing; if clean energy just keeps getting cheaper as fast as it's going now, it's going to be dirt cheap in five to 10 years, and utopia awaits.

But then you look at this other track of American democracy falling apart, income inequality, etc. … you could tell completely different narratives about where we are in history and where we're going. 

How do you reconcile the two: the positive tech story about climate change and the total flaming-bag-of-shit-dysfunction political story? If you wanted to make a movie about 10 or 15 or 20 years from now, what does it look like? Do you have the slightest fucking clue?

Adam McKay:  

Stuff can change so fast. The example I always use, and it's a common one, is that I remember being with my kids when they were young, in the car, and they were like, “Dad, why is gay marriage illegal?” because they had friends at school who had same-sex parents. I was like, “you know, it's weird. Some people are hung up on it. I don't know why they care.” 

“Is it ever going to be legal?” 

“You know, it doesn't look great politically.” 

Then three months later, it was legal, and my kids were like, “you said!” and I was like, “I'm as shocked as you. I don't know what happened. Joe Biden misspoke and then … Obama couldn’t back off? I think that's what just made gay marriage. And it turns out, people were way cooler with it than most people thought.” So I mean, that was a crazy rate of change. 

I'm working with a group out of UCLA that's got some pretty serious breakthroughs on removing carbon dioxide from the ocean, and it's exciting stuff. They're nowhere near the scale to do it, they'll need like a trillion dollars to really make a dent. But is it possible? Technology doesn't advance in a linear way, and a lot of times happens in spurts. So it's very possible you and I could be talking in a year or two and we could be like, “holy shit, those guys from Carnegie Mellon, what do you know, they had that breakthrough, and there was someone in the Pentagon who was smart enough to go, ‘hey, let's move $100 billion from this B-52 bomber thing and do this,’ and we're actually rolling back some carbon dioxide.” 

That could happen. But if I had to bet, the will and action and awareness part of it is such a train wreck right now.

David Roberts:   

Sure. What if that happens and Donald Trump is president and Republicans are in charge of both houses of Congress? Would it even make a difference if there was a tech breakthrough in the woods and no one heard?

Adam McKay:  

One hundred percent. The US just suddenly becomes not a player in solving the climate crisis. All eyes go to Europe and China, and the US is just out of the picture; we're the bad guys. I'm happy with what's happening down in Brazil and with Chile, that we're starting to see some progressive leaders step in down there, so hopefully, they could be a part of it, too. And is it okay if some other countries get on the stick? The Chinese are not dumb. They know what's coming. Europe clearly knows what's coming. 

But you're right, if the Republicans take over, which it looks like they're going to, because the Democrats have just completely face-planted — in three years, if the Democrats haven't done anything and the Republicans stroll in, they're not giving power back. We know what they're doing, and that may be all she wrote for the US.

But then you may see some private industry. So that's the part that I'm optimistic about. I also am just a big believer in pain. Pain got me to lose 40 pounds. I had a very minor heart attack. Pain got me to stop smoking regularly; I have to confess I still cheat and have one or two on occasion. But that was pain, and I do think there's some pain coming our way with this stuff. There are fires we can't even imagine, storms we can't even imagine. That could shock us into waking up very quickly, in like a three-week period of time.

So I guess I just, in a really long-winded way, told you I have no idea.

David Roberts:   

It's never been easy to predict the future, but it feels so incredibly opaque now. I don't even know the basic valence. Dystopia or utopia or somewhere in between, I couldn’t begin.

Adam McKay:  

I like your guess of somewhere in between. Man, if we solve some of this and it becomes just crazy robber baron 3.0, like an 1880s Gilded Age, I'm going to be frickin’ pissed. That's just the grossest outcome, and you're probably right, they're going to try and swing it that way. I don't think you're wrong. 

David Roberts:   

I feel like this is the history of America: when things get so bad that the working class is about to revolt or go communist, they'll give a little; they'll do a New Deal or whatever, just enough to keep the basic system in place. That's what I could envision happening on a large scale here.

Adam McKay:  

I think that's a good guess. Do you remember the Arab Spring, when those revolutions were spreading? There's a story as part of that that not enough people talk about, that Saudi Arabia just cut checks for 25 grand for everyone in their country and handed them out, and people were like, cool, and they didn't have a revolution.

David Roberts:   

Is it that far off from what we did with the Covid relief bill?

Adam McKay:  

No. I just wish goddamn Biden would do it with student debt. It's the only button he's got left to push, and they just won't do it. They will not do it.

David Roberts:   

I want them to get the comet’s-hitting-in-2024 mindset. We need to spend all the money we can, as fast as possible. 

Adam McKay:  

All of DC is designed not to let that mindset happen. Every restaurant hallway, every bit of muzak playing is like, “don't let anyone have that mindset.” But we'll see.

David Roberts:   

Let me ask you about Hollywood. I'm sure poor Leo DiCaprio probably has answered this question 4 zillion times — it's obligatory, you're asked every time you are interviewed at this point — but there will be some people who say, “the last thing I want is a bunch of rich, Hollywood, carbon-intensive-lifestyle, private-plane-flying, etc. trying to act like they care about climate change. If they cared, they would sell their yacht or whatever.” How do you process all of that? How do you think about that general critique?

Adam McKay:  

People think of Hollywood as some bizarre foreign country. I wake up every morning, I swim in my pool with my three dolphins, I get in my helicopter, I fly to my solid glass pyramid office.

No. I would say this: if it's a good faith argument, yeah, give us shit. I know Leo doesn't fly private anymore. We all are as green as we can possibly be, making as much noise as we can. I'm trying to do a bunch of different things; I'm not going to list them because that just sounds pathetic. 

If someone's saying that to just avoid the subject, then fuck that. That's bullshit. But if someone's really saying, “hey, you hypocrites, what about this? What about this?” I'm here for it. Give us shit. Is there something we can be doing better? Is there something we can be more aware of? I think we have to get used to that being a part of how we talk to each other, without being defensive. If you told me right now, “hey, you guys never have done this with your movie shoots, but you could do X, Y, and Z,” I think I've got to be like, “oh, shit, I never thought of that. You're totally right.”

So I think it's good when it's done in good faith. When it's done in bad faith as a way to just shuck off the whole discussion, then I roll my eyes at it.

David Roberts:   

I think it's the latter most of the time, but who knows? 

Adam McKay:  

I'm playing a little bit dumb because I do go on social media and 90 percent of the time, it's the latter. No question about it.

David Roberts:   

In terms of climate’s presence in your own life, do you talk to your kids about it? I have an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old. All my life I've been talking about 2030, 2040, 2050, this or that has to happen. They're going to be alive during those years, in the prime of their friggin’ lives. I have gone back and forth about how to think about that a million times. How do you think about that? Do you talk to your daughters about it? How do they process it?

Adam McKay:  

Yeah, we do. They saw the movie, obviously. My older daughter was very emotional about it. Younger daughter loved it. It was emotional. 

David Roberts:   

If I made a work of art that my 18-year-old showed open emotion in response to, I’d be parading around the fucking streets like a king.

Adam McKay:  

I don't think they've ever had a reaction to anything I've done like this. Going through the years, they’ve mostly tolerated what I've done. Though they discovered the early comedies, their friends like the early comedies, so they love Stepbrothers and Anchorman and stuff.

But the way I talk to them is mostly the way we're talking right now. What I say is, “this is very, very serious. It's the biggest issue of our lifetime. It's huge. It's no joke. It's not like a normal issue, it's a 1,000-times issue. However, we have technology and science, and people can do amazing stuff when they have the will and the direction. So don't get hopeless about it.” 

During the pandemic, we couldn't go in our backyard because it was filled with smoke from the Pasadena fires. Their aunt lived up in Oregon, she had to evacuate her house because the AQI was around 550. So they've already encountered this stuff. It's already part of their life. I just tell them, “you don't have to solve it all by yourself. Just find a couple little things you can do. Make sure to talk about it, make sure to feel it in your bones, and you'll find your way you can pitch in, and we're going to do what we can do.” 

I think the trick is not to freak out. Even though many times I am fully freaking out, my mantra is just, we can only do what we can do. So if I ever get too freaked out, I remind them, or remind myself, we can only do what we can do. That instantly calms me down. 

I make movies, so we made a movie. We have probably more money than we should, because our society is broken and screwed up, so I'm going to try and use some of that money to do some other stuff. We'll make little personal choices. We'll talk about it. That's what we can do. A lot of it's about emotional tone and providing the right perspective and sense of the moment. But it's tricky, no question about it.

David Roberts:   

When you pivoted and did The Big Short, you out of nowhere went from comedies that are dumb in a smart way to something that's smart in a smart way and about an issue of substance. I think you baffled people; a lot of people thought that was going to fall on its face, and it didn't, and you've kept at it, and you've kept succeeding at it. 

So I'm just wondering, what's the temperature among your peers in Hollywood about making more of an effort to engage with social issues? It's so fraught, for all the reasons we've discussed, but you're making a go of it and succeeding. Is anybody going to follow along? Have you talked to other filmmakers about this?

Adam McKay:  

One of the coolest things I heard as a reaction to this was that a couple of other filmmakers were like, “hey, can I talk to you about an idea that I have?” I actually did get some of that. I think they saw, if I can take the right crosses that came with those reviews and the savaging I took online and then in the end have the movie find an audience like it did, I think they're like, “shit, if he can do that, we can do that.” 

Vice, when all is said and done, will probably break even, but Big Short made a nice chunk of change. Succession — obviously very different, because Jesse Armstrong writes that, but still a show I direct the pilot, produce on — that's a very different tone. We did Q: Into the Storm, the docuseries which was very successful, got very high ratings for HBO. 

So I think what people are starting to see is, you can make money doing this. It's not some altruistic thing. Audiences want to hear what's going on, and it's a good thing — you can talk to people about the real stuff that's happening and they're excited by it. So it doesn't have to be altruistic, it doesn't have to be pure business, there is this nice middle ground. 

Yeah, for the first time, three people actively reached out to me that want to talk about ideas. I think it's bound to happen. You can't live in the world we're living in right now and pretend it's not going on. I think you're going to see more and more people going for it, whether it's in a subtle way, an overt way, a funny way, a horror movie. There are a thousand different ways to tell the story of right now, and I think we're going to see more of it.

David Roberts:   

I hope we don't end up in five years thinking, “oh, man, I wish we hadn't told all those filmmakers to talk about the social issues. What were we thinking?” I often think that when people start talking about climate change: “oh, man, I miss when people weren't talking about climate change.”

Adam McKay:  

Weren’t those good days? The year I always say is 1997. Do you remember 1997? It just felt like no one gave a shit about anything. I know Clinton kind of sucked, there was stuff on the horizon, the Republicans were starting to get a little crazy, there was bad shit, but oh my god, it felt like my seventh birthday party, 1997. Oh, I miss it.

David Roberts:   

Final question, and I'm 75 percent serious about this: Have you thought about making a movie about a reactionary movement that takes hold in a democracy and grows and exploits weaknesses in media and institutions to eventually take over and institute a one-party autocratic state? Just spitballing here.

Adam McKay:  

I have my idea for my next movie, and it's not that, but it's a close neighbor of what you just said. It's about two blocks up and one block over. I will tell you this: from doing this movie and from doing Vice, The Big Short, Succession, and Q: Into the Storm, it does seem to always come back to big loads of dirty money clogging up our system. If Don't Look Up, Vice, and The Big Short were about heart attacks, dirty money is the plaque. It's what's blocking the arteries. 

I think I have an idea that's kind of funny and interesting; I haven't started writing yet, but I'm interested in it. As far as the autocratic rule, we have a bunch of projects at our company that are in development that circle around and get near that. We're constantly looking for ways to play with that.

David Roberts:   

My other topic I want somebody to take on, that I have also been thinking is un-fictionalize-able: A lot of the problems in our country now are because the electoral college is fucked up, and Senate representation is skewed, and gerrymandering; all these very boring, procedural, structural, institutional issues are playing a huge role in this minority being able to basically control the country. How on earth do you get the American movie public excited about filibusters? 

Adam McKay:  

We're doing a movie called Rat Fucked, starring Paul Dano, that's about how they gerrymandered America — the story of who came up with the idea. We've sold that, that's happening at Hulu. Another idea I'm thinking of gets into a lot of that procedural stuff, and I think I’ve found a way to wrap it in a fun bow. That stuff is wildly interesting. I think it's just how it’s told to the public; it's presented as boring. 

David Roberts:   

What you need is Margot Robbie in a bath talking about filibusters.

Adam McKay:  

We need the “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” channel where all the news is read. But yeah, we are working on one about gerrymandering that's actually already sold and set up, and then this other one gets into a lot of that procedural stuff. That's exactly why we started this company, Hyperobject Industries. I believe that stuff is interesting, and that there is a way to do it. We have a lot of projects circling around exactly what you're talking about.

David Roberts:   

Awesome. Well, I will look forward to those. It’s a good time for geeks in the movie world.

Adam McKay:  

Absolutely. We've always been pretty comfortable in the movie world. Movie world’s always been kind to geeks.

David Roberts:   

Yes, but usually geeks trying to appeal to the vaguely imagined jocks of their youth. Now they're just straightforwardly appealing to one another.

Adam McKay:  

I do have to tell you, full disclosure, I've been lifting weights this entire interview. 

David Roberts:

Are you getting swole?

Adam McKay:

I'm so swole. I'm all swoled up, bro.

David Roberts:   

It's time to go in front of the camera.

Adam McKay:  

Well, man, thanks for having me on. This was a pleasure. I can't believe this is the first time. Like I said, I've been reading your stuff and following you for a long time. Thank you for everything you do.

David Roberts:   

Well, likewise, thanks for making this movie. Wow, did it stir things up. You achieved that.

Adam McKay:  

It did. I hope it continues to.

Honest to god, that was maybe the most enjoyable conversation I've had during the entire press run of this. I'm not kidding. I needed that badly. My soul needed that.

David Roberts:   

I'm sure you've been going through it. Good luck enduring the rest of it.

Adam McKay:  

Absolutely, man. Be well.