Adam McKay Is Still Trying to See the Funny Side in All This

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Photo credit: Miller Mobley
Photo credit: Miller Mobley

On the list of things that can be collectively agreed are not particularly funny, humanity’s slow march towards apocalypse as oceans rise and forests burn is right up there. But for American writer and director Adam McKay, the more chilling the subject matter, the more alluring the challenge of playing it for laughs. Witness 2015’s The Big Short, about the subprime-mortgage crisis, and 2018’s Vice, about the murky origins of the war on terror.

In McKay’s forthcoming film, Don’t Look Up, two astronomers discover a comet is headed towards Earth and attempt to warn the rest of the world; their struggle to be taken seriously is a satirical take on the polarised and poisonous moment we find ourselves in.

“It’s the most thinly disguised metaphor in the history of metaphors,” the 53-year-old director tells me from his home in Los Angeles. “The original idea for the script was the feeling of how crazy it is to live when there’s a crystal-clear threat that is being expressed from scientists [all over] the world, and yet we chug along like it’s fine. When Covid hit, I realised it really was about how much we’ve fouled the means of communication, and how monetising the very way we talk to each other could be the end of us.”

We are speaking in August, two days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a disturbing report that signalled “code red for humanity”, and, as McKay’s film aims to illustrate, already the story has slid down news websites to make space for less depressing dispatches. “The whole system is so wired for profits and the margins are so tight that everyone feels this moment-to-moment desperation of trying to stay afloat with clicks,” he says with resignation.

McKay made his name as a writer on Saturday Night Live during the 1990s, then rose to prominence directing mainstream blockbuster comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers. In 2015 he changed gear, adapting Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short into a brainy, antic comedy, with a killer ensemble of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.

Photo credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

As in his subsequent 2018 movie, Vice, about how VP Dick Cheney’s villainous influence on George W Bush’s presidency led the world to war, McKay walked the line between depressing and droll, inviting the audience to stare into the abyss and try to see the funny side. Shifting tones in this way is something he’s aware turns some people off, admitting that he’s missed on a couple of attempts. Still, “putting yourself on a ledge like that, [where] you may fall, you may fail” is what excites him. Don’t Look Up has been the trickiest to balance of his films thus far, with lead Leonardo DiCaprio — who stars alongside a truly impressive cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, and, well, Google the rest yourself — going back and forth with McKay for months to get the tone right before agreeing to join the cast.

Around four years ago, McKay became profoundly frightened about the environmental crisis. He had already done the “spitting into the ocean” things like switching to an electric car, giving up red meat and off-setting his carbon footprint, but when he started to talk to people in the climate community he was terrified by what they told him. Through his production company Hyperobject Industries, which takes its title from the philosopher Timothy Morton’s writing about “hyperobjects” — events and dynamics like the internet, race or climate change, which are so large they create their own gravitational pull — McKay tries to wrangle these unwieldy concepts into something we can digest.

Photo credit: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna/Kobal/Shutterstock

“We encounter [hyperobjects] in ways that, much like being next to a blue whale, you would only see a piece of it. You’d get whacked by a fin,” he says. Using slick montages, sped-up explainers delivered to camera (from a bathtub, by Margot Robbie, in The Big Short) or even bizarre musical numbers, McKay tries to pin down ideas like the swampy political landscape Cheney manipulated, or the lack of regulation that turned the housing market into a ticking bomb, to show us the whole whale. “We’re trying to create a character that is the collective discourse or culture. Some people would say it’s quite messy and they don’t like it, but that’s what we’re trying to do with The Big Short and Vice, and now with Don’t Look Up.”

On Succession, the HBO series on which McKay is an executive producer, the writers skewer the greedy immorality of the billionaire class, and yet it is hard to believe that this will have done much to dissuade Bezos, Murdoch et al from continuing as they were. So, is a satire about the climate crisis really going to do any material good? “Anyone who criticises the movie for those reasons, I would say they are absolutely right,” he says. “We tend to look at one book, one movie, one song, like it’s going to solve everything. I think the truth is there are hundreds and thousands of different approaches to communicating on any issue.”

Photo credit: NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX
Photo credit: NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

These are hard times for satirists, as fiction struggles to compete with our ridiculous reality, and even the cartoonish villains of Vice pale in comparison to the Trump administration. McKay watched the president refusing to concede the 2020 election with a sick feeling it was going to work, only for his tenure to end in the car park of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping, between a crematorium and a dildo shop. A McKay-esque blend of farce and dread. “We’ve jumped the shark, we’ve been eaten by the shark, we’ve been shit-out by the shark,” he laughs. “Shark, Shark, Shark.”

‘Don’t Look Up’ is in cinemas on 10 December and on Netflix 24 December


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