Adam McKay, ‘Don’t Look Up’ Team Discuss Taking Tonal Risks and the Film’s Intense Reception

adam mckay hank corwin nicholas britell
Everett Collection

“Don’t Look Up” has hit a nerve in a way that’s rare for films to do. That’s partly because it addresses an urgent, hot-button topic — climate change — with a film that’s partly a cry for help, partly a black comedy. The movie, written and directed by Adam McKay, with a story by David Sirota, boasts a starry cast, including Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. People love it or hate it, with no middle ground, as McKay says.

Risk-taking is rare for a film these days and “Don’t Look Up” swings for the fences; it could have gone wrong in so many ways, but even detractors have to admit it’s interesting: It’s epic, covering a wide range of geographical and emotional territory, with so many characters and subtle shifts in tone. And it seems to be a shoo-in for multiple Oscar nominations.

McKay, editor Hank Corwin and composer Nicholas Britell had worked together on “The Big Short” and “Vice” before this film. The trio sat with Variety to discuss their evolving collaborative process, the quest to find the right tone and the intense reactions to the Netflix film.

Adam McKay: We’re living in incredibly strange, ahistoric, teetering, seismic times. One tone doesn’t cover what it feels to be alive now. I write scripts that blend absurdist comedy with dark tragedy and drama. And then I force these two guys to make sense of it!

Nicholas Britell: Hank and I got involved early, before shooting began. Adam asked me to write a piece of score that he could play for the actors on set during the telescope sequence, to give a feel of the movie.

Hank Corwin: The tone of the film kept shifting; even the temp music I got from Nick would become irrelevant after a point and we would start over. It was a constantly evolving methodology.

Britell: Years ago, Hank said it’s like we’re playing jazz together. We would work together in the editing room. As they’re figuring out the cut, I’m experimenting with different ideas. My early score piece that Hank had, “Overture to Logic and Knowledge,” is not at the beginning of the film; it actually wound up at the dinner table.

McKay: I trust them both so much. We were all on the same page trying to address the bizarre inaction to the climate crisis. Then the pandemic hit. Much of what happened was exactly in the script, and much was more preposterous than the script. I had to do rewrites. That played out in the editing and the scorem, as these guys masterfully tried to blend this all together — and had to take into account how much of the movie was like what we’re living through.

Corwin: Sometimes we feel on a high wire trying to ascertain the tone. But Adam engenders confidence. There were times I didn’t understand what Adam was going for but I had confidence. It’s like a dance the three of us do.

Britell: We’re all open to trying things out. It’s the safest experiment zone you could imagine. The nature of our discussion is to say “I have this crazy idea, what do you think?” We’re always trying to show each other things.

McKay: There were a bunch of breakthroughs with this movie. One occurred when the three of us were talking about what’s going on in the world. And we talked about World War II soldiers who would drink and dance to a big band, with a feeling of joy and terror. Nick said, “Now, it’s like you’re having that night, dancing to the big band, but you’re losing.” Almost immediately, he said, “I’m going to try to write a piece”; that became the music during the opening credits, which is the center of the movie. It was a major breakthrough for Hank and me, for his editing and our interpretation of the movie. There were dozens of conversations like that when these guys really got into the DNA of the movie.

Corwin: There’s not necessarily a comfort level as much as a discomfort level and knowing it will create a dialectic. It’s a struggle but it gets better.

Britell: We’re all searching together. Every idea is not an end point, it’s a beginning.

McKay: Early on, we were blending tones, between drama, comedy, poetry, tragedy; the movie was much less of a comedy. And there was a moment when we just let it be absurd when it needed to. That was a breakthrough and that coincided with Nick really cracking that sound and with Hank having an aha moment and suddenly you felt it was on the road.

Britell: Moment to moment, there are always things you feel are working so well. One of the elements of our process was a constant zooming out, saying, “It’s not just how does this moment work, it’s how does the whole thing feel?” I marvel at Adam, watching the film and saying “I know what I gotta do,” right away. I learn a lot from that constant stepping back and looking at the film as a whole.

Corwin: Adam has a facility to step back and say “It’s good but let’s try something else; it may be better.”

Variety: Was there any sequence that was particularly tricky?

Corwin: We all agree. The first Oval Office scene became the litmus test for how we were going to cut this film. If that scene isn’t right, everything after it doesn’t play as well as it should, and everything before it seems false. We were attenuating that scene for the duration of the edit.

McKay: Hank had cut a version of that scene where the scientists tell the president and her son, who’s her chief of staff, “We’re all gonna die in six months.” Hank did a version that is one of the best cut scenes I’ve ever seen, it was a tour de force. I like to do test screenings to feel the energy. And at that first test screening, it became apparent that there’s such a range of viewpoints of this moment we’re living in. For some of us, things are completely off the rails. Some people think we’re in trouble but we will fix it; others think we’re fine, it’s just politics as usual. Others think it’s trouble but it’s not remotely funny.
After that we thought “This is going to be much harder than we thought.” It took a lot of tweaking, nuance, trial and error, looking at different takes. This was meant to be a world movie. It’s on Netflix for a reason. We’re freaked out about what’s happening. This movie was designed as a conversation with the audience. That’s what make it harder.

Variety: The reactions were so intense; were you surprised?

McKay: I think we were all quite shocked. The reviews were pretty much 50-50, and that’s fine, we’ve all been through that. But I was shocked by the really intense anger that some critics had. We had been screening the movie and had gotten no reactions like that ever. Generally speaking, test audiences were laughing. So when reviews came out… That’s not to say they’re incorrect. Of course responses will be complicated and passionate. When it was released on Netflix, I was equally shocked by the passionate, positive responses. I’d never seen anything like that. People crying, laughing. So across the board, with the critical reception, the audience response, there was no middle ground. And eventually it became “We’re in 2022, of course those will be the reactions.”

Corwin: I was surprised at the personal nature of the attacks. I have a thin skin. It was hard to rationalize reviews from some people I respected.

Britell: In a positive sense, the Netflix platform is unimaginably large. I’ve received messages from people in dozens of countries in a way that hasn’t happened before. The timing and the reach of the platform — the amount of people who saw it in such a short period of time — that was beyond the scope of my comprehension.

McKay: Every bit of making this movie felt like it was part of the movie. From our struggles with tone, to our shooting during the pandemic. On social media, I joked about some responses, saying some people didn’t seem clued into what was going on in the world. Immediately social media descended on me like a pack of hyenas. “He’s saying if you don’t like the movie then you don’t care about the world!” That wasn’t what I was saying! Suddenly it all had a crazy momentum and there was a backlash against the critics. And there became a talking point “If you question the critics, you’re guilty of Trumpism!” It was right out of the movie. To see passionate response, to see climate scientists say “I feel seen.” It’s a reminder of what movies, TV [and] music can do. It was a little brutal going through it. Now I treasure the whole experience and I think “Let’s do more!”