Adam McKay on Don’t Look Up, Vice, Improv & More

Adam McKay speaks onstage during the "Don't Look Up" World Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on December 05, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Netflix)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam McKay spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Don’t Look Up, Vice, improv, and more on Thursday afternoon.

Don’t Look Up is currently available to watch on Netflix.

It’s so nice to talk with you again outside of the press conference and all that fun.

Adam McKay: How are you?

I’m doing well. On that Tuesday after getting back from New York, I got sick as a dog.

Adam McKay: Oh, no. Did you get COVID?

No, I tested negative. Thank G-d for the Netflix test kits.

Adam McKay: Thank G-d. So you just got whacked with the flu or something?

I think it was more of just regular sinuses because—in Chicago, I was coming from probably 40s. On that Thursday and Monday, the weather there was just ridiculously absurd. It was like in the 60s.

Adam McKay: It was crazy. I mean, the day I arrived in NYC, I think it was 72 and my glasses actually fogged up when I got off the plane. It was really distressing. So I then jumped on the plane to go over to Ireland because we were doing some press in Dublin and I was meeting family. I got off and a day and a half later, boom, COVID hit me. I clearly got it in the airport—I got the Omicron, I’m guessing and it beat the crap out of me for like a week. I had about two days of nasty flu, four days of cold-like symptoms, and then really another week of being tired. I feel like I’m almost back to 100% but I can’t complain. The triple vax helped. Oh, wait—I don’t want to use up too much of your time just gabbing.

The climate crisis played a big role in the idea for Don’t Look Up but did you ever think life would start imitating art?

Adam McKay: It’s funny because, obviously, I wrote the script before the pandemic. I guess it’s the same way you just look at the way we respond to any crisis these days and it almost follows the exact same pattern—whether it’s the opioid epidemic, guns, 9/11, income inequality, flat wages—whatever it is, it always does kind of seem to be the same response. Distraction mixed with careerism mixed with bad faith arguments getting put up as legitimate arguments mixed with entertainment mixed with more distractions. I wish I could say I was sharp enough to have known that that pattern existed and could almost be laid out in a pretty simple schematic but I wasn’t. I was just really trying to write about the climate, which is so terrifying and happening so fast, and it so happens collided into another mammoth worldwide catastrophe although some people think the pandemic could be connected to climate. They actually predicted it, that changing temperatures would mean that certain animals would go in different places. But by the way, let me be very clear, that has not been proven in this case. I’ve heard it theorized. But yeah, long story short, holy moly!

In what ways did the pandemic change the script?

Adam McKay: The big thing was that just sitting back because we had to shut down production. We were scouting in Boston and essentially, I went home and just laid low for five months. I did a podcast and did some other writing. And then, essentially, was just watching beat after beat of the movie come true. I had to take some of those beats out that were too much like the pandemic and then I had to make other elements of the script crazier. We had a big debate: do you even still make the movie? Did we just live through it? But our theory and the good news was it played out this way was that no, actually, the distance from it and the ability to laugh, people are very hungry for that. That was our theory that people are gonna want that. Thank G-d, that’s how it played out. The response, once it premiered, was tremendous. There were a lot of people that needed exactly a movie or something to gather around where they could laugh or they could feel emotion. It definitely changed what the movie was. There’s no question about it.

Don't Look Up
(L to R) JONAH HILL as JASON ORLEAN, PAUL GUILFOYLE as GENERAL THEMES, MARK RYLANCE as PETER ISHERWELL, and MERYL STREEP as PRESIDENT JANIE ORLEAN in DON’T LOOK UP. Photo credit: NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2021.

Speaking of the response, it has been so interesting to see the discourse on social media. I come from improv so all my improv friends are saying one thing.  All the people I know because of being a film critic are saying another. And then, before even going into improv, I was at this weird stage of do I go into politics? Do I go into comedy? All those people are—it’s been interesting just to watch.

Adam McKay: Yeah. It really has been interesting. Let me say this blanket statement before I go any further, critics should critique. If they don’t like a movie, say it—I support it. If you don’t like a movie, it doesn’t mean you don’t about climate. Somehow I got social media’d into that being what I was saying, which was not what I was saying. I was trying to say that I’ve noticed, in general, people that are more freaked out about the state of the world really respond to this movie. That doesn’t mean that if you don’t respond to the movie, you aren’t freaked out about the world. Somehow, what I said got turned into a tautology, which social media likes to do.

But yeah, I think if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The world is so fractured. We’re in such a frightening time. I just saw Biden’s approval number is 33% in Quinnipiac, which is a pretty reputable poll. 33%! Which basically means it’s like a log flume for the extreme right to just take over the government go full autocratic rule. Anyway, so the idea that critics would see the movie one way, members of the media would see it one way, improvisers would see it another way, climate scientists would see it another way, a guy who owns a dry cleaner shop. It makes perfect sense.

But what I loved about it on a whole was just big, fat, passionate responses. I mean, whether some of those reviews were—they were angry in a way that—I’ve been getting reviewed for 30 years. I’ve never seen reviews like that. At the same time, the moment to moment feed of people’s reactions to the movie on social media, people talk about crying, laughing, people having this eye-opening. I thought it was wonderful. We felt great with the response it had. Hearing the climate scientists, too, is one part of the audience response, feel like they are finally seen and heard. I’ve had people reach out to me. It’s been like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We’ve had some projects do really well in the past but the scope of this is really breathtaking.

I remember when I first saw the film—It was the Thursday before the premiere because the junket was going to be on that Sunday—I couldn’t help but think of some of the great satires like Network, Dr. Strangelove, and Wag the Dog. By Sunday, there are points of the film where—I’m seeing it the second time in a few days—I have to control myself from not falling out of the seat laughing.

Adam McKay: (Laughs) Well, you know, Danielle. With comedy, it’s always tricky with critics. We used to laugh, like you just subtract 20 points right away from whatever aggregate score you’re going to get on whichever one of those sites. Comedy is wildly subjective. The trick with comedy is everyone thinks that their sense of humor is the definitive sense of humor. You’re never going to hear anyone say, “I didn’t think it was funny but what do I know? I have a lousy sense of humor.” It’s your sense of humor, you should embrace it. You shouldn’t second guess it.

With comedy, right away, we were at a high degree of difficulty. With what the movie is about, a high degree of difficulty. Also, we knew we were trying to capture the feeling of what it’s like to be alive now with the editing style being slashing and cutting lines off and that sense of being overwhelmed with different issues. The style is not a conventional style. We really did try and make it feel overwhelming like the world. There’s certain people that aren’t gonna go for that. But yeah, the only thing that surprised me were just some of the reviews were so angry and I’ve just never seen some like that. But otherwise, I’ve taken body shots on my—Step Brothers got horrendous reviews and Vice got very divisive reviews. That part didn’t bother me, but man oh man, when it opened up to the world, I never experienced anything like it. Crazy Crazy.

Christian Bale (left) stars as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams (right) stars as Lynne Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Christian Bale (left) stars as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams (right) stars as Lynne Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures. 2018 © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I was one of the few that seemed like I enjoyed Vice. I come from the same brand of humor that you come from.

Adam McKay: Yeah, I think Vice was tricky because it’s such a tough subject. You really have this secretive uncharismatic guy in Dick Cheney. Also, once again, everyone brings their own interpretation to it. But I love it. I’ve talked about doing a director’s cut of it because there are a couple things I would do differently. It was such a difficult narrative to capture and I’ve had some ideas since. I think that was the first time I started realizing like, Oh, we’re living in a lot of different realities at once because we ended that movie basically showing the unraveling of America. I was very surprised. There were people who were like, Ah, that’s a little over the top, settle down. And I was like, what country are you living in? Are you seeing what’s going on? So we got some of that with that as well where—I always joke depending on whoever you meet, it’s like, some people are living in 2022. Some people are living in 2005. I know some people that are living in 1997. I just talked to some scientists who are living in 2031. Everyone’s kind of chosen their year at this point and we definitely got some of that with Vice with showing America just totally coming undone in the end, which, to me, seemed like a no-brainer. But other people were like, that’s a little over the top. And it’s like, that’s a little on the nose. And I’m like, well, who cares? Opera’s on the nose? It’s sad, it’s emotional. But it’s great. We’re just living in a time where, what is the dominant narrative? How do you tell stories? These are really open-ended questions. Some people would like to pretend they’re not but they really are. I’ve just learned a lot through this experience of trying to find a way to tell stories in this time from the negative responses and from the positive responses.

Who would have thought that Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney would be among the most rational Republicans today.

Adam McKay: (Laughs) Or another way to frame that is, who would have guessed the Democratic Party would fall apart so much that they would be shaking hands with Dick Cheney on the floor of the House? I think both your point and my point are both true. That’s a case where it is not one or the other, where the Democratic Party is really starting to fall apart and somehow, yeah, Liz Cheney showed a little character when it came to the Let’s not destroy democracy part of the discussion. Both of those things can be true, but yeah, it’s crazy, man.

You see our culture just trying to hold on to this semblance of a normal that just is getting stranger and more bizarre by the second when you turn on the news or you hear people talk about different things in our culture, like, everything’s fine. I just had my home insurance canceled today because insurance companies aren’t insuring homes in Southern California anymore because of the risk of fire and flood from climate. That just happened today. That was like casual. That’s not me planning a sob story for myself. There’s people dealing with things that are 1000 times more difficult, but just anecdotally, that was just part of my day today.

Oy!

Adam McKay: Right? Crazy, crazy.

Was there an improv instructor that had the most meaningful impact on your career?

Adam McKay: Yeah. It’s not the most interesting answer but it’s just the truth: Del Close. I always say I’ve been lucky enough to have some really good teachers in my life. Mrs. Ivanausky (sp?) in second grade is one I always remember. Mrs. Story in sixth grade was really good. Del Close probably changed my life more than anything. He just talked about comedy, writing, directing, and everything in a way that I never heard before. By the way, not the nicest guy. I don’t think he knew my name. I worked with him for six years, five years. I don’t think he knew my name till the last year. It wasn’t like we had a warm relationship. But he was incredible and underneath his saltiness, he really actually was a sweetheart because his whole operating philosophy was that people are way smarter than they get credit for. Audiences are way smarter than people treat them. Underneath that crusty exterior was this kind of belief that people could work together in groups and do amazing things and that we just have to train the way we work with each other to go to a higher level. I saw it in front of me. I saw it happen. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever gotten to be a part of.

Unfortunately, for me, he passed on before I ever had the chance to take improv classes. I had Norm Holly and Tim O’Malley right before the economy really went in shambles.

Adam McKay: Wow. I know Norm and I don’t know Tim as well. Norm directed some of my touring companies, was always a very nice guy, very funny guy. The two guys I always say if you want to really get a dash of what Del was about—I don’t know if they’re still doing the show—TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi’s two-man show, to me, was the greatest distillation of what Del was trying to teach that I had ever seen. Everything they were doing with the improv was what Del was trying to teach.

There’s a great documentary called Trust Us, This Is All Made Up. It’s really well-directed. It’s some of the best improv on film I’ve ever seen. It’s about TJ and Dave’s show, how they do it, their process, and their relationship. I always recommend it to people if you want to understand Chicago improv and you want to understand what Del Close, Second City and iO, and that whole world was all about, watch that movie. The spirit of it’s there, if not the literal telling of it.

It’s been several years but I’ve seen it.

Adam McKay: So good. Ah. It really hit me just because improv on film is very difficult. You lose that live feeling and that director was terrific. We’re actually developing a project with but he really did a phenomenal job of capturing that that spirit.

Speaking of improv on film, are we ever going to see the deleted scenes or all these improvised lines that never made it into the final cut of Don’t Look Up?

Adam McKay: Maybe someday. I started noticing when you put those deleted scenes out too close to the release of the film, it’s almost like an overwhelm. We did it with Anchorman 2. We had a cut of the film where we were able to replace every single laugh moment in the movie with an alternative improvised line. It was pretty incredible. But they released it really close to the release of the regular film and I was like, wouldn’t it be better to release this a year from now when there’s a hunger for it? I’ve just done that a couple times where they put out the unedited version. They put out the cut scenes. We shot a crazy musical number for Vice and they put it out pretty soon after the movie came out. I was like, I think that stuff is more fun to see a year from now. So maybe in a year. Although I gotta tell you, honestly, we didn’t cut a lot from this movie as far as scenes. There’s two kind of mid-size smaller kind of scenes that we cut and some little snippets. It would probably mostly be for the improv alts, which there are a lot of. Meryl Streep was improvising up a storm. Jonah, all the actors, Jen—Tyler Perry did a ton of great improv with Cate Blanchett. So yeah, there might be something that in a year or something. We’ll see how it goes.

Adam McKay and Charles Randolph
Adam McKay (left) and Charles Randolph pose backstage with the Oscar® for Adapted screenplay, for work on “The Big Short” during the live ABC Telecast of The 88th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 28, 2016. (Phil McCarten / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

With winning an Oscar for The Big Short, how do you manage to stay grounded?

Adam McKay: (Laughs) Well, the big secret to winning an Oscar is you win an Oscar and then the day after you’re still you and you get to move on. Honestly, I don’t ever think about it except for the fact that it was a crazy fun night. It’s very cool that all the members of the Academy are peers and do what you do so that part of it’s really flattering. But yeah, pretty much from that point on, you just go back to doing what you’re doing. But I’m not gonna lie—one of the coolest, strangest, wildest nights of my life. That’s the thing I’ll always remember about it. Just the craziest night like, holy crap, I just won an Oscar! But yeah, other than that, let’s go make more stuff.

Speaking of—I’m friends with Jeff Pearlman.

Adam McKay: Oh, I love Jeff. How do you know Jeff Pearlman?

I used to be a sports writer before I transitioned full time into a film critic.

Adam McKay: How cool. I love Jeff. Oh my G-d. He’s the sweetest guy and a hell of a writer and his book, man, I just—that was another one of those ones we read and we’re just like, holy crap, we got to do this. I’m really excited about the show. I mean, we took some bold leaps with it. Some bold, visual storytelling choices. It’s gonna be interesting when it comes out but I really love it. It’s about as enjoyable and as satisfying as anything I’ve gotten to do. I’m a crazy hoops fan, too. This one’s a little bit more for the love of it although there’s some great big issues running through it about race, class, culture, and stuff. There’s some really smart stuff that Max Borenstein, Jim Hecht, and Rodney Barnes put in there. Yeah, I’m excited for you to see it. It’s a very cool show.

Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. If you’re at the Critics Choice Awards in March, I’ll see you there. I have no idea who’s going to CCA or who’s going to BAFTA since they’re both on the same day.

Adam McKay: Well, Danielle, here’s the thing: I am borderline bulletproof. I was triple vaxxed. I got the COVID. I got through it. My antibodies are through the roof. I don’t know if I’m 100% bulletproof but I’m pretty damn high. They say it’ll last for like eight months. I’ll start getting checked around then for antibodies. If you guys are holding the Critics Choice, I will be there.

Thank you so much.

Adam McKay: A pleasure, man. We don’t get to talk as much since I got off Facebook. I feel like we used to chat.

Don’t Look Up is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.