It started almost as a joke. Journalist David Sirota pitched the idea to his friend Adam McKay (Oscar winner for The big court) making a film about the climate crisis and made an offhand comment about how the situation makes it look like an asteroid is heading towards Earth and no one cares. This struck a chord with McKay, who spent three weeks writing an early draft of Don’t look up. A whirlwind few years later, Sirota now shares an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay with McKay, one of four names in the film which features an all-star cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. McKay and Sirota always hoped their movie would reach the widest possible audience, and it seems to have done just that, with Netflix touting Don’t look up as his second most-watched original film (after red notice) in its first 28 days.
McKay and Sirota spoke with THR on how the idea came to fruition, the film’s stellar cast, and that ending you may not have seen coming.
David, you had the idea of an asteroid hitting Earth. Then Adam goes and writes the draft in three weeks. What happens next?
DAVID SIROTA When he came back with that script, it was just amazing. I gave some notes. We entered one of my favorite little parts, which was the movie within the movie, Total devastation. In fact, I asked to be appointed director of Total devastation [on the poster].
Adam, when you sat down to write this, what were the characters you first picked as touchstones?
ADAM MCKAY Every time you write something, whether it’s a script or a book, you become all the characters. Part of me is a Kate Dibiasky [Lawrence], who just wants to go into interviews and scream. Like “We’re all going to die!” And then another part of me is Dr. Randall Mindy, Leo’s character, going, “No, no, you gotta be cool and you gotta stay in the room, work the system.” There is even a part of us that is The daily tear, where it’s like, “Hey, entertain people, you gotta keep it light because if you turn them off, what are you really doing?” And even the film within the film [Total Devastation] is directly a shot at ourselves. So all the characters represent different sides of ourselves. What was so satisfying about writing the script was that I got to express all of these different points of view – of panicking, of trying to stay constructive, of trying to stay lighthearted.
David, as a journalist, have there been times when media representation has touched close to home?
SIROTA When Dr. Oglethorpe [Rob Morgan] is nervous about Kate being on The daily tear, but then there’s this little shot where you see him cheering on Kid Cudi. Even the guy who tries to take it seriously gets caught up in this world. And then the line when the producer comes in and says [DiCaprio’s character] to keep it light. There is such efficiency. A little line that says so much at once.
MCKAY I start talking to David about the idea that a character in the movie wants to mine the asteroid. And we laugh about it. When I start working with our science advisor, Dr. Amy Mainzer, she tells me that actually there are five companies trying to mine asteroids, and then we start seeing articles [about them]. So, this was one of those projects that, from its initial joke, seemed absurd. And then from the moment we started chasing it, it became more and more real.
Much of the attention rightly 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 arrests Dr. Shelby. How did you crack it?
MCKAY That moment when he calls him a lifestyle idealist, I tell myself. We know empirically that the livable climate is being destroyed. We now know empirically that it’s not 50 or 80 years from now that we’re really living in a 10-year threshold with earthquakes and ice shelves about to collapse. I know that, but I watched the Super Bowl, I went around. So I’m a lifestyle idealist. I’m full because I know we’re really headed for this horrible disaster, but I’m still laughing at the funny joke about The daily tear.
SIROTA He’s not a Dr. Evil character, is he? The part of his character that sounds particularly authentic is the story he clearly tells himself. “You think I’m a businessman? Often the people in these positions can’t even conceive how they could be considered bad guys, that if you’re a reporter covering them and you ask them a tough question, or you cover them in a way where you show their greed or corruption they really can’t believe they could be seen that way, both because they’ve created some sort of self-mythology and because they’re surrounded by a sycophancy bubble. For me, as a journalist, this character sounded so authentic by not making him a guy who clearly sees himself as evil. It’s the contrary. Many people who are in this position consider themselves to be somewhat messianic.
There are some big flourishes with him, like when he ignores the little girl who says, “I love you, Peter.”
MCKAY It was my favorite. It’s so awesome. It was also improvised. It was spur of the moment. I said, “Blow her up.”
Did any of the film’s stakeholders object to the comet hitting Earth at the end?
MCKAY I said to David from the beginning: “It has to hit. David immediately agreed. There is this contract with the public that everything will work out. Breaking this contract could have power. The first time we tested the film, we went to Orange County, and I was so nervous because you’re breaking the fundamental contract of a cinematic experience. And I will never forget to see the public. It was their favorite part of the movie.
SIROTA I love the end of the Soprano when everyone thought their TV had turned off. We don’t really know what happened at the end of The Sopranos, but I really liked that it was dark. I admit I don’t really believe that would be allowed. No, “Can the public handle it?” But, “Will the people who put the movie out be willing to basically bet on a movie that ends with this?” We were both a little nervous and then [Netflix] came back and they said, “That’s great. We like that.”
MCKAY I said [Scott] Stuber and Kira [Goldberg] on 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’re looking for the audience to have big, big feelings. The whole movie was supposed to break up the genre by being a comedy and also a tragedy. I knew I had a dial on how far it could go one way or the other without changing the ending. But each of the actors signed up because of this purpose.
The post-credits scene with Meryl Streep certainly helps with the dial.
MCKAY It’s clearly just a nice big mint after dinner. And we tried to filter it without it once. I always wanted it. I always felt like we can have an ending where we get emotional and then you can always have a big laugh. We tried a screening without it, and it was like, “No. Definitely not.” For me personally and for the public. I was sending David and Ron Suskind, our other co-producer, all those cuts, and we kept checking. The first cut was a lot more radical where it was less of a comedy and more mixed [with tragedy] from the start. And once we really figured out, “No, no, you gotta let go and just be a ridiculous comedy for the top 60 percent.” We thought, “Critics don’t like comedies. We make a choice [to target audiences, not critics].” And we just said, “To hell with that,” and we went.
SIROTA You can err on the side of being as funny as possible until this end.
MCKAY After the first cut, I was still trying to find that balance of tone. It was the second cut where I said, “You know what, I’m going to go for comedy.” By the fourth cut, you were like, “This is getting really funny.” And it was like, “Oh yeah, we’ve got moves up our sleeve.” … Comedy is 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 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.