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In ‘Don’t Look Up,’ director Adam McKay makes allegorical plea to follow climate science

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Climate change and comedy might not seem like a natural pairing, but a new film combines the two to create a parable about how our society is responding to the climate crisis.

William Brangham recently spoke to Adam McKay, director of comedies like "Anchorman" and "The Big Short," about his current hit, "Don't Look Up," for our arts and culture series, canvas.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Actor: This is not real.

William Brangham: It's a classic disaster movie premise.

Leonardo DiCaprio: Tell me this isn't really happening.

William Brangham: Two scientists, terrified by their discovery of an imminent, mortal threat to the planet, try to sound the alarm.

Jennifer Lawrence, Actress: What Dr. Mindy is trying to say is that there's a comet headed directly towards Earth.

William Brangham: But in the Netflix satire "Don't Look Up," no one seems to care.

Leonardo DiCaprio: It will have the power of a billion Hiroshima bombs. There will be magnitude 10 or 11 earthquakes.

Jonah Hill, Actor: Like, you're breathing weird. It's making me uncomfortable.

Leonardo DiCaprio: I'm sorry. I'm just trying to articulate the science.

Jonah Hill: I know, but like it's, like, so stressful. I'm like trying to like listen and like...

Leonardo DiCaprio: I don't think you understand the gravity of this situation.

Actor: This comet is what we call a planet killer.

William Brangham: Least of all the U.S. president.

Meryl Streep, Actress: I say we sit tight and assess.

Leonardo DiCaprio: Sit tight and assess?

Meryl Streep: Sit tight?

Jonah Hill: And then assess. The sit tight part comes first. And you got to digest it. That's the assessment period.

William Brangham: While director Adam McKay says his planet-killing comet is a metaphor for climate change...

Jennifer Lawrence: It's real and it's coming.

William Brangham: ... he's more interested in how society as a whole responds to the threat.

Tyler Perry, Actor: How big is this thing going? Like, can it destroy my ex-wife's house? Is that possible?

(LAUGHTER)

William Brangham: While "Don't Look Up" was panned by many critics as preachy and obvious, it has been a huge hit here in the U.S. and internationally, breaking some weekly streaming records for Netflix.

The star-studded cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill, Ariana Grande, and Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry.

I spoke with Adam McKay recently from his production office in Los Angeles.

The central struggle of this film is these two scientists who see the threat and then try to communicate that threat to a world that does not seem to want to pay attention.

They also struggle a great deal with how to talk about the threat. I have been covering climate change for 20 years, and I have seen this repeatedly. The scientists believe at the beginning that simply presenting the data will be persuasive to people.

Adam McKay, Director, "Don't Look Up": Yes, I mean, that's the central emotional thrust of the movie, is, what do you do when you have a clear truth in this society we live in right now?

And a lot of people have applied the movie beyond given the climate crisis, to COVID, to democracy teetering on the edge in the U.S. and other countries. And I think that's all completely applicable, because it becomes very difficult to just communicate a simple truth.

William Brangham: I mean, it does seem that that is, I mean, for lack of a better word, the central villain or the central struggle against this media/entertainment complex, that they cannot find a way to punch through that thick curtain.

Adam McKay: Yes, and I think that's really the way the movie works as a direct allegory for climate.

And it was amazing to see the reaction from climate scientists to the movie, people just right away, climate scientists, saying, yes, that's exactly what we have been through.

Tyler Perry: In will, but, in all fairness, I actually paid for the house.

(CROSSTALK)

Jennifer Lawrence: I'm sorry. Are we not being clear? We're trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed.

Tyler Perry: OK.

Cate Blanchett, Actress: Well, it's just something we do around here. We just keep the bad news light.

Adam McKay: So, the movie is doing a couple of different things. It's dealing with the climate crisis and all these problems that we're not solving, but also, just on a raw, emotional level for me, even as the filmmaker, good lord, it was so nice to laugh.

Jennifer Lawrence: I will get two more glasses of white wine. And I don't need the judgy face.

William Brangham: Do you think that -- I mean, as opposed to the comet in your film, which is everyone can see it with their own eyes at the end, it's got a clear deadline as to when it's going to hit the planet, vs. actual climate change, which is this slow-moving, rolling, incremental thing -- we are seeing damages from it already.

But do you think that the difference between the comet and actual climate change is why we have been so slow to react?

Adam McKay: Yes, I think so.

I think, to some degree, we're wired to deal with immediate threats. And I think the idea of a slow-moving, massive macro-change is hard for a lot of us to deal with, especially in a society we're living in now, where there's so many bright colors and shiny objects and distractions, which get me as well.

So, yes, I do think that's the problem. And I think that making it a comet helps compartmentalize it a little bit. And, once again, the point of the movie is not really about the threat. It's about our reaction to it.

Meryl Streep: Do you know how many "The world is ending" meetings we have had over the last two years?

William Brangham: Your president in the film sees acting against the comet as a way to goose her political standing in the midterms.

But there has been no political leader that has successfully ridden action on climate change to electoral success.

Adam McKay: Yes, I think we have really collided with this great challenge at probably the worst time that we could have, because there's just so much big money that is flowing through our political system, through our social system, through our media.

If you turn on most news, you will see them ignore giant climate stories, and then go to an ad for a gas-powered car or an oil company. And I don't think anyone's consciously ignoring it because of that, but that kind of conflict of interests just creates a culture around it.

And when everything is so profitized -- I mean, the very way that we talk to each other with social media is completely driven and cranked to create conflict and misunderstanding, so these companies can make more money. And it's tough.

I mean, we are really looking at a nuanced, difficult, immediate threat to billions of lives at exactly the time where we have broken the way we communicate with each other.

William Brangham: The film is "Don't Look Up." It's on Netflix right now.

Director Adam McKay, so good to have you on the "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

Adam McKay: Thank you, William. Pleasure to be here, man.

Judy Woodruff: We are covering climate change. And go see the movie, if you haven't.

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