23 February 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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“It's a wild, crazy, ridiculous movie that might be more conservative than reality”; Oscar winning writer/director Adam McKay discusses Don’t Look Up
22 Dec 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Oscar winning Writer Adam McKay
Ireland is renowned as a nation of storytellers, but it also seems to be a source of inspiration and peaceful tranquility for those returning as distant members of the Irish diaspora.

That is certainly the case for American Oscar winning screenwriter Adam McKay, who wrote a large chunk of his eagerly anticipated satirical comedy Don’t Look Up at his Cavan home, which is situated in blissful anonymity at the foot one of the 365 lakes found in Ireland’s Lakeland County.

With his mother’s family hailing from Cork and his father’s family from Antrim, McKay decided that a quiet lakeside house in Cavan was the perfect place to retreat from Hollywood for spells and write over the past number of years. I found a beautiful house right on a lake and it was exactly what I was looking for,” said McKay. “I had looked through a bunch of beautiful areas, but it just seemed like Cavan was a hidden gem.”

It also transpires that McKay has been an influential figure for one of his long-time collaborators, John C. Reilly, who recently bought a lakeside house in the south of Ireland. “It's so funny. He talked to me about that. He was asking me about our house here in Ireland, ‘should I do it?’ I was like, ‘John, do it,’” McKay told IFTN. “He loves it. He sends me videos from there, and he's just in heaven.”

McKay and Reilly have previously collaborated on beloved hit comedies such as Stepbrothers, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Walk The Line parody, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Reilly has also been cast in McKay’s next major TV project Winning Time, his upcoming HBO sports drama series about the foundation of the LA Lakers basketball dynasty in the 1980s, which debuts on HBO Max next year.

At the time of speaking with him, McKay was back in Ireland having traveled over to receive the Volta Award from the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival for his contribution to film. Previous recipients of the award include Daniel Day Lewis, Al Pacino, Julie Andrews, and Danny DeVito. The presentation was due to take place following a special preview screening of his new Netflix film Don’t Look Up, but unfortunately the event had to be postponed due to the latest Covid developments.

“We were supposed to get the Volta Award, but obviously, with this new variant, that's not happening,” McKay accepted. “It's kind of nice though. I'm here for a couple of days and I have some friends in Dublin I got to see. We're doing a lot of Zoom press and then I head out to Cavan.”

Don’t Look Up follows Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), an astronomy grad student, and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) who discover that a comet is on a direct collision course with Earth. However, when presented with the issue, the US President (Meryl Streep) is more concerned with the upcoming mid-term elections. When the scientists go to the mainstream media, they realise that the media companies and their audiences are more invested in the relationship scandal of a popstar and her DJ boyfriend (Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi) and simply don’t care.

His newest film falls at an interesting intersection between being blatantly farfetched and so unnervingly real, something McKay said he strived to do when writing the script. “Yes, that was the idea. We haven't had a big comedy, absurdist comedy in a long time,” McKay said. “I thought if there's anything we could all laugh at, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you on, or whatever, is the idea that the world is crazy right now.”

“I think we need to laugh at that and have perspective. I've been quite happy seeing big crowds in some of the theaters laughing really hard, and then obviously, there's a bunch of other feelings in there,” McKay continued, “but you're right. It's a wild, crazy, ridiculous movie that might be more conservative than reality.”

Don’t Look Up is the final installment in what McKay calls his “Freakout Trilogy”. This began with his six-time Oscar nominated film, The Big Short, which tackled the 2008 financial crash, and saw McKay pick up an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2016. McKay followed this up with his startling account of warmongering US Vice President, Dick Cheney, in Vice, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won one.

Having worked closely with source material and historical events on The Big Short and Vice, Don’t Look Up marks McKay first returned to fictional comedy-drama in several years. McKay relished the challenge of injecting that same satirical wit and film style, which has become a trademark of his in recent years, into a ludicrous fictional script, but world events were not long catching up with him.

“I loved it. First off, I loved just going back to writing a comedy. I thought this story was pretty absurd,” McKay told IFTN. “Then, of course, about a month into production, the pandemic hit and I saw a lot of it actually come true.”

“That was strange.”

McKay has previously spoken about how his approach to comedic storytelling has been changed by recent events of the world being beyond the biggest slapstick comedy you could ever write”. When speaking with The Guardian, McKay admitted that he feels as though he couldn’t make comedies like Anchorman or Step Brothers nowadays; “It feels a little ridiculous to make those comedies now. But I still love great comedies. So I’m trying to play with: ‘What is the language now?’”

McKay’s has described it as “trying to find that blend” between comedy and something with a pertinent message underneath, and as a result has created his own sub-genre of comedy, which has earned him critical acclaim.

When asked about how the idea came about and what he strives to get across in his films, McKay said: “The first time I really felt it was with The Other Guys, which is Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, two cops, and the easy road to go for the villains would've been to have drug smugglers or bank robbers.”

“This was right after the financial collapse. I kept my writing partner, Chris Henchy on that. I just said bank robbers and drug smugglers aren't the problem,” he laughed. “The world is being undone by much larger forces. It makes the movie feel small to have that be the villain.”

“Then that kept happening on a lot of our projects where the old story conventions just felt dusty and not appropriate for the real forces we were dealing with,” McKay explained.

“From that point on, I just started thinking there's got to be another way to approach these stories. We've been writing Three-Act Syd Field scripts for years. We all know the standard beats that you hit in a script and maybe we need a different narrative, and we knew it will really bother some people,” McKay laughed.

“But we just felt like, you have to dive in on this. There's a different story happening now that we're still catching up with. That's really what inspired The Big Short and Vice, and Don't Look Up, came from that approach,” McKay continued. “That really, it's a question. I'm not even maintaining we have the answer, but that question is what drives us.”

The Big Short and Vice has McKay work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood including Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carrell. Don’t Look Up however eclipses these both with an ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, Tyler Perry, and Ariana Grande.

That question that is driving McKay’s latest three films is something that has caught the attention of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, who resonate with the message and approach of McKay’s features. “We're always trying to position it as something that's alive and it's got energy and it's different, and actors are very excited about that,” McKay told IFTN.

“The actors are smart people that are clued into the world, and they want to try different things. They want to take leaps,” McKay explained. “I think that's why with these last three movies, we've been getting these great actors because they feel it too.”

“They feel that something giant has changed and how do you talk about it? Just that question. We've been fortunate that we've got these just absolute masters of acting to come into these movies,” McKay continued. “Especially for this movie, which is in some ways a big silly comedy, and to have actors this good in a big silly comedy. I couldn't believe it, that they signed up and were willing to dive in. It was an incredible thing.”

Another appealing aspect for actors is the hugely collaborative and open approach McKay brings to his film sets. Having started in improv and made a name writing on Saturday Night Live in the Nineties, McKay is always open to experimenting if there is time.

It always goes under the heading of why not?” said McKay. “I'm always just thinking in my head, are we tied to this? And if we're not, why not try it? Because you just never know in the edit room.”

 “They love it because what's great about it is there's no pressure. We always get the scripted. I always call it fulfilling our legal obligation. Then once you got the scripted, if we're not up against the clock, there's no reason not to mess around,” McKay explained. “I always tell them if it's no good, I won't use it. Every actor's different with that relationship with improv.”

“In the case of Jonah Hill, he'll improv all day long, he's incredible. The other one that really shocked me was Meryl Streep, she can improvise all day long, really, really good at it,” McKay explained. “But every actor had their own version of improvisation whether it was a different line reading, tweaking a line reading, trying something, DiCaprio was game. Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett were incredible. They just started improvising right away with that freaky morning show energy, the two of them had.”

“It's great because you can feel it on the sets, the crew gets excited, something's happening in front of you as opposed to just hitting the lines,” McKay continued. “It depends on the movie. Obviously, with something like Vice, we didn't do a lot of improv but there's something there but with this movie oh, yes, we let it fly no question.”

Although steeped in pure fiction, the science is sound on McKay latest doomsday satire, much like his previous two films, research was paramount to the story. When writing, McKay enlisted the help of a scientist right at the heart of the world his characters come from in Don’t Look Up. “I was lucky enough to have a science advisor, Dr. Amy Mainzer, who actually is the professor who tracks asteroids and comets and near-earth objects,” McKay explained.

“She worked with me to make sure that all the science and the details were correct because even though obviously the movie's a fairly thinly disguised allegory for the climate crisis, we had to make sure that the science was correct,” McKay continued. “You can't do a move pro-science without the right people, so Dr. Amy Mainzer was incredible. She was key to the movie.” 

Don’t Look Up is currently in cinemas globally and releases on Netflix this Christmas Eve – Friday, November 24th.

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