Adam McKay and Joe Wright Talk Meryl Streep’s Improv in ‘Don’t Look Up’ and Shooting ‘Cyrano’ During the Pandemic

Adam McKay Joe Wright Variety Directors on Directors
KcKay: Courtesy Image/Emma McIntyre/Netflix Inc; Wright: Courtesy of Maureen Evans

Joe Wright — the director of serious period pieces such as “Atonement,” “Anna Karenina” and “Darkest Hour” — would like to set the record straight. He loves Adam McKay’s comedies. “I’m an enormous fan of ‘Anchorman’ and ‘Talladega Nights,’” Wright says.

Both behind-the-camera veterans are in New York City. They’d rather be in the same room, but alas, because of the pandemic, they’re mere blocks apart, sitting down over Zoom. They partnered to discuss their latest projects. Wright’s “Cyrano” is a dazzling retelling of “Cyrano de Bergerac” in musical form, starring Peter Dinklage in the title role. And in “Don’t Look Up,” McKay assembles an A-list cast — including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep (as the president of the United States) — for a dark comedy about a deadly comet that’s hurling toward Earth.

Joe Wright: I’m a huge admirer of all your work, but I think this is something particularly extraordinary. How did the idea come to you?

Adam McKay: It came to me from the place that a lot of good ideas come from, which is stark terror. This has been building for 10 or 12 years, where the climate crisis and everything I’ve learned about it just seems worse. A friend of mine, David Sirota, made a joke about it, that a comet is going to hit Earth, and no one cares. Little did I know that a once-every-200-years pandemic was heading towards us.

How did you come upon “Cyrano”?

Wright: I had always loved the story of “Cyrano,” being a kind of dweeby, unlovable teenager who thought himself completely unworthy of affection. There was no real reason to make another version of it until I saw a little workshop in Connecticut. Peter Dinklage was playing Cyrano, and Haley Bennett was playing Roxanne. Seeing them play those roles suddenly opened up the possibility for me of doing a musical version with them.

So you shot during the pandemic?

McKay: It was really strange because you’ve seen the movie and you know the premise — a lot of it is like COVID. Every third day I’m getting texts from our cast and crew going, “Oh, my God, this scene from the movie just happened.” I had a moment where I was like, “Do we need to make this movie?” I picked up the script, and I realized it read in a different way. The movie was never about COVID; it was all about how we’ve profitized and distorted the means with which we talk to each other and communicate. It was always about social media, careerism and greed.

In your movie, one of the opening scenes at the theater is packed. I’m curious how you dealt with those restrictions.

Wright: We had a limited number of extras that we were allowed to use. We designed the set that it looked full. Also, my mum, who is a puppet maker and prop maker, made 160 leather masks in the commedia dell’arte style. So a lot of the extras are wearing masks.

McKay: What was your approach going into a musical number? Is there anything different that you do?

Wright: What I didn’t want to do was have the kind of needle drop — talking and suddenly we start singing. I wanted a sense of naturalism to the songs. We did record all the singing live, which brought an intimacy. It allowed for faults. I don’t want my films to be shiny-perfect because I don’t recognize myself in that. I feel at home in slightly messy environments. I want my films to be messy because life is messy.

I know you come from an improvisational background. How much of the script is improvised?

McKay: I give the actors total freedom. I jokingly call myself the anti-David Mamet. I hope and pray they’ll mess around with what I’ve written. With a movie like this, it’s 10% to 15%. You come from a theater background as well, so you know this: When the playfulness is introduced, even the acting with the scripted gets better.

Did you know that Meryl Streep is an absolute killer improviser?

Wright: I did not know that.

McKay: She is one of the great improvisers I have ever met or seen. Pitch perfect. She can do 20 takes where every improv is different. I kept asking her, “Did you study improvisation?” She would never give me a straight answer. Jonah [Hill] is a magnificent improviser.

Wright: There’s a brilliant hard cut when — sorry. God. What’s his name, your lead actor? He’s gone from my head.

McKay: Leonardo DiCaprio?

Wright: Leonardo DiCaprio. There’s a brilliant hard cut when Leo is making this kind of speech on TV. He’s going into this complete breakdown moment, and then you cut in the middle of a sentence, if not a word. For me, that means that the audience is required to participate. It’s not a passive experience. I’ve always wanted to try to get audiences to participate actively, rather than just having this kind of dead, passive thing of being fed truisms. It’s important that we get people to realize that there are choices to make in life.

McKay: There’s nothing more exciting.