Adam McKay is a comedy institution unto himself. The ex-SNL head writer has written and directed some of the most celebrated Hollywood comedies of the noughties, including Talladega Nights, Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, among others.
More recently, he has undergone an evolution. A McKay-onaissance, if you will. Ever since his 2015 Oscar-winning The Big Short – a star-studded comedy drama about the financial crisis – along with 2018's Vice, about how Dick Cheney forever changed America, McKay has evolved his storytelling style, using humour to explore complex, mature subject matters in an entertaining, easy-to-digest way.
His latest film, the aptly titled Don't Look Up, now streaming on Netflix, follows two scientists (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who discover that a comet is headed towards Earth, and set out on a comically insane journey as they attempt to convince politicians and the media of the impending apocalyptic threat. Rounding off the eclectic cast is Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep as an inane Trump-esque president.
Over Zoom, the Oscar-winning filmmaker spoke about the distinct genre of his latest movies, the Succession sensation (on which he's an executive producer), the state of comedy and what he hopes people will take away from Don't Look Up.
It's clear that since The Big Short, you're in a new zone as a filmmaker. Your films since are all, on some level, comedies that also look to tackle incredibly complex and sometimes dark subject matters in a very accessible and entertaining way. How would you describe this genre you've been operating in?
I'm not entirely sure. Trying to describe the genre is a bit like trying to describe this new era that the world is in. It's definitely ridiculous, over the top, slapstick and at the same time darkly terrifying, existentially sad and also kind of exhilarating. I mean that in terms of the times we're living in, not the genre. I think an interesting thing that's going on right now is that, because the times are shifting and ever changing, you're starting to see the old genres fracture. It's becoming less clear what genres are exactly. To me, it's interesting that, if you look at Netflix, they don't even categorize their movies by old, traditional genres. So, I think the movies I've been trying to make are almost comedic-apocalyptic satires (laughs). That's kind of close, I think.
The Big Short, Vice and now Don't Look Up, which is about a threat to the entire human race, feel like they happen to come out when the world needs them most. That's something you, of course, have little control over, but how do you process the timing? Are you just grateful for the coincidence?
I think a little bit of it is luck. The other part is, I've been doing comedy for years and years, and comedy always has a closer relationship with the time in which it's being made as compared to other genres. It tends to be a little more reactive and a little bit more of the moment. I've spent a lot of years writing for topical sketch shows like SNL, I've done a lot of improv, which is again, very of the moment. That's also a big reason why some people perceive a shift in what I've been making as film. But for me, it's more a shift in the world that I'm sort of reacting to with my movies. The old narratives that we spent decades being moved by, don't really apply the same way anymore. In the same way, my last three movies have to do with an end to a time. Whether it's the financial collapse with The Big Short, the fall of America with Vice or the collapse of the planet with the climate crisis, which is what Don't Look Up is about.
I love the cheeky cutaways in The Big Short where you get these massive pop culture figures to break down complex financial topics. What was the most oddly specific piece of direction you ever had to give in directing one of those sequences?
The funniest one was definitely at the end of the Margot Robbie scene. She was incredible and absolutely nailed it. We were all having fun and laughing, and at the very end of the scene, I asked her to just do one take where she says, "Now fuck off" (laughs). It made no sense and didn't fit what was happening at all, but worked so well. The other one was when we were doing the cutaway with Selena Gomez and economist Dr. Richard Thaler, and it was marvelous to watch Selena Gomez help a Nobel Prize-winning economist act his way through a scene. Because he's not an actor and it was just amazing to watch. And of course, we got to work with the late great chef Anthony Bourdain, who's sadly since left us. He just walked on set and took charge and steered the whole scene.
Those were really funny, strange sequences to shoot, but they were such a joy.
I have to ask you about Succession, which has become this massive sensation. Why do you think people are connecting with it to this extent? Aside from the fact that it's obviously just excellent drama and very entertaining TV, do you think there's more to it?
I think a lot of it has to do with just excellent writing. I think with Jesse Armstrong and that writers room, you'd find it hard to find a room that good. Of course, there are amazing actors and it's shot beautifully, but that writing is crisp and sharp.
On a deeper level, I think the appeal has to do with what I loved about the show when I had first read the pilot and directed it – it showed extreme inherited wealth to be just as grotesque as it is. It's not exciting, it's not fun. They're all depressed and traumatized. They're all removed from the world, their sense of accomplishment is shattered. And I just loved how Jesse was able to show that from the very start. Most of the time, when you see stories about super rich families on screen, there's always a part of the audience that wants it and envies it. And I think they've done a remarkable job at not letting it feel that way. These are broken, sad people, which is often the case with inherited wealth. They tend to not be the happiest people. So, while they're not the people to feel sad for necessarily in a system of spiraling inequality, at the same time, it's important to remember the bottom line – the system benefits no one and degrades everyone. I think that's the miraculous thing that the show does. And once again, it bends genres because it's a tragedy but it's also a comedy. There are a lot of things it does in terms of interpreting the modern world that I hadn't seen recently.
Don't Look Up feels like it has a very interesting relationship with hope. Especially with that ending. What do you want people to walk out with?
The big thing is, I wanted people to feel a lot of different things, because I think with our society nowadays, everything tends to be the box that you're writing in for your social media. And the truth is, in the world we're living in today, it's a lot of different feelings altogether. I wanted the people to look at how insane the world is now and have a collective, big, joyful laugh. But I also wanted the audience to feel sad and beauty and awe. I wanted it to have a sense of even some faith in there. But also, I wanted people to feel the urgency of this moment as we deal with the biggest challenge, empirically and scientifically speaking, in the history of mankind, which is the collapse of the livable atmosphere and climate crisis. I wanted people to feel frustration with the inaction.