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


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).


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.

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.