On June 1, Adam McKay and his company Hyperobject Industries and Sony Music Entertainment will release “Death on the Lot,” an eight-episode podcast telling the stories of the deaths of James Dean, Hattie McDaniel, John Garfield and other notable Hollywood figures who died prematurely in the 1950s. Variety can exclusively unveil the trailer for “Death on the Lot,” which was developed by and hosted by McKay.
In an interview that took place before the writers strike, McKay said the project grew out of his 2021 podcast “Death at the Wing,” which examined the untimely deaths of basketball players in the 1980s, putting them in the context of the sociopolitical climate at the time. “All during the making of ‘Death at the Wing,’ we kept saying the only other comparison we can think of is Hollywood after World War II,” McKay said. “Then we thought, ‘Well, let’s do a season about that, and see what we can uncover.’ And if possible, it was even richer and deeper, and more to the core of the American story than we anticipated.”
The Oscar-winning McKay is booked-and-busy, with his next movie as a writer-director, “Average Height, Average Build,” in pre-production — having been acquired by Netflix. He also executive produces HBO’s “Succession,” “Winning Time” and “Painting With John,” among other projects. But there’s just something about podcasts that he loves: especially that you don’t need to know all the answers before you begin working on them. “You’re able to walk into the project, and make the project, with questions still unanswered,” McKay said. “With these podcasts, the questions are the central theme of the show — and it’s really fun, because you’re constantly making discoveries. It’s just a very living and breathing process, all the way to the very end, when you record that last couple of sentences.”
McKay credits the series’ team — writers Brian Steele and Hadley Meares, Clare Slaughter and Harry Nelson at Hyperobject and editor Jody Avirgan — with selecting the interviewees featured “Death on the Lot,” who include Ron Howard, Lee Grant and James Cromwell, as well as the relatives of some of the subjects, such as McDaniel’s great grand-nephew. “That diversity of voices, it’s essential to this kind of storytelling, because it’s incredibly interdisciplinary,” McKay said. “You’re not ever just looking at things through an economic lens, a sociological lens, an entertainment history lens — the lens is always shifting. So it really creates this need for an incredibly broad perspective.”
“That collection of voices is the center, the core, of the show,” he added. “It’s the living questions — and then going to this incredible array of people to get those answers.”
“Death on the Lot” was completed before the writers strike began, but in an email in mid-May, McKay also points to the podcast’s second episode as especially resonant during this turbulent time: It focuses on the death of Willie Bioff, an organized crime figure and a corrupt labor leader, who was murdered in a car explosion. McKay underlines the parallels to today. “We knew we wanted to do an episode about labor and the movie industry because people tend to forget that Hollywood, much like the country at large, was built by unions,” he wrote. “We didn’t know that the story would be as resonant as it is now, with the writers once again fighting for a viable future for the people who really make this industry tick. And when you listen to the way that striking movie workers were talked about by those in power in the ’40s and’ 50s… it sounds awfully familiar. There are lots of lessons from the labor fights of the post-war era.”
If “Death at the Wing” led to “Death on the Lot,” this latest podcast, McKay said, has similarly pointed toward future ideas for his podcast series of, as he jokingly characterized them, “murder mystery histories.”
“Yes, we are already discussing the third one,” he said. “And we have two or three arenas that we’re looking pretty hard at.”
Depending on the strike (and the Directors Guild also coming to an agreement), McKay said he hopes to be in production on his serial killer comedy thriller “Average Height, Average Build” in the fall, with Robert Pattinson, Amy Adams, Robert Downey Jr., Forest Whitaker and Danielle Deadwyler attached: “That’s the next big one for me.”
The night before this interview, McKay had watched the series finale of “Succession” in order to give creator Jesse Armstrong notes, he said — and he wouldn’t reveal a thing about it, except his own reaction. “Oh, my God. Wow!” McKay said. “I knew what was coming. And still! Oh, my God. Wow.”
McKay paused, and then continued. “I had to, like, emotionally recover after watching it!” he said.
All eight episodes of “Death on the Lot” will be available on Sony Music’s platform The Binge on June 1, and will roll out weekly on other podcast platforms.